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Review – Dark Souls

posted on June 16th, 2009 by chris

Indie games aren’t always incredible. I’ve had great experiences with Mount & Blade, The Spirit Engine 2, and World of Goo. After these outstanding games, my expectations were high coming into Warfare Studios’ Dark Souls, which is a classic-style RPG with a darker-than-usual plot… perhaps a bit too high.

The first thing that should have lowered the bar was the fact that it was clearly made in some flavor of RPGMaker. RPGMaker games have been around for years – every time I have tried one, I stopped playing in less than an hour due to difficulty and/or incredibly bad production/script quality. Everyone wants to make the next Final Fantasy VI, but nobody has the passion and ability to create good artwork, compose fitting music, and write a polished script. Teams larger than two or three tend to dissolve due to a lack of sustained interest or go nowhere, and the end result is that the games that are released just don’t seem that great. I’ve heard tales of good RPGMaker games, but I was convinced that such things are as much a myth as Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, or a method to resurrect General Leo (what, you guys didn’t test the 255 economizers rumor? That totally worked). Overall, the entire subgenre has a stigma much like fan fiction – some of it might be good, but how much would your brain rot slogging through the bad stuff to find the good?

Not even the Church thinks that a really high-quality RPGMaker game can exist.

And yet I still enjoyed Dark Souls. It may well be that it’s the best RPGMaker game out there; if there are better ones, I’d really like to know. Dark Souls’ plot is entertaining, if rough. Its graphics are good, though it lacks uniformity. Its music is good – though no composer is credited, so it may well be all default tracks. Its difficulty is mind-crushing at parts – one must tread lightly indeed in a game tougher than Phantasy Star II – but is not entirely unmanageable. It may lack the polish I would expect of a commercial game, but given a team of 4 or 5 working in their spare time, it’s certainly not bad. If this game had come out for the SNES, it would’ve been downright impressive and The 7th Saga might have had a rival in overall challenge.

My philosophy in reviewing is that as long as a game has even one thing it does really well, it’s worth playing. Wild Arms 4 may be sluggish, cliched, and confusing, but it has the coolest dialogue scenes I’ve seen in a game. Rygar is confusing as all hell and incredibly tough, but there’s a satisfaction in solving all its mysteries on one’s own. Dark Souls is likewise worthy of play for its story.

Among other things, Dark Souls has a few of the most mature and and cynical main characters I’ve seen in a game. Unlike other games with such characters, they don’t turn into a sappy pile of emotional muck when they’re exposed to a cheerful and hopelessly naive young priestess. The plot of the game centers around a man who seems at least thirty – though in his various portraits and sprites he looks anywhere from 25 to 60 – and a couple of the other characters are of a similar age. They actually seem to act it, too, making this the second game after The Spirit Engine 2 to have reasonably mature characters.

Likewise, Dark Souls features a powerful church. It would follow, then, from the standard JRPG rulebook, that they abuse children, send them off to be turned into soylent green, and use the leftover bones to club baby seals – assuming they’re not also in charge of the Ultimate Evil themselves. Dark Souls’ church may hardly be saintly, but it does not feature nearly the evil of the cliched RPG religion. Nor is the government necessarily evil – I was half-convinced several minor characters would switch sides, but was pleasantly surprised to find that not everyone turns on you.

Every once in a while, Gauly hugs his swords to make sure they’re still there.

Since I appreciate a good story, one of Dark Souls’ worst flaws is its dire need for a proofreader. The worst repeat offender is “of coarse”, but minor typos, lines overflowing dialogue boxes, grammatical errors, and confusing lines abound. If you can look past them, you’ll find a pretty well-written story. Thankfully the creator, Raphael Delmaschio, has promised better proofreading in the sequel. There was a small buzzer in the corner of my mind going off every time I saw one of these errors, though, and for anything over $10 I really don’t expect to see that sort of thing in a story-heavy game. If such a thing would infuriate you, it may be better to just stay away.

My other complaints about the game are relatively minor. Portraits don’t seem to match characters’ sprites – it looks like there were two artists, and one created enemy graphics and portraits while the other created all the character sprites. There is an awful lot of walking to be done, and no way to turn off random encounters. Sidequests generally get you useful benefits, including the ability to warp to towns instead of walking or powerful accessories to offset the high difficulty. The final section of the game in particular is incredibly tough, and I can’t imagine going through it without doing the sidequests. Thankfully, the game’s community is both active and helpful, which makes sidequest-hunting much easier.

Overall, Dark Souls is not a bad game. It may not be as amazing as more mainstream indie games, and its price point is a bit high ($20 seems fairly expensive for a dozen hours of RPG with no significant engine innovations), but it’s certainly worth playing for anyone interested in a plot somewhat darker than the usual. I’ll be interested to see how the sequel shapes up.

Dark Souls is available here and has a one-hour trial version.

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