The RogueWare Project

"Game Recklessly"

Game Review Double Feature: Dark Souls Series

Hello there! Having played these two games back to back somewhat recently (last summer), and having written most of the Dark Souls review some time ago, I thought I would finish it up and add Dark Souls 2, and talk about them one after the other. Since the DS2 review references both my DS1 review and the original game itself, it certainly makes the whole process easier to read them one after the other. Enjoy!



Dark Souls


Overview


Dark Souls is one of the most frustrating, fascinating, and immersive games I’ve ever played. It’s also one of my favorites. I’m about to give it a high score despite feeling some of the lowest moments I’ve ever felt while playing video games - these are balanced out by opiate-like highs when finally killing that seemingly-impossible boss, or making it past that brutal section to the next bonfire. Although this game contains what appear to me to be a small number of significant flaws, the fact that they even tried to make a game like this and succeeded most of the way is noteworthy, and a bit awe-inspiring. But let’s get into it.


Dark Souls is a successor of sorts to Demon Souls, an action-RPG released on PS3. These are further based on a previous game while escaped my notice, probably because I did not have a PS2 at the time, King’s Field. The action part of the game is highly technical, highly unforgiving, and incredibly deep and rewarding. I have always loved melee combat, and the weapon timing, parrying, rolling around, and just felling outrageously huge and difficult monsters with a monstrous greatsword makes you feel like Hercules. Who needs a gun? I’ll just walk up to this massive dragon and stab it 700 times. I mean hell, it works! Just because he’s twenty times my size doesn’t mean I can’t hack his tail off! I’m the Chosen Undead!


The combat is fairly formal-feeling, with precise weapon and parry timing, a stamina bar which fuels blocking, rolling and attacks, making managing stamina a key skill. You must know when to attack and when to retreat and build your energy. You will learn to appreciate shields in a whole new and deep way when playing this game. I never really realized the advantages of carrying a wall around with me until I was faced with having to somehow contend with a 30 foot halberd being wielded by a 25-foot knight. Once I got over my fear of dying, something that took well over one hundred hours, I learned to dodge stuff more consistently and tend to use shield much less, simply because it suits my style. Many difficult enemies in this game can be flanked and backstabbed, and few things are more satisfying then insta-killing some tough enemy that thinks its going to get all martial on you and instead is removed from the game. It’s nice payback for all the times one stupid mistake kills you, in other words, most of the time.


The depth of the combat system, the huge amount of weapon and weapon types, and the enemies that encourage you to master every aspect of it make it my favorite melee combat system in any game. It doesn’t have the flash and speed of God of War or Devil May Cry, but it doesn’t look or feel any less impressive and in some ways the realism and “chunkiness” of your character make it more immersive than those games where you’re half-immortal to begin with. Though in a way, you’re fully immortal in this game. This will hit home when you read the “You Died” message after accidentally backstepping off a cliff for the umpteenth time, and then struggling to your feet at the bonfire ten minutes away from where you plummeted to your demise. They really should consider adding an ellipsis to that message. “You Died…”


If it was just an action game, it would be a great if difficult action game, but I love how they spliced in RPG elements quite effectively. Many pieces of equipment have statistic requirements, and you raise these statistics by leveling up with souls, which are collected by killing enemies or finding soul items. Focusing on endurance means your character can fight and block more without getting tired, as well as being able to wear more equipment without being slowed down. Strength is essential for the heaviest weapons in the game. Dexterity is mostly used for ranged weapons and a subset of dextrous weapons, thrusting swords, katanas and curved swords which each deal a specialty damage type. There are three types of magic - the universally-accessible Pyromancy, which doesn’t require specific stats to use, Sorcery which takes Intelligence and Miracles which require Faith. You can bring in some, all, or none of these to your character build, depending on how you want to build them. Souls are also used along with upgrade items to upgrade your equipment. What’s really nice about the upgrades for me is that this is not a game where you are constantly finding weapons that obsolete the old ones you have. There are obviously always a few standout examples, but each weapon has unique tactical properties and if you like it or are comfortable with it you can upgrade it and take it all the way to the end of the game. They are not interested in limiting your flexibility, but rather increasing it. A lovely touch, which took me a while to realize.


My main gripe about this game, and the one that will cause me to knock it one point on gameplay, is the bottomless pits.


When I envision my ideal action-RPG, I do not envision bottomless pits. Zelda gave them an extremely light treatment (lose a bit of life, start at the door of the room), probably too light, but From Software overestimates their ability to mesh genres when they decide that platforming was also a good thing to overlay onto this game. In this game, dying is an incredible bother, because you leave all your souls and humanity at the spot where you died. If you fail to retrieve them, they are gone forever. These can represent hours of gameplay spent, although you learn to travel with as little losable stuff as possible after a while.


From Software certainly had the intelligence to mitigate some of the bad effects of their decision to add platforming elements. They usually put your corpse somewhere up and back from where you fell off, meaning you don’t have to risk falling again to retrieve it. They also do include mercifully few jumps and so forth that are absolutely necessary.


Unfortunately, you find yourself fighting near bottomless chasms much of the time and if you can’t watch your surroundings and fight at the same time, a skill that I barely have even now, you may cleverly dodge a lizardman’s strike only to fly off into space and die in the most ignominious fashion imaginable.


The aesthetics of bottomless pits are atrocious. You’re a brave hero, not a goddamn tightrope walker! Your destiny is to die locked in epic combat with terrible monsters, not slipping on a loose stone and plunging to your death before the enemies even knew you were any sort of threat. Running, rolling, and backstepping all come from the same button in combination with the joystick, and executing the wrong move can be a death sentence - you may backstep when you meant to roll or spring - it can be a bit touchy. Actually jumping requires getting a running start, and then tapping the button you are holding to run, a clunky system that is fine when you are maneuvering over solid ground, but when trying to actually make a real jump it is difficult to time, not least because you have to let go of the button in order to tap it again. There is a boss in the game that requires a leap of faith out over a pit onto a branch that you can’t really see, all while being attacked and possibly firestormed. If you fall to your death, well, get ready for a slog back. The bottomless pit puzzle boss was them running out of ideas, not that I minded a break from the relentless brutality of direct combat. There is also a fun little section of the game where you have to walk out over open air on invisible paths. Remember, one misstep means the last fifteen minutes of your life were mostly wasted!


As you can tell, this point severely got under my skin because the game is too clunky to have bottomless pits. Their combat system is amazingly, wonderfully tightly made and good but not so good that it can bear having zones of instant death impinging themselves on your battle area. Of course I understand using pits as an occasional feature, it adds tactical variety. The whole jumping system was not nearly at the level of quality of the combat system itself, and felt like an afterthought.


I did beat this game, but it was fairly anticlimactic and did not do much to stop me from playing it more because I still felt I could get much, much better than I was, and I have. For the same reasons that Dungeon Crawl and Dominions appeal to me, this game allows you to watch yourself improve more than you thought possible, which is always a wonderful feeling.


Graphics: 5/5 Daggers


I love the visual style of this game, in many ways even more than its successor Dark Souls 2. It’s a more fluid game and that brings a host of gameplay advantages, but the way they rendered light effects and materials and handled the camera in this game made me feel like I was just looking through a magical window directly into a legendary realm. I’ve rarely felt so compelled to beat a hard game just to be able to SEE everything. Every new area has a different feel and aesthetic - like Metroidvania times 100, and I really felt the physicality of the places for some reason. It is the most immersive action RPG I’ve ever played from a graphical standpoint, though of course everything else about the game is woven into the immersiveness. Only gripes were some occasional camera problems.


Sound/Music: 5/5 Daggers


All the screams, clangs, spells, you could possibly need abound here. Sound design is top notch. I know Motoi Sakuraba did the soundtrack for Dark Souls II, a strange synchronicity in my life I can’t go into at the moment, but I’m not sure who did this one. In any case, I remember this game fondly, believe it or not (and this is coming from me) for its lack of music, or at least overwhelming and pulse-pounding themes. It considerably increased the immersiveness of the experience to just hear the quiet blowing of the wind and the clink of your armor as you sneak up on some monstrous foe. It seems more realistic. Furthermore, you need your hearing and music would serve as a distraction in a game this difficult. I can’t tell you how neat this was for me.


Gameplay: 4/5 Daggers


I have to knock it a point for the bottomless pits, as I said, because on the whole I find them needlessly sadistic. I acknowledge their limited use and occasional effectiveness in the game, but I still think it was an unnecessarily brutal feature. Incidentally, they improved this situation greatly in the sequel. Other than this sticking point, I cannot tell you how deeply this satisfies the desire for complex and engaging melee combat with a scope for skill that verges on lifetime mastery. To go from my first game, a chump getting reamed by simple enemies, to my last, when I handily tore through almost every boss in the game that previously reduced me to a screaming rage, is an experience that I do not believe can be replicated in any game, and makes you feel like more of a virtual badass then any action game I can think of, including Devil May Cry et al, because in this game you have to EARN the ability to kick ass with sweat, tears, and your very TIME invested. You will only get good when YOU, the player, get good, and not when your half-demon avatar finds another new toy able to kill several enemies in the space of a second. I love DMC greatly, but I had to work so much harder to get good at this game, and the experience was much more rewarding as a result.


RogueScore: 4/5 Daggers


Rather cunningly, Dark Souls has taken permadeath and flipped it on its head. You are immortal, and cannot permanently die...but dying means you drop any unspent souls your character has right where they die, and you must respawn at the last bonfire you rested at. These tend to be few and far between…


This evokes the brutal XP drain mechanic of Final Fantasy Online and some of those early MMORPGs. Newbies will rarely wander far from their last bonfire for fear of losing what they haven’t spent yet, but as confidence builds this becomes less of an issue. Despite all the XP I lost from this happening, I don’t feel like it slowed me down too much, except in my first one or two games when I sucked badly.


I love how despite the fact that there is no permadeath, it’s almost worse than dying because unless you manage to get back to our corpse and pick up the souls without dying again, they are permanently lost and you just wasted two trips and lost a gang of experience besides. It’s as if the time you just spent on your character didn’t ever actually occur. This can create a “Groundhog Day” syndrome after a while. After a while you learn when to leave your corpse behind and not risk additional pain and aggravation. Get ready to see “You Have Died” about as often as anything else. Pure roguelike.


Randomized item drops, weapon and armor customization, spells and the like are all standard RPG fare implemented in roguelike style. Classes only determine starting attributes and virtually any combination of fighting styles is possible with practice and thought.


In some ways, not a true roguelike, and in some ways an evolution past the roguelike, although moving towards frustration may not be evolution per se.


Final Score: 5/5 Daggers


I couldn’t have played this game when I was younger. It would have made me too angry. If there was a single game that finally taught me a bit of patience and anger management it was THIS GAME. You will not be able to win if you cannot stay cool in the face of truly OUTRAGEOUS circumstances. Most bosses are designed to make you feel helpless just with their appearance. Fighting the Four Kings in the Abyss was something I had dreaded ever since reading about it, and actually standing and facing those bastards and actually beating them was...unbelievable. I didn’t think I could do it. And then I did.


This is the core of why I played this game for so goddamn long. It is the hardest game I have ever played that is not too difficult. Being able to see that you can actually get this much better at a game if you are patient with yourself and hang in there is a huge reward, and those bosses you never thought you would ever beat slowly but surely go down one, by one, by one, until you’re actually standing on the path to the Kiln of the First Flame.


I think Dark Souls allows you to experience the personal psychology of a hero in this raw way better than any other game. You really felt like YOU were the one getting better, and that your character really was just you, wearing some badass armor and wielding a custom weapon you’d been working on for ages. You have to work so hard for it you don’t experience any of the twice-removed and muted excitement one would normally get from beating a boss by simply picking the right choices off of the right menus. You practically experience the satisfaction that the hero themselves would experience in that situation, simply because the personal investment of your own skills and time in winning this fight is almost total.


In short, I’ve never felt like more of a badass hero than when playing this game, even if it took me well over a hundred hours to feel that way, during which time I mostly felt like a pathetic loser. Was it worth it?


Absolutely.


Postscript: Button mashers beware. You will find this game hopelessly difficult until you can overcome this panic reaction to danger. From Software deliberately punishes you severely for improper timing - you must always choose the moment for any action. Good luck!



Dark Souls 2


Overview


After playing the original Dark Souls for truly too many hours, for my birthday last summer Matt gave me Dark Souls 2, which coincidentally came out more or less a month after I discovered Dark Souls, thanks to Steam. Did I mention I paid like ten dollars for Dark Souls? It was even on sale down to like $2.50 at one point. That has to be the best gaming value in history, other than Dungeon Crawl which is free.


Anyway, by playing them back to back I was able to really compare the two games in depth. The most important thing when making a sequel to an incredibly hard game is to somehow make it hard, but in a different way so all the players, like me, who can crush at Dark Souls still need to learn new timing, moves, etc and can’t just waltz through the game simply because you played so much of the original one.


This, they managed to accomplish handily. I can’t tell you how frustrated I was when, at a friend’s house, I tried playing a tiny bit of Dark Souls 2, having built almost total confidence at the original, and got pwned; it was as if I never played Dark Souls at all. Granted, his character was low-level and was built wrong for what I was trying to do, but I got quite angry that all of what I perceived to be the skill I had gained was not immediately useful.


Having actually played it and given it some real thought, I realize now that it couldn’t have been any other way, and actually it’s pretty amazing that they managed to modify the combat engine so skillfully. I sometimes wonder if the move to double frame-rates and smoother more fluid combat was in response to this need for change, or what they had always envisioned for the game with better technology, or maybe a happy coincidence of the two. The smoothness of combat and the relative subtlety of enemy telegraphs compared to the first game means you have to readjust your whole in-the-moment timing and footwork compared to the first game, and as master swordsmen will tell you, timing and footwork is about 80% of proper melee combat.


You see, the best way to avoid getting hit in Dark Souls generally is to prompt a specific attack from the enemy by moving towards them, and then backing away. It is far better to try to dodge an attack that you have deliberately triggered and know is coming than trying to dodge in some general sense for any attack they might throw, particularly because each attack will require you to move and/or dodge in a specific direction to avoid it.


Getting really good at Dark Souls means gaining a sixth sense of the reach of your opponent’s attacks and weapons, and learning to automatically position yourself outside of these areas except when making an attack. This is especially important when fighting multiple enemies at once, and sometimes has to include enemies behind you that you can’t see well or at all. You must also be able to read telegraphs from as many enemies as possible at once - there are also sound telegraphs that can cue you even to stuff happening off-screen, a very handy feature that will save your life a few times.


If your enemy does not manage to hit you or drive you out of weapon reach with their attack, all their attack did was create an opening for you to capitalize on. Economy of motion and energy is key, as wasted stamina on ineffective attacks could end up killing you when you don’t have the stamina to dodge away or effectively block their counterattack. This is pure Way of Five Rings combat principles, put into practice.


This is why Dark Souls’ melee combat is so good - it captures the core principles of actual melee fighting, and allows you to actually use them to play the game at a high level. Miyamoto Musashi’s sword-fighting book can, on some level, make you a better Dark Souls player. I think that is something truly astonishing. Perhaps it was no coincidence that only Japanese designers would be dedicated enough to try to do something this ambitious, and succeed.


I mention all this because you can see that learning all the new timing, enemy moves, and idiosyncracies of Dark Souls II is definitely helped by your experiences with the previous game but alone it won’t be enough. It’s more important that you had the experience of learning these systems, because you’ll be at least partially learning a new one when you get to Dark Souls II.


Many, many things were improved from Dark Souls 1 to 2. There are still bottomless pits, but they were a fraction as frustrating to deal with in DS2 because of the more fluid movement and redone control scheme. I rarely remember suffering from falling death frustration in DS2, compared to DS1 where I seriously considered not playing the game in order to preserve my blood pressure. The mental preparation from the first game was probably a help, though.


The statistics system was redone in a way that is a little more complicated and confusing to start with, but definitely is a solid improvement. Some useless or underutilized statistics from the first game were removed or spliced with new ones, and now your characters movement and dodge speed scales smoothly with equipment weight, and a characteristic called Agility increases the invincibility window on dodging and item use speed, giving lighter characters something to offset their lack of defense.


As I’ve alluded to, the game has a much smoother feel with about double the framerate of the original game and a slipperier, faster movement style. Dodging is more dynamic as a result, if a tad more unpredictable. They added a dual-weapon fighting style and some other fun features to the combat, and a new type of magic hex, which requires two statistics (faith and intelligence) to be effective. Incidentally, I found my Hexer character to be able to absolutely annihilate most enemies and bosses in the game, and although she was pretty fragile, the fact that you can stay at a comfortable distance and fire powerful homing bolts offsets that almost entirely. You can teleport around much more easily, and the constant slogging back and forth between areas previous to getting the Lordvessel from DS1 is much reduced, although even that made you get a better sense of the space and interconnectedness of the really incredible world map.


From a technical/mechanical standpoint, it’s hard to argue that Dark Souls 2 is not a better game than its predecessor, and that is a ridiculous achievement. The only gripe I have about it is that I found the visual style to be less engaging than the original. I’m sure there are some people that agree with me. I think in order to achieve the staggering smoothness of the new game, they changed the way they rendered some of the textures and real-time lighting effects. All of the character, enemies, and equipment look amazing, but less real than in the first one. The materials don’t shine in that dusky way like in DS1, and the ultra-high frame rate has this reality-exceeding smoothness. It looks more like a typical game of this generation - wonderful, ultra high quality, great artistry - but more typical in aesthetic. As I said in my DS1 review, the uncanny feeling that I was looking directly into some sort of parallel fantasy realm through my computer screen was absolutely uncanny, and I’ve never had any experience that replicates it. Dark Souls 2 replicates that feeling of wanting to explore just to see everything, but the scope and scale of it just didn’t seem to be quite as epic as the first.


Graphics: 5/5 Daggers


I’m not going to knock the graphics just because I have a preference for the visuals of the previous game. From start to finish, this game looks just great, plays so much more smoothly than the first, and all the armor and weapons are so nifty I just want to shake the hands with the artists who were so badass as to render them. You still feel the character of each piece of equipment, just like the original. You can see for a long ways towards the horizon line, and the scale of some of the places you enter does strike you immediately. Wonderful combat animations, too. Top nizotch.


Sound/Music: 5/5 Daggers


The music in this game was written by Motoi Sakuraba, the writer of music for the Valkyrie Profile series, not only one of the greatest console RPG series ever, but particularly the first game for PS1 has a soundtrack practically unrivaled in the history of video games. There is almost no way for me to describe the utter originality and compelling character of almost every track off that masterpiece - Motoi was finding new memes while other people thought everything had been done. Outrageous. Listen to it.


This has little relevance to Dark Souls II. As a thoroughly cinematic game, there isn’t much need for the hardcore, motive heavy JRPG tracks that Sakuraba seems to have such astonishing facility with. Rather, it’s a typical movie-soundtrack type thing that I frankly don’t remember hearing, although it’s true I spent about half of my time in DS2 listening to tracks from The Prodigy Experience for fight music. It could be decent for all I know, but I have no interest in learning how to create this kind of music. I want the old stuff, the raw stuff. Alas.


The understated and seldom-used music again adds to the general immersion and the sounds are all A+. What’s not to like?


Gameplay: 5/5 Daggers


As before, the gameplay is what makes Dark Souls 2 amazing despite the fact that it also looks and sounds about as good as any game made to date. There’s even more variety of character abilities, equipment, and ways to play through the game than before, and the characters are even more flexible in their leveling. The combat is smoother and slicker than ever, allowing you to pull off things that the clunkier previous system simply wouldn’t be capable of. Also, the fact that being a veteran of DS1 was only of marginal use to becoming a master at this game is something worthy of wonderment. That is dedication to bring people a particular EXPERIENCE. Seriously.


RogueScore: 3/5 Daggers


I have to say on the whole, Dark Souls 2, for whatever reason, is easier than the original. It could be all because I played the first one before it, but I rarely ran into “boss walls” where I would be stuck at a boss for a few hours while I hemmed and fumed and gained some levels, and tried repeatedly to get it right. This may indicate the game is better designed, but it lessens that monumental feel of beating impossible bosses.


The lesser difficulty means its less roguelike. The whole permalife/corpse run/xp drain system is still in place but its somewhat easier to keep your souls than in the first and there are many more different ways to spend them, making it easier to spend down spare souls than in the past.


For non-freaks like myself, this means I would recommend DS2 over DS1, if people had to play only one. I’d rather people get far enough into the game that they see the brilliance of it, instead of giving up because the learning curve is too steep. As I said, that’s for “people” like me. :D


Overall: 5/5 Daggers


Who can say why From Software is so great, but they are. I can’t even imagine what the art budget would be for a game like this, and how many staff artists are just constantly working around the clock to create the assets for this insane project. Dark Souls games have the feeling of a realized world that few action games these days seem to be interested in emulating. The aesthetics of the game create a genius loci I’ve never experienced in any other series; I had only dreamed of it.


Unlike any other games I have played, the Dark Souls series also made me a more determined individual. I am so not kidding. In most games, determination has nothing to do with it. Addiction is the word. And you can get addicted to the drug-like emotions engendered by Dark Souls.


But as I said, Dark Souls teaches you that seemingly impossible obstacles can be overcome with perseverance and ingenuity. To experience that firsthand (to the extent that video games teach anything firsthand) is going to have an effect on your psyche whether you realize it or not. The only thing in my life that has ever compared to the astonishment of watching myself bring down enemies I swore I was never going to beat in the DS games is the astonishment of watching myself code FreeHolder ex nihilo. I tell you, these things are related.


If any game can teach you this, it would HAVE to be Dark Souls. The highs of victory are incredible, but to earn those highs you must temper your impatience, and control your anger. Anger in Dark Souls is a sure path to death. You must remain calm, and maintain position and timing. You have to find that clear mental state in the middle of chaos, and stay there until the battle is over. I can remember one boss battle in DS1 I fought at least twenty times before I could win (Ornstein and the Executioner, what’s his name, jiminy CHRISTMAS that was hard), and when I finally did I was fundamentally a better Dark Souls player, and a slightly better player of the game of Life. You have to take down not one, but two extremely dangerous bosses at once, and even under ideal circumstances it will take you several minutes to kill them. Therefore, no matter how little life you have, how close you seem to be to death, or victory, you must stay cool until the end, making ZERO stupid mistakes. I’m prone to such mistakes, believe me. Did I mention one of these guys is taking swipes at you with a hammer that’s three times your size, while the other one darts around at lightning speed, throwing thunderbolts and thrusting at you with spear combos? What an exercise in discipline that was! I still can’t believe I won! I beat them more easily in subsequent games, but when I finally beat those two jerks for the first time, Dark Souls had me forever. It changed me slightly, for the better.


Would that all games could be this epic! The psychic imprint of the Dark Souls series rivals that of any of my favorite authors or philosophers. Is this a type of strange social engineering at work? Or is this just the last-gasp justification of a terminal game addict? Or both!?!


You decide!