Dark Souls

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Dark Souls is famed for its difficulty, but it’s not so bad, really: the developers knew that death wouldn’t be a problem if the player could learn from it and adapt, and the game never demands physical feats like rapid QTE button tapping. Even parrying is more about prediction than reflexes: some talent wouldn’t hurt, but combat experience is more important. Compared to other more annoying systems of trial-and-error, here death can be avoided the first time around if you’re paying close attention: I died many hundreds of times, often stupidly, but no skeleton hiding behind a corner ever kicked me into a bottomless pit. People revere and mythologize difficulty, but anyone can make a hard game: just double the HP of all the enemies, and if that doesn’t work, double it again. In Dark Souls, no enemy takes more than a few hits. It’s hard and fun. You don’t need to bring a specific spell or piece of equipment as an esoteric hard counter to a specific enemy attack. You don’t need to tediously raise your numbers up to survive, although if you like collecting all the weapons and gear, there certainly can be a grind.

Even the toughest bosses took no more than maybe ten tries (maybe fifteen to solo Ornstein after Smough in NG+). And these fights were usually just a hop, skip, and jump away from the nearest respawn point–usually. While I occasionally looked up elemental weaknesses on the wiki, the many paragraphs about a creature’s attack patterns were just noise–I had to learn such things for myself or not at all. While for many bosses in my first playthrough, I only learned to avoid one or two particularly rough moves and otherwise won by quaffing flasks at the right moments and hurting them faster than they could hurt me, every once in a while there’d be a fight I stood no chance in hell of tanking, so I’d learn from my mistakes, and it would soon become something far more elaborate and interesting. Kalameet, for example–I’d dodge his moves for minutes in my lightest armor, just looking for the time to strike at his tail. It was intense.

There were definitely some hard parts that I wasn’t eager to revisit. The Painted World of Ariamis was one of those mind-blowing “Just how big is this game?” moments, but being trapped in there with its toxic enemies might’ve made me take another “extended break” from the game if I hadn’t been on an encouraging Skype-chat at the time with two friends who were playing their own saves in parallel and stuck in the same predicament. The traps of Sen’s Fortress weren’t nearly as discouraging as the thought of leaving Anor Londo without beating Ornstein and Smough, and thus having to do Sen’s Fortress again from the beginning, though it turned out I’d missed an elevator shortcut in my first playthrough, which would’ve alleviated that horror. Blighttown seemed to stretch on forever, because I could fall to my death at any moment and lose tens of thousands of souls, and sure enough, that happened once or twice. I might’ve done a couple things differently, but the challenge made victory all the more rewarding, and if I ever truly got frustrated with one area, I usually had a half-dozen other places to explore instead. Some of those unexplored passages met up with each other or didn’t go anywhere important, and in NG+ I didn’t have more than a couple things to do at any one time, but when playing blind with a map you’ve drawn on paper, there’s no difference between one unexplored path and any other. You don’t know that the bridge at the Valley of Drakes is simply a shortcut to the bottom of New Londo once the water’s been drained. You just know that a bunch of fucking drakes that will kill you are hanging out on a bridge and that you’ve got other places to be, so it becomes the eighth question mark on your map. I once heard somebody criticize Dark Souls as being rather linear–choose which of two bells to ring first, get the lordvessel, get the lord souls–but from my perspective that seems like someone played the game deeply wrong.

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Dark Souls: PTDE is the best game of 2012, but it’s worth saying that I knew in advance that I was going to like it. Are there some decent games out there that I would’ve liked a lot more if I showed them half the patience I showed Dark Souls? Almost certainly. I started Dark Souls over a year before ultimately finishing it, played for a few days and then shelved it. I thought I’d understood then that it was a good game, but I really had no idea. I only started again because A) the sequel just came out, B) I usually had a friend around to play in parallel with, which was really motivating, and C) I was worried about what the promised GFWL shutdown would do, although that turned out to be a non-issue. Having intimately hand-drawn maps and handwritten notes will improve the experience of any game, as will discussing things with people you know instead of looking at the wiki whenever anything confuses you for more than one second (an urge I didn’t always resist). The last game I played like this, with detailed notes and everything, was Fez, and I knew I was going to like that game too, because I was told that I would. (It probably deserves mention that Etrian Odyssey IV incorporated the hand-drawn map experience directly, with some success, although with building maps in fixed units like that, I didn’t think of it as tapping into that sense of intimacy at the time.)

Dark Souls isn’t flawless. Bad ragdolls get caught on the player’s feet and fall through the floor, or ghosts die in the air, in rare cases causing loot to become inaccessible. Mechanics and interface buttons are awkwardly described and labeled, and the interface is messy. Players can’t filter or easily sort their items, and may have to scroll for several minutes to find what they’re looking for. There were also a number of netcode or online connectivity issues.

When it worked as intended, PvP was amazing. The most tense moments in an already high-stakes game were always the invasions. Getting killed by some Darkmoon covenanter while trying to make it to the Anor Londo boss door without losing my humanity was rough, but then there was that immensely satisfying experience of getting the same jerk griefer three times in a row in Oolacile Township, trying to cheese me by kiting me into a pack of Bloatheads–I beat the snot out of both him and the enemies all three times. On the third and final time, I stood over his corpse and sarcastically threw down an item that shouted “I’M SORRY.” I’ll never forget that. But I also shouldn’t forget how the game would occasionally attempt to connect to an invading player, lock the area gates down, and prevent me from kindling a bonfire I’d just reached for a few agonizing minutes… before ultimately giving up, wasting my time for no reason. GFWL was horrible and forced always-online play sucks, even if it’s far more justifiable in brutal Dark Souls player invasions than it is in Sim City sharing features or whatever else the concept is infamous for. I wasn’t able to play one morning because GFWL was down. That was a problem, especially when I’m fickle and it doesn’t take a strong incentive to make me quit a stressful activity.

I’m sure it helps that I usually took a patient approach to the game and didn’t over-examine the wiki, but even besides that, the list of things the game does amazingly well is long. Its dynamic weapon animations and properties are the best way to do combat. Different styles of weapons are valued for more than just flavor, and DPS is practically irrelevant when looking for the best weapon. Players need to consider the trade-offs of heavy armor and maneuverability, range versus stability, and so on: what can this scythe do if the opponent closes the gap between us? Do I like this halberd’s two-handed double horizontal swing? By the end I would think so much in combat about how to close a gap or preserve one, when to rush in and when not to overextend myself, and it’s this need for thinking that keeps gameplay from getting tedious. It’s a beautiful thing how the game shapes you. I would have dreams about falling into ravines, and for months afterward I’d subconsciously see parry windows while watching characters fight in action movies. Rather than just memorizing strategies to win, which wouldn’t carry over to other games or anything else, I feel like you really learn to improve yourself and dauntlessly take on new challenges. There must have been some general learning experiences like this in games I played when I was a little tyke, but then I got the hang of things and games became simple time-killers. Maybe Dark Souls is like going back to school to learn math, after having gotten by for years with just the four basic operations. That’s clumsy though, if I’m being honest. It’s hard to articulate just what is at the heart of Dark Souls, apart from a rare architect who seems to understand that humans are things that are easily influenced and manipulated by the mechanics of the world they inhabit. (RNG, then, is at best a missed opportunity, and at worst a way to manipulate a player into going completely insane.)

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Its minimalist storytelling and lore are fascinating and engaging, and bring fond memories of the Berserk manga. The care that went into everything is always evident. The environments are incredible, and it’s hard to think about how much less AAA studios have done with a far larger budget. Skyrim and Grand Theft Auto and Just Cause and so on are probably a thousand times larger in terms of kilometers or whatever, but there are very few reasons to explore those places. In Dark Souls, you earn every square meter, one step at a time. For days, every time I thought I had the scope of things pretty much locked down or anticipated on my pencil-and-paper map, I’d discover a new chain of locations, each more immense than the last, and my jaw would drop at the magnitude of it all. There’s only maybe two dozen areas, but they’re built with love, unlike Skyrim’s hundreds of dungeons, and I know them like they’re a part of me now. I grin when I think about how I might have missed the entirety of The Great Hollow and Ash Lake if I hadn’t been on a Skype call with a friend when he found it, or if there hadn’t been a soapstone message behind the treasure chest at the false end to the passage. And with the exception of the Asylum and the Kiln of the First Flame, it’s all spatially connected and coherent. It’s hard to overstate what that does for the experience of traversing and knowing that world.

This is what Zelda has been missing in its last decade-plus of unadventurous adventures, where you find the square pegs for the square holes, going through the motions and ticking off the boxes on the automap. I would like to see From Software make a Zelda game as much as I’d like to see them make a Berserk one (sometimes I feel like Dark Souls is Berserk: The Game). A Zelda game in this style could disassociate from the punishing difficulty of Dark Souls in a number of ways if need be, like being able to reload saves, but even so, could still establish a messier world where missing inventory items aren’t constant barriers to exploration, and you don’t know whether there are four dungeons or fifteen, and you’re not out to get all the triforce shards or heart container pieces or whatever so most of the locations are pretty optional. According to the wiki, 14 of Dark Souls’ 26 bosses can be skipped entirely, and that’s not counting any unintended exploits. Maybe in doing them you find a new weapon or spell that’s cool to use, or you level up once or twice in the process, or maybe the exploration uncovers a bit of lore or a beautiful view, and that’s the only real reward.

I’d love to see a Zelda with consequences, where everything hasn’t been designed to be seen and collected in one playthrough no matter what the player does. This is the biggest benefit to NG+ in Dark Souls: considering that almost all items can be farmed and maxed out on the first playthrough, the player will pretty much get as strong as they’re ever going to in their first run. Though it’s probably mainly used to fill out the small gaps in an item collection, Dark Souls NG+ exists more to increase the challenge rather than to casualize it as a reward. It’s also useful to see the side-stories of any NPCs you had inadvertently killed. While I wouldn’t expect Zelda’s NPCs to die or even kill each other while Link isn’t around, they still shouldn’t wait around forever for you to make time for their quests. (I’m reminded of a certain woodcutter’s quest in The Witcher, where everybody dies if you decide to play like you’re in Skyrim, waiting months before getting around to some “urgent” item on your quest log.) Sometimes NPCs should try to solve their own problems. Maybe Link isn’t really the best outlet for exploring the hazardous consequences of a white savior complex, rushing in and trying to blitzkrieg a centuries-long Goron conflict or whatever–maybe that’s more Mass Effect’s problem–but it still doesn’t have to be so accommodating.

I don’t hate Zelda; those are beautiful games. But comparing the two series has been instrumental in seeing just why I’m unwilling to commit to a new Zelda game and why I’m so fascinated with Dark Souls. It isn’t just about doing the dungeons in any order, as the latest 3DS Zelda at the time of this writing promises. A paint-by-numbers book doesn’t force you to color the number 1 before the number 2, either. What use is this nonlinearity for the sake of nonlinearity?

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In short, Dark Souls is beauty. Dark Souls is ἀρετή defined. If Phaedrus had found Dark Souls, his journey would have been over.

This game is amazing, and whatever flaws it has, it is a mandatory experience for anyone whose tastes are similar to the reviewer’s. Things like frequent crashes or graphical issues do not even begin to make a dent on this score, because the soul of this game contains something eternal. It approaches perfection.
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