Dark Souls Review: Death by Design

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Death and failure have been an integral part of video games since their inception, but the concepts are so common that they are rarely given much thought. Even games that expect players to take their stories very seriously simply skirt the issue, depositing defeated characters back at some recent checkpoint or save. When game designers do dare to consider the nature of video game death, they often produce acknowledged classics.

In Demon’s Souls and now Dark Souls, From Software develops their own unique concept of death, one that is inherent to — not a distraction from — the gameworld. In the fictional universe of the Souls games, undeath is a common state. Mortality, indeed, is less of a binary and more of a sliding scale; beings become more or less alive based on their experiences. In Dark Souls, when you are killed, you become a “Hollow,” a hideous zombie that somehow retains the ability to fight on. Life can be restored by collecting consumable portions of “Humanity” scattered throughout the gameworld. Having more humanity — being more alive — confers certain bonuses, including better loot drops.

Despite being creative in theory and satisfying in practice, this system is only tenuously explained. In the Souls series, game design is always the paramount concern. Most great RPG’s have great stories — think Final Fantasy VII, or Mass Effect. Dark Souls has no story to speak of. The intro cutscene consists of mythological blathering about Dragons and Lords. The few NPC’s that deign to explain anything speak in incomprehensibly overwrought dialogue, peppered with “thous” and the unnecessary addition of the suffix “-eth.”

And yet, Dark Souls is a great RPG, and one of the best games I will play all year. This is due to the incredible quality of its game design. The quality is so overweening, in fact, that the game design itself seems to become the story. Dark Souls is a game about a lone warrior who has to make his way through a variety of incredibly dangerous areas, and defeat a variety of bosses — this description would be equally at home on a plot synopsis or a design document. The game’s achievement in three areas — level design, combat design, and creature design — is the key to its success.

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11 Comments on Dark Souls Review: Death by Design

Darkraidor

On October 14, 2011 at 5:03 pm

damn, nice review ben

Hangedman

On October 14, 2011 at 6:49 pm

Good work on this huge review ! I loved your opening, it is EPIC !

JosephPS3 Dead State

On October 15, 2011 at 7:58 am

great in depth review Ben.

Turbo-Maniac-

On October 16, 2011 at 6:16 pm

After reading your review I will not yell
at the tv screen anymore and die with without
complaint. Cheers

LeonPS3 Hollowed

On October 17, 2011 at 5:43 am

One of the best reviews I have ever read. Well done.

Method

On October 17, 2011 at 8:04 pm

EPIC Review !!! This is the only Dark Soul’s review that has even came close to describing this masterpiece of a game into word’s like you did.

Atmic

On October 23, 2011 at 12:12 pm

Absolutely fantastic review. I’m going to use this review to describe it to any newcomer friends unaware of this fantastic series.

Adam

On October 24, 2011 at 9:58 pm

the problem is, the better you get at something, the more you should be rewarded. Simply dying as a REQUIREMENT to overcome obstacles because there’s NO WAY to avoid it without knowing the encounter beforehand is STUPID. Not fun.

Ninjat_126

On January 5, 2012 at 2:32 am

Just a note, the invasion-aiding-consumables have been patched so they’re only consumed on a successful invasion.

Also, bosses can be breezed through with some aid from a phantom: my pitifully low-levelled character killed the Taurus Demon on the first try with a little jolly cooperation. After my other character died twenty times trying to block the hammer/axe with a parrying shield.

cbogen

On February 16, 2012 at 3:41 am

I just beat the great gray wolf earlier, and later learned there was a way to spare him. I found it strange the sympathy I felt for this giant beast, after it was recently trying to kill me. I played a few more hours, and in his memory, I have not and will not use his soul for anything. Rest in peace Sif.

Jordan

On January 29, 2014 at 11:15 pm

Love the review. I am a Dark and Demon’s souls veteran and you just pointed out every detail someone needs to know before even attempting to play this game, 5/5 star review.