Dark Souls (Xbox360)

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Dark Souls is a game that will consume you if you give it half a chance. This fantasy action RPG is From Software’s follow-up to 2009’s cult classic Demon’s Souls, and is just as addictive and deep as its predecessor, if not more so. Whereas Demon’s Souls was a PS3 exclusive, Dark Souls appears on both PS3 and Xbox 360 – giving the game a much broader audience than its forbearer.

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Dark Souls is all about combat and exploration, with ingenious online elements woven into the tapestry of its world. The game doesn’t have much of a story per se, with item descriptions, the occasional cut-scene and one-way conversations with non-playable characters (NPCs) being the only methods used to flesh out the disconsolate circumstances surrounding the kingdom of Lordran.

Unlike Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls features one huge interconnected world filled with secret areas and shortcuts. One of the greatest pleasures to be had in the game is opening up a shortcut between two locations you imagined to be miles apart and relishing in the seamless design of the world.

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Dark Souls is a lengthy game which should take between forty and sixty hours on your first playthrough. There are over a dozen distinct areas to explore, many of which contain a challenging boss fight. One of the most noteworthy features of Dark Souls is its non-linear nature. The game doesn’t hold your hand and guide you through a series of objectives – instead you’re pretty much left to your own devices and there are usually multiple new areas to explore at any one time.

Dark Souls’ checkpoint system consists of bonfires which provide a safe haven amidst the many dangers of Lordran. These are sometimes located in out of the way locations, and stumbling across one when you’re low on health produces an emotion of pure relief. As the game progresses these bonfires become more and more useful, allowing you to store items, upgrade your weapons and armour and even warp to other locations.

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There are many new gameplay mechanics to get used to if you didn’t play Demon’s Souls. Dark Souls is all about responsive, intuitive combat with weapons, magic and items being mapped logically to the buttons on your controller. For instance, you can swing your right-hand weapon by pressing ‘RB,’ or alternatively press ‘RT’ for a more powerful blow. Similarly, you can hold up your shield by pressing ‘LB’ or lash out with it by pressing ‘LT.’ There are many interesting combinations you can achieve, such as dual-wielding or running around with a shield in each hand. All the enemies will go down quicker if you hold your weapon in two hands, but these strikes take a bit longer and leave you vulnerable to damage despite being able to block with your weapon when the need arises.

There are also more advanced combat techniques such as parrying and a plunge attack. Holding up your shield while dancing around your opponent, however, and waiting for your opportunity to strike is the basis of most encounters and is a technique that you’ll find yourself using right up until the final battle.

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Souls are the currency of the game and can be obtained in item form or by slaying the deadly denizens of Lordran. You can level up your stats at a bonfire using these souls, or put them to good use upgrading your weapons and armour. There are also lots of useful items to buy from various merchants which will make your progress through the game that much easier. Each time you level up, the number of souls required to reach the next level increases. Just before the final boss I was at level 71 and needed around 30 000 souls to push a single stat up by one.

Although you start the game off by choosing a class, Dark Souls gives you the freedom to change between or combine classes simply by levelling up those areas you want your hero to be particularly adept in. For instance, I chose the pyromancer class but concentrated on levelling up my vitality, endurance and attack. By the end of the game I had a long life bar and powerful attacks, but was lacking in other areas such as intelligence (the stat linked to sorcery).

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Investigating every nook and cranny in Dark Souls is made all the more fun by the wonderful variety of loot you’ll find in out-of-the-way places. In Demon’s Souls you could only carry a limited weight of weapons, armour and items on you at one time, but thankfully the sequel does away with this restriction. The number of items in Dark Souls is reportedly many times more than its predecessor and you can see this in the sheer variety of armour and weapons at your disposal.

These are wonderfully designed (and eccentric at times) and each piece of equipment comes with a well-written description which occasionally advances the lore of Lordran. It’s really enjoyable to mix and match armour sets and experiment until you get the right balance between defence and equipment load (which alters the speed of your movement).

Demon’s Souls had some interesting equipment but Dark Souls takes it to another level. There’s a stone which turns your head into that of a dragon and allows you to breathe yellow fire all over your enemies, as well as a ring that breaks if you ever decide to remove it. The team at From Software have really stretched their imaginations in creating the hundreds of items in Dark Souls, and ultimately have produced some of the most interesting and rewarding pieces of equipment you’ll ever come across in an RPG.

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Covenants are new to Dark Souls and can be thought of as guilds, each with their own set of side-missions. Talking to certain NPCs will give you the option to join their covenant, and doing so usually nets you a useful item or two. As far as I know, you can rank up to +3 in each covenant by completing certain objectives. One covenant I joined tasked me with invading the worlds of other players who ventured into the forest they protected, and rewarded me for a certain number of players killed. Some covenants also have online leaderboards associated with them so you can compare your contribution to the covenant with other players.

The game’s other online features are fairly similar to those found in Demon’s Souls, and which of these you can access are closely linked to Dark Souls’ ‘humanity’ gameplay mechanic. Humanity is an item that allows you to change from undead to human form at any bonfire. The more you have in your possession the better your item discovery rate will be, and you can also use it to kindle bonfires thus granting you more Estus Flasks (these assist in HP recovery).

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To summon other players into your world you must be in human form, and they’ll need to have obtained an item that becomes available fairly early on in the game. Up to three of you can team up to traverse difficult segments of dungeons or battle bosses. You’ll also need to be in human form if you intend to invade other people’s worlds and have stock of a certain consumable item.

The co-operative element of the game is a lot of fun, but unfortunately there are parameters in place that restrict co-op to players within a few levels of each other. Even though I was playing the game at launch – when you’d think there’d be the most number of people online – I had a hard time finding players to join my game and many of my summon signs went unanswered. Thankfully, the Xbox 360 version supports private chat between two players so you and a friend should be able to essentially play through the game together provided you stay within a few levels of each other.

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Much has been made of Dark Souls’ difficulty but the game gets a lot easier around the 40-hour mark once you’ve got some powerful spells, weapons and armour at your disposal. I would say that the most unforgiving sections of gameplay are the ones that can’t be solved by level grinding, such as the platforming sections in places like Sen’s Fortress where one misstep or instance of poor timing sees you fall to your death. A walkthrough is a valuable tool in these circumstances if you ever feel yourself reaching the limits of your patience.

Dark Souls’ graphics are quite a bit better than those in Demon’s Souls, although slowdown still hampers the experience. There are times when the frame rate dips so badly that the action is reduced to a slideshow. In my opinion, it’s inexcusable to release a game with these sorts of serious technical issues and From Software should have spent a few more months polishing their engine to eliminate these glaring instances of slowdown.

Despite this, Dark Souls’ vast world is a pleasure to explore thanks to intelligent level design, impressive geometry and some highly detailed textures. The various locations you visit during your lengthy stay in Lordran really make an impression on you, and areas that feel like mazes when you first explore them eventually become familiar in your mind as you mentally connect their layout to adjacent regions.

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Dark Souls is a game that really seeps into your consciousness as you invest more and more time in it. When I wasn’t playing it during the last week and a half I was ruminating about how I would proceed when I next picked it up – that just goes to show how compelling the experience was. It’s been many years since I played an RPG that had so much to offer in terms of secrets and hidden areas, and one that put the challenge of getting through it so firmly in my grasp.

Dark Souls is one of those rare titles where you truly feel like the master of your own destiny and realise that you need to up your game if you’re going to get through it in one piece. The sixty hours I spent with Dark Souls during my first playthrough are some of the most memorable in all my years of gaming, and there are countless moments of greatness contained within it that I’ll leave you to discover for yourself!