Sunday, January 8, 2012

Dark Souls Comprehensive Review

+++ Improves on virtually everything in Demon’s Souls
+++ Fantastic exploration value
+++ Best last boss since Guildenstern
++ No terrible zones
++ Several exceptional zones
++ Numerous good/great boss battles
++ Actually has a semblance of a storyline
++ Excellent Soundtrack
++ Great environmental variety
+ Addition of new spellcasting school
+ Graphics are much improved
+ Covenants are an interesting system
+ Hardest game in 11 years
-- Four Kings
-- Launch Fog Ring
- Numerous overpowered things at launch could potentially make the game easier
- Online gameplay is difficult to engage in reliably without exposing one’s self to one sort of idiocy or another
- Offensive Miracles are poor compared to Magic and Pyromancy
- Actually has fanservice
- I hope you like falling

Several very bizarre things occurred in the last month eliminating my ability to write this review promptly. However, I still feel quite capable of judging the game. It should be noted I didn’t play after 1.4 came out, but things that were fixed in that patch still deserve some mention even if they don’t impact the overall score much. Dark Souls is better than Demon’s Souls in just about every way. Pick anything you like and you’ll find a huge increase in production values and overall appearance. Additionally the movement away from the Arch Stone system which could be considered a great risk has managed to add a fantastic new element to the gameplay and places Dark Souls in the Metroidvania verse. Exploration with no in-game map makes everyone’s first experience with this game quite a bit different from one another.

Zones in this game can be explored dozens of different ways. While there is a sort of linear path to be had for the first half of the game, (assuming you ignore the enormous number of branching areas) I imagine the vast majority of players didn’t strictly follow it. That said it is a bit more difficult to structure this review since I don’t have the convenient 1 to 5 designations. That in mind I have split up each area into 4 different categories.

Good Zones

These zones are all well designed but not without some flaws. They do not have the characteristic of falling to your death dozens of times. Despite that one wrong step can brutalize you, much like anything else in Dark Souls. Fortunately several of the game’s earliest areas fall into this category so I can introduce the game as I discuss these zones.

Firelink Shrine

Immediately following the tutorial section of the game you are deposited here by a kind, vociferous aviator and given little or no instruction as to how to proceed. This is the first time the game branches out into various paths, though there is only one real choice on your first run of the game. A graveyard full of beastly skeletons lies close by, but it takes so long to progress and you get very few souls for the trouble so you’ll quickly be turned astray. A massive elevator takes you down, down, down into a dark, murky area where there are seemingly invincible ghosts. It’s actually quite possible to make some progress in this area, but doing so requires a fair amount of luck and figuring out just how to fight the ghosts.

The actual path to take is up along the mountainside, inside the interior of an aqueduct/sewer, up in to a nice little castle town. While you’ll probably still die in that direction you might make some progress as the easiest opponents in the game are what you’ll face.

Later, you discover that this zone is more or less the hub world of Dark Souls. It’s not completely safe like the Nexus and for some reason the superior music in this area is not quite as soothing as the simple tones in the Nexus. When you return here there is some respite, sure, but only until you’re ready to plunge yourself into the madness once again. You can practice your movesets but there’s no enormous amount of tutorial information and no obscure as hell NPC that you must talk to. While I may personally feel a great deal of nostalgia for the Nexus I do think this area improves upon it in a number of ways. It goes back to the world being one massive interlinked place which you could theoretically walk from one end to the other in.

Music: Firelink Shrine
Area Score: 9/10

(Upper) Undead Burg

This is essentially the first zone in the game and it is largely a variation of World 1-1 from Demon’s Souls. You face the weakest enemies in the game, similar but more difficult versions of them, and several traditional traps are thrown at you. I have listened to quite a few different podcasts about Dark Souls to get a feel for others’ experiences with the game and more than a few say they get stuck on this zone somewhere. I am unaware of the general experience of the X-Box playerbase, but having a decent amount of Demon’s Souls experience should make the Undead Burg easy enough. There are three potential trouble spots to be had, those being the boss, Havel, and the first Black Knight in the game.

Black Phantom NPCs are much more uncommon in this game than the first, with the departure of the very odd World Tendency system you won’t have to deal with an “ever-changing” world so much as the hardest regular enemies will just be hanging out somewhere in each level. Most of the time these enemies are optional but fighting them on your first sojourn is a harrowing and entertaining experience. The first Black Knight is actually fairly easy assuming you have a shield that negates 100% of physical damage. Evade a bunch and occasionally block, backstab if you can or just cautiously wither away his health by other methods. Havel is nasty without an amazing shield, almost certain to cause death the first few times. However, given some patience and decent strafing he’ll go down eventually and drop an amazing ring.

The Taurus Demon is a very good introductory boss. You can dispatch him almost any way you can think of. He’s harder than most bosses in Demon’s Souls but easier than most bosses in Dark Souls. Even in a close melee fight he is quite beatable on the first try without pristine luck or overusage of limited healing. The best thing about him is the area you fight him in and the way he swoops down with little fanfare to slap you in the face with a giant axe.

Music: Taurus Demon

Area Score: 8.5/10

Undead Parish

The Undead Parish doesn’t technically begin right after the Taurus Demon but I consider the bridge to be in the same area. The word bridge brings back memories of Demon’s Souls unofficial second zone, and lo and behold another Dragon can annihilate you here as well, taking those precious souls from the first boss encounter. This Dragon acts in a fickle manner and is somewhat hard to predict, even on the 11th or 12th run I’m always a bit hesitant, and indeed he has killed me more than the Demon’s Souls Red Dragon ever did. Still, I wish that a melee fight with him wasn’t absurdly dangerous relative to sniping from a safe location. The reward you get for cutting off his tail is the first easily accessible overpowered thing in the game. However, assuming you approach the game blindly this won’t occur to you and the next few areas will retain their challenge.

After the bridge you immediately encounter another strong opponent, the Bull. Most of the E3 and other early press releases were centered around how difficult this fellow was, though the alternative opponent is even more fearsome. The bull is kind of unique in the game as a whole, which is a good thing. If charging, difficult to damage large enemies were frequent they might become quite irritating (hmm…), but some careful positioning will allow you to damage it more effectively, alongside intelligent retreat patterns.

As to the rest of this area it is fairly short, presenting brief, severe challenges and a very intuitive shortcut. There are multiple paths through the area despite how short it is and it grants a fluid feel to moving through the game world, even on later playthroughs. This area is at least for my part the first challenging yet rewarding part of the game, which was initially the draw of Dark Souls. However, I could easily see the incredible uniqueness of the exploration value being the driving factor behind someone purchasing the game now.

There is another, much more difficult Black Knight in this area who could take dozens of tries if you set about killing him this early in the game. Assuming you don’t have the Drake Sword he’ll take a while to bring down and has a number of attacks that can either kill you in one hit whilst blocking or still hit you while you attempt to strafe around him. It’s possible to kill him in a straight fight but the best method is interestingly to simply use the environment.

The Gargoyles are the first somewhat difficult boss in the game, as such there are always plenty of white phantom signs around to summon if you have trouble. Nicely enough the game provides its own phantoms for you in this case. Unless you use consumable damage buffs (rare and limited at this point) or have the Drake Sword there’s certainly no shame in summoning Solaire or Lautrec to aid you. On your first blind run you’re probably still running around hollow and unaware how being human actually assists you though so it is an annoying boss fight at first. But, for all of the in game comparisons nothing makes this fight as irritating as Maneater from Demon’s Souls.

Music: Bell Gargoyles

Area Score: 9/10

Lower Undead Burg

This area is quite short, a simple corridor below where you’d been treading the past two zones. Areas vary tremendously in size in Dark Souls, the largest areas being larger than 5-2 from Demon’s Souls and the smallest areas being as short as any third area in the original. The world as a whole is roughly twice the size and since it is contiguous sort of feels even larger than that. If you just have normal weapons the enemies in this area can be a little troublesome. They will riposte you frequently and the dogs that accompany them are still just as annoying as they were in Demon’s Souls. But in relatively short order you’ll either reach the boss or open a shortcut to make the walkback to the boss less painful.

The boss is the esteemed Capra Demon, accompanied by 2 dogs. Without the dogs this would be a decent enough boss fight, one attack you must avoid and others you have to hesitantly block with some useful terrain. With the dogs it’s quite a pain and one of the hardest fights in the game. In fact I actually died the most on this boss in my first playthrough, though a big reason for this was the game crashing on my 2nd or 3rd bound to be successful attempt (dogs were dead, Capra down to 50% with me still having most of my flask left). Unfortunately it’s not hard due to actual difficulty in learning the fight, it’s simply random how the dogs will approach you. The Capra demon tends to just bumrush you right out of the gate but the dogs can do a number of things to trap you in a corner until you die horribly.

The big redeeming factor of this area is it is technically optional if you have the Master Key (it’s what I picked on my blind run, I can only assume most others would do the same). While the Goat has the potential to be annoying early in the game later on you can smurf him. Additionally he’s downright trivial on New Game+ so it’s only an issue on the first run.

Graphically both the Parish and Burg look similar to Boletarian Palace, however instead of a continuous grey or shadow aesthetic it’s more like an overgrown keep in the wilderness. It gives the whole area a very realistic feel, as if you were in some uninhabited castle bordering a vast forest. Moss permeates the walls and while the structure is undoubtedly sturdy the hundreds of years of decay have taken their toll. Thank God most games have moved away from the apocalyptic color palette of yore.

Area Score: 8/10


Here we find ourselves in the first fairly large area in the game. There are several routes through the Depths, some of which I personally didn’t discover until my 3rd or 4th run of the area. You could potentially take only about 15-20 minutes your first time in, avoiding the cursed frogs except for 1 and maybe not even finding the bonfire. Roughly 75% of the whole zone is optional when going through it (once again with the Master Key the Depths actually are optional), though you could just as easily get lost and take an hour or more to reach the end.

In addition to being somewhat of a maze, though not an explicitly complicated one, this area has the first severe hazard in the game. Curse is a permanent status effect that first kills you and then halves your life upon revival, subsequent curses will continue to quarter and eighth your life if you don’t cure it. While this gained a huge amount of press in numerous reviews in all honesty it is very easy to avoid. Almost everything that curses you is very easy to kill with standard weaponry. It is in effect a punishment for stupidity, which is perfectly fine.

While it is possible to wind up completely screwed it is exceptionally unlikely. Even if you’re running around with 1/8th your life you can still farm souls and eventually purchase a purging stone, 2 merchants are accessible prior to the Depths which have a limited number of them. So, if after purging yourself 3 times and continuing to fail to battle an easy opponent you then are forced to run through Anor Londo with not half, not one fourth, but an eighth of your HP I suppose it’s possible you’ll have severe trouble.

The boss of this area is the first cinematic boss in the game and seems to be a trouble spot for new players. This is perhaps the third most popular place for signs so you can get help if you so desire it, but presuming you don’t fight him while the Priest (non respawning support caster) still lives it is quite possible to take no hits whatsoever while fighting it. Gaping Dragon might seem to be astonishingly powerful but given careful observation every one of his attacks becomes easy to avoid. The hardest thing to do is keep Solaire alive through the whole experience for your Sunlight Medal, as NPCs aren’t really coded to fight this sort of enemy.

Music: Gaping Dragon

Area Score: 9/10


Here we have the second largest zone in the game, though once again much of it is optional. Without the Master Key it is a long, somewhat difficult journey with a variety of brand new challenges. Once you finally reach the bottom you’ll discover a nice swamp, much like our old friend the Valley of Defilement. Naturally the swamp poisons and slows you, however it is much easier to move in, there are a huge number of preventive measures that can be taken to assist you, and best of all there are no Giant Depraved Ones present.

The giants in this area are simple to reliably fight and, praise God, you can actually roll in the swamp though it might cost additional stamina. I have only one major complaint with this area and that is the infinitely respawning wasps. I gather there are some nests that are spawning these but I’ve never been able to find one, nor do I spend enough time in the swamp in the first place. With high enough Vit they aren’t that troublesome. However, during low Vit runs infinitely respawning annoying to hit enemies are kind of a pain in the ass.

Blightown was highlighted in reviews for having the worst framerate in the game. Indeed it is rather poor in this zone and that’s generally because it’s so damn huge and so vertical and the engine wants to render so much of it at one time. This is really the only zone in the game with this problem while it cropped up an awful lot more in Demon’s Souls (with few mentions in reviews). Personally I’ll trade absolutely no pop-in in the entire game for one 20 FPS zone. More importantly the boss area is not technically in the same zone and has no framerate issues at all despite being very visually impressive.

Speaking of the boss it is the first one that requires a fair amount of skill. Quelaag has quite a few attacks and some of them need to be evaded, others sidestepped creatively or sometimes blocked, and still others are best avoided altogether. Additionally roughly half of her attacks leave lava pools for a sustained duration, it’s sort of a much better version of all those beloved MMO bosses where “Don’t stand in fire” is the mechanic. I guess she doesn’t quite crack the top 5 in the game in difficulty, but in a game with almost no trivial boss fights that’s certainly no shame.
Immediately following the boss is a hidden covenant area, which you probably won’t find your first time through the game (I guess messages could tip you off, I beat this boss within a few days of release so no such luck for me). However it hides one of the best musical tracks in the game and highlights how strong the improvement over the first game really is. While most of the songs in Demon’s Souls are adequate and mildly atmospheric none of them have the magnificent impact that some of Motoi Sakuraba’s (composer of Valkyrie Profile 2) songs do in Dark Souls.

The Depths and Blighttown share a darker, danker aesthetic. While the moss is prevalent above in these regions the walls are tainted green and you walk through what is ultimately a sewer though it never feels all that much like a sewer level (i.e. “When will this piece of shit be over”) As you get further into Blightown you might notice the gigantic trees that stretch into the sky. This is a prominent motif in the game and you can even descend inside one of these trees at your leisure. There’s no “World Tree” but it does seem that the world is held up by a staunch and enormous forest.

Music: Chaos Witch Quelaag / Daughters of Chaos (listen to this) / Each Lullaby

Area Score: 8/10

Painted World

One of the secret areas in the game, the Painted World requires you to visit another, less obvious secret to acquire a “key” to unlock it in the first place. Nothing in the painted world is especially threatening, though a rare grab attack could do you in. There’s always the prodigious hazard of falling as well, though it isn’t too bad unless you’re trying to explore the entire area. However, There are still several unique hazards.

There are androgynous bird things, though many of them wait in ambush or completely optional hard to find areas, the three you are likely to fight are very prone to suicide which is quite humorous. They also drop the second rarest reputation item in the game, which takes a long ass time to farm. Plain old hollowed also roam this area, some of them are gluttons of fire and shoot you with a few unique attacks, they aren’t that dangerous but are unseen throughout the rest of the game. The last unique challenge is a Phalanx formation of indeterminate blob creatures. These behave somewhat like the black similarly named blobs in the first game, though they look vaguely humanoid and seem to throw their spears more accurately this time around. They’re easy to avoid, but kind of a pain if you want to kill every one of them.

Perhaps the most dangerous thing in the area is the affectionately named Skelewheels returning from the Catacombs which you may or may not have visited at this point. A skeleton attached to a wheel with spikes that rolls at you and murders you if you don’t have a great shield or don’t get out of the way. In the Painted World you fight them exclusively in short corridors so they can be kind of a pain, but assuming you already know how to fight them they’re not too hard. The boss in this area is the one pure gimmick fight in the game. It is superbly easy once you know the gimmick, and vaguely difficult if not. The bridge leading to the boss is actually more difficult than the boss itself.

The biggest strength the painted world has is atmosphere. The snowy castle is rather unique visually, as only brief stretches of the tutorial area look vaguely similar. They seem to have placed that eerie sound when you’re outdoors and there’s 6 inches of snow but no wind and absolutely no other interference. A truly relaxing absence of noise, though a spazzy hollow might interrupt it from time to time. I guess they could have theoretically made it more painting-like a la Chrono Cross but it functions quite well as is.

Music: Priscilla

Area Score: 8.5/10

Darkroot Garden

The aforementioned forest bordering the Undead Parish is the first semi-optional area you’re likely to have any chance in while exploring. In the first room prior to the forest is the much beloved Titanite Demon. These strangely shaped headless golems hold one of the most valuable upgrade materials in the game. Unfortunately if you ever go toe to toe with one in melee you’re probably going to be bitch slapped and annihilated. However, if you’re cautious about it it’s not too hard to deal with them at range, naturally it’s much faster with spells but it’s still possible with hundreds of crossbow bolts or arrows.

Further in, the plant creatures have a very powerful grab attack but are easy enough to dispatch with either a semi-powerful weapon or a plain old spear, presuming you’re cautious enough. The path splits quickly, a door which requires a 20,000 soul (or inadvisable murder) key, a hidden bonfire, and a short path to a small grove. Now you approach another difficult opponent, though at first it might seem they are akin to the Black Knights. Unlike those old friends they do respawn and they’re also very deliberate in their movement pattern, so it’s not all that hard to avoid being damaged altogether even when under the slowing aura (“Tranquil Walk of Peace”). Many optional ambushes and items lie here, but also a completely optional area with several useful items that I did not discover for my first hundred hours of playtime.

This area holds an enemy that drops stamina recovery items. Stamina recovery was a very difficult to acquire thing in Demon’s Souls, but in Dark Souls it is rather common and every effect stacks. This is one of the things that hurt PvP a lot, certainly not as much as the Fog Ring or Lightning Weapons or even Havel’s Armor, but being unable to hit someone who’s guard broke half a second earlier is rather frustrating. Stamina recovery can become so absurd that the recovery time is well shorter than the mandatory lag period in any online melee confrontation, hence the most reliable ways to deal damage either become a cheesy overpowered 2 hander or a few difficult to dodge, easy to spam spells like Combustion (though the broken Black Knight Shield could do away with that as well). If the playerbase was more interested in having a fair, enjoyable experience this might not be a problem, but we are talking about 2011’s mostly retarded, asinine Call of Duty/Halo kiddie audience so that’s just not going to happen.

The boss of this area is pretty damn difficult solo, though it sort of skews one way or another depending on your build and when you actually decide to fight it. Early on with a melee build this is one of the top 5 hardest bosses in the game. With the hidden NPC summon it becomes one of the easiest. Additionally later in the game or if you’re a sorcerer it’s not too hard to fight solo, though a few of the Butterfly’s attacks can still be tricky.

Beyond the aforementioned door is a massive, mostly optional grove with a few new enemy types. As you first enter you’ll be assaulted by several humanoid NPCs who are rather dangerous. 2 of these are (or were) completely untargettable. Being cautious and aware should enable you to dispatch them rather quickly, if you’re fortunate you’ll pick up Pharis’ gear in the meantime, if not you’ll never even see this NPC on a dozen playthroughs. These fellows have a tendency to roll off cliffs before you notice them.

The other new enemies are 2 kinds of Mushroom men, one being little children sized shrooms who are pretty adorable as they fall over while trying to damage you. However if you are overzealous in your baby slaughter you might discover a much larger mushroom man running over and with the slightest bit of effort decimating your health or stamina. They don’t have a huge range (though it is still surprisingly long considering) so this isn’t a Giant Depraved One situation, but they do tend to take a while to kill and are generally best left alone.

If you’ve read any review or are semi conscious you’ll notice another covenant NPC here, allowing you to join those NPCs whom you just murdered. The Forest Hunter Covenant is one of those great ideas that doesn’t really pan out due to a few factors. The retardation of the playerbase is perhaps the foremost one. But not all that far behind is the Fog Ring, a potential reward you can get for your hunts. This reward originally granted the ability to be non targetable and completely invalidated anyone else without a fog ring or a few very specific builds to counter it.

As you can imagine anyone who used this was undoubtedly a gigantic douchebag. It was ultimately fixed in patch 1.4, but I had stopped playing online at that point and my faith in the playerbase was already irreparably damaged. While I maintained a 70/30 or so victorious rate against other players I still wound up facing dozens of fog ring users, and while I came up with several creative solutions to deal with them it was always a giant completely unnecessary pain in the ass.

Assuming you’re not running around this area in human form you’ll quickly find the boss area. The area where you fight the boss is actually quite atmospheric, hundreds of swords surround the massive Greatsword of Artorias and the fight only begins when you approach it. Unfortunately the boss is one of the easiest in the game, and while it would have been middle of the road in Demon’s Souls it feels kind of pathetic in Dark Souls. A random butterfly without unique boss music is vastly more difficult.
Darkroot Garden and Basin both have a fantastic color palette. The lack of a day night cycle makes the forest perpetually eerie and the veins of water running alongside add an air of mystery. While there are some faint signs of former civilization almost the entire forest is nothing but trees and ravines. A broken aqueduct can be seen but not reached overhead. It makes you wonder where the first aqueduct of the game is actually rooted. The incredibly deep ravines can actually be traversed to some extent and doing so will lead you to discover an astonishing sight.

Music: Great Grey Wolf Sif

Area Score: 8.5/10

Falling Zones

As you may have guessed the following areas all involve you falling to your death numerous times. Just how numerous is not in fact what determines how annoying this is, but the nature of the falling. Did you fall because the lighting was intentionally terrible, or because the shortcuts were strange, or perhaps because you decided it was time to end it. While falling is certainly a hazard elsewhere this is where the impact is felt most.


The catacombs actually have another poorly thought out mechanic in addition to the potential for taking a dive. The skeletons in this area infinitely revive as long as their corresponding pyromancer is alive. Sometimes the pyromancer is close enough that this isn’t that much of an issue, other times you must run through a gauntlet and accumulate 20 skeletons prior to reaching the non trivial necromancer. Upon slaying him you discover the skeletons don’t falter until they are slain one final time. And then you die horribly since they’ve certainly surrounded you.

Miraculously on my first run I was using Astora’s Straight Sword, a “divine” weapon which prevents skeletons from reviving. Hence I did not even discover this mechanic until my second traversal. Assuming you were not as fortunate as me I could see this being incredibly frustrating as you make suicide runs to the pyromancers. There is actually one fairly obscure NPC who has the potential for giving you advice on this topic, but it is exceedingly unlikely you’ll actually find this out in-game.

Skeletons aren’t too bad in general, though they do all have riposte stances and there are over a hundred in the Catacombs alone. You maneuver this whole area on fairly narrow outcroppings all over the last portion of the zone. Shortcuts are rather creatively opened as bridges that you can fall onto, and doing so isn’t especially dangerous. Instead other things will force you to fall to your death.

The catacombs are rather confusing and there are a number of locations where falling can actually give you a shortcut through the area. Additionally the hardest to reach Blacksmith lies down here, though I’ve yet to reliably find a way to reach him without a few trial and error falling deaths. You have to fall down a hole but land briefly on a small ledge prior to continuing down. You can’t actually land on the ledge, simply landing to break the first portion of your fall seems to be the best method. Unfortunately this requires incredible precision as rolling too early will cause you to tumble to your doom as will rolling a tad too late. Precision platforming without a platform to land on and when your only jumping maneuver is too far is a bit irritating.

Should you actually meet the friendly smith, assuming you don’t kill him for his hideous appearance, you’ll immediately be faced with your next challenge. The skelewheels are introduced here, and there are about a dozen of them. While narrow passages made them kind of difficult in the Painted World this time the cavern is so large they often roll right past you and on to safety. Dodging 4 or 5 of these at once coming from all over the place can be a bit harrowing so an extremely cautious approach works best. Of course, since you went down to see the smith instead of taking a different falling shortcut a Black Knight drops down with a shiny axe and murders you instead.

Naturally, dying in the chamber of Skelewheels (Penultimate room before the boss) leads to a fairly long walkback. Assuming you’ve figured out the falling shortcuts it will still take a precision jump and falling down several locations that you may or may not have been before and all along the way it’s quite possible to fall to your doom. This is perhaps the least dangerous of all the falling zones, but in rushing back to get to the boss you may die 10-15 times.

Fortunately Pinwheel isn’t a huge challenge though he is still an interesting boss with a fantastic reward. He/it is basically the Fool’s Idol from Demon’s Souls, except without the two bullshit mechanics from that fight. Instead Pinwheel replicates at a very fast rate that increases as the fight goes on. There is an NPC phantom that can make this boss easy but actually finding it on your first run would be truly miraculous.

Music: Pinwheel

Area Score: 8/10

Tomb of the Giants

Oh what a fine place this is. This is one of four mandatory zones required to open the door to the final boss area, and naturally it occurs immediately after the Catacombs. Assuming you don’t die on your way through there to get back you’ll have to contend with nothing. At least, nothing that you can see. In fact this is the darkest area in the whole series. Fortunately, though you may die 5 times prior to crossing the first bridge in this area, loading screens tend to tell of an aid. The Skull Lantern, which if you’re extremely cautious and a little lucky you’ll get to without falling dozens of times. Note there are other methods for lighting the tomb but both of them are obscure as all hell and you’re unlikely to find either on your own.

Patches, or Trusty Patches as he may be trademarked, returns (?) from Demon’s Souls and boots you into a hole. Now, for all of his faults I have to say I do love Patches and his silly dialogue trees. He’s such a wonderful guy, no really take this humanity and say it isn’t so. One thing this game does much better than Demon’s Souls and pretty much any other RPG is to affect a strong emotional response to characters despite them only having a few lines. The dialogue is done by non-native English speakers and it adds a sort of otherworldly touch. Patches, Lautrec, and especially Siegmeyer hold a special place in my blackened heart.

If you can figure out how it works the Skull Lantern makes the Tomb of the Giants somewhat navigable. Additionally if you find either of the two off to the side just enough to be hidden bonfires you shouldn’t have too much trouble making it through the rest of the zone. Not so hasty though, as an indeterminate skeleton could bumrush you at any moment and flail about. These “Skeletal Beasts” are perhaps the worst regular enemy in the game, their one saving grace being low HP so you can just nuke them at range if you know where they are. They only occur in this one zone so it’s not a major blemish on the game, but it does make the first run in this area rather annoying.

If you are so pursuant you’ll find a redeeming factor in the last standard area of this zone. There are pseudo pinwheels that go down easily, but in the water is the dreaded opponent from 5-3, in a new and wonderful form. Instead of being blobs of crap and very irritating to actually fight the plague babies have now become actual skeletal babies. They look fantastic and always crack me up when I see them, though they’re still just creepy enough to be unsettling. They also spawn infinitely and drop humanity so this is a rather popular farming spot.

Nito is a very odd boss, I suppose if you fought him very cautiously with a divine weapon he’d be easy enough, but if you bumrush him with just any solid weapon he goes down fairly quick. Best of all he doesn’t do his ranged scream sword attack of doom at close range. However, rushing in too quickly can lead to your demise at the common Giant Skeletons of the area, instead of being left with only normal skeletons to fight. He’s just difficult enough to retain my interest every time.

Both the Catacombs and the Tomb of the Giants look surprisingly like their titles, assuming you’re paying attention. Naturally a catacomb area is going to look like half the places in Diablo 2. The Tomb, assuming you can actually see anything, consists of several sarcophagi of various sizes. One visual strength is the distant view of more of the aforementioned “World Forest.” If you pause to look here while in human form you might just find a little surprise.

Music: Gravelord Nito

Area Score: 8/10

Crystal Cave

This is half a zone in some respects, but for how long I personally took on the entire area and the completely unique last part I feel it deserves its own section. If you’ve ever played Final Fantasy IV you’ll know the last region looked crystalline and transparent. There was one specific section that had a completely invisible bridge. While it only consisted of one tile it was an interesting secret that wasn’t all that well known pre-internet. This area takes that idea to the extreme, as you find nothing but invisible bridges.

It is a brief area but rest assured should you go along the wrong route you will fall, and tumble, and walk the plank to your doom many a time. There are only a few mandatory enemies in this area but they’re all a bit tricky to fight. Fighting them on solid ground is often on a precarious slanted ledge, however the invisible bridge is of unknown width and is no better. The enemies are fairly easy in an open plain, but difficult if you can’t maneuver around them (even fully blocked hits push you back a fair distance).

Still, the invisible bridges remain the largest obstruction of this area. It turns out the two mandatory bridges are both completely straight; assuming you can figure out where they end it’s not too hard to simply walk there. However if you’re like me you’ll investigate the area fully and in so doing discover a twisting, devious bridge of death and destruction (and admittedly a decent reward). Additionally the most difficult to face enemy guards one last treasure… So tempting… shiny shiny… Caw! Ahem, as I was saying the two bridges you have to cross are relatively easy to get across and once you do it’s a straight shot to the boss arena.

The boss is quite interesting, our dear old friend Seath the Scaleless. Unlike his previous form this version is actually defeatable but should you desire his tail weapon he becomes a random, extremely difficult opponent instead of an easy one by Dark Souls standards. His attack pattern is random when you go after the tail and you have to hit the last little bit of it for it to count. It turns out the best time to do this is during his most dangerous attack, an area of effect “boom” which sends up curse spikes in a massive area surrounding the boss. However, his tail is finally stationary for a bit leaving you time to attack. Immediately following the AoE he can go straight into another boom and this will almost certainly curse you. If he doesn’t he’ll simply do a tail swipe which could be difficult to dodge from right next to the tail or extremely difficult to dodge. Suffice to say he’s one of the hardest fights in the game if you go after the Moonlight Greatsword.

Crystal cave is a fantastic looking little zone, the blue crystals shimmer in a seemingly infinite cavern. If you look closely bridges actually have little snowflakes landing on them or just past them at random, a nice little tipoff while not being overly helpful. The curved path is treacherous even if you go extremely slow, so trial and error is the route if you want that precious loot. The boss area becomes very dynamic as the Duke raises cursed crystals from the ground in his wake. A unique, potentially 10 minute area with wonderful attention to detail, despite its treachery I think the method of demise is creative enough to be a rewarding experience.

Music: Seath the Scaleless

Area Score: 9/10

The Great Hollow

Here we find ourselves in the aforementioned optional gigantic tree, descending further and further with crafting materials lighting our way. There is actually a “safe” ladder route to take but it is so incredibly obscure I always fall my way down. Of course, even now I still die quite often descending this damnable beast. Gigantic roots are fickle things, sometimes you slide off them at will and sometimes the game expects you to land on the tiniest of platforms to collect one last chunk. And of course you die 5 times trying to figure out that one little spot that you have to walk off perfectly to get said loot.

While you’re falling to your death you might notice the kindly neighborhood curse frogs from the Depths lingering below. Indeed, this is perhaps your most likely place to be cursed apart from Seath. Even in large numbers they’re still pretty easy to fight you just have to be careful about it. Nothing they can do can damage you at all unless you are fully cursed, so feel free to massacre them, within reason. Past the second layer of frogs is a large patch of pink mushrooms to walk and roll across, deceptively large platforms that will surely betray you a few times as you realize just how tall this damn tree is.

At the bottom lie the smallest of challenges in this area, more of the beloved mushroom children and adults. Of course the adults can still kill you with ease but you could just avoid them altogether assuming you can find the exit. Fortunately for you, it may yet all be worth it.

Area Score: 7/10

Weird Zones

These zones aren’t especially bad for any reason but they do have bizarre hazards to face you apart from falling. Many people might highlight one or all of them as the low point of the game, but each of them varies greatly in quality. More than one playthrough leads to a better inspection of their faults and strengths. None is close to as bad as the Valley of Defilement I assure you, but a harrowing test may yet await.

Lost Izalith

Opening with a colossal lava flow (ah my eyes!) to the face, our first weird zone is probably the most hated zone in the game by the community. Now, I actually kind of like this zone. However there are plenty of things that could have been done just a tad worse to make it a much huger pain in the ass than it is. This is the largest zone in the game and I will grant one of the most frustrating.

The Bounding Demons of Izalith (nice name eh?) or leg guys as I like to call them greet you as you enter one massive cavern following the beloved Centipede Demon. Leg guys have very spastic attack patterns that are difficult to avoid unless you stand in very secure locations, do a ton of damage, and are quite difficult to hit with almost anything. Even cheesier things like Homing Soul Mass don’t really cut it against the demons and you either have to adapt to fighting them on the ground or creatively get them to kill each other. The cavern holds at least 20 of these monstrosities and each one can take well over 3-4 minutes to lure out and fight.

What is it then that makes them tolerable and not Giant Depraved Onesque pains in the ass? They do not respawn (note the guide says they do so maybe they did once upon a time, but at the time of US release they did not). Secondly they deal a ton of friendly fire damage to each other and it is quite possible to kill 75% or more of them without doing more than luring each of them to you. Thirdly over half of them are completely optional, though it can be tenuous to leave some of them alive. On later playthroughs I was able to make it through this area in about 5 minutes as opposed to 45+ on the first run.

There is one caveat about this part of the area. The lava saps your health and durability, not too much of an issue but makes melee fighting the leg guys (actually surprisingly effective if done well) a little more annoying. The hidden bonfire is what’s really a gigantic dick move. Unless you’re paying the finest amount of attention even discovering the damn thing is a tossup. Not discovering it will cause your runbacks to be at least a minute longer; since the boss is kind of beasty that can be troublesome.

The next section of the area is on solid ground, though there are quite a few fire sentinels to annoy you along the way. Generally I’ll run through them but doing so has to be done hesitantly. If not it takes quite some time to defeat them as they are resistant to all but magic damage. They aren’t extremely dangerous simply a bit slow and it’s easy to screw up and get caught in a fire breath. The other major opponents are squid things that evidently can drop Red Titanite Slabs, should you feel the need to kill 10,000 of them.

A large pit in this area can feature the best NPC event in the game. I won’t spoil it but it does involve that jovial fat guy of wonders, Siegmeyer. I realize some, maybe even most of the population won’t find this event on their own but for those who seek it out they can find a wonderful cast of characters in this game, far superior to anything in Demon’s Souls. Siegmeyer is definitely the best of that bunch. Past a Titanite Demon with roughly 3500 HP is another major NPC event which you’ll most likely not evade (I’ve yet to go the alternate route myself), possibly the third best event in the game.

The boss is a puzzle boss, but she also hits really hard. It’s basically the Dragon God but better. No magic harpoon macguffin to save you, though a massive claw isn’t quite as interesting as a gigantic dragon fist to the face I suppose. It is extremely difficult to beat this boss on the first try, borderline hardest boss to do so. But, should you make a little progress (not too hard) you’ll find that the boss actually saves your progression through the puzzle. Of course she can still kill you in a second or two upon your next visit but this softens the brutality of this boss just enough to make it tolerable. Additionally you have the challenge of trying to beat it in one try on future attempts, which as it turns out is quite possible. Even without a super high stability shield the timing on his attacks is precisely tuned so it’s barely possible to avoid damage.

Lost Izalith as a whole presents the age old question: can a game be too hard? As while the boss is “only” the fourth hardest in the game there is no question that the entire area is the most time consuming and generally most depleting experience in the game. Personally I don’t think it can, games that are famously hailed as amazingly difficult generally have huge flaws to go with them that invalidate some of the difficulty. Demon’s Souls had the Valley of Defilement and Maneater, Dark Souls has Four Kings, Battletoads has Battletoads, the list goes on. At some point maybe we’ll reach a game that will be soul crushingly difficult in such a way that can’t be disputed, merely conquered through pain and perseverance. I had sort of hoped Dark Souls would be that game but I think I’ll take the hardest game in 2 generations instead (Utopia will yet be mine).

Music: Bed of Chaos

Area Score: 8/10

The Duke’s Archives

This is the first “half” prior to Crystal Cave, and while it’s technically not as large as Lost Izalith you could still well find yourself roaming its mazelike halls for hours on end. Of course, you’ll shortly find yourself facing Seath for the first time which is naturally an impossible fight. That being so the ring of sacrifice (or rare sacrifice) completely negates any problem a forced single death could present. The archives aren’t straightforward at all beyond that. But, it’s all extremely atmospheric and effective as you search for a way out of this maddening cage.

The opponents here are the strongest variants of basic enemies in the game and with additional buffing from several priests in the area they become insanely powerful. A single powered up arrow can often do more than half your life in damage, so caution becomes paramount. Even on later runs this is often just as time consuming as Lost Izalith as you need to be very careful and unlike other areas there aren’t that many optional enemies.

What then makes this zone fit into the “weird” category? It is almost a smaller version of the rest of the game, you reach the boss area quickly but then are transported into a prison. Once you get out of there you’re in a completely different area of the Archives but you need to find a specific lever to reveal the path ahead. After that you should find a bonfire overlooking a courtyard and your next task becomes finding the hidden route there. Finally you enter Crystal Cave and have to contend with the mystical routes of that wonderful place. The Archives are much larger than you think and just when you think you might be reaching the end of them it just keeps expanding further.

The lone blemish on the Archives is the location of one particular overpowered crossbow. It lies on a book case which you must drop onto from a moving platform and if you miss the drop you die horribly. Needless to say the game isn’t built for precision platforming and this can take quite a few tries to get. Fortunately it’s not considered a “rare weapon” by the game so the only reason to get it is to trivialize sections of the game (a specious objective at best).

The Duke’s Archives look fantastic and unique. The seemingly infinite bookcases call back memories of that finest of animated movies, Beauty and the Beast. The crystals perforating the deeper areas of the zone display how the Duke himself was corrupted in his continuing search for stronger magic and was unable to prevent some outcroppings in previously untouched areas. Logan provides some insight into Seath’s actions prior to following a similar path and turning on you. Almost every NPC in the game can turn hollow at some point if you fail to prevent it or simply pursue them to their end. As the world of Dark Souls will drive the unprepared mad, so too do the characters in the world fall to that same fate.

Area Score: 9/10

New Londo Ruins

Ah, and here we have the other despised zone of Dark Souls. Unlike Lost Izalith it doesn’t have many redeeming factors. That said, it is no Valley of Defilement, and while the problems here are very significant the zone as a whole is only average at worst. New Londo can be accessed from the very start of the game, though progression is unlikely and more or less pointless so early. Roughly half the zone is inaccessible until you retrieve the Lord Vessel, though each half is quite large.

The first half holds our first perpetrator. Ghosts appear quickly and seem to be completely invincible, they cannot be targeted and can only be damaged by non physical effects (the impact of those are also reduced). Fortunately if you pay attention you can find some items that will assist you in fighting them. You need to be cursed to hit and target them effectively and the game provides temporary cursing items with no drawback to this end. However they are limited in supply and when that supply is out your only alternative is to actually get cursed. The ghosts themselves drop these items at a fairly high clip so it is rather unlikely that cursing is the only option.

The ghosts are certainly a strange mechanic but ultimately are not the largest issue with New Londo, as most of the problems that arise while fighting them can be easily countered. After you clear the way to the second half (via awesome purely environmental cutscene) you’ll find Darkwraiths who have a fantastic blocking effect. The effect distorts the screen as they hold up a hand to negate the vast majority of incoming damage. They also have a very fast, unique attack pattern which does quite a chunk of damage. Lastly they do not stagger from anything, hence fighting them can be kind of a pain in the ass.

After making it through a few dozen darkwraiths you’ll make it to the boss door. Oh, and then maybe you fall to your death because you don’t understand the nature of the Abyss. To fight Four Kings, may their names forever be damned, you have to wear a ring throughout the entire fight and just to enter the arena. Sif drops the ring since he holds the Greatsword of Artorias, Artorias being the Abysswalker of legend. It is a cool entrance to the fight but ring slots are extremely valuable so limiting you in that regard is the first of many issues this fight presents.

Four Kings is the second hardest boss in the game, which does place it high on the Pantheon of hard bosses in Action RPGs. However it is certainly not hard for the right reasons. They have a little less than 10,000 HP, almost double every other boss in the game including Ornstein and Smough. Unless you “kill” a king every 25 seconds or so, which is quite a lot of damage to deal out in a game so deliberate as Dark Souls, you will be quickly overwhelmed by four of them at once. Now, only the closest king to you will be hyper aggressive but since that can change at random you can very well have doom chains of impossible to avoid abilities occur once more than 2 kings are up.

The only saving grace this fight has to make it not quite as horrific is that on the first game clear it is possible to dole out that much damage quite a few ways. You’ll still have to have a pretty damn powerful weapon to do it, but the approach to the kings is not completely limited or luck based. Of course, the deeper blight comes on New Game+ where there are just a handful of weapons that can do enough damage to the Kings to keep pace. In the unpatched version you can also cheese it with Iron Flesh, and trust me while that is despicable for every other fight in the game Four Kings can go straight to hell. This fight is just about as bad as Maneater was in Demon’s Souls and there is no way around that.

The aesthetic of New Londo is dark, but not so dark that you can’t see anything. It’s also quite wet as a vast lake covers half the city. However, water down here is almost universally fatal as you fall off into the depths. Perhaps the most staggering setpiece is the mountain of skulls and skeletons past the Dam door. As you walk on the carpet of bones that perfect sound effect echoes, each step cracking another decrepit skull. Even the light from outside the door is swallowed up and you can scarcely see the various foes 20 feet in front of you.

Music: Four Kings

Area Score: 7.5/10

Valley of the Drakes

It’s debatable whether you can call this a zone but it does kind of fall inbetween New Londo, Darkroot Basin, and Blighttown. A gigantic crevice which you can edge along the side of leads to a massive door, what it hides who can say? A carefully placed ladder sits off to the side leading to a great bounty from Demon’s Souls, returning only to be outmoded by other, even more overpowered items.

Along the way are two mostly unique enemies. The first is the corpse of a Dragon, to all but the most oblivious this is certainly a trap but it does offer some fantastic items early in the game. The dragon awakes and swipes at you prior to resorting to a much easier to avoid attack pattern. He is easily dispatched at range. The second are 5 lightning Drakes, solely existing in this zone. They have strange attack patterns but aren’t that bad in late game gear. They do drop the rarest crafting/reputation material in the game, though at such a rare rate that I wouldn’t bother trying. The Valley is a nice connecting area between 3 staggeringly different zones and is always fun to trespass along in, whether to risk life and limb early on for great rewards (quite possible to get everything in the zone without dying or killing anything) or simply to get down to the Demon Ruins again. It is not a necessary addition to the game but does add yet another solid level of detail to the fantastic world this game presents.

Excellent Zones

The best, irreproachable places lie here. They may vary greatly in size and function but the two most important zones in the game are very much a presence and it is no small contribution to the overall score how strong those areas are. Every one of these areas is stronger than Stonefang from Demon’s Souls and many of them even surpass Boletarian Palace.

Anor Londo

Ahh… It is always a wonderful moment when you first enter Anor Londo, no matter if it is your first or tenth playthrough of the game. You get that fantastic visual of a perpetual sunset over an enormous, shimmering city and you may wonder what lies ahead. Alternatively you rest assured knowing you’ve made solid progress in the game and while the most difficult challenges are yet to be faced you can certainly conquer them. Nothing before indicates just how spectacular this zone will be, either visually or fundamentally.

There are quite a few enemy types in Anor Londo, starting with giant soldiers. A later event implies these were once men, massive stone sentinels that come in two varieties. The vast majority are slow but still dangerous as their area of attack is enormous from a standing position. 2 more impressive Giants await in the penultimate chamber, they’re faster, hit harder, heal themselves, and have Wrath of the Gods. Additionally it is somewhat difficult to isolate them from one another; a solitary fight with both is an extraordinary challenge.

In addition to the giants are Seath’s brethren who carried you into the city. They toss lightning at you and are one of the first enemies you face that are difficult to negate most of the damage from via blocking. Only a few shields in the game negate both lightning and physical damage effectively, and you may not yet have one in your possession. Assuming you pass them you will face Silver Knights. The counterpart to Lord Gwyn’s Black Knights, they stayed behind in his great city while the others followed Gwyn.

They are not as dangerous as Black Knights, both because you will certainly be stronger at this point in the game and they are much more numerous. The first test that faces you is the toughest narrow ledge sequence in the game. Two knights enfilade you with gigantic bows. Naturally these bows also fire gigantic arrows that knock you back quite far regardless of whether you block. Therefore, you must ascend a rather long flying buttress and walk along a ledge directly up to one of the knights while avoiding virtually every arrow that comes your way. If not you will fall into the depths of the city and die horribly. I haven’t had a ton of trouble with this section personally but I’m sure you could manage to die here over 10 times without breaking a sweat.

Knights guard the rest of the keep until the aforementioned room, stopping to save beloved Siegmeyer on the way. After you clear that room and open myriad shortcuts you may discover how to activate one of the best NPC events in the game. Lautrec, our dear old friend who can be saved in the Undead Parish oh so long ago, is a murderer and must be punished. Invade his world at your own peril, however, as he comes with 2 companions and hits extremely hard. As a phantom you can’t heal yourself with the Estus Flask and must resort to either healing spells or a very cautious battle. Fortunately the room you fight him in is marvelously huge so you can maneuver around it for hours without Lautrec catching up except to eat a spear to the face. “Like a moth, flittering towards a flame.”

The boss of this area is a severe challenge and rightfully so for such important placement. A strength of this game and a handful of other JRPGs is the difficulty of important or decisive boss fights. If you want to ensure the validity of your plot you need to reinforce that notion through gameplay, to beat a last boss on the first try must be a harrowing experience. While this is sadly only a rare occurrence if one is to attempt besieging that invincible fortress, Vagrant Story, one must ensure that at the climax and end of each game lie two of the most difficult boss fights in the entire game. In Final Fantasy X Yunalesca and Seymour Flux partially fulfill this bargain, in IV Zeromus grants the other portion. In XIII Barthandelus proves his worth twice, before faltering at the end. Dark Souls has Ornstein and Smough and Lord Gwyn to thank for its placement in this esteemed company.

Fatboy Slim, as some have taken to calling the pair, are the third hardest boss encounter in the game. To start with you face both, Ornstein bumrushing you throughout and Smough briskly following. Should you attempt this fight alone you’ll find this section to be somewhat random but still doable. Regardless of whether you kill Ornstein (easier) or Smough (harder) first the partner of the fallen will restore their health to full and increase in size and power. Super Smough isn’t much different from his regular form, he has a hugeass hammer and a very wide attack radius but aside from his buttstomp lightning nova isn’t too much of a challenge. Super Ornstein however is still quite formidable as he has a few attacks that are very difficult to narrowly dodge. One of those attacks will kill you, without fail.

Assuming you don’t want to overcome this challenge without assistance you’ll find a huge number of summoning signs at your disposal, though only one of the NPC variety. As O&S is both hard and mandatory in your progression through the game it is logically the best place to put your summon sign, albeit you’ll certainly have tons of competition. Similarly this is also the most likely place to be invaded and I have fought quite a few battles with Darkwraiths and Darkmoon Blades here.

After the boss is a sad sight, though if you’re like me you’ll be able to dispel it within moments. Fanservice has perforated this, most sacred cow of gaming. Join me, brothers, in shooting Gwynevere in the face before she can speak. I shall bequeath the Lord Vessel to thee. Vessel in hand you’re now capable of teleporting between a limited number of bonfires. This may seem like a cheesy fast travel system but I assure you the game retains the atmospheric, immersive world effect even after acquiring it.

Anor Londo is spectacular visually, beginning with that sunset landscape shot. The chapel and castle interiors both look spectacular, as the former lords of this city were honored by royal magnificence. Assuming you followed the path of the righteous and slew Gwynevere (or her image as it may be) the city loses its sunset in favor of a gorgeous moonlit night. A nebulous voice tells you how you will be punished, but all you find is half the enemies have disappeared and you’ll have to slay that hideous firekeeper.

Looking deeper you may eventually find Lord Gwyn’s Tomb, leading directly to the holder of the voice, Dark Sun Gwyndolin. The supposed last remaining deity in the holy city, Gwyndolin is a very interesting boss fight. He could by all rights demolish you in short order but given a bit of awareness and alteration of strategy he’s not all that difficult. As bounty for slaying him you gain 40,000 souls and a few excellent items. Truly, Gwynevere must die.

Area Score: 10/10

Music: Ornstein and Smough / Gwynevere / Dark Sun Gwyndolin

Demon Ruins

As much as Anor Londo is an indication that the world is much larger than you ever would have thought, so too are the Demon Ruins. I think a rarely utilized but often excellent dimension is to ensure that the world is vertically enormous. Skyrim might be larger than Dark Souls but it does kind of feel like a big flat open plain with occasional terrain disturbances. It might be better than Oblivion but the vertical dimension is rarely reinforced. So it is with many RPGs, including Demon’s Souls, but Dark Souls is different.

The Demon Ruins begin with a lake of fire and a distant subterranean creature. Following a circuitous route you eventually wind up in front of this enormous thing and can decide to pick up an excellent suit of armor nearby. Doing so or attacking the creature activates the boss fight, the most notable boss fight in the game with no real trash enemies. Ceaseless Discharge, the finest named of every boss in the history of mankind, is a very strange boss. He’s roughly 400 times your size and hits extremely hard, but there are evidently more than a few ways to go about fighting him. I still always use the crevice to my advantage, but it is technically possible to just walk right up to him and poke him a lot, though obviously you can’t actually block any physical attack.

Once you defeat the boss, cinematically impressive but not overly difficult, the lake of fire drains a bit and below are about a dozen Taurus Demons all waiting to fight you. How they survive in lava remains a mystery, but they are every bit as dangerous as the first boss. Further along the Capra Demon is present eightfold and it might occur to you that the first few boss fights in the game recur at different sections. There are a handful of Gargoyles, Taurus and Capra Demons, and completely optional butterflies in Crystal Cave. Of course, none of them turn out to be as difficult as leg guys from Lost Izalith when fought in late game gear, but they offer a decent amount of perspective on how strong your character becomes over the course of the game.

The most devious trap in the game lies ahead, as 4 giant worms will surround you if you attempt to approach an ember containing chest. Embers are mandatory for peak upgrade capabilities and unlike most everything else must be acquired each playthrough if you want to upgrade something in that tree. The worms have a very powerful grab attack and are generally just a pain in the ass in short range, though running away and pecking at them for a while does work.

Afterwards you approach the boss’ room, expecting massive fanfare. However, a variation of the tutorial boss comes instead, and while he isn’t all that difficult I still have a good deal of fun with the Demon Firesage. The attack pattern isn’t too hard to master, though the aoe blasts now attached to 2 of his attacks can be a bit rough. He also seems to have some of the lowest resistances in the game. So, if that is your wont, you can coax some ludicrous numbers out of him.

After a few stairs you’ll immediately find yourself before the next boss, as the Demon Ruins will not be outmatched in boss per unit volume. Technically the Centipede Demon also has no trash, though if you’re paying attention you’ll certainly bother to activate the elevator on the first occasion. The Centipede is a large, unwieldy creature whose room is almost filled with lava. There’s a few ways to deal with this, one being to simply stay in the first little section of the room. Without Solaire or some other phantom assistance it is a very claustrophobic fight, difficult to see what’s going on and to determine what attacks the boss is using. If you gradually poke away at his shins he’ll eventually succumb.

Alternatively you can take off one of his many appendages and acquire a ring that lets you walk across lava for minimal damage (as opposed to 2 second deaths prior) and you can then maneuver around the room a bit better. Still, it’s difficult to land any non ranged attack without getting right next to the demon and thus exposing you to various somewhat unpredictable attacks. I don’t really think this boss is bad, though I’ve heard people have had a great deal of difficulty with it, it’s just odd and is the only boss in the game where a second player makes it possible to see what the hell the Centipede is doing.

Aesthetically both Lost Izalith and Demon Ruins look great, though not if you look at the lava too much as it is bright as the sun. The ceiling looks quite like an igneous rock formation in reality, a naturally carved cavern akin to the roof of the mantle. The ruins are given this golden color by the hue of the lava which makes them look excellent, and in the distance you can see a gigantic dome. Along the roof of the dome are roots, as the ubiquitous tree motif returns in heroic fashion. This is much more prevalent in Izalith as you find the entire central ruin covered in various tree appendages. A bridge in Lost Izalith can actually see sections of the distant Demon Ruins and vice versa, though only careful inspection will allow you to see it.

Music: Ceaseless Discharge / Centipede Demon

Area Score: 9.5/10

Undead Asylum

The actual first zone of the game, the Asylum is a much improved version of the tutorial from Demon’s Souls. The introduction cutscene is much better and winds up staring at you. Unlike your character creation screen you now likely have red, decaying skin (also possible to have blue skin given proper skin tones) and it makes you ponder why the Souls game have such elaborate character creators. Standard tutorial fare follows, though if you look to the right in the first hallway an old friend might pay you a visit.

Eventually you reach your first bonfire and immediately after a courtyard, upon you drops a large demonic creature with a fancy hammer. I’m sure it’s well known by now but you don’t actually have to run from this fight. Instead you can punch the Asylum Demon to death in a bizarre mirror of the tutorial boss in Demon’s Souls. However, instead of having to deal with a few introductory hits that were almost guaranteed to one shot you, instead you have 4-5 hits until death. As a consequence you can only do about 2 damage per punch and it takes a while to beat him. It is a rewarding experience, though the Demon’s Hammer can be acquired other ways having a dodge only boss is a fun reminder of the best approach to most Demon’s Souls bosses.

Since you have the bonfire attempting to beat the Asylum Demon with nothing but fists is much faster. In Demon’s Souls you had to make an entirely new character just to get another shot, an extremely tedious experience to say the least. That is just one of the ways this area is superior to its elder brother. Visually the Asylum looks separate from the rest of the world, the architecture is just different enough to make it feel unique compared to the Pristine Anor Londo or the Gothic Undead Parish. Additionally the view is not only unique but also spectacular as you approach the glorious bird’s nest and travel to Gwyn’s land.

On second visit, should you deign to return via weird platforming, you’ll find another Asylum Demon awaits you. This one hits harder and has the aoe booms that the Demon Firesage has, except you can fight this boss extremely early in the game. Additionally the excellent entrance to the boss arena leaves you half dead from falling. Should you manage to get around to the rear of the creature you will likely be victorious. Still, the Stray Demon is often hailed as one of the hardest bosses in the game, even though he has a fairly easy to remember attack pattern.

Area Score: 10/10

Sen’s Fortress

The dark, devious trial that prevents progression to Anor Londo, Sen’s Fortress is actually a relatively short zone. That is, if you know what you’re doing. Assuming the numerous traps don’t kill or doom you it is quite possible to make it through Sen’s Fort in 10-15 minutes. But, even when you’re certain you’ve mastered it it’s still quite possible to eat a pendulum and fall to your death.

Enemies in the fortress are much stronger than those faced in prior mandatory zones. Two variants of Serpentmen contend with you and take quite a beating from most potential weapons at this point. However, instead of fighting them head on you could just as easily turn the traps of the area on them and make that first run much easier. Watching an enemy get repeatedly flattened by a boulder never gets old and similarly leaving them to rot in a tar pit next to several Titanite Demons is quite therapeutic.

Further in you’ll find a chest with one of the best midgame weapons available, the Lightning Spear. Unlike the weapons you’ve had to this point the spear will dispatch most tough enemies in just a few hits and can be used for much of the rest of the game. Dark Souls likes to throw you bones from time to time to deal with the harsh difficulty. It’s almost apologetic about it, “sorry did those enemies take forever to kill, here have a nice weapon.” Even acquiring the spear itself follows this train of events.

Once you emerge from the interior of the fortress you are greeted by giant flaming boulders. These hit hard but are generally less harsh than the pendulums, though the bonfire is rather cruelly hidden. I was fortunate enough to find it but I imagine some poor sap ran through the entire damn zone just using the Undead Parish bonfire. The giants tossing boulders at you are a strange enemy, fairly unique in the series. They’re very difficult to damage but have a long, easy to avoid charge that leaves them staggered for 15-20 seconds. All it boils down to is waiting them out, either from safe distance or by cautiously navigating around them.

The Iron Golem towers over the area, though I’d guess he’s only about 1/20th the size of Ceaseless Discharge. You can see him prior to entering the boss arena, standing at attention awaiting all challengers. The Golem is an odd boss, I can’t really decide just how difficult he is. Death by damage is unlikely unless you eat his easy to avoid grab attack, but he can still push you off the edge easily. I had no trouble with him on my first playthrough but he seems to have spited that and purposefully tried to kill me since then, an unkind machine to be sure. Cinematic but not overly challenging is the verdict once again.

Sen’s Fortress towers over the rest of the Undead Parish and Burg and once you reach the upper levels you can see quite a distance, distinguishing various landmarks from previous areas. There isn’t really a hint that Anor Londo is nearby except a towering mountain range and a sealed passage. Perhaps before everyone became Undead Sen’s Fortress was simply a checkpoint on the way to Anor Londo and has since been remodeled to murder trespassers.

Music: Iron Golem

Area Score: 9.5/10

Ash Lake

Below the Great Hollow is an enormous cavern from which can be seen numerous other seemingly infinitely tall trees. The terrain leading from tree to tree is a large sandbar, complete with dunes. On both sides of the sand lie the titular lake, which stretches on endlessly. It’s hard to say but I think the lake actually lies below Lost Izalith as the world trees perforate even magma. It is incredibly serene, added to by the fantastic musical theme in this completely optional area.

All is not completely secure, however, as you do have to content with an enormous Hydra which you’ve almost certainly seen before at Darkroot Basin. The Hydra is actually the same size as the other one which only goes to show you just how absurdly huge Ash Lake is. For all we know it might encompass the entire core of the planet and little details like the tree motif reinforce the idea that this mystical, cruel place could actually exist somewhere. Naturally one must become a philosopher to defeat Dark Souls’ immense difficulty and in so doing become aware of the validity of this fantastical world. Without trying to be hyper realistic in any sense Dark Souls comes off as more genuine than almost every other game I have played to date.

Music: The Ancient Dragon

Area Score: 10/10

Darkroot Basin

Darkroot Garden splits early on and leads you to this also optional though certainly much more frequented zone. The dense forest gives way to a series of narrow ledges, though falling isn’t too much of a hazard here. Should you look carefully you’ll find a polearm wielding Black Knight. Sort of inbetween the Greatsword and regular Sword in terms of difficulty, He wields Lord Guan’s weapon, a crescent blade, and attacks in a similar fashion to Guan in the much heralded Dynasty Warriors games. Since you only come across it in the form of this one enemy it looks rather impressive.

Beyond the Black Knight and the overpowered loot he guards is a large wooded area, complete with crystal golems and a Hydra that fills the entire screen from hundreds of feet away. The Hydra attacks by spraying huge water pools at you, which are absurdly dangerous. This is the best replacement for the Red Dragon in Demon’s Souls that Dark Souls has to offer, as until you’re in a safe area you’ll be scared shitless of it. Should you defeat the Hydra, then leave the zone and come back or reboot the game, you’ll find a stronger Golem behind where the Hydra was.

Defeating the golem reveals an NPC which always amused me when I saw it. The golems can evidently be used as an elaborate prison for various damsels in distress. The one in question is thousands of years old and offers to you various incredibly useful spells. One such benefit is a light spell, making that incredibly troublesome Tomb of the Giants experience fairly easy. How you’d find these spells early in the game is beyond me as aside from defeating the Hydra you have to find both the golem and a summon sign on the other side of the small lake. But, should you be so fortunate or much more likely look it up it is possible to make various parts of Dark Souls easier.

Area Score: 10/10

Kiln of the First Flame

Once you’ve acquired the four Lord Souls from Seath, Four Kings, The Witch of Izalith, and Nito you can open the door to the final area. The area begins with a white or foggy staircase, descending into an ash filled ruin. As you descend you may notice the souls of Black Knights walking beside you, patrolling the Kiln for all time in fervent defense of their beloved lord. Further along, in this vast, utterly lifeless area you’ll find corporeal Black Knights. Slightly harder than previous versions but still much easier to fight now that you’ve progressed through the entire game, these Black Knights respawn and can yield some of the best weapons in the game.

There are five such defenders of Gwyn remaining, though perhaps you’ve seen any of the numerous dueling signs in the area. The Kiln is the de facto dueling hub, and while said duelists might be less than creative it’s still a wonderful arena to fight in and around. I’ve never summoned help for Lord Gwyn, but if such is your wont than have at it. Apart from his only moderately high HP he could easily crush any and all unprepared opposition.

You’ll undoubtedly notice the massive coliseum in the distance, towering over this area, and indeed it houses the first flame. Merely a simple bonfire but vital if you wish to link the fire. The story of Dark Souls isn’t told overtly, but since the world is so vibrant and unique it’s easy to perceive it in the art design of various areas. Unlike Demon’s Souls disjointed Archstones Dark Souls’ contiguous world envelops and immerses you. Any of the brief, extremely strong voice acting performances of various NPCs can hint or even expound at length on various facets of the tale. While you may have suspected that Lord Gwyn was somehow responsible for the present chaotic state of the world he was actually trying to preserve it.

As you stride into the arena you aren’t greeted by a cutscene but by the best musical track in the game. Lord Gwyn slowly walks toward you, seeking to pass the torch as it were. You reconcile these differences and the game ends, nobly. Ah, who am I kidding, he easily bounds 25 meters and spins his fucking flaming sword and annihilates your ass. So humbled, you walk the path again, curiously inspired by Lord Gwyn’s unspoken words of wisdom.

If there’s one thing that I absolutely adored about Demon’s Souls it was Flamelurker, I always looked forward to fighting him, knowing full well that I might not be up to the task this time. Gwyn is the same way, though your character is just powerful enough that it’s not a total uncertainty that you’ll eventually be victorious. Gwyn gets right up in your face and attacks fast and powerfully. On first clears you’ll typically die in 2-3 hits, even wearing the best possible gear for the situation. Various things make Gwyn easier than Flamelurker, but there’s also a number that make Flamelurker easier so I find it’s kind of a tossup.

Gwyn is easily the best boss in the game and since his overall design is slightly better than Flamelurker I’d say he’s one of the best in Action RPG history. He might not be as hard as Guildenstern but he’s certainly a worthy final challenge that could well kill you a dozen times before you beat it. Unlike other bosses this isn’t because you’re incompetent for some reason. It’s just because it’s a fucking hard as hell fight and it is always tremendously gratifying when the last boss is a tough nut to crack.

If you beat Gwyn you’ll find yourself faced with an unlit bonfire, surely a much needed rest for all your endeavours awaits. Or you could just walk away, the world’s much more interesting when it’s dark. Regardless of which you choose both endings of the game are short, powerful sequences. The “good” ending is better in an atmospheric sense as it confirms what you might have suspected was the case. The bad ending is sort of over the top and humorous but still effective in displaying just what happens to the world when it is engulfed in darkness. There will be worms.

Best Music in the Game: Gwyn, Lord of Cinder / Nameless Song

Area Score: 10/10

Overall Dark Souls is an extremely strong sequel to Demon’s Souls and improves upon the original in virtually every way. It is far from flawless but certainly a step toward the illustrious perfect game. In terms of PvP it was badly balanced for a while but more importantly the playerbase revealed itself to be imbeciles much like various other games. Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood has possibly the most unique and interesting premise for multiplayer in any game period, that didn’t stop the vast majority of halfway decent players from abusing the best abilities as much as possible to increase their scores (i.e. Agony). It has become abundantly clear to me that no matter how inhospitable the environment assholes will always rise up to irritate the rest of the playerbase. Balancing or improving Dark Souls’ interesting PvP concepts isn’t going to change that.

That said, there is certainly still room for improvement in the more desired fields, while removing Four Kings wouldn’t make this game a 10 it would certainly be a step in the right direction. In my final score decision it is far more a situation of Lord Gwyn single handedly bringing the game up as opposed to Four Kings bringing it down. In Darker Souls From has promised to retain roughly the same difficulty level, which may eliminate the promise of the hardest game ever but is an understandable decision. Still, I hope they decide to make more bosses like Gwyn or Flamelurker and less multi-boss type fights. Though Ornstein and Smough is a superb boss fight it still doesn’t hold a candle to Gwyn and it’d be exceptionally difficult to make a dual boss fight any better.

I applaud From Software for this fine achievement and pray that the trend of the third game being worse than the second doesn’t hold true for the Souls series. It’s kind of a tossup whether this or The Witcher 2 is the game of the year and it really depends if you prefer gameplay to storyline or vice versa. Let it be known that Dark Souls at least has some semblance of a storyline and despite only brief expository moments I think it is told very well.

Final Score: 9.5/10

Note this was written in segments over the past 2 weeks, I probably could’ve wrote the whole thing in 4-5 hours a few months ago but had to gather my thoughts on this occasion. I’ve written other things via both methods previously and they seem to come out alright. Since it was mostly prepared this should seem a lot less stream of consciousness than the journals, but there is certainly some value in those writings for preserving my initial feelings on the matter. And of course, that’s where the death counts are.

Demon's Souls Review

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