Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Why Dark Souls is My Favorite Game

The first games I played when I got back into gaming were Fable 2 and God of War 1. I was (after so many years) again a literal noob, so I played both games on easy mode so I wouldn't feel intimidated. Fable 2 was actually too easy thus, so I pushed it up to normal mode, which was also too easy even for my beginner's skillset. In fact, I made the perfect choice of first game, as Fable 2 was great fun and very humorous, and there's a lot of hand-holding. With my bad sense of direction, it was nice to have a literal golden trail to show where to go on the quests. Fable 2 is an excellent choice for a first game due to the gamer-friendly design. God of War was also a great for me as it was also very accessible on easy mode, has a great story, and wonderful gameplay and puzzle mechanics.

However, I wanted a challenge, so I went to GameStop for advice, specifically asking for a difficult but fair game.  A very nice and helpful clerk immediately brought out Demon's Souls and Dark Souls. With the way she was caressing the boxes with such love the entire time, and repeating over and over as if reciting a mantra, "Yes, they are hard, but they are so good; really hard, but really really good." I was sold. She then jokingly told me to guard them with my life on my way out.

I played Demon's Souls first, then Dark Souls.  During the first hour of Dark Souls, I hated it...because "it's just not Demon's Souls".  However, I forced myself to go on, and by the third hour, it had become my favorite game so far. Thanks to the challenging nature of these games, my game skills improved exponentially, but after playing them, I couldn't touch another game for quite awhile because no other really did it for me.

Siegmeyer of Catarina-Onion Bro

Despite Dark Souls sporting quite a few of my gaming pet peeves, these were outweighed by the overall gaming experience. Among the peeves: you play as the Chosen Undead, who has no personality. When one of my favorite characters was killed, Siegmeyer (aka Onion Bro), I was upset since I'd followed him the entire game, but the Chosen Undead simply stood there with a blank stare. This is in stark contrast to Horizon: Zero Dawn's Aloy. As Aloy, when I was exploring and saw a woman with a black eye, my response was "WTF, what happened to her?" Curious, I talked to the character, and refreshingly, Aloy had the same sentiment, which made for a more satisfying emotional experience. This scene was especially memorable to me as that NPC woman directs you to your first epic cauldron. But no, unlike Aloy or Kratos, the Chosen Undead just stares into space even if something drastic is going down. I find that zombified unnamed characters detract from my emotional connection to a game.


The story can be described in one sentence; it's not as captivating as that of most games. I would also say that Dark Souls has the worst ending of all the games I've played. After defeating the Lord of Cinders, at the end of the most satisfying gameplay experience I've had, it finishes with, essentially, "You linked the fire. Bye".  This is in stark contrast to the end of God of War where you supplant Ares and become *THE* God of War, in a far more cathartic cutscene.


A third peeve is the notoriously awful framerate in Blighttown. It feels that it frequently dips to 10 fps (perhaps even lower?) on the PS3 and the XBox 360, both versions I played.  However, the PC version does not have these framerate problems, and it even includes the best DLC I have played, Artorias of the Abyss.  It can run on an average PC (I used the MacBook BootCamp), so I recommend playing the PC version, especially if you can connect it to a large TV.  I am hoping that From software remasters Dark Souls for current-gen consoles as it's sorely needed.


That being said, here are the pros that completely crush the cons:


1. Gameplay mechanics.

My beloved Great Scythe
For me, the absolute most important aspect of videogames is the game play. Just walking around in a metal armor, hearing the sound of your footsteps crunching is addictive. The squishy sound of my beloved Great Scythe hitting a hollow on its head never gets old. Backstabbing an enemy never gets old. A parry is even more satisfying, especially with the special sound and graphic effect when one succeeds. In other words, the visceral feel of the weapons, armor and shields, adds to the quality of the combat and traversal, as each weapon, armor and shield feel unique. No other game has so much visceral feel to it, so that in fighting an enemy, you are engaged and really feel like you're attacking actual adversaries. In contrast, the melee in Oblivion feels like waving one's hands around in space and can't tell if I'm actually hitting the creatures.

Further, the combat is very responsive. When you press a button, your character acts, rather than lagging or not registering at all, as I've found in quite a few games so very frustrating. The enemies all have consistent attack patterns and hit boxes so you can master defeating them, and I really appreciate this consistency and precision. The exacting battle mechanics are extremely satisfying as a result.


In addition to the superb melee combat, there's a lot of ranged options including bows, spells and miracles. Shooting the bow and landing head shots is also addictive, and spells and miracles, though "noobish," are fun.


The enemy placement is brilliant. There's never a point where there are too many enemies, so you can kill everything, and then take the time to explore the amazing world. They are spaced consistently so it's gratifying to be able to memorize their placements and figure out a route from bonfire to bonfire, as you only have so many estus flasks (healing items) to strategize.  The game's successors, Bloodborne and Dark Souls 3, have areas where it's better to run away from all the enemies (as some are too powerful and too numerous), taking away from exploration.


I really find an explorable world crucial to my enjoyment of a video game, and Dark Souls mastered that element more than any other game in part due to the careful enemy placement.


2. Game level design.

I'm still blown away thinking about the level design of this game.The entire overworld is a dungeon, with intricate shortcuts, verticality hidden treasures, t
Map of the Depths-note all the criss-crossing arrows
raps and the like. Even within one screen shot, you may miss a treasure that is somewhere tucked around in a corner that you may not think to look to. After beating the tutorial boss, you go straight on to be flown to Firelink Shrine.  However, if you do as directed by the orange message on the floor, it's easy to miss a soul item on your left, though you may notice the crow's nest on your right.


Indeed, in quite a few games, when you go from town to town, the world is usually a field where you go straight from point A to B; with none of the traps, twists and turns, shortcuts, nor surprises that you constantly encounter in Dark Souls.


The passage from the start, from the Undead Asylum to Firelink Shrine, and branches out to the Undead Burg and the Undead Parish, which then takes one to the Deep Basin and the Depths, both leading to the DLC final boss and one of the lords that you must defeat to beat the game, is something that will be difficult to eclipse. These areas also wrap around each other.  For instance, one can go from Firelink Shrine to Undead Burgh to Undead Parish, and then back to Firelink Shrine (via an elevator), and then into the Depths going directly back to the Undead Burgh and/or Parish.


Furthermore, not only do you have the complicated horizontal space to deal with, but also vertical. In the Undead Burgh, for example, you can find additional treasures and enemies by using the many ladders and ledges, and many more in Blighttown. Blighttown is nightmarish to me, with multiple ladders and/or ledges leading to different levels (differing heights) even within the same screen.  So I couldn't say that this item is on Floor 1 and the next is on Floor 2 as there are multiple-tier levels between those floors.

Solaire of Astora-Sun Bro

An even better example of brilliant level design can be found when one defeats the boss in the Undead Burgh for the first time (the Taurus demon) and chances upon fan favorite Solaire of Astora (aka Sun Bro). I was very nervous, not knowing how far to the next bonfire to rest and heal, and shouldn't I already have arrived at one since I beat the boss of that area? Surely I wasn't going to die and then lose all my souls so that I couldn't retrieve them? What poor game design, I thought on my first walkthrough. Nevertheless, I managed to cross the bridge, the red hellkite dragon's fire falling down on me, and found the staircase. Then I stumbled upon a ladder to kick down, and I was back at the starting bonfire of the area!!! I can then climb up that ladder to reach the next area. Opening up that shortcut was not only a relief, but a revelation.


I also appreciate that there are no maps in-game, despite my lack of a sense of direction. The level design is so brilliant and the world-building so incredible that you want to explore every corner... and getting lost adds enjoyable anxiety and tension. Blighttown's FPS-rate is really bad but at that point, I didn't care, being too stressed from getting lost in the complicated level design, and frantically finding a bonfire to worry about framerates.


The level design is so intertwined and intricate throughout the entire game that I was actually relieved that the path to the final boss was simple and linear with no odd traps, since my nerves were shot after defeating the four required lords.


I don't think that even Miyazaki-san himself, the game's developer, can improve on this ever-branching, complex level design, as I haven't seen this degree of intertwining and overlapping even in the next two games he oversaw, Bloodborne and Dark Souls 3.


The spectacular level design enhances the exploration and keeps you thoroughly engaged. It's almost impossible to be bored exploring such a well-crafted, bespoke world.


3. World-building and lore.

I know a lot of Dark Souls adherents say that there's a lot of story if you look for it, but there really isn't. There is a story, but not at the level of other JRPGs. However, the world-building and lore are coherent and expansive. EpicNameBro does a superb job discussing the lore. In fact, one can make an entire video game based on the lore of even Ceaseless Discharge. Ceaseless is not everyone's favorite boss, which is why he makes a useful example; his touching backstory describes how his mother and sisters created a ring to protect him against the elements, necessarily due to his unfortunate skin condition, as they loved him so. In turn, he viciously guards his sisters' gravesite. I'm sure a writer could flesh out a script for a video game from that.
Anor Londo

The variety of the environments is strikingly diverse, and often unexpected. I was surprised to see Ash Lake, after emerging from the vertical intentionally drab Great Hollow, not expecting such a colorful scene. Other standout areas are the Painted World of Ariamis, which is a breathtaking snow-covered land, and of course the awe-inspiring Anor Londo. There are dungeons within this overall dungeon-like world, such as Sen's Fortress and the Duke's Archives. If you click on the pictures of each of the Dark Souls areas, they are all very different (except that the DLC Oolacile township looks like a deluxe form of the Undead Burgh/Parish), and they fit together seamlessly as you move from each to the next.


4. RPG elements.

Along with the addictive melee and range combat mechanics, the RPG elements add another obsession-inducing level. As a noob playing this game, I found it difficult at first. However, after I got hooked, I saw it was not so difficult, because I would grind up levels upon each death, which is fun and easy to do given the addictive combat. I'm embarrassed to admit I think I was level 20 when I took on the Taurus demon, the first proper boss.

However, if you're an experienced player, I don't think grinding is necessary, because in addition to the experience you get from naturally fighting enemies and bosses, you also come across soul items that you can use to level up. This is a great game-design decision because those who hate to grind don't need to, and those who love to grind to be overpowered have infinite opportunities to do so.


In fact, given the RPG elements and the balance of play, you can even beat the
Weapon Upgrade Guide
game with your original equipment. You can improve your weapon and armor with various shards, and they go up to +5/+10 and +15 on elemental and non-elemental pathways. The staff cannot be reinforced, but when you get two of the top-tier staffs, you will find there's no need, as magic is rather overpowered in this game. So, if you don't like exploring and finding items, there's no need.


There are different stats that you can level up individually, as opposed to some RPGs where they level up your health, defense, and other categories all automatically for you. In other words, you can choose to increase your health, your stamina, intelligence or any of the other stats how you want to, so you can focus on specific builds, such as strength, dexterity, or others you fancy. I always go for a dexterity/intelligence build.


5. Boss fights.

Dark Souls presents unique and unforgettable bosses. I can't remember some bosses even from my other favorite games, but you can't forget any from Dark Souls. How can anyone forget the first tutorial boss, the obese and humorous Asylum Demon, who floats by flapping his miniscule wings? He has this rather goofy, buck-toothed expression when he squints at you before you do the plunge attack. Or the emotionally wrenching experience of killing Sif, who begins to limp as you kill him, or the ferocious grandeur of Artorias of the Abyss, who doesn't seem to have a stamina bar. Although you can co-op with all the bosses except for the tutorial one, out of respect for the incredible
Sir Artorias of the Abyss-YIKES!
challenge that Artorias poses, you owe it to yourself to duel one on one with him. I also enjoyed the challenges of cutting off the various bosses' tails such as those of Kalameet, Crossbreed Priscilla, Seath and others, including the Gaping Dragon.


The bosses are also memorable due to the foreboding one feels when entering the fog gate before every boss fight, the cutscenes before the fights, the specific music and/or sound effects for each boss (in some other games, all the boss music is the same), and most importantly, their unique and varied designs, and their consistent attack patterns that allow for mastering them.


6. Polished design.

Except for Blighttown's framerate problems on the last-generation consoles, and the unpleasing weird ugliness of the Demon Ruins/Lost Izalith area's design, in my hundreds and hundreds of hours, the only combat glitch and lag that I can recall is when entering Anor Londo and encountering the Gargoyle that "greets" you. When I push the R1 light attack button, there is lag, and it doesn't strike the Gargoyle. As that is the only major glitch that I can remember, this really distinguishes Dark Souls from the many rather glitchy games.

7. Variety of trash mobs.

The dreaded Basilisk
The great variety of enemies is staggering, from the hollows to weird slugs, rock crystal monsters, skeletons, rats, toad-like creatures (the dreaded Basilisks), and other, hard to describe monsters. Even six years after the game's release, they don't feel at all outdated nor surpassed. The details of the interesting enemy designs and their animation, whether the basic hollow or the sophisticated taurus and capra demons are numerous. Each enemy, as noted above, has different, interesting attack patterns and sound effects. Even the hollow warriors, versus the vanilla hollows, have different sounds they make when you kill them; they also attack differently...the warrior slashing his sword deliberately and the hollow wildly flailing with his broken sword.

8. Replayability.

Even without the multiplayer aspects, I could easily play this game for hundreds and hundreds of hours, in part thanks to the NG+ levels, where each level increases in difficulty every time you beat the game, and that the combat mechanics never get old. Since I loved the game so much at first play, I was determined to reach and beat the hardest difficulty level, despite my noob status at that time. I succeeded thanks to TechPhantomReviewer.

Because of the addictive quality of the game and the increasing difficulty levels upon completion, I keep coming back to Dark Souls while deciding what new game I want to play next.


Conclusion.

The reasons for loving the game more than compensate for the few flaws. It's like winning the lottery in a country where you pay minimal tax. You get $250 million (overall Dark Souls experience), even if you have to pay $1 million in taxes.

If a game could otherwise have the same features as Dark Souls, but with a fleshed-out story and an expressive main character, that game will probably replace Dark Souls as my favorite. But I really don't foresee another game that has this incredible variety of world-building and lore so nevertheless cohesive and seamless, with a similarly mind-blowing level- and semi-open world-design, the variety and grandeur of the bosses/enemies, and the addictive, precise melee and range mechanics that never get old. This is why Dark Souls will likely remain my favorite game.


-Alice

2 comments:

  1. This article sums up perfectly why Dark Souls is also my favourite game of all time. Yes, it has it's small flaws, but the level design and game mechanics are absolutely brilliant and it truly is a masterpiece of gaming history. It changed my entire outlook on gaming and made me the challenge loving player that I am today, also it was my first ever platinum because I wanted to do everything it could offer and more. Thank you for this article Alice, it reminds me why I love this game so much :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Great to see you here and welcome! I completely agree with you because DS1 made me a better gamer--to be more deliberate than just tanking the enemies, as prior games allowed me to do, but it's just not satisfying!

      I didn't realize it was your first Platinum! Actually, I think it might be my first too, and made me go to NG+7 because I wanted to master the game! There's something about the game that you wanted to be at your very best, which is a sign of a masterpiece.

      However, I believe this article isn't as brilliant as your Twitch stream--great to see your audience growing and soon, you'll get a subscription button, and gaming outlets will send you free games to demonstrate!

      Delete

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