Tuesday, 12 June 2012

(A bit of) Dark Souls

First of all, this is not a complete review of Dark Souls. I vowed to myself that I'd keep playing until the end, I laughed as my housemates gave up after the second boss and went back to playing FIFA and Saints Row and other actually fun games like heavily menstruating females and despite all the frustration and anger and cursing my own existence I kept going for a solid 12 hours. But finally, after having my intestines forcefully removed with a giant and over-compensatory lightning spear for the 50th fucking time, I'm ready to admit that Dark Souls is just too hard.

For the first 12 hours or so, my impressions of Dark Souls were very positive. Despite the intro cinematic promising some kind of Tolkien-esque epic tale, the story is very minimalistic and plays very little part in the overall experience. 'You're a guy, there are some bells that need ringing and everyone wants to stab/burn/electrocute/eat/club you to death' sums it up pretty nicely, which was a wise decision, as trying to create a sense of flow and coherent storytelling in a game in which you die every 10 seconds would be harder than my dick in the presence of your mum. There is a basic tutorial explaining the control scheme but other than that you're pretty much left to it, and in my opinion, without trying to sound like a COD faggot who needs his hand held through every level, this was a big mistake on the part of the developers. For the first few hours I was collecting and losing 'souls' and 'humanity' and using 'bonfires' without knowing what any of them really did, which would be fine if you could just learn them eventually but not knowing how to use them was detrimental to my experience, by the time I figured out that you had to collect your souls after dying and use them to level up, for example, I'd already lost a good 20000 souls at least and was, as such, horribly under-leveled, which meant more grinding and less enjoyment of the game. Since I didn't get a manual with my rented copy I have no idea if any of this stuff was explained there, but given the general trend towards minimalistic manuals these days I'm guessing not.

Dark Souls is, of course, notorious for its difficulty, and yes, it is very hard. Of course it is, but the way I see it there are 2 distinct types of difficulty in video games. You get the first kind by playing Call of Duty on the highest difficulty, walking out into a battlefield and immediately dying. You've learnt nothing that could potentially improve your strategy for next time around and are pretty much doomed to go out into that same battlefield and die in a similar way. The second is found in Dark Souls, you enter a fight, observe the enemies attack patterns and tendencies and attack signposts and return after your inevitable death with a better understanding of how to approach the fight. It's a very fair kind of difficulty that rewards perseverance and willingness to learn, as well as the ability to overcome blinding frustration. It does get a bit trial and error at (most) points but I always found that the moments in which I applied what I learnt and used it to succeed were the most fun and the most rewarding. To be honest, I didn't really mind dying in those moments in which I wasn't applying myself properly; it was similar to losing a poker hand that I know I'd played badly. It was my fault and I'll need to do better next time. And when you do better next time and succeed, the feeling is absolutely unparallelled. Very much worth the hours of frustration, in many cases.

As well as genuine challenge, the game does have some 'ace on the river' moments, too. The most frustrating moments in Dark Souls are when things go wrong and it's entirely out of your control; some memorable instances include being thrown off a bridge by a glitch after using a falling attack, having my extremely useful 'souls' (a type of currency) and 'humanity' (I still don't know what this is) re-spawn on the other side of a very well guarded and dangerous room and having my nipples bitten off by fire-breathing dogs because of frame-rate drops, in a fucking offline single player game, no less. And this is my biggest problem with the game, with all of genuine challenge posed by the enemies you need the game mechanics to work flawlessly 100% of the time or you don't really have a chance, and they just don't do that. Of course, the problems with the mechanics and AI can also be used to your advantage. For example, the enemies, for the most part, are incredibly aggressive and will charge over gaps, into large fires and off of bridges to get to you, turning what the developers probably intended to be epic battles into laughable displays of enemy incompetence. There are other minor issues, the inexact nature of the lock-on system, caused in part by actually having to use the analog stick button for something useful, can cause problems when, instead of facing an enemy, you're left with your back to them and can only watch the imminent manual spinal removal. For the most part, though, the mechanics do work quite well, they're efficient and usable but, like the 3D features on the 3DS, you only notice them when they fuck you over.

The general atmosphere of the game world deserves praise, the designers have done a very admirable job of creating a very dark and hostile game world in this game; it's safe to say you will never feel safe or welcome at any point in this game. Hell, even most of the bonfire areas have enemies within very close proximity, removing that brief feeling of safety found in other games focused on survival like the Resident Evil games; this coupled with the fact that there is no true pause function that doesn't involve turning off your XBox and going for a wank makes the world feel like it would be far better off without you in it. The actual enemies themselves are also noteworthy, there is an absolutely incredible range of impressive creatures and human enemies on offer here, the kind of thing that art books were made for. Not only this, the number of unique attacks used by the enemies is also very admirable, which makes each encounter different and means that each enemy requires noticeably different tactics to defeat, very worthy of praise and far more sophisticated than the usual "melee and magic and nothing else" attack sets of RPGs.

The game presents itself as a large, open world game in which you can go anywhere you like but in reality the game is actually fairly linear, there are strict paths you have to follow in order to advance. The game never really tells you where to go and instead employs the underutilised "teaching by killing" method; basically if you're not supposed to enter an area the game will kill you for trying to go that way. It's an original approach, yes, but it can get confusing for players used to just heading off in one direction from the starting point, like the time I spent 30 minutes trying to get through a graveyard before realising I was meant to go in the opposite direction. Conversely, there were also paths with difficult enemies that I was supposed to take that I dismissed as high level areas to revisit later, when in reality I was supposed to suck it up and take on whichever mangled beast was blocking my way. I'll say it: There is absolutely no shame in using a walkthrough for this game. I refuse to believe that anyone got through this game on their own with some of the convoluted paths you need to take to advance. I understand that the focus of the game is on exploration but the absolute lack of guidance, combined with illogical bullshit like putting a door at least an hours worth of backtracking away (allowing for deaths and getting lost. And deaths) and in the path of a fucking huge dragon that no-one would ever think to go back to, makes for quite a frustrating experience, at times.

One last important feature that I didn't manage to use is the multiplayer; I don't have XBox Live because playing online these days is like paying for people to piss on you and tell you you're inferior without it actually happening, so I can't comment on this aspect but judging by video footage I've seen of the online features in action it looks like I've dodged a bullet on this one, as the only advantages seem to be having your game interrupted by OP shitheads, (that's 'overpowered' for those of you who don't play fantasy RPGs and who have regular sex and stuff,) having messages constructed from a pre-determined list of words warning you of enemies you can already see and having all of the challenge and fun removed from the boss fights by allowing you to summon a couple of mates to help. So, it doesn't really have any advantages at all, then? 

Overall, despite all of the niggling problems I've mentioned I would heartily recommend Dark Souls. It's not for everyone, but if you can past the extreme difficulty there is one hell of an experience on offer here, and that's just after the first 12 hours. I'm sure I'll be going back to it at some point...

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