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I'd heard a lot about Dark Souls. I'm pretty sure it's been years at this point since it first came to my attention, but I had been scared off for a while. Not because of the gameplay or its reputation, but just because of Games for Windows Live. By the time I finally got Dark Souls, I knew that it was going to switch from GFW to Steam matchmaking at some point, so I loaded it up, played it for a bit, and then I-


Dark Souls

DAMMIT.

So I loaded it up, played it for a bit to see how it worked, and then set it aside for months while I played other games. I definitely had enough, after all. But eventually I finished Planescape: Torment after Dark Souls had made the switch, and I decided that it was a good time to start. Most of what I heard about Dark Souls fit in pretty well with the kind of games I like, or the way I mod games to be if they don't come that way out of the box. Oppressive atmosphere, difficulty focusing on fairness (in terms of if a headshot kills you, it kills the enemies too), atmosphere-


Dark Souls

I thought I dodged that! What the hell?!

Anyway, I can say that Dark Souls definitely lived up to the hype. I know that being enthusiastic about things is uncool and ironic detachment is the order of the day, but this game is so good! I played almost a hundred hours of Dark Souls in the past month, and it's true that some of that is just because it takes a while to get through the main game, I got sucked into the side aspects like PVP or-


Dark Souls

Emoji Sweatdrop

I saw that screen a lot during this game. At least, I did until I got to the Anor Londo archers, where I felt that FFUUUUUUUUUUUUUU was a better expression of my frustration. That's Dark Souls!

To my mind, the main reason that Dark Souls is so great is that it's fair. The majority of the time, the same rules apply to both you and your enemies. You need Stamina to block, run, and swing weapons, and so do your foes. You have limited life, and so do your enemies. You can dodge around like a ninja, and so can some of the first enemies you meet in the game, and while it's kind of odd to see zombies doing blackflips and jumping four meters into the air and swinging at your face, well, you can do all those things, so it's only fair, right?

And because it's fair, dying is mostly not that bad. When you die, it's your fault. Maybe you weren't paying enough attention and let someone get behind you. Maybe you went in for the kill and overextended yourself. Maybe you dodged straight off a cliff, which is definitely not something that happened to me multiple times. With very few exceptions, when I died I knew it was because of something that I had done, and if I made sure to learn from my mistakes I could do better. Dark Souls rewards mastery better than nearly every other game I've played, and that feeling when you've died multiple times and finally beat a boss is amazing.

It's a lot like World of Warcraft raiding was, actually, except it only needs one person.


Praise the Sun! The Solar Exalted

I'm actually not sure I'm going to be able to play through modded Skyrim anymore like I was originally planning to. Dark Souls has such a good combat system in comparison that Skyrim is just going to seem like people playfighting. Even before I played this, I felt like Skyrim's combat was flailing around with nerf weapons, and while I modded Oblivion's combat to have more weight, it still doesn't feel as good as Dark Souls does. The way enemies stagger when you press the attack; the way that you need to block or avoid most attacks because if you're hit, you'll feel it; the way that you circle around each other, sizing up each other for weaknesses. It's so good.

I think it's the reactivity, now that I think about it. A lot of video games follow the Critical Existence Failure model of damage. Even the space marine in Doom, who actually has a picture that displays how damaged he is, isn't actually affected by damage at all until death. But in Dark Souls, when you're hit, it's obvious. Or least, on my "I'm a sorcerer so I'm going to wear robes" character, it was. It's possible to avoid that by wearing armor, but that makes sense. That's what armor is for, after all. And you can wear armor, but it slows you down, so there's a choice between being able to take damage better or avoid it better. It's another example of how well-designed and well-thought-out Dark Souls is.


This is an accomplishment of some kind. Or is it?

The story is somewhat obscure. If you want a breakdown, there's a whole series of detailed pictures that explains a lot of it (h/t [twitter.com profile] fristle)--or at least, one person's understanding of a lot of it--but if you're not going to spoil yourself about it, you're going to have to do some digging. Beyond the introduction or the DLC, very little of the plot is ever explained directly. Most of it is hidden away in item descriptions, in badgering NPCs repeatedly to tell you everything they know, or even in the level design.

The main theme of Dark Souls is decay. It's like System Shock II in that you're always going to places after things have broken down and most of the people are gone. The land is in ruins, the curse of the Darksign means that the nature of life and dead is becoming indistinct. Even reality itself is breaking down, which is where Dark Souls gets its multiplayer from. Other times and other worlds are intruding on each other. The world has moved on. It makes me wonder if Miyazaki has read The Dark Tower series, because they fit together really well.

Even your gear losing durability and breaking fits. It barely affects gameplay, since the odds of anything ever actually getting close to breaking is close to zero, but it fits the theme. Nothing endures.


There are no happy endings.

I've actually seen a quote from someone saying that they went through the whole game and beat it without ever knowing what the plot is, which very well could have happened to me if I hadn't been forewarned and scoured every item I found for info about the world. But since I also looked up stuff online after I went through the areas, I can't give my own great treatise on the history of Lordran. There's plenty on there on the internet if you're curious, but I'd suggest playing through the game first and see what you can find out for yourself. A lot of the fun of Dark Souls is trying different things, seeing if they work, changing them if they don't work, and attaining mastery. I love that kind of mastery of systems, which is why I like crunchy tabletop RPGs and why I like Dark Souls.

Speaking of the setting design, one of the best parts of Dark Souls is the world. It's all entertwined, and in the course of a game you'll descend to the bottom and climb up to the highest point in the land. Everything is connected, and you can see places you've been from places you go later or get hints of future areas as you look on them from previous ones. All the levels have shortcuts too, so once you work through the difficult parts once you're rewarded with the ability to skip them in the future. And at first you'll need them, but you'd be amazed at how the size of the world is inversely proportional to your skill at the game. There are parts of Lordran that took me hours of slowly crawling through with my shield in front of my face, carefully peeking around every nook and cranny, that I can run through in minutes now.

There's so many minor details that show that the developers put time and thought into the worldbuilding. The way that the Kiln of the First Flame is covered in cold grey ash. The way that Ash Lake is the only area in the game other than Firelink that has background music. The way that Lost Izalith is below the Valley of the Drakes and thus is filled with undead dragon butts. The way that everyone and everything you see in the introductory video shows up in the game. No wasted wordcount here.


Subprime real estate.

I think the roguelike elements of Dark Souls help my enjoyment too. There's no permadeath, but there's still a death penalty that I just realized I haven't mentioned yet but forms a core part of the gameplay. When you kill enemies, you get souls from them, which you use to upgrade your own stats and your weapons and armor. When you die, you return to the last bonfire you rested at and all the souls drop where you died, or roughly so. If you make it back to your souls, you can get them back, but if you die again they're gone for good. Do you charge straight for your souls and risk dying on the way, or do you move slowly and cautiously and risk dying on the way? In addition, bonfires heal you, but when you rest at one, all the enemies respawn. Can you get further, or should you go back and heal, knowing you'll have to fight through previously-cleared areas?

Risk vs. reward, and whatever happens, you brought it on yourself. Dark Souls is one of the best examples of tightly intertwined, repeatedly reinforcing theme and gameplay I've ever seen.


Look, a beautiful butterfly!

The boss fights have a similar degree of care. When you first walk in to a new boss fight, they're generally enormous and it's pretty easy to wonder how you could ever beat them. But over repeated attempts, you learn their patterns, learn when to be aggressive and when to be defensive, when to advance and when to retreat, and eventually you manage to take them down. And if you can't manage to do it yourself, you can take advantage of how time is fluid in Lordran and summon other players to help you, or take advantage of your expertise--or get a learning experience--by letting yourself be summoned by other players.

There's a lot of tricks, but it's obvious that that developers intended them. Some bosses can be killed from outside the boss area. Some bosses can be skipped entirely. The Ceaseless Discharge actually was commented on by the developers that you could spare them, and there's a bonfire later on that only spawns if he's dead and otherwise isn't there. He's the only boss where that's the case other than the keepers of the Lord Souls, and it implies that the way to skip him might not be a glitch after all.

Similarly, you can see the last boss of the DLC before you enter his area. And if you see him, you can hit him.


It's only a model.

It's not quite 100%, though. I'm going to complain about the two boss fights that everyone complains about, but I think it's not without reason and I'll explain why.

The Bed of Chaos is easy to point out as an anomaly--it's a puzzle fight. Not just that, it's the only boss fight in the game that doesn't completely reset when you die, which implies that the developers couldn't get it working right so they relaxed the limits. There are minibosses who don't respawn when killed so it's not entirely unprecedented, but no boss fights. And there are no other boss fights that are based on solving the puzzle rather than mastering and managing the boss's abilities. I can see what they were going for, but I don't think it works that well.

Capra Demon, on the other hand, just feels lazy to me. If you look up how to beat it online you'll find a lot of info about how it's actually really easy and the problem is its dogs, and that's true. It is quite easy if you survive the first few seconds of the fight, but it feels like the developers were relying on sensory overload to be the main enemy. Usually you end up on the other end of an area from the boss, and while they might start running straight at you, you have a moment to check the terrain and orient yourself. When you stroll into the Capra Demon's studio apartment, the camera is right behind your head so most of the screen is you, and you see something huge rushing at you and the music is all WAAAAAA WAAAAAAAAAAAA WAAAAAAAAAA WAA WAA and then YOU DIED. The fight is about managing that panic caused by sensory overload, which feels cheap to me.

Honorable mention goes to Seath the Scaleless part one, which is the only boss fight in the game where you have to die to continue. Okay, you don't have to die, but good luck figuring that out without watching that video.

But that is literally less than 1% of the gameplay, and it's still obvious that they thought about it. I just don't agree with it.



I've mentioned the multiplayer briefly, but I'm going to talk about it a bit before I end this because I spent probably 25-30 hours of gameplay just doing multiplayer. There's a bunch of Covenants in the game that you can join, and all of them but one are focused on the multiplayer. The one in that screenshot is the one I spent most of my time in, the Blades of the Darkmoon, who can enter the worlds of other players who have murdered NPCs or who have invaded other players' worlds to kill them. There's also the Darkwraiths, who invade to steal humanity, and beneficial ones like the Warriors of Sunlight or the Way of White. And ones that no one cares about like the Path of the Dragon. Poor dragonbros.

They mostly come down to either being summoned by other players to help them beat the game, or forcing yourself into other players' games to kill them with greater or lesser justification. Some people have a lot of fun with invading other people, and I applaud the effort they put into it. While you'll find your share of hackers and dicks, the inability to communicate in-game reduces a lot of the possible abuse, which helps. Dark Souls has probably the most tolerable anonymous internet multiplayer I've ever engaged in.

And if you want to opt out, just stay Hollow. But if you do that, you can't summon anyone to help you either, so you're entirely on your own. Are you willing to take the chance? Risk vs. reward.


Left: Dark Souls. Right: You.

Dark Souls is the best game I've reviewed since I started reviewing games on this blog, but I think that actually undersells it. It's the best game I've played in years, and probably one of my favorite games of all time. Not to the level of displacing Morrowind, but it comes damn close. If anything I've said in this review speaks to you, you owe it to yourself to play this game. It is, quite frankly, a masterpiece.

Praise the Sun!

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dorchadas

August 2017

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