Review | 10/10/2011 at 11:20 AM

Dark Souls Co-Op Review

Praise the Sun!

I slowly melt into existence in an accursed land.  The bonfire I now stand beside offers little comfort in the oppressive darkness.  It is not my bonfire.  This is not my world.  I can feel the environment's deadliness pressing down upon me.  I am on a crumbling walkway high above a noxious swamp.  I know vile creatures are hiding out of sight, anticipating my hushed footsteps.  I can hear their tortured breath punctuated by insane shrieks. 

Before me stands another traveler, another of the chosen undead.  He has sacrificed his own humanity to reverse his hollow, changing his appearance from that of a desiccated corpse into that of a flesh and blood human.  This sacrifice has not been for simple cosmetic vanity.  As a human, he can now see the signs of his fellow accursed scrawled into the ether.  It was my own  sign he found, and my soul he summoned.  In his world, not only do I appear human, I radiate light.  These are but  illusions, for both of us are a single misstep away from death.  I returned his greeting bow.  It was time to kill some demonic sons of bitches.

That was the beginning of one of my many co-op exploits in Blight Town, the Dark Souls version of the Valley of Defilement.  If you just groaned in revulsion, I feel your pain.  If that doesn’t mean anything to you, count yourself lucky.  You must not have played Demon’s Souls.

Your move.  Bro.

Anyone who has played FromSoftware’s Demon’s Souls will be right at home with their latest dark fantasy opus, Dark Souls.  The action RPG claims to be three times larger, even more mind-meltingly difficult, and more co-op friendly.  Aside for one glaring exception, it is.

You’ll begin the game by choosing and customizing a character.  Every class can be played in any way a player sees fit.  Your class dictates starting stats and equipment, nothing more.   Here’s a tip:  Before you spend a half hour customizing your face, know that you’ll be wearing some type of helmet for the majority of the game.  And you’re probably going to create more than a few new characters as you learn the nuances of Dark Souls.  If you’re asking, hell yeah, I started as a Pyromancer.  Then a Deprived, then a Warrior, then a Thief, then a Pyromancer, again.  

Having played through Demon’s Souls multiple times, I was right at home with the controls.   For the uninitiated, it can be difficult to get used to the fixed combat buttons on the shoulder bumpers and triggers.  Be careful when you’re in menu screens, you can’t pause the game, even offline!  You can quit and save at any time.  Just remember, if you were getting chomped on by a giant honey-badger-thing when you quit, you’ll be getting chomped on by a giant honey-badger-thing when you restart your game.  

Like every other enemy in Dark Souls, giant honey-badger-things just don’t give a ****.

Combat is a satisfying mix of blocking, countering, dodging, backstabbing, and spell casting.  You’ll do all of this while hoping that your killing blow lands before you’re rendered defenseless by a depleted stamina meter.  Weapons can be upgraded to godly levels through the complex crafting system.  Armor can be upgraded, as well.  All of the inventory management and statistics may seem daunting at first, but they quickly become second nature.  Soon you’ll be drawing out undead snipers with ranged bow attacks, nuking killer plants with fireballs, and backstabbing bloated giants with the best of them. 

Exploration is a key element of Dark Souls.  Gone is the Nexus hub world of the Demon's Souls.  The land of  Lordran is a faux open world.  While you can’t “go everywhere,” the spider webbing paths offer several opportunities for discovery, adventure, and death.  The clever level design will keep adventurers peeking around corners, leaning over ledges, and searching for false walls.  You’ll be constantly searching for new timesaving shortcuts and lifesaving bonfires.  

These bonfires are invaluable locations in Dark Souls, offering checkpoints, the opportunity to level up, and so much more.  When you inevitably use these bonfires, the world’s enemies are renewed, and you must defeat all but the mightiest foes once again.  

Other players will appear in their human form when near bonfires.

The real Dark Souls doesn’t start until you’ve unlocked the co-op mode.  Once you have acquired the White Sign Soapstone you can etch your summon sign into the fabric of the game’s universe.  This will allow you to be summoned into another player’s world.  You can also summon players into your own world, so long as you are in “Human” form.  Yes, you can still be invaded by enemy players.  If you play in “Hollow” form you cannot be invaded, and you cannot summon other players.  To learn everything there is to know about the mechanics of Dark Souls co-op please see our Dark Souls Co-Op FAQ*.

Dark Souls is intended to be played with other players.  That’s right, “players,” not “friends.”  The co-op mode in the game is non-traditional at its best, infuriating at its worst.  There is no lobby system.  Players cannot meet up with specific friends.  Unlike Demon’s Souls, the game uses multiple servers, severely limiting the chance players have of actually finding friends online.  This has made co-op and organized PvP almost impossible to accomplish.

In Demon’s Souls, gamers could get together by communicating through other means and then simply placing their summon sign in a specific area.  The host player would see the sign, and summon their friend.  This won’t happen in Dark Souls.  If the players are on different servers, there is no way to see each other’s signs, and it’s impossible to see which server you are on, let alone manually select a specific one.  This has become a huge issue for a large portion of the game’s player base.  You can see more information on it here.  

That's one big rat.

While this new server system may be by design, it’s a huge step backwards as far as the co-op and organized PvP fans of the franchise are concerned, especially since FromSoftware promised an “enhanced” co-op mode.  

Players wishing to play with anonymous partners will be frustrated as well.  It can take a long time to be summoned.  A very long time.  When you finally decide to summon players yourself you may play through high traffic areas for hours and never see a summon sign.  You can summon NPC’s in special situations, but it’s just not the same as having a live person with you.

Covenants are a part of this new co-op system.  Depending on the Covenant, they can have subtle to major effects on online matchmaking both in co-op and versus play.  These take the place of the White and Black World Tendencies from Demon’s Souls.  Particular events will only happen at certain times if you are part of a specific Covenant.  Don’t even think about meeting all the requirements on your first playthrough, or you will go insane.  Honestly, it’s not possible to see and do everything in one playthrough.  (Players had to complete Demon’s Souls three and a half times to earn a platinum trophy.)

If you play your cards right, you'll see this guy more than once.

There are several indirect forms of co-op play.  Players can leave helpful or not so helpful messages from a selection of predefined text.  Gamers can touch the bloodstains of fellow adventurers and see how they died.  Other players appear as ghosts through out the world.  When someone kindles a bonfire, other nearby adventurers will receive extra health items.  All of this helps and hurts the feeling of isolation in the game.  You are aware that there are players all around you, some of them may even be your friends.  There’s no way of knowing, and no direct way of communicating with them.  (Unless you’re using Xbox Live Private chat, Skype, G hangouts, cell phones, text messages, or smoke signals.)

When I finally got a co-op session working the game was marvelous.  We could communicate with a series of gestures such as pointing, bowing, and jumping for joy.  Exploring a new area with two other players is an incredibly rewarding experience.  Most of the environments are beautifully crafted and menacingly dangerous.  Enemies are smart and powerful, but no match for an efficient three player team.  

A huge part of Dark Souls is the cooperative boss battles.  You can take on these monstrosities solo, but it is ill-advised.  I actually take more joy is discovering an effective strategy than defeating the boss itself.  Once I see a weakness I know it's only a matter of time before I'm collecting their soul and moving on to the next area.  Helping other players defeat a boss is just plain awesome.  As a summoned player I could learn level designs, enemy locations, and boss strategies.  As a host I led new players through horrifying areas and displayed my killing techniques with machine-like efficiency.  

FYI:  This boss is called the Gaping Dragon.  This is not the worst boss name in the game.

In one particularly epic battle, I was facing off against a giant lava-puking naked lady spider (seriously), which was (naturally) immune to fire.  As a Pyromancer, I was pretty much screwed.  I summoned up two other players and went to work with my pathetic non-fire magic.  Both of my allies were killed in the fray, but I was victorious.  I was physically shaking as the demon dissolved around me.  That’s a good boss fight.  

I was lucky that time.  More often than not, I can’t find summon signs at the beginning of levels or in front of boss areas, which is where most players leave them.  Too often I’ve left my sign in front of a boss's lair, only to stand around for five, then ten minutes before eventually venturing in alone.  It's possible to beat most bosses solo, but it’s just not as much fun.  And isn’t that the why we game?

Co-op rage aside, Dark Souls has other flaws.  It’s never a good sign if I can start chanting “I think I can, I think I can,” as the frame rate chugs along in three player co-op or when faced with long draw distances.  The camera will occasionally hide behind objects, completely obscuring the view.  At odd times the controls seemed to be on a delay.  All of these issues are very rare, and easily forgivable considering the incredible gameplay experience.  FYI:  I have logged in over 60 hours playing the Xbox 360 version.  The game was installed on the 360's hard drive.  It only required 4 GB of memory.  The graphical issues rarely impacted gameplay.

If this doesn't make you pee a little, we can't be friends.

Like it’s predecessor, the greatness of Dark Souls comes from it’s unique and intelligent level design, as well as a fresh take on traditional fantasy enemies.  The world is immersive and foreboding.  It truly is one of the best games of this generation, surpassing Demon’s Souls in almost every way.  It’s a shame the co-op is so badly implemented.  

Whether or not this limited cooperative play is the culmination of FromSoftware’s greater vision doesn’t change the fact that many co-op fans consider the game’s cooperative features to be completely broken.  This isn’t really a cooperative game.  It is an excellent online experience with random players.  Too bad Dark Souls claims to be a cooperative title in both it’s marketing and packaging.  Like Demon’s Souls, I highly, no - ferociously recommend playing this game.  But I would not recommend it as a cooperative title.

*The Dark Souls Co-Op FAQ has been posted.  You can find it here.

Patch 1.05 greatly improved the game's connectivity, raising the originl Co-Op Score from a 2 to a 3.5.  You can see results here.