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Dark Souls in a Nutshell

I guess this game appeals to the crowd that hates story lines in their games and just gets off on seeing their stats rise? If this sounds good to you, I have a game for you. Next time your mom drives you to the mall, watch her speedometer. Your mom's mileage stat just keeps rising! Watch out, if it rises too high, she might cast the "Help pay for gas" spell on you. - Old Man Murray

Upon playing this game and not liking it many years ago, I endured incessant heckling about how I just needed to "git gud" and how my disliking the game for being a monotonous and dull experience meant that I had no credibility as a gamer. So, after having given it another chance at their behest and still not finding anything remotely enjoyable about it, it's time for me to do what I do best - throw out more caustic language about their god anonymous14884206669's favorite game ever and watch them bitch about how I'm "biased" (as if they're not) and I didn't give it a "fair chance" (as though they've ever given anything they weren't told to a fair shake) and how they're "better than me" because they spent 1638 hours grinding out every last cheevo for their Xbox Live profile in the most boring pile of dung ever shat out and then at least 400 times that long waging war in its name on the Internet just to prove to their sixth-grader gods how "manly" and "cool" they are.  Which is right up there on the pathetic scale with playing Grand Theft Auto constantly and watching Scarface twice a day to prove how "Gangsta" you are. Or beating up digital effigies of your enemies in Soul Calibur Smash Bros to prove that you're a "tough guy"...

I could do that.  Or I could just explain why I don't think it's very good and get a much more vicious and hateful response when it becomes clear that I'm not just "being a contrarian troll". Because the society we live in apparently treats any kind of critique toward the disposable entertainment media one consumes as a grave affront to one's personal honor that must be avenged at all costs, up to and including abuse, round-the-clock harassment and physical violence.  Yep, you're sure to change peoples' minds that way, guys!  Bullying people into silence or brainwashed obedience to the will of your personal echo chamber means you're always rightDon't forget to heap on plenty of character assassination while you're at it, too - by casually dropping buzzwords like "racist" or "casual" or "fanboy" or "hypocrite" or "biased" in reference to your new mortal enemy, you can magically derail any criticism toward your idol of worship and turn any pack of unemployable forum-dwelling losers looking for someone to talk down to into your personal footmen!  Better yet, they'll never even spare a thought for what they're going to war over, whether your terrible personality and reputation might possibly disqualify your call to arms from consideration or even whether anything you're saying is remotely true, because they literally do not care; they've been trained raised by Youtube, 8Chan, Reddit, Tumblr and Kiwi Farms to instantly accept anything a vicious sociopathic braggart says as gospel (no matter how unproven, fallacious or discredited it is), to bark out mindless praise and affirmation at their every psychotic act and to never question anything under threat of being marked as one of their future victims.  Which means all you have to do is beat the war drum over any petty, meaningless shit you can (the more petty and meaningless, the better; that way you can indoctrinate stupid kids with no real problems or responsibilities, abundant free time and untapped college funds into your bullshit culture war too!) and keep finding or inventing new scapegoats for them to launch vicious hate campaigns against for a few days/weeks/months/years at a time and they'll gladly eat up any handful of shit you feed them!  Hell, you could tell these miserable scumbags "Person X said the sky is blue when it's CLEARLY GREEN" and they'd walk out of social studies class right then and there, march straight home under sunny skies, log in to their mom's Compaq and go to war with just as much puerility and vitriol as if Person X had burned their house down and shot their dog; they're that deranged!  So quit your job, drop out of college, drown your conscience in the bathtub, and give up on living a productive life so you and your army of braindead zealots can wage war in the name of a billion dollar company's drop-in-the-bucket video game that even you won't ever play again three months from now!  It's the only chance at recognition you'll ever get in the entirety of your vapid, shallow and talentless existences, so fight, goddammit!  FIGHT!!  FIGHT!!!


The game opens with a long, long, long cutscene explaining how a bunch of characters rose up against a dark dragon and that's causing the world to slowly end, or something.  It all ends up being pretty inconsequential anyway because there's virtually no plot in the game itself unless you feel like going well out of your way to find easily-missed NPCs and scraps of paper that fill in the story one tiny clue at a time (and considering how dingy and washed-out the graphics are, how monotonous the character designs are and how the overwhelming majority of other characters in the game mindlessly attack you on sight, you could easily mistake them for enemies and kill them before they say their piece).  Not to mention the fact that by the time you've endured all the dozens of cheap deaths and gotten to a new area, you've most likely stopped caring that this game has a story anyways.

This idea is apparently based on author's experiences as a child, where he'd only get to read partially translated passages of various books and have to guess at what led the story to that point.  Fair enough I guess, but it really doesn't make for an interesting or captivating narrative when  you just get random, out-of-context story fragments and the rest is filled in with pure guesswork in between long stretches of the same repetitive, tedious gameplay, with no characters or any real journey or goal to get invested in other than "slay next big monster in your path, repeat till game says stop".  I'm by no means opposed to stories having loose ends in order to leave the door open for expansions or sequels, or just leaving elements open to fan interpretation, but leaving 90% of the plot, setting and characterizations as a blank slate so fanboys can fill it all in themselves and spend the next 30+ years waging war over the fact that "Miyazaki never said that my fan fiction wasn't 100% correct so that means IT IS look how smart and cool I am lolololol" is a crutch for the hackest of hack writers to try and sell 'depth' where there isn't any.  Especially when games like Fallout, Ultima, Planescape Torment and Divinity Original Sin II have proven you can have a game dense with lore and worldbuilding and still have varied, interesting and challenging gameplay too. 
Also, here's a thought: instead of reliving someone else's childhood frustrations and then bragging about how "smart" you are when you fill in all the gaps in their narrative with a novel's worth of unsubstantiated fan fiction, why not just put the controller down for a while, break out a pen and paper and write your own story instead?  It'd certainly be a much more interesting experience, save you about $54 in costs and spare you from roughly 1,583 hours of arguing with masturbatory meatheads over "what it really means and why everyone else is a stupid asshole for thinking otherwise"...

Next come the mechanics, which are seemingly made as cryptic as possible to push the illusion that this game is a lot "deeper" and more complex than it really is.  It's fairly simple to intuit what stats like Strength and Endurance and Intelligence are for if you're an RPG fan, but "Humanity" is given no satisfactory explanation in the game itself, nor is it even explained that it's a limited resource you can easily run out of your first time through. Also not immediately clear is what weapons/armor you find are better or worse than what you currently have, or what starting classes' advantages and disadvantages are so you can plan your strategies accordingly; it's all just trial-and-error.  You can't even easily find out what the requirements for equipment are as the game flatly refuses to tell you; you just have to grind souls, raise your strength stat point by point and hope that's enough to finally equip it without penalties.

This lack of user feedback so often gets compared to 1980s CRPGs where they had to cram all the code for a game onto a handful of floppy disks and thus most or all descriptive text for classes, weapons, armor, etc. was relegated to the manual, but that's a total red herring.  First of all, old games actually bothered to put that stuff in their manuals while Dark Souls lacks any kind of meaningful documentation (the in-box 'manual' being your typical worthless controller diagram and copyright information leaflet) and second, Dark Souls came out in 2011.  We live in the age of DVD and Blu-Ray; I shouldn't have to stop every two minutes and look shit up on a fan-made wiki just to figure out basic game mechanics.  And that's assuming you aren't one of the first people to buy it on launch day, which would just mean you have to figure it all out yourself through boring trial-and-error.  Maybe I'm just some kind of asshole, but when a video game expects me to spend magnitudes more time puzzling out every last hidden variable and calculating stats and retreading the same half-hour-long stretch over and over and over again until I have it 100% perfect, it just turns me off to the whole thing.  Video games are an entertainment medium, they shouldn't feel like a fucking archaeology project.  Hell, if you want to go that route, just save yourself a fortune on graphic artists, sound designers and voice actors and make your next game in Microsoft Excel. Otherwise, if you want a perfect example of how to do complex design well, I will point you to Civilization, Final Fantasy Tactics or Heroes of Might and Magic.  All of these games have a ton of mechanics operating under the hood, but they also have convenient tutorials available at the press of a single button. You can hover over, right click or press Select on literally any icon/menu option and get a quick, to-the-point explanation of what that particular item, unit, stat or skill/tech does, and they still manage to be challenging games. Opaqueness is not challenge, it's just a cheap way to make your game seem deeper than it really is and to make the few with the free time and patience to puzzle out your undocumented mechanics feel high and mighty about their meager, useless accomplishment.  In other words, it's the mark of a quasi-intellectual arthouse hack. Quit doing it.

Anyway, we wake up as a zombie in a jail cell and soon escape, using a broken sword to fight our way through the extremely inspired gray castle dungeon and the one type of enemy within it - more zombies!  Exciting stuff, I know.  But you'd best get used to it, because that's the extent of the combat experience for a huge stretch of the game - the same one enemy type over and over again, each of whom can drain more than half of your health with a single hit.  They usually die in only 2-3 hits themselves, but regardless, it really doesn't make the combat very interesting.  Or entertaining.  

Not aiding matters are the janky physics and animations in the game, which, in addition to making everything look weightless and fake like bad CG animation from 1996, causes enemies' dead bodies to ragdoll and glitch everywhere upon the slightest contact.  Your attacks stop dead if you swing your sword in narrow corridors and hit a wall mid-swing (and you will, since every press of the attack button results in a huge, wide sweep that looks utterly ridiculous and leaves you wide open if you miss).  Your character moves like they're coated in Crisco as they slip off platforms and ledges at the slightest provocation while enemies never do.  Your dodge move is all but useless as it takes nearly a full second to respond after pressing the button, ensuring that anything you try to dodge will almost always just hit you instead.  Enemies just arbitrarily decide not to get stunned sometimes when you land a clean blow, letting them get in a cheap hit and probably kill you.  There are near-constant frame skips, input delays and stuttering, making timing dodges and attacks with precision unfeasible.  The PC version seems to crash constantly, forcing you to redo even more work through no fault of your own. The lock-on system is also incredibly unintuitive, always seeming to target the most distant enemy in the area and giving any nearby foes a free shot at you in the process.  Not to mention the fact that the control layout is so user-hostile that readying and accurately aiming ranged weapons is all but impossible, to the point where you might as well just not bother with them at all...

I may not be the biggest Ocarina of Time fan, but I can still tell you that that game had a much better lock-on system, crisper ranged aiming and melee combat, as well as more polished physics and a much more intuitive control scheme than Dark Souls does.  And given that OOT came out almost thirteen years before this game did, that should tell you something!

Enemies are not bound by any of these limitations, however, and can freely swing and hit you through walls, floors, bars and ladders that stop your own attacks dead.  They're also positioned in dozens of hidey-holes and hidden niches along the path where they lie in wait for you to pass by so they can hit you in the back, turning a good 70% of the experience into a tedious game of hide-and-seek.  Not to mention that you're punished for dying by being sent back to the last checkpoint and respawning every enemy on the map, as well as the fact that one innocuous wrong turn can put you in a new area far above your current level, where even the basic low-level monsters can easily one-shot you unless you've spent days and days grinding out levels to face them on equal terms...

An element which was also present in early JRPGs like Phantasy Star 1, Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, and people instantly write those games off as "bad" for it.  So why do these exact same people give it a free pass here?  ...Oh, right, because we live in the age of "Cheevos", where slogging through countless hours of bland busywork and tedious trial-and-error just to progress a little bit is now a "bragging right" and not the mark of someone who is extremely bored and has nothing better to do with their time.  It honestly wouldn't surprise me if game companies came up with the achievement system as a cheap excuse to pad out games with junk missions and leave in tons of asinine and outdated design tropes and call them "features for hardcore gamers".  Again, if I want to spend weeks of my life doing something mindless, thankless and utterly boring, I'd work a second job; at least then I'd get something more useful for the effort than flipping an arbitrary flag on my "gamer card"  that nobody but me will ever look at anyways.

Further compounding this problem is the game's online multiplayer functionality, in which anonymous players can either ally with you to defeat a boss, or (far more likely) pop into your game uninvited when they're 60-70 levels above you and kill you in one hit for cheap lulz, thereby causing you to lose all of your progress yet again through no fault of your own.  Moreso because the game's terrible netcode ensures that they constantly land backstabs on you even while you're facing directly toward them on your screen.  And unless I missed an option somewhere, there is no way to disable this feature short of pulling your system's LAN connection.  Which, if you're playing on the XBox 360 and have a digital copy of the game, also prevents you from playing the game at all.  Truly wonderful.

Throughout the whole wretched slog, you're accompanied by a dreary, washed-out landscape of gray bricks, decayed gray and beige buildings, a cloudy gray sky, a flat gray landscape, and plenty of pitch black caves and sewers.  Always coated in gray or brown fog, too.  This game looks like baby shit...

The story tells us that the world is dying, but would it be too much to ask for something other than the usual "gritty" game color palette to look at?  I paid a lot of money for a high-definition television capable of displaying over 16 million colors, and yet every major game developer seems to insist on putting nothing but the three most unappealing ones to the human eye in their games.  We have the technology and the talent to make beautiful games sporting captivating and imaginative world design, heartfelt and passionate storytelling on the level of a world-class novel and dazzling visuals that can give Steven Spielberg himself a run for his money, yet every AAA studio is so devoid of imagination or humanity that they ignore all of that and instead model their gameplay entirely around empty busywork in barren environments based on destitute stretches of North Korea...

Brutal and reclusive military dictatorship devastated by famine and disease, or From Software's latest blockbuster hit?  Click the picture for the startling answer!

The franchise as a whole also features some truly inspired audio design by immersing the player in the dulcet tones of completely silent dead air!  Not even a speck of ambient noise anywhere most of the time.  Between this, the drab, lifeless visuals and the monotonous rock-em-sock-em robots combat, it doesn't take long before you start falling asleep from sheer sensory deprivation.  I also have to say that for all the praise this series gets for being "epic" and "revolutionary" and "flawless" and "the best, most important games ever created"*, it's severely underdeveloped in some very key areas...

*Yes, people have actually said all of these things to me without a hint of irony.  So Nolan Bushnell, Andrew Greenberg, Robert Woodhead, Takashi Tezuka, Shigeru Miyamoto, Yoshio Sakamoto, Yoshinori Kitase, Shinji Mikami, Hideaki Itsuno, Richard Garriott, Warren Spector, John Carmack, Will Wright, Sid Meier... forget those hacks, they're all worthless plebian smoothbrains compared to the one true god Miyazaki, apparently.

 I'm also not saying every game has to have an amazing orchestral score by Kenji Ito or Hiroki Kikuta or Yasunori Mitsuda, but can we at least have, you know, something interesting to listen to while we play?  It might lend a little bit of an adventurous/foreboding feel to the proceedings instead of just compounding the dullness and monotony...

The worst part is that they actually could have used this design decision in an interesting way.  In games like Thief: The Dark Project and Metal Gear Solid 3, the lack of music lets you listen for subtle audio cues that you need to gauge enemies' positions, either to avoid them or plan a stealth attack that won't alert a mass of enemies to your presence.  Hell, since most of the enemies are either undead or freakish supernatural aberrations, it even could have added perfectly to the horror of the scenario; in a game where one enemy is a significant threat and trying to take on a whole group at a time will usually result in your death, adding a stealth element could have easily helped to make the mood more tense.  But since all of Dark Souls' enemies remain inert and completely silent until you're close enough for them to attack you and opportunities to backstab unaware monsters are extremely rare, the lack of sound design here just feels like it was done out of laziness.  I'm sorry, but if you're going to sell me on the idea that anything is the absolute pinnacle of its medium, then it had better be pretty damn amazing and well-oiled in every respect, sound design included!

Anyway, it doesn't take long before you realize that there's really just not much to Dark Souls beyond what it shows you in the first five minutes - generic, desolate environments with copy-pasted enemy battles every five steps, pure trial-and-error guesswork on what path will take you to your next goal and which one will take you to instant death by a cheap trap or enemies far above your current level, scraps of text and dialog written to sound important and profound but which deliberately add up to nothing substantial (which just leads to mediocre assholes crafting terrible takes on the game's nonexistent 'profound messaging' as a means to sell their own severely flawed personalities and worldviews to weak-willed forum toadies),  and the occasional boss you'll have to waste hours figuring out Miyazaki's one intended solution for and execute it flawlessly or you just die instantly.  And what's your reward for trial-and-erroring out the one character build and combat tactic to counter every single one of their 70+% damage moves, whittling down their absurdly huge life bars and repeating 30+ minutes of work fighting the same repetitive mooks in between each failed attempt?   ...You get to go to another equally desolate, uninteresting maze full of one monster type with another trial-and-error boss fight at the end and spend hours upon hours doing it all again!  Yeah.  After the first couple rounds of this I'd had quite enough and shut it off for good.

Do you recall my earlier nutshells and reviews where I rambled about how mediocre games like Halo, Fable, Jade Empire, Mass Effect, Bioshock, Dead Space, Dishonored and Dragon Age got tons of acclaim for stuff that PC games had already done better years prior simply because they were released on consoles and their fans had never played anything like them before owing to platform bias?  Same idea here; Dark Souls may have some of the elements of a good open-world action RPG, but it's lacking the most important one in that there's no hook to the game whatsoever.  In fact, I'll even go so far as to say it's one of the most overhyped, pretentious and utterly obnoxious gaming experiences I've played since Valkyrie Profile. An open-ended adventure tailored toward "hardcore gamers" is all well and good, but when the controls and physics in the game are such a chore to deal with, the aesthetics are so unappealing, there's no decent puzzles or narrative whatsoever, the whole combat experience the game builds itself on is so one-note, janky and tedious and the entire experience is just empty, nihilistic grinding toward a vague promise of something interesting eventually happening, you really have no desire to keep playing it after the first few hours, let alone see it through to the end.

...Unless, of course, you're motivated by factors almost entirely unrelated to the game itself and think you have something to gain by grinding out points and items for 1638 hours to unlock a flag on your "Gamer Card" that nobody but you ever looks at anyway.  But if you're not swayed by the fleeting promise of "prestige" that using Fextralife's convenient guide to every arbitrary digital trophy at least 48,611 people have already earned will allegedly bring you, Dark Souls just comes off as a completely forgettable experience that only got as much attention as it did because its publisher bought tons of advertising and glowing press coverage for it.  And since we've already seen that most people will unquestioningly treat anything that their top-secret repository of infallible wisdom, the very first search result on YouTube, says as gospel... well, draw your own conclusions there.

Oh, and I just adore the fact that this game's fans go around claiming to be "old school" and "hardcore" while shunning anything made before 2007 because "lol shit grafx fuck those games".  They also conveniently ignore the fact that the Souls franchise itself is a "dumbed down" reworking of an an older game franchise they can't even name without checking Wikipedia, let alone honestly claim to have played. (By the way, literally none of these people knew or cared about that earlier franchise when it was new or even does now, but as soon as big name publishers like Sony and Atlus and Namco Bandai start publishing the exact same style of games From Software is suddenly the fucking messiah? Give me a break.) Hell, they can't even name a single reason why their "favorite game" is so great that isn't an empty platitude taken word-for-word from one of the top reviews on Metacritic or a smarmy talking point from some 8chan hyena about who the "real gamers" are.  So why is Souls the one and only franchise they ever need to play to qualify themselves as "hardcore" and "old school" gamers?   ...Oh right, because the publisher's paid shills told them that it was the best game of all time and that as manly men they're obligated to say they replay it at least six times a week and bray constantly on the GameFAQs forums about how it's the best thing since crystal meth and anyone who ever so much as thinks otherwise or plays anything else is a "fake gamer" or a "content tourist" who needs to be bullied into silence so that they can hold on to their nonexistent prestige and make sure their toadies never dare to have an independent thought, let alone begin to question their godly authority and splendor.  Boy, being a thankless, unpaid rent-a-thug in the Namco Bandai Marketing Department's Personal Army is sure a great substitute for having any actual personality, ambition or fulfillment in your life, isn't it?

And no, you cannot convince me that there are people who play this game because they enjoy it, especially when every single "fan" of this game I've ever spoken with or listened to in passing makes a point of ensuring that every other word that leaves their mouths is a carefully scripted and endlessly rehearsed line about how much they hate "filthy casuals" and that any remote mention of someone not liking the game is met with a snarky knee-jerk soundbite taken word-for-word from Reddit about how they're "not real gamers" or should "play some shitty Wii game for babies instead".  Every single one.  Acting like a try-hard elitist shitbag over a billion dollar company's throw-away video game is the equivalent of buying a giant truck so you can drive like an asshole constantly and triple-park everywhere you go - a desperate bid to distract from and compensate for your other, more embarrassing shortcomings.  Not to mention the fact that nobody, least of all you, is even going to give a rat's shit about Dark Souls anymore once your 'friends' latch onto the next big holier-than-thou trend and turn that into their new religion instead; the day that happens, you'll drop Dark Souls faster than a jar of mayonnaise with a condom at the bottom and never even think about it again.  And yes, that day will come sooner or later; do you remember how huge the Guitar Hero fad was a few years back?  Sure you do - it was THE game Activision said you had to invest every dime to your name in and devote every waking moment to becoming a perfect hardcore 100% expert at or else you were just another casual noob faggot loser!  Does anyone spare it a thought these days?  Judging from the thousands of copies and plastic guitars I've seen collecting dust in bargain bins at used game shops and flea marts, not really.  Well, except maybe that guy who dropped out of high school to devote himself to playing it on a professional level;  I'm sure that's not a decision he regrets on a daily basis as he works 11-hour shifts at McDonald's 7 days a week and still has to sleep in his car because can't afford rent!

That's all I have to say about that.  Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to play another "hardcore" game that features a palette comprised of much more than muted greys and browns, far more inspired and varied audio design, and an overall level of polish that ensures its gameplay is crisp, well-paced, intuitive and legitimately challenging, rather than simply being "difficult" because of deficiencies in design and documentation and fanbase-imposed rules that change based on how small Anonymous1488420669's dick feels that day:

And rather than doing so to engage in a meaningless circlejerk and win the fleeting approval of a bunch of internet-dwelling sociopaths, I'll be acting in the interest of an "outdated" concept to today's gamer culture:  for my own entertainment.  

"HERESY!" rang forth the collective screech of the Cult of Miyazaki, their only sudden movements in weeks kicking up their bedrooms' settled miasma of Cheeto dust and stale urine, "Having fun is for FILTHY CASUAL FAGGOT BABIES!  Real gamers work thankless, unfulfilling sweatshop-hour jobs in front of their parents' TVs FOR FREE!!"  

Oh, and if I want a good game based around exploration, fragmented storytelling, legitimate tactics and planning instead of nihilistic number crunching and waging the occasional epic battle that requires the same, I'll pick up one of these instead:











Not giving a shit about "cheevos" or "forum karma" or "Steam badges" or other superficial and meaningless gamer phrenology, I also don't have to hear from 239,000 bumptious fuck-knobs about how I'm "disrespecting the game and all of its REAL fans" by not forcing myself to play by the exact same set of moronic bullshit rules they made up that morning and which the game itself in no way enforces. Another win over useless blowhards who spend magnitudes more time drawing lines in the sand about who the 'real gamers' are than actually playing any games! 

Thank you and good night.

PS: Tracking down my contact information so you can parrot glib talking points from the Gamespot forums about how I'm "not a real gamer" for not playing underwhelming junk solely because Anonymous14884206669 said to, or that "you just hate the game because you suck you whiny bitch lololol", or how "Hidetaka Miyazaki is a GENIUS* on par with Shakespeare or Mozart or da Vinci or Stephenie Meyer and you're just too stupid to understand his BRILLIANCE not me tho I have 397 IQ according to go kill yourself retard lolololol" or especially "I respect your opinion kid but you'd better delete your entire website and disappear from the internet forever before 'someone' shows up at your junior high with my daddy's AR-15 and that 3D-printed silencer and bumpstock and ultraextended magazines loaded with tank-piercing cyanide-tipped cop killer bullets he got on the dark web and makes an example of your nigger-loving faggot kike ass and your entire family too Heil Jontron lolololololol" will only make me like your favorite game less, so kindly abstain from that.  Thanks in advance!

* Probably mistaking him for the other Miyazaki - the one that actually has talent and creative vision in his works and an appreciation of humanity as a concept more vast, nuanced and complex than an arbitrary fucking number on a stat menu.  He also doesn't have to hide behind a death cult of fame-worshipping narcissists that insists he's some untouchable honorary-Aryan artisan deity and if you ever so much as imply otherwise you're a fake gamer and traitor who needs to be silenced through any force necessary in the name of "objective and ethical games journalism".  And Jontron