Dark Souls Review: Death by Design
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The meticulous care lavished on Dark Souls’ environments is nothing short of astounding. From has created one of the most impressive open worlds in video game history, which can be traversed in its gargantuan entirety without seeing a single loading screen. “Lordran,” as the world is known, fits together like some hideous protein; its tangled and variegated areas connect effortlessly, despite their labyrinthine layouts.
The range of different environments makes Demon’s Souls look boring by comparison. Dark Souls depicts verdant forests filled with glowing fauna, lonely, haunting dunes made of ash, snow-covered ruins, and towering, bizarro-gothic piles, replete with flying buttresses.
The attention to architectural detail is meticulous, abetted by the evocative, painterly quality of the textures. Pausing to inspect the scenery is a good way to get killed, but in moments of relative safety, the eye is captivated by the veined marble floor of a sumptuous elevator, or the ivy creeping across crumbling masonry. Even the rocks are stylized and artistic. As a Japanese developer designing a game with a distinctly European aesthetic, From is free to hone in on the best visual aspects of Western RPG’s, while discarding the worst.
From Software, perhaps more than any other developer, has an acute understanding of the uncanny. The game’s levels are frequently unsettling, and sometimes downright disturbing. Designed to prey on our phobias, they include massive piles of bones, tiny rooms infested with crawling insects, and vertigo-inducing cliffs. One area requires you to find your way around in pitch darkness. Another is navigable only by traversing invisible bridges, marked by the patter of tiny snow-flakes.
Placement of enemies is the final element of From’s level design accomplishments. Carefully calculated to border on unfair, the game requires players to proceed methodically, luring out one enemy at a time whenever possible. Anything less than complete caution and concentration will get you killed, as will the sudden addition of a second foe to the fight. You’ll find yourself creeping around every corner with your shield up, deadening the nerves on the tip of your left index finger. Every time you pick off a single enemy, it feels like a small victory.