Dark Souls: Prepare to Do the Same Thing Repeatedly Edition

I’ve left myself in an awkward position. Let me get a blanket. There… that’s far more comfortable. This week I looked for a couple articles with a female perspective. I found this interesting post, which I suggest you check out. http://smsmith.com.au/2013/01/23/why-should-i-care-about-sexism-in-the-gaming-industry/ I also found this start-up blog, which looks to have the potential to develop into something interesting http://oliviaashegaming.wordpress.com/

Now, as you might have guessed, we’re sitting down to do a little reviewing today. Honestly, I’m going to have a little difficulty with this one. I’m wearing my reviewing pants, but they’re just not keeping me warm through the onslaught of uneasiness. “Why?” you may ask. Am I so torn? Well, let’s start with the subject matter: Dark Souls. This is a game that I really want to love, but can’t help but hate. I’ve tallied all the numbers over and over again, but I keep getting different results. Let me show you what I mean.

I want to start this review by saying, “Dark Souls is a well put-together game, but I wouldn’t recommend playing it.” I’m also inclined to say, “Dark Souls is a terrifyingly manipulative RPG, but I recommend trying it for the experience.” You see? I’m extremely conflicted. To alleviate this mess, and balance the final score, I’m going to alternate between bashing on Dark Souls with an extremely large rake, and cooing gentle nothings into its horribly mutilated ear.

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For the sake of full disclosure, and to make everything a bit more clear, I should say that I didn’t finish the game. I’ll explain why in a bit, but, also, I didn’t play it on-line. I played with no patches. Nothing. I wanted to experience the game the way the first players did, because I’m really interested to see what “From Software” thought their finished product should look like when they shipped it. It’s an interesting question, because in this age of constant internet access, DLC and continual patching, it’s difficult to tell when a game is “done.” You see, between when a game’s code is finalized, and the day it hits shelves, there’s a wealth of time. Sometimes, this time is used to improve the product, because there simply wasn’t time to fit everything into the game. So, in the interim, game development continues. Huge changes manifest as release-date DLC, and costs a bit of money because you need to pay your programmers. Small tweaks manifest as patches. So, lacking those, I delved into the game. I had a room mate, a long time Dark Souls veteran, there to help me with some of the less-obvious stuff, as well as to leer in time with the coming of danger. It was sort of like having a carbon monoxide detector, only I still died a lot. Without further ado, let’s go for a trip!

Dark Souls is another vacation to Havok land! Players familiar with the slippery game play this implies will know how dangerous it is to make a game that requires precision using the Havok engine. There are a lot of finely-crafted environments that require careful navigation. Unfortunately, you’ll probably end up flying off more than your share of bridges before the end. This isn’t the engine’s fault. It tends to work pretty well, but the control scheme is a bit more reprehensible. The majority of it is fine, but there’s a major problem with the jumping. You press Up and Attack to jump-lunge forward. However, this is also precisely what you will do when you want to walk a couple steps forward and attack. Given the difficulty the game has with differentiating between a small tap, and a great thwap, I guarantee that you will lunge a couple times when you Don’t. Want. To.

The jumping works a bit clunkily, too. You have to dash forward with B, then tap B again to jump. This makes jumps in small areas a nightmare. Of course, this makes a lot of sense. Most of the game, you’ll be in heavy armor. You can’t just leap around in that shit. This control scheme holds when you’re naked, too, but it can be difficult to properly map buttons, and you won’t be platforming much, anyways. No, this isn’t the damnation it sounds like, because Dark Souls has a real commitment to realism. Undeath and death hang heavily on the edge of a sword, so the slightest shuffle in the wrong direction can spell doom. The combat is tight, taking full advantage of the Havok collision detection capabilities. It doesn’t take much to screw up, and timing is of the utmost importance. It makes for viscerally engaging combat.
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However, timing is of the utmost importance and it doesn’t take much to screw up! As a result, you’ll spend most of your time getting that timing down and learning attack patterns. I heard this twice, from two different sources, so I decided to look up a couple posts about Dark Souls. It turns out that, almost universally, people say the second play-throughs are much quicker. This doesn’t make much sense for a difficult game, but it fits perfectly with an execution challenge. Dark Souls is one big execution challenge in a shiny fucking bow. Don’t worry about not getting enough practice, though. You will see the same enemies over and over again.

This isn’t because the levels have repetitive designs. In fact, they’re quite ingenious. There are short-cuts, and secret areas strewn throughout. In fact, it’s a nearly seamless world, with a fantastic, immersive feel. You can get most places in the early stages without going too far out of your way. It’s all very open-concept. Sure, you can kill this dragon, or whatever, but if you don’t want to, how about you chill under the bridge? The story-telling is especially delightful. There’s almost no exposition, but you find out a lot about the world by playing within it. The game really benefits from the exploration, which is one of the principle things that will keep people playing. Loading screens have interesting tid-bits about the world disguised under helpful hints. I know most games do, but it’s subtle enough to pass for great writing. Considering this game was developed in Japan, the English writing is superb. The localization team did their job amazingly well.

All the good writing in the world won’t make up for poor conveyance, though. The world is huge and seamless, but you aren’t ready for it. Right off the bat, I wandered off into three different areas I didn’t belong in. Instantly, I was squashed by powerful opponents. With a little initiative and innovation, I managed to squash one or two enemies, but it was an extremely discouraging experience. I remarked that it wouldn’t have happened in the on-line mode, because other players would have left me little messages telling me not to try and fight the ghosts. You can’t even hurt them without a curse or a holy weapon. It does reflect how a true adventure might begin, but it’s not fun. Still, they really want us to try out this on-line play feature, so I shouldn’t complain if I’m trying something the game wasn’t designed around. Pushing on without it, I finally found a spot I could deal with. It turns out that that was the way I was supposed to go. Hurray.

With that, the game opened up before me. I even managed to make some progress. Sure, I fell off a couple bridges, and got roasted alive by a dragon, but it was fun to explore. Not only that, but the enemy placement was really well thought-out. There’s this bridge a little later on that is being constantly bombarded by fire-bombs. The room at the end of it is full of baddies, one with a shield in particular, that can be challenging in the early stages. Taken together, the fire-bombs and the monster formations can easily take out your entire life-bar in a few seconds. However, with a careful and considered approach, you can surmount the obstacle, and it feels pretty good. Monsters that spawn in specific spots even have particular AI attached to them. For instance, there’s this one shield-skeleton in the cathedral that I noticed is always defensive. It’s a nice touch. AND the nice thing about execution challenges is that they’re usually rewarding experiences in the long run.

Still, I’d recommend learning guitar over learning Dark Souls, because A: you’ll get more out of it and B: this is where the game really falls apart for me. There’s this neat little story-fluff that’s pretty central to the game. You’re an undead. You respawn at the last fire you rested at, but you lose all the souls and humanity you had on you. You use humanity and souls, among other things, to strengthen yourself and your gear. You can reclaim what you lost by returning to the place you died last and picking up everything you had on you. However, this also means you can’t die. Even funnier, many of your enemies share this same trait. I remember accidentally stabbing an NPC to death. Later, he was right back where I’d left him. After he attacked me and was killed a second time, he didn’t come back, but that only makes sense, because of flibberdeeflobbity gibberbits. What does make sense is that all of the trash mobs in an area respawn every time you die. They also respawn every time you sit down at a fire. They’re undead too, right? Many of the larger lads stay dead, but the majority of your opponents are right back up and fighting the minute you are. Wait for it… wait for it… right! That means that, at any given time, you’ll be fighting the same enemies, in the same locations, over and over again. Remember when I said repetitive? Well, I’m saying it again.

This does give the game a certain feeling of progression, though. You’ve got a flask on you that refills at fires. It comes with a set number of charges, and once it runs out, I would recommend walking back to the fire. As you do better and better at a particular section, you’ll have more charges available and you’ll feel more confident going farther. You can also invest humanity to increase the number of charges you get from a particular fire. The short-cuts serve this purpose, as well. It cuts the game up into learn-able sections. It balances having a refillable potion on you pretty well.
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It also has the lovely side-effect of chaining you to fires, though. If you want to level, then you have to invest your souls in yourself at a fire. This also means that all of the baddies will respawn, as well. This creates a sort of gambit where you have to balance real, observable progression against clearing out an area again. I wouldn’t worry too much about it, though, because you’ll be doing that a lot. Careful considered approaches are fine the first time, but you’ll eventually tire of them. It’s sort of like Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest. The game is designed around keeping you wandering around farming, but the enemy placements are more reminiscent of Castlevania 1. This combination results in a tiring grind as you die in later areas and have to fight your way back to try again. If you aren’t familiar with the comparison, then watch this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aip2aIt0ROM It’s Sequelitis by egoraptor. If you aren’t familiar with the series, then I heartily recommend it. However, all this does is pad out the game play time.

This allowed them to fit a long game into a small area, though, and what’s there is pretty polished. There are lots of nooks and crannies to explore, as well as interesting easter eggs. You can level up weapons, and armor, as well as learn spells. It’s not all fireball or lightning. You get slow-fall and illusion spells. You get interesting utility items like the Prism Stone, which allows you to judge the depth of a fall by dropping it. It all fits together in the fantasy world pretty well. Even the progression system allows you to craft a hero and a fighting style that suits you, without too much contrivance. You’re not a rogue because you picked a rogue. You’re a rogue because you specialize in back-stabbing, wear light armor and parry-riposte with daggers a lot. It’s a flexible, intuitive system…

Which does nothing to distract from the fact that you’ll be learning one fighting style really well. Different weapons handle quite differently, which is a point for realism, but means that you’ll have to re-learn your timing if you want to switch up combat. Of course, much of the learning revolves around your opponent’s timing, so it won’t be that hard to switch. Still, I can’t count anything as a point in the game’s favor if I have to learn how to use it. If I wanted to sit in dull combat, over and over, with people that block too much, then I’d go back to WoW PVP against warriors. None of this is as unambiguously bad as the targeting system. I thought this was something we’d perfected in the N64 era. If I point at something and press target, then it means I want to target that. It does not mean that I want to swivel around and lock on to the closest enemy charging up the stairs behind me. Of course, you can only target through stairs when you don’t want to. The rest of the time, the targeting is finicky and unreliable around obstacles.

Once you’re locked on, the workings of the system are pretty good. It’s much easier to hit things that way. Given, it’s not easy to screw that up, but given some other parts of this game, I wouldn’t be too surprised. The boss fights are suitably epic, and you can even hack the tails of bigger monsters off for the chance to get a nice weapon. Once you’ve got your hands on a good weapon, the combat gets a little easier, and it feels a little less grind-tastic, though no less repetitive. Finding the blacksmith is a big boon, because the up-grades are really effective. A +2 sword feels like a +2 sword should: a noticeable improvement over the original.
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This also means that moving forward in the game relies on improving your gear and levelling. For all the talk of the game being an execution challenge, you can’t free-roam all that much until you know where to go to acquire the items necessary to survive in a given environment, and have levelled up enough to use them. Oh yeah, you can’t save or pause, either. It auto-saves for you, and pausing is for noobs. Apparently. The game also has this annoying habit of making you swing your sword more times than you intended to. The cusp between one and two swings is very fine. Another aspect you’ll have to learn. Yay. However, it supplements the first annoying habit with a second of putting important NPCs in barrels that you have to smash them out of. So, if your sword is a little longer than you think it is, then you might cleave through a couple barrels and nick the person that was inside. This resulted in my losing the ability to learn fire spells. The same thing happened when I was attacked by a rat in the sewers, except then I lost a recurring merchant that levels up his wares. Thank god there’s no way to apologize or reset their aggro. I mean, I clearly meant to attack you. The rat gnawing on my leg is a pet. My player-coach recommended restarting my game, but this was programmed into the game. So, getting an authentic experience requires that I be able to make those kinds of mistakes. Even Oblivion had a yield system built in.
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I feel like this two-faced thing is a bit played out, so let’s bring the criticism together. I had a friend refer to it as a modern-day arcade game, and I can’t help but agree. It’s mercilessly padded and, were it sucking in quarters, I’d say it wanted that. Instead, all I feel like it wants is time. There’s a reason that we don’t make arcade games anymore. That kind of design is annoying. Sure, it suits some players, and it’s probably the best imagining of the formula that I’ve seen so far, but that doesn’t make it good. It’s good at what it does, but what it does isn’t enough to keep me invested in doing it repeatedly. Foreva.

I had someone say I just didn’t like it because I was bad at it. Truth be told, I’m pretty decent at the game. I just don’t want to invest more time into playing it. There’s so much more to see and play, so I don’t see how it could expect me to eschew lampooning Resident Evil 6 in order to kill another corridor of the same enemies (Spoilers). There’s this culture of “difficulty” around Dark Souls that I think helps give the game a pass for its dodgy game design. If you give up, then the game has beaten you, because it’s difficult. That’s not accurate, though. If you want to look at an execution challenge that benefits from a similar learning-curve, but is designed around the required repetition, then look up Super Hexagon. It’s a cheap indie game that breaks down the design to its simplest form. The thing that will beat you in Dark Souls is the drudgery, not the difficulty. Since I’m talking about difficulty, then I’d better define it. A difficult game is one that maintains a high level of challenge throughout, regardless of the number of times you’ve done the challenge. That is, unless you’ve learned them to a muscle-memory-fine point. Compare Mario (for maintaining challenge) and R-Type (for maintaining difficulty). Dark Souls definitely has difficult moments, but the overall meta-game eliminates it once you know what to do. That’s fine, most games are like that, but trying to dress up bad game design in the fabric of “oh, it’s just hard” smacks a little too much of console gaming’s quarter-eating counter-part.

If you can get past that, and truly enjoy the combat enough to do it over and over, then Dark Souls will really come alive for you. It’s skillfully executed, well presented, and thoroughly interesting. It stops just short of being a good game for me, because I’m looking for engaging games that add something to my life experience. Or, failing that, are fun to play. Dark Souls does neither of these things.

The designers know this, though. One of the benefits of the on-line thing is, again, patch access. Many of the things I outlined here were mitigated in patches. Ghosts drop souls, and soul drops are increased. There are more fires, so the runs between them are shorter, so the grind is mitigated further. The targeting system got a once-over, though I don’t know if it fixed the priority-cursor problem. The drop-rates on level-up items have been increased, so the required farming decreases, as well. Curses no longer stack. There’s a list right here —> http://darksouls.wikidot.com/game-patches

It might be enough to fix some of the game’s issues, but it won’t change the underlying problem of the game being padded. The reward for committed play isn’t high enough to justify the time-sink and the clever story-elements don’t make up for the ultimately frustrating combat. For putting frustrating combat in a combat-based game, I give it 1 stale, unsalted pretzel out of 23 unsorted beakers full of strange fizzing liquids

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2 Responses to “Dark Souls: Prepare to Do the Same Thing Repeatedly Edition”

  1. Ah, Dark Souls (and Demons Souls before it) such a divisive game for most. I am still making my way through this one, off and on for quite awhile now. I think the game is very good, of course its punishing and pretty evil at times, but I feel the progression and sense of self accomplishment is rewarding enough, for me at least.

    Shame you don’t like, but at least you tried pushing on for awhile.

    • I’ll probably get back to playing the game at some point. The lore of the game and the visual designs are really neat. Seeing what they do with their engine, in terms of combat and puzzle solving, is really interesting. By today’s design standards, though, I just can’t honestly recommend a game that I have to walk away from because I got bored. There’s a metric I like to use: between death, and getting back to making progress in the game, I add up Time + Button Presses+ Loading screens. I made the Super Hexagon comparison because it’s a high-death game with a physical learning curve, but designed around getting you back in the game. It’s stripped down, so it’s something like 30 seconds + 1 + 0, leading to a stark comparison. It also has the Kingdom of Amalur problem of wanting to be “The Game You Play” in an MMO sense, even without the suspicion that they’re trying to keep me invested to keep me buying DLC. It’s too much time for what it is. Of course, that’s not saying you can’t approach this game in a way that would make it fun. Game play is half the player anyway (Which is why approaching it ready to be frustrated helps it immensely). I’ll probably do the same thing and pick it up now and again, but it made me play RE6, and, for a brief moment, think, “Now, here’s a well-designed game with a commitment to pacing.” For that scar that will never heal, DS needs to sit in a corner and think about what it’s done.

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