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REVIEW: 'Souls (Series) (PS3)


March is upon us, and this month sees the release of Project Beast, AKA Bloodborne, the spiritual successor to Project Dark, AKA Dark Souls, and so I’ve decided to theme this month to what has been dubbed “the ‘souls series”.  To celebrate this, I’ve once again exhumed and ‘remastered’ several articles from my old blog, given them a new texture pack, increased the framerate to 60fps and re-released them below.  The first time I encountered this series was shortly after my gaming-PC died (power supply popped and fried a load of components in the process – dang!) and I picked up a PS3 as a temporary replacement, which of course gave me access to a huge back-catalogue of amazing and exclusive games, one of which was Demon’s Souls. To put it mildly, I was utterly blown away by the game, and it quickly became of my favourite videogames of all time, also joining the ranks of the few games I’ve played through again-and-again rather than relegating it to sitting on a shelf for all eternity.

Since then, the release of a new ‘Souls game has always been the highlight of my year with this year being no exception as we have both Bloodborne (a ‘Souls game in all but nomenclature), a new entry on the PS4, and the timely release of Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin, a remixed and remastered version of a fantastic game. Both games are releasing very close to each other at the end of March/beginning of April and I’ve got both of them preordered and ready to go. There are few games that inspire such fervour and excitement in me, and they’re usually a safe bet or shoe-in for my ‘Game of the Year’. So, read on and let me explain to you about the first three entries by From Software in this unusual and amazing videogame series, and stay tuned for more ‘Souls related articles throughout the month of March/April.

Videogames have to constantly change and evolve. This might seem like an obvious statement, but it's all too easy to look back on older ‘retro’ games through the veil of nostalgia and rose-tinted glasses. Sure, there are games that endure for one reason or another, such as the finely tuned platform games of Nintendo and Sega, but generally speaking you will find older videogames clunky and cumbersome to play. This is largely because gameplay is one area that is always getting tweaked and improved, along with graphics, and it always amazes me to see how basic some of those ‘retro’ games are. However, one thing that is worth being nostalgic about is the previously high level of challenge and difficulty; most modern games are way too easy. The medium has changed over time to become more accessible, as the target audience shifted from a small niche of teenagers in bedrooms with lots of time on their hands to the mainstream, adults with higher disposable income but also with jobs and time commitments, and as a result the level of difficulty dropped to allow people to progress easily and feel rewarded for playing.

For those videogame players who are often given the moniker of a "hard-core gamer"  (often shortened to the ‘core) it is natural to crave a bit more of a challenge; something more akin to the worthy progress we earned in the good old days of our youth. Well, amidst the ‘AAA’ first-person shooters and relaxed pace of open-world games, along came Demon's Souls, from seemingly out of nowhere, and with it the message "You Died" actually had impact once more. This is an action-RPG from From Software that was developed in partnership with Studio Japan and published exclusively for the PS3 back in 2009, although it took a while for it to find international release and I didn’t get my hands on it until 2010. Demon’s Souls is the very definition of a hard-core videogame, a fusion of old-school design with modern technology and concepts, and one of the best video games ever created.

When you first start your inaugural game of Demon's Souls you'll begin, as usual, in a tutorial section of the game, which does a good job of quickly introducing you to the basics of combat before throwing you into a boss fight that you will probably lose. In fact you must die. By dying this early on into your adventuring career you'll find yourself reanimated in a place called the Nexus, and your soul bound there for all time; or at least until you kill various powerful demons across the land and eventually lure the ‘Old One’ back to slumber. This focus on death is an important one because it’s the cornerstone by which the game's notoriously high difficulty is based. You see, there is only one currency in the game (souls) that you use for levelling your character, upgrading weapons and armour, or purchasing supplies, and if you die then you’ll drop all of this in a grim looking blood stain and respawn back at the start of an area. You then have one chance to battle your way back to your blood stain and touch it to retrieve all of your lost souls, as dying again causes all that progress to be gone forever. This might seem unnecessarily harsh but it's actually a stroke of pure genius, as it causes you to play the game with caution and patience instead of just running into new areas with your sword flailing, and it also makes death actually mean something once again. Dying matters and dying while in pursuit of your lost souls really matters.

Patience especially is key to success in this videogame, as combat is very slow-paced and precise, with parries and ripostes, blocking and circling your foes for a backstab, and the prospect of being brutally cut down by even the game's most meagre of enemies. The true highlights of the game however, are the eponymous demons themselves, each one of them unique and requiring one-hundred percent concentration and perseverance to overcome. To this day, there are still some names that will give me the fear if I stop to think about them, such as the 'Flamelurker' or 'Maneaters' to name but a couple. With great challenge comes great reward though, and there really is an overwhelming sense of elation after finally beating a level or demon that you have been stuck on for so long, and knowing that it was your own skill that made it possible. Put simply, even though souls can be spent to level up your character, it’s the "levelling up" of your own skill as a gamer which is the most satisfying. To conquer this game you will literally need to get better at playing, and you will, as long as you persist and persevere.

The world of Demon's Souls is beautifully realised, and when I first played it I was reminded in many ways of Shadow of the Colossus, my all-time favourite videogame. Firstly, there’s the idea of a central hub from which you are sent out to slay powerful and usually colossal adversaries, which you then return to afterwards for rest and recuperation. Secondly, there’s that overwhelming sense of loneliness and despair, for even though there are other characters that you can talk to, and enemies to slay, through ingenious game design this journey still feels like a solitary and melancholy pursuit. Thirdly, the lore and backstory of the game are told almost exclusively through art direction and world design rather than dialogue and narrative. There is a sense of careful exploration in Demon’s Souls, a driving force in the game, which makes you want to investigate every single inch of the labyrinthine dungeons and fortresses; all created in a superb graphics engine with excellent use of lighting and geometry. The soundtrack is also absolutely brilliant. Most of the time, whilst exploring and slaughtering your way through a level, the game is silent except for the ambient sounds of the environment, but when the musical score does kick in it’s extremely memorable and expertly composed. The twinkling piano theme of the Nexus is still something I listen to sometimes for comfort and to fall asleep to; it is ingrained in my brain as a tune of safety.

Something I've thus far failed to mention is the innovative online aspect of Demon’s Souls. You see, even though the game is a single player adventure, and is designed as a solitary experience for the most part, it is constantly connected online and accessing the games of other players. When you first load the game you’ll connect to dedicated online servers, which forms a sort of community of players who are all playing through their single-player game at the same time as you. This connectivity allows you to see the ghosts of other adventurers as they move through their world, and see the bloodstains of where they have died, but the game also allows some more direct interaction to help or hinder your own endeavours. You can leave messages for other players, which appear in their world and warn them of traps or difficult situations coming up, but you can also briefly enter their game directly either as a blue phantom to assist them destroy a demon, or as a black phantom to try and kill them and steal their souls. This single-player-but-multiplayer concept is still very unique, aside from its spiritual successor Dark Souls of course, and is only just starting to be copied by other developers; such as the pawn system in Dragon's Dogma. At the time, the idea of an always-online single player game was very progressive.

There are also a number of other unique features to Demon’s Souls that separate it from other games that came later in the series, and which still provide a compelling reason to play it to this day. Firstly, the fact that this game runs on dedicated servers allowed From Software to develop the concept of world tendency as well as character tendency, which are both connected to the online aspect of the game. Every bespoke area of the world begins in a sort of neutral state, but this starts to quickly change and shift depending on if you constantly die or if you vanquish demons and other invading players. Constantly dying and losing you souls while in a living state causes the world tendency to shift towards black, which results in enemies getting stronger but yielding more precious souls as a result; killing demons or vanquishing enemy players has the opposite effect, pushing the world tendency towards white and making the game easier but less rewarding.  On the extreme ends of the scale are pure black and pure white world tendency, which actually unlock secret hidden areas of the game, cause different enemies to spawn (some of which you will never see without the world being in this altered state), and some weapons, equipment and armour are exclusive to these changed worlds. The US distributor of the game, Atlus, was excellent in running the servers with special “pure black” or “pure white” events, allowing everyone to experience these world tendencies without having to force it upon the game yourself through trial and error.

Completing the game opens up New Game+, which causes enemies to become stronger and also adds some special black phantom enemies into certain areas of the game, with the added reward of more souls with which to continue levelling your character carried over from your first playthrough. Within the Nexus there is also an area where you can see statues representing your previous characters, as well as showing the person who holds the record for the most souls absorbed, etc. Again, it all adds up to a strong sense of community and companionship with other players of the game. All this innovation and uniqueness is really why Demon’s Souls is so important and I've really barely scratched the surface with this review concerning the many complex systems with which to develop your character and interact with others; if you wish to.

Demon's Souls then is an old-school 'hardcore' game given a modern lick of paint, control system and innovative online capability. It was something that a certain niche of gamers were crying out for, a serious challenge and a game that treated you like a skilled games-playing adult, and it delivered so much so that Dark Souls quickly followed and improved on aspects of the formula still further, opening this sort of experience up to a much larger market that didn't even know it existed.

Demon's Souls remains unique because of its hub-based structure and bespoke worlds, combined with dedicated servers allowing for different types of experimental connectivity, and so provides a gaming experience wholly unlike anything else out there. Even amidst spiritual successors, imitators and semi-sequels, this videogame remains wholly worthy of your time and an easy recommendation for a seminal experience in the medium.  

There is a very vocal minority out there who consider Dark Souls to be the undisputed game of the seventh generation; some would even go so far as to say it’s one of the best videogames ever made. The only reason I would question that judgment is because Demon's Souls still holds such a special place in my heart, being that it was the first ‘Souls game that I played and still has many unique features. Dark Souls is a "spiritual successor" to the previous game from From Software, which ranks among my most cherished of all time alongside giants such as Final Fantasy VII and Shadow of the Colossus. Announced early on as Project Dark, 2011 was all about this game for me, nothing else even came remotely close and at one point I began to worry that it wouldn't live up to my expectations, that I may be disappointed, that the teaser trailers and snippets of game I'd seen may have been wrong... they weren't. What the world did get however, was quite a different beast than the original ‘Souls game, defining the experience for many people yet remaining quite jarring for a while for those of us approaching the game with preconceptions of how it should’ve worked. Eventually, those embers faded though, and what was left was a game every bit the equal of its predecessor, even improving on it in many areas while being “just different” in others.

Dark Souls begins by explaining, rather cryptically via a narrated video cutscene, the complex and deep mythology of the world it’s set in and then explaining that as the main protagonist you're already dead. Indeed, unlike on the previous game you don’t even get the satisfaction of being killed, you’re actually already deceased. In fact everyone is dead, or rather undead, and the world is essentially on its last legs slowly creeping towards total annihilation and inescapable darkness. After character creation you’ll find yourself locked in an Asylum for undead who are slowly going insane, which you need to escape, and shortly thereafter find a dying knight who tasks you with carrying on his mission. Apparently you’ll need to ring the "Bell of Awakening". The problem is, no one really knows what will happen if you manage this quest, and it’s unlikely that you’ll be saving the world because it's already beyond saving. With sword in hand you venture forth regardless and what slowly unfurls is one of the darkest and most immersive tales in any fantasy RPG you will ever play.

Similar to its predecessor, Dark Souls tells its central tale largely through item descriptions and world-building, although this time there are a lot more NPCs to talk with and more of a guiding hand in your journey. Still, the game has lots of secrets, including a second ending if you look for it; there are still many hidden and cryptic elements to the game. Structurally, Dark Souls is very different from its spiritual precursor, and has done way with the hub-like world-hopping altogether, this time presenting a seamless open world in which you explore and do battle. The design of this open world is now legendary, as From Software displayed the kind of ingenuity that it couldn’t even copy itself in later instalments. Dark Souls makes great use of vertical space and interconnecting environments to build its world, ensuring the sense of exploration and wonder are a constant. Although, this has obviously come at the expense of the world tendency found in the previous game, and the “die and start again” structure of Demon’s Souls has been replaced with a kind of checkpoint system; through the use of a series of bonfires.

While other games, like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, are content to have you flailing swords clumsily at things and casting cheap magic spells while frequently healing, Dark Souls presents one of the tightest, most challenging and most rewarding combat systems ever in a video game. All of your attacks have timing and weight, and the enemy are not stupid as they will block, parry, heal themselves and kill you quickly if you do not approach every fight, no matter how rudimentary, with respect and patience. Anything can, and will, kill you in this game but if you do die them in all likelihood it was probably your own fault. The game is extremely difficult, as you have to navigate some amazing level design involving dark corridors, traps and the large intertwining open world that will kill you in a split second if you don't pay attention to what you're doing; you also can't pause the game and so can't leave your character standing somewhere dangerous while you go to the toilet. Death in this game usually comes as a result of not paying attention, being impulsive, or not respecting the high level of difficulty present in every aspect of the experience.  However, dying is treated in the same manner as Demon’s Souls, and upon death you will drop your collected souls at your bloodstain and return to your last visited bonfire.

The innovative online functionality of the ‘Souls games returned for Dark Souls,  and the game is once again always online and constantly pulling information from others playing at the same time as you; presenting bloodstains that you can touch to see how others have died, ghosts of other players, etc. Unfortunately, this time the game doesn’t use dedicated servers to connect everyone together, and this has resulted in both a drop in the quality of online connection as well as some of the more interesting features such as the world tendency.  In its place are the covenants, which are associations players can join during the game and which are supposed to connected them to other people in a variety of different ways . For instance, one covenant makes you a protector of a forest area, subsequently pulling you into other player’s worlds as an invader to help keep them out the forest. These covenants don’t always work though, due to the peer-to-peer connectivity and you definitely feel the absence of dedicated servers if you ever played the previous game. Still, with perseverance you can summon other players to fight alongside you, if you are stuck on a particularly difficult boss fight, or you can invade other people in an attempt to kill them and steal the game's most precious resource: humanity.

Dark Souls introduces another resource to keep track of alongside the usual souls, which are still used for levelling your character, strengthening weapons and armour, buying various supplies, etc. This new resource, humanity, is used for restoring your undead character back to the living (needed for the online component) as well as burning it in bonfires to ‘kindle’ them, resulting in more healing item usage. Humanity can also be offered to various covenants to unlock hidden secrets in the game, which kind of replaces some of the world tendency effects of Demon’s Souls. One of the most radical overhauls from the previous game is in healing items, namely that there aren’t any anymore, and you have to refill flasks at bonfires, which are then your limited use healing until the next checkpoint. This idea of limited use also carries over to spells, which are also refreshed at a bonfire. These two changes were meant to reduce the effectiveness of both healing in general and cheesing boss fights by spamming powerful spells, and they largely have the desired effect; and cause you to burn precious humanity if you want an easier time of topping up your health bar.

The design and atmosphere are much more fantasy inspired this time around, as opposed to the gothic horror veneer of the previous title, and Dark Souls would best be described as ‘dark fantasy’ in its aesthetic choices. The graphics engine has also had a minor overhaul, and although it is running in a slightly lower resolution than the previous game, the graphics are more detailed and contain more elaborate effects for spells, etc. Framerate is a bit of a problem sometimes though, especially around the notorious area of ‘Blighttown’, as the game chugs along at a frightfully low rate. This is probably because the engine and graphics were originally built around labyrinthine corridors and mazes, which is where the game shines brightest, as opposed to the large open spaces it was never designed to render. These sketchy areas, along with the slightly rushed end sections further into the narrative, don’t detract from the overriding quality of the production though, and the game is still an absolute masterclass of design. Once again, the soundtrack is also exemplary and some memorable tunes still resonate within me despite the years since I’ve played the game through; ‘Firelink Shrine’, for instance, is still hauntingly beautiful.

Due to its popularity and better-than-expected sales, Dark Souls was graced with some additional DLC, which actually reinserted several sections of the game that were removed shortly before release because of time and budget constraints. Dark Souls: Artorias of the Abyss was released for download separately and collectively published on disc with the original game as the Prepare to Die Edition, which is a fancy way of saying ‘game of the year’. Unlike a lot of optional content for videogames, this DLC actually feels like it completes the main game, and is considered by many (myself included) to be completely essential . Hidden away in a convoluted process in order to access it, the story and environments in the DLC are probably the best in Dark Souls and it is well worth picking it up if you already have the game, or tracking down the complete package if you are a new player. The story contained in the DLC is also necessary for fully understanding the plot of Dark Souls II, which is also worth considering.

I really could go on and on about all the amazing things that this game does well, and does differently from anything else that's out there, baring other ‘Souls games of course. But really it's the dark-fantasy-action-RPG atmosphere that keeps me coming back to this game time and time again, as well as the airtight gameplay and astounding interconnected world design. I really strongly suggest that you read some more reviews and if you have a PS3 or Xbox 360 to give this game a go; as an entry point into the ‘Souls series this is probably your best bet. 

Dark Souls may not be for everyone as some people, game journalists included (here's the original Destructoid review as an example), simply cannot get through the game and become overwhelmed by the high difficulty it presents, but it is indisputably one of the greatest video games ever made. A true 'hall of fame' experience and something very special indeed.

After the amazing and ground-breaking Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, I waited a long time with baited breath for another game in the ‘Souls series. In fact, I think I had this sequel preordered on Amazon for well over a year before it finally landed in my desperate sweaty hands. When it finally arrived I once more dropped all other videogames like a stone and dedicated a couple of weeks of my life to the dark corridors and dark fantasy horrors presented by Dark Souls II, and after finishing this sequel to one of my favourite games of all time, I had a familiar feeling once more... a hollowness, an emptiness, that I know no other game will satisfy until From Software release the next instalment of ‘Souls. The first game in this series, Demon's Souls, was a complete surprise for me when I picked it up along with my PS3 all those years back. I had grabbed it on a recommendation for it being one of the best exclusive titles on Sony's platform. I was blown away and instantly addicted to its harsh and dismal gothic-fantasy world, which was unlike anything I'd ever played, save for the overtones of Shadow of the Colossus, my all-time favourite video game.

When they announced a "spiritual successor" I was overjoyed and Dark Souls did not disappoint. While initially I was unsure about the changes from Demon's Souls, like the move to an "interconnected open world" and the whole rejiggering of many things, eventually I came to love this new game every bit as much as the first; more so in some areas and less in others. Like everyone else, I eagerly awaited the announcement of 'Dragon's Souls' or something like that and when they instead announced a direct sequel I was both excited and nervous at the same time.

Upon loading up Dark Souls II you are instantly taken back to that dark fantasy world from the first game, only this time hundreds or thousands of years into the future, where kingdoms of men have risen and fallen since the escapades of your first character; but the dismal cycle of death and rebirth continues unabated. You are yet again an undead, or 'hollow, out on a quest to rid yourself, and perhaps mankind, of "the curse". Only, this time through it might not be as simple and straightforward as that. Initial comments from the game's new director about making the story "more accessible" seem to be quite unfounded, as if anything the actual lore is even more shrouded in mystery and interpretation this time. The actual direction to take and what to do in Dark Souls II is more easily signposted this time around, which is maybe what he actually meant, as there are more characters to steer you in the right direction and more freedom in which order you tackle areas.

A lot of this freedom to travel and explore is facilitated by a return to an almost Demon's Souls style hub structure, and you are given the ability to fast-travel to areas from the very start; allowing you to easily return to the central hub of Majula, the only place you can level your character, reset stats, increase potency of healing items, etc. There are other similarities to the first game too, such as the reintroduction of healing items, albeit alongside the refillable flasks from Dark Souls, and being able to purchase quantities of life gems without restriction has led many people to complain of a loss of difficulty and challenge. Humanity as a resource has disappeared too and been replaced with human effigies, which are also a consumable item, and Dark Souls II feels very much like the designers at From Software tried to create an amalgamation of the first two ‘Souls games and create a perfect blend. I don’t think they were wholly successful, but it is interesting nonetheless to see them constantly tweak their winning formula.

Choice is a core concept of the Dark Souls II design, and you now also have more slots for weapons, armour and useable items on your belt. You also have more options in terms of healing, either by using the aforementioned 'Estus Flasks', life gems or by using any from a large selection of consumable items. Indeed, you even have the freedom to play around with the New Game+ mode before even finishing the game by burning 'bonfire aesthetics' and resetting all the baddies, bosses and items in an area in the same what you would do with a complete second play through of the game! Obviously, because it's a From Software game, a lot of these things are not fully explained, leaving you to find out for yourself or use online guides, but the fact this is all here makes the game extremely enjoyable and customisable. I took advantage of all these things during my first play through, and re-specked my character half-way through into a dark knight, hurling hexes at foes, using dark-infused weapons, and reaching top-tier in a covenant designed to explore The Abyss. Next time, I'm going to spec my character for dexterity and faith and make a halberd-wielding temple knight (although disappointingly there are no divine weapons this time around), and it's this complete ownership over both your character and over how you play the game that makes it so enjoyable, addictive and endlessly replayable.

The world of Dark Souls II is very well designed, and there are a good variety of locales, enemies and bosses. While there is some intentional reuse of things from the first Dark Souls early on in the story, there is very little reuse of assets from early to late game this time, unlike the latter half of the first game which the creators admit was rushed. Here you get the sense that  they had a good plan for the development of the game and saw it right through to the end, with a particularly strong second half leading some spectacular final areas. Disappointingly though, the interconnectivity of the world is nowhere near as strong this time, and the areas of Dark Souls II don’t fit together anywhere near as well as the first game’s did. Bosses are all challenging, especially when tackled solo without assisting phantoms, and pose their own strategies and tactics to overcome, which is also helped this time with a more robust multiplayer system meaning it's very easy to summon assistance if you get stuck. A definite plus for Dark Souls II is that it once again uses dedicated servers to control multiplayer, meaning that it’s much more stable and user-friendly than before; even covenants have had an overhaul and are now much easier to understand in terms of their function.

Music is top-notch once again, with some excellent tracks for boss fights and for special areas of the game such as Majula. Graphics are much improved in terms of frame rate and special effects over the first game, although I didn't find the art direction to be quite as good as either of the first two ‘Souls title; it's still leagues above most other fantasy RPGs though. All-in-all a very worthy sequel and while I would like to talk all day about the many features that are exemplary and the many secrets and unlockable events that happen, I would much rather just say: go play this game.  Like the first game, Dark Souls II also had some DLC, this time split into three parts, which I am informed is excellent and well worth the price of purchase. However, this game is shortly to be released in an improved state on PS4 (dubbed Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin), with a more advanced graphics engine, altered enemy placement and including all the DLC from the start, which seems like the perfect way to obtain this game if you haven’t already done so.

(A Classic)
While it isn’t quite as good as Demon’s Souls or Dark Souls, this is still an absolutely stellar game and only loses marks for being the weakest in a line of absolutely ground-breaking titles. Dark Souls II is the sort of game that eats away all your free time and leaves you craving more, which makes it hard to wait for the next instalment. If you’ve not bought this yet however, you may wish to wait for Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin, which I will be buying and reviewing in April.
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About n0signalone of us since 2:01 AM on 10.06.2014

Videogames have come a long way since the 8-bit and 16-bit days of old, and it is now one of the most interesting and constantly-evolving storytelling mediums. I started blogging about videogames a few years ago because I am very passionate about certain experiences I've had, which I don't think could have existed outside of our unique hobby, and I wanted to share this with other like-minded people on the internet.

I'm based in the UK and my favourite videogame of all time is probably still Shadow of the Colossus, but other more recent games such as the impeccable Dark Souls and Journey have given it a run for its money. My other interests, and things I have blogged extensively about, are board games and Japanese anime. I've got a degree in Media Communications and Film, and I'm currently a Teacher of ICT.

I post fairly regularly on my personal blog at https://n0timportant.blogspot.co.uk/, so please visit there for legacy videogame reviews and articles on anime, boardgames, etc.