In other happenings, many of you know that I only recently got into the Dark Souls series, and now that months have passed since playing DS1, I've beaten every game in the series, if you're also including Bloodborne and Demon's Souls.
I wrote these up a while ago to give my thoughts on at least the Dark Souls trilogy.
Dark Souls: 9.75/10
Game Design: 9.5
Dark Souls is a game that takes the design philosophy of classics like Super Metroid, and pushes it to its apex; Interconnectivity of worlds, seamlessly integrated with the combat and movement mechanics of the player character. A game that forces the player to learn how the game is played, not through tutorials or hand-holding, but through cleverly designed environmental cues and specific enemy placement. Everything the player needs to know to succeed is in the game’s beginning area, the Undead Asylum. It makes the player aware of their abilities and their limits by letting them explore and find these key aspects out for themselves; to pay attention to their surroundings, and at a very base level, that the game isn’t joking around. At is core, Dark Souls is heralded as a notoriously difficult game, and while this is partly true, difficulty comes in multiple flavors. While some games think that to be difficult, one must bombard the player with obstacles, this isn’t quite what Dark Souls tries to achieve. Dark Souls is often given the description of ‘organically difficult’; a worthy challenge, but one that is exceptionally designed and never unfair. Honestly, the only point at which the game drops the ball is the Demon Ruins and its connecting areas, you can tell the development team was rushed or had run their budget dry.
In essence, the key to Dark Souls is to learn. The game constantly reminds me you of gameplay mechanics you must learn in order to progress. Early on, the Taurus Demon is fought on a narrow bridge, with very little room to get around your opponent, forcing the player to recognize their enemy’s attack patterns and signs. The battle with Sif, for example, is a boss fight focused completely on stamina management… by the time you get to the dreaded bosses of Anor Londo, Smough and Ornstein, it marks about the halfway point of the entire game and is a rigorous test of everything the player has learned up until that point; Stamina management, recognizing openings for attacks, learning how to prioritize one enemy over the other when being double-teamed, and when to take risks when you have the upper hand.
As a player builds their character, they become aware of certain advantages each class has; do they prefer the direct and confrontational nature of a melee-based build? Or the more defensive, yet more time-consuming and in some ways, riskier nature of a pyromancer or spellcaster? Each subsequent playthough of the game results in a different experience; players all seem to play the game very differently and in different orders… the game’s re-playability is high, especially for not being a sandbox title where one can virtually do anything they want.
Fantasy is a genre that is often seen as stale and generic, using commonly found tropes and never venturing outside of them. Dark Souls takes those tropes and while celebrating their classic nature, twists them to become something new and different, from both a thematic and visual standpoint. It’s that distinctly European Medieval aesthetic commonly seen in fantasy films and other media, but also distinctly Japanese and influenced by their rich cornucopia of mythological yokai; a celebration of the gleefully bizarre or disturbing. It takes itself solemly serious, but injects the idiosyncratic and humorous tendencies of Japanese mythology and creature design. This leads to an even and cohesive mixture that seamlessly gels the ‘fun’ with the ‘serious’.
Graphically, despite the low-quality of some of the game’s modeling (by today’s standards), it has a distinctive, grungy style that has aged better than most from its era. Its animation is fluid and graceful. Combat animation is fast-paced, responsive and satisfying. The punchy sound design aids in the atmosphere, and adds a weight to every attack. The score is gorgeously orchestrated, yet minimal; it’s used very effectively and only for the most tense and exciting moments in the game.
Story is an aspect that has divided a lot of the gaming community. On one hand, you have gamers that prefer gameplay over story, that the playability should have higher priority than the narrative. Others say that story is what draws you to a game, and the medium is turning into a constantly evolving way to tell those narratives in new and engaging ways. Dark Souls is a gap-bridging game that focuses a lot on fluid and intuitive gameplay, but one where the story is perfectly intwined into the gameplay itself. The world building is flawlessly revealed through item collecting, in-game events, and environmental storytelling; choices the player must consciously make to know more about what the world of Dark Souls is about… Choices that ultimately make the experience a richer and more fulfilling one.
Dark Souls 2: 5.0/10
Game Design: 4
Dark Souls 2 is not nearly as celebrated as the first (excluding Demon’s Souls) game in the series, and for generally good reason. It seems to attribute Dark Souls’ lingering popularity to its difficult nature and runs with that, and without the genius level design, makes it feel lopsided. While Dark Souls 2 opts to impede the player’s progress a lot more, and gets rid of some standard mechanics the series had been known for, the game is also simultaneously the easiest in the series. There are bonfires almost every 100 feet, it seems. Enemy variety is generally low. Boss fights are generally very predictable, uninspired and dull. The environmental level design is very linear, especially in comparison to the openness of DS1. In some cases, such as Brightstone Tseldora Cove, the level design is flat-out terrible. The animation and models lack weight, making it feel less fluid, more clunky and less precise than the first title, making it harder to time parries and find satisfaction in the combat. There are some welcome changes however: User Interface is handled much better and more conveniently. The analog click jump is a much better solution than the irritating double tap jump from DS1. The process of becoming Human has been nicely streamlined and simplified.
There’s some potentially memorable fights to be had, ones with interesting environmental quirks: The Flexile Sentry of No-Man’s Wharf is fought inside of a docked pirate ship, with water rising slowly throughout the fight… Mytha of Earthen Peak is fought in a pool of poison (that the player can decide to drain, making it a lot easier)… The Lost Sinner is fought in the dark, using the limited visibility to the player’s disadvantage… and yet, the fights themselves leave much to be desired, are pretty drab and more-or-less, disappointingly easy. Even the game’s final boss was a pushover.
As with DS1, you can choose between different classes and I’m sure subsequent playthroughs will result in very different experiences, but I have no desire to play through it again, as it was an incredibly unsatisfying title. Going into New Game+ for a few minutes, I was bombarded by a slew of higher-powered enemies as soon as I spawned into the world, with zero breathing room. The game needn’t tell me more, they simply didn’t get what made Dark Souls so good. In essence, it’s not a worthy followup to one of the most well-designed games in recent memory.
Visually, though it has a higher graphic fidelity than its predecessor, the textures and lighting feel subpar, and at its best, feels like an “off-model” Dark Souls, and at its worst, feels like a generic budget fantasy title from the previous generation of consoles. Sound design is less pronounced (and is often heavily delayed), adding an extra layer of unsatisfying, dull mushiness to the experience. Gone is the fast-paced fluidity that made a challenging first game incredibly entertaining to play…What we have is a game that is a slog to progress anywhere due to dull visuals, mediocre level design and mushy animation. It feels as though DS2’s Modus Operandi is “quantity over quality” there’s simply too many bosses and too many areas for any one of those to stand out as memorable. From a character and creature design standpoint, with the exception of maybe a couple of enemies and bosses (notably the Demon of Song, Fire Salamanders and the Giants) everything feels so ‘stock’ fantasy, doing away with that darkly oppressive, yet creatively rich aesthetic the first game possessed.
While DS2’s story is, like DS1’s, collected through the myriad of items in the game, it’s to a much lesser extent (most items describe themselves pretty formally, with not a lot of added lore) and certainly not as well integrated into the environments. Because of the rather typical aesthetic it has, the environments, enemies and bosses don’t instill that sense of rich lore that they do in the game’s predecessor. Because of the lack of well designed bosses and the sheer amount of them, none of them feel all that important to the game’s story, and never feel like characters; rather just plain vanilla bosses and obstacles. It feels as though there’s a lack of stakes, and a complete lack of personality. Funnily enough, the story starts to get a bit more interesting at the very end, but at that point, it’s time to fight the final boss and it’s over. It’s not that the story is necessarily bad, and I admittedly didn’t pay as much attention to ‘piece it together’ this time around, but it’s just that there isn’t a lot of motivation to get you to care about the world and its inhabitants.
Dark Souls 3: 10/10
Game Design: 9.5
Dark Souls 3, to put it simply, is a return to form. Everything that made Dark Souls 1 such a fantastic game is back and in many instances, is better than ever. The interconnectivity of the worlds and the finding of shortcuts is incredibly satisfying from an exploratory standpoint. The combat design is just as intuitive, and even more fine-tuned and expanded, resulting in even more possibilities and variety in the way you choose to fight. Bosses are even more engaging and challenging, bringing an adrenaline rush with every new fight. Multi-tiered enemy placement and environment design makes every new area distinct and bring forth different challenges in the process. It is essentially, the game that Dark Souls 2 should have been, had they known what made Dark Souls a success to begin with. It just goes to show that the game’s committed director, Hidetaka Miyazaki, was absent from 2 and was brought back on for 3. Just as DS1, it is very replayable because of how truly fun the game is to play and how much flow there is to the game’s environmental design. It goes to show that once I had beaten the Soul of Cinder, I immediately wanted to start New Game +, and with new items to be found in subsequent playthoughs, there’s a lot of motivation to do so.
Though it’s my favorite in the series to play, the only thing I can say is that the first Dark Souls has a very particular visual flavor that I don’t think any of its sequels have been able to repeat, that stark and desolate oppressiveness that sets it apart from other titles in the genre. It’s kind of missing here, but it also heavily draws from the first game in very satisfying ways all the same. It definitely doesn’t have an equivalent to the poorly designed Lost Izalith and Demon Ruins, thereby making it more consistently good than DS1, which does place it a bit higher in ranking for me, but it more-or-less evens out since DS1 is the most distinct game in the series.
Dark Souls 3 is easily the best looking game in the series, and is one of the best looking current-gem games, period. The level design and atmosphere is gorgeous, the animation is more fluid and graceful than ever before, and the series’ epic, orchestrated soundtracks are back in full swing. The creature and boss designs, though not as iconic as DS1’s, are full of personality and character, all memorable in their own special ways. Some of the series absolute best boss fights are in DS3; Lothric and Lorian, the Abyss Watchers, Soul of Cinder…
While I do have a soft spot for DS1’s particular role in the overarching story of the series, DS3’s story is just as thematically engaging and well-integrated into the game, environment and character design. A story that captures those dark and tragic, almost nihilistic overtones that has set the series apart from other lighter and more ‘black and white’ fantasy titles. The bosses and npcs all bring their own distinct and important piece to the puzzle, making them all feel like living and breathing, tangible and developed characters.