Game of the Week: Dark Souls

Old soul.

There's a brilliant tension that runs through much of this industry's output, as an endless thirst for the new is met with a desire to return to some magical - and quite possibly imagined - past.

It's a phenomenon that's evident in two of this week's big releases - as well as some of it's more diminutive ones. First there's Rage, veteran FPS developer id's first new IP since Quake launched some 15 years ago. Set in a world that's surprisingly vibrant for an outfit that once seemed happy to use any colour as long as it's brown, Rage's post-apocalypse is one of deep red rusts mixed with bleached yellow rocks, all set under the most vivid skybox this side of Halo.

Technically, it's a marvel - and we'll have Digital Foundry to hand over the weekend to go into a little more detail in that regard - quite clearly pushing at the boundaries of home consoles. For all of its technical innovation, however, it is at heart a pleasingly traditional experience.

"This certainly isn't a video game like the ones we're used to playing in 2011, smothered in celebrity voice actors and shoulder-grabbingly intense expository cut-scenes, and varnished by psychologists so we never look in the wrong direction when we're sprinting away from a set-piece," said Tom in his 8/10 review. "Instead it's something simpler and more old-fashioned."

As an experience it's far-removed from the more rigidly prescribed games of id's past, but as a shooter it's a wonderful reminder of the Doom developer's heritage. Shotguns boom and rifles crack with a fidelity unique to the studio, offering perfectly crafted gunplay that's been delivered in a blisteringly beautiful package. It's a throwback, sure, but it's a throwback to an age we're quite happy to return to.

Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl's The Binding of Isaac, a roguelike with a little of Nintendo's sensibility as well as a fantastically perverse brand of humour of its own, takes a different approach to re-appropriating the past. Here's proof that it's possible to blend a few aging ingredients together to create something exhilaratingly fresh.

"Binding is not the game I would have expected Edmund McMillen to create in the wake of Super Meat Boy," our American friend John Teti said in our slightly belated 9/10 review, "That was a painstaking, pixel-perfect work - some seriously Old Testament, Miyamoto-esque stuff. In other words, he was a total control freak."

"With Binding, McMillen and Himsl created the rules of the world and then set it in motion. Yet this game is nearly as much fun as Super Meat Boy, and more profound. It proves that there's more than one way to make a masterpiece."

Between the triple-A excesses of Rage and the somewhat leaner Binding lies gaming's increasingly squeezed middle, this week represented by the none-too-impressive The Cursed Crusade.

"We desperately need more mid-range games," pleaded Dan, "As the industry becomes increasingly fractured, with mega-budget blockbusters on one side and perky low-priced indies on the other, it's the middle ground that suffers. The decent time-wasters that fill in the months between the must-have classics are the ones that get squeezed out of the picture."

Unfortunately The Cursed Crusade won't be worth shedding a tear over should the mid-range games continue on their current trajectory to extinction, earning a limp 4/10. With rich fare such as Rochard - a solid 7/10, according to Dan - and Crysis (which we'll have more on next week) contending for player's money on download stores, it's hard to see too bright a future for this particular strand of boxed product.

Dark Souls

If id's Rage is a throwback to a simpler past, then Dark Souls is a return to crueler, more complex one - a world of ceaseless death and the type of Herculean challenge that belongs to a different age.

Monstrous new Dark Souls footage

"If action is to test your skill in thrilling situations, then Dark Souls is a great action game," came Oli's 9/10 verdict. "If adventure is to surprise and mystify you and invite you to uncover the secrets of a forgotten world, then Dark Souls is a great adventure game. If entertainment is fun without failure and progress without pain, you'll have to find it somewhere else. But you'll be missing out on one of the best games of the year."

This is a courageously dark game, one that dares play harder than its notoriously tough predecessor and one that dares sport an even bleaker aesthetic. All of which has been manna to the game's hearteningly large fan base, a group that's flying in the face of console gaming's move towards cinema and tightly prescribed spectacle.

Dark Souls bravely ditches many of the appendages that the medium has acquired in the last twenty years, and what's left within those dungeons cast in clammy stone is nothing but game - and it's a deep, challenging and incredibly compelling one at that.

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