Monday, 23 January 2012

Dark Souls - A Commentary

So after 50 hours of slashing, smashing, burning, cursing and dying my way through Dark Souls, I've finally put an end to the evils in the land of Lordran, restoring order and lifting the undead curse.  I think.  It's hard to tell, because of the monstrously ambiguous ending.

But that's a story for another time.  What I'd rather talk about here and now is the game in question.  I had thought to do a review, but I think that a less formal commentary is more appropriate for this very interesting, very important game.

Just what is Dark Souls anyways?  It's an RPG, ladies and gentlemen, and despite the western look and feel of the game, it's actually Japanese.  Which is impressive, to say the least, that an eastern RPG can nail the look and feel of western medieval culture better than a western RPG.  Right from the rather bizarre and twisted opening cinematic, you know you're in for something a bit different.  This feeling continues to grow as you find your newly created character in a dreary, depressing prison cell, awaiting the end of the world as a damned and forsaken undead.  Fate intervenes, breaking you out of confinement, giving you a new chance at 'life', if you can call it such.  Your quest: recover your soul and your humanity.  What follows is one of the most grueling, most demanding, and ultimately most rewarding video game experiences of all time.

Some of the boss and enemy designs are nothing short of unbelievable.
Mechanically, Dark Souls is not entirely different from many other RPGs, aside from extremely tight and polished combat.  The RPG systems themselves are very deep, allowing for a vast amount of customization.  You want to play as a veritable tank, strapped in to a massive suit of armor, wielding a greatsword the size of your ego?  Sure thing.  You want to be a flame-spitting pyromancer, burning your way to victory?  Have at it.  You want to be Indiana Jones, with a whip and a big hat?  The world is your oyster.  There are so many ways to play this game that it's a bit hard to grasp.  And you're certainly not limited to the playstyle of the class you chose at the beginning of the game.  There are 10 of them, each filling an archetype you've no doubt seen before, but what's interesting is that beyond that initial choice, you can customize your stats and loadout in any way you like.  This means you can start the game as bulky, steadfast knight, only to emerge victorious at the end as a sneaky, backstabbing rogue.  Or you can be a mix of the two.  The freedom of it is frankly refreshing, having an Elder Scrolls-like approach to creating whatever class you want, but also maintaining extremely deep, meaningful RPG systems.  You'll really want to be careful with how you progress your character, because wasting even a few levels' worth of points will affect you later on.


Perhaps the biggest difference with Dark Souls from other games (especially RPGs), is the way it deals with death.  Death plays a huge role in the game, both mechanically and atmospherically.  You play as an undead character, living in the land of the undead, and as such, death surrounds everything.  You will die in this game.  You just will.  And frequently.  However, death is just a part of surviving the world of Dark Souls.  Unlike other games, there's no such thing as a 'game over' screen, there's no traditional checkpoints, no reloading right before a boss fight, and hell, there's no manual saving whatsoever.  Interestingly, this game uses a persistent autosave that will pretty much track everything you do.  This means if you screw up badly or die at an inconvenient time, there's no quicksave to go back to, no do-overs, no turning the console off in a desperate attempt to trick the autosave (believe me I tried).  You fail, you suffer the consequences, and then you pick your ass up and get back into the fray.  Sometimes you will hate this game's relentlessly unforgiving attitude; sometimes you will scream and toss your controller away in frustration.  But the low points serve to highlight what makes this game great: it's just so damned rewarding.

Yup, I'm struggling to think of a game that has made me feel a greater sense of accomplishment when overcoming the impossible.  Dark Souls (and indeed Demon Souls before it) has become infamous for its difficulty, causing some people to shy away from what is otherwise an absolutely fantastic game that any RPG fan needs to experience.  True, this sort of savage difficulty is not for everyone, but really, for anyone who identifies themselves with being a gamer, meaning the sort of person who has been playing games beyond Call of Duty and Guitar Hero for a number of years, should definitely be capable of handling a game like Dark Souls.  It's jarring and demanding to get used to this level of challenge, after games have become more and more coddling and pandering, allowing an increasing amount of sloppiness and laziness from gamers.  Games like Dark Souls have become an incredible rarity, certainly lending to this extreme difficulty branding its received.
Get used to those bonfires; they're among the few refuges from the dark world of death and misery that you're out to explore.

Don't get me wrong; this IS a hard game.  You learn through death, and sometimes that death can occur mere seconds after you were feeling utterly confident and unstoppable.  However, what I expected and what I discovered with this game were quite different.  I was anticipating Ninja Gaiden levels of frustration and rage, but it very rarely got to such points.  What Dark Souls does so well is being extremely strict and difficult, while also being equally fair.  There are one or two points in the game that edge into the realm of cheapness, but by-and-large, you will know why you died, and you will know it was your fault in some way.  There will be a way to improve, and you will apply that knowledge on your next try.  Or you'll just die again.  Dark Souls punishes the stubborn and the stupid; those unwilling to change their tactics will have a much, much harder time (perhaps finding it completely impossible) than those willing and able to learn from their mistakes. And that, in my view, is effectively perfect game design philosophy.

We have reached a point in gaming where the vast majority of games are now aiming to appeal to as wide an audience as possible.  With this comes reduced complexity and difficulty to account for the lowest common denominator.  This isn't true of all games, but any moderately observant gamer out there will easily be able to pick up on this increasingly common trend.  This makes Dark Souls and games like it a rarity, and something to treasure.  While not as successful as other recent, more mainstream-friendly RPGs such as Skyrim, Dark Souls has an extremely loyal following, and has generated a significant amount of buzz in the gaming community, being acknowledged as a fantastic game that should set an example for others.  And it certainly is a breath of fresh air (and a bit of a relief) that such an unusually difficult game which refuses to conform to a devolving world of gaming that no longer seems to understand the concepts of challenge, risk vs reward, and complexity, can be such a success.

Did I mention this game is utterly gorgeous?  It is.  Hard to believe what they managed with this aging hardware.

Now, I would like to touch base on these three points I mentioned: challenge, risk vs reward and complexity. These are three elements that seem to be rapidly dissolving from the world of gaming.  When games like Dark Souls come along that have all these elements in great quantity, gamers everywhere seem to hold a candlelight vigil, honouring the birth of something glorious, and the death of its relatives.  The fact that such games are so rare should scare you, as a gamer.  Why?  These games existed in droves not that long ago.  Where are we heading if games like this are so few and far between that the difficulty aspect alone garners such a huge amount of buzz within the gaming community?

Complexity is another aspect that has dwindled dramatically within games these days, although this is a slightly more grey area.  See, complexity for the sake of complexity is not a good thing; complexity to allow greater freedom through personalization IS a good thing.  Dark Souls does the latter very well, and in the past, we've had games that have done both.  However, there is a big difference between streamlining for the masses, and trimming the fat.  The Elder Scrolls series is a good example of both; in some areas of the newer games, Oblivion and Skyrim, over-simplification is evident, such as reducing the amount of weapon variants the player is allowed.  On the other hand, there have been some positive points to reducing complexity from the older games like Morrowind, such as removing silly mechanics such as Athletics and Acrobatics, which reward the player simply for running and jumping.  Mass Effect 2 is another example of a game that does well in some aspects and goes too far in others.  The first Mass Effect had a huge amount of stats to spec into, and many of them were either minuscule changes or extremely niche.  A good example of unnecessary complexity.  Mass Effect 2 removed the vast majority of this and made leveling up a bigger impact with fewer choices.  They also unfortunately and quite foolishly decided to remove effectively all forms of weapon customization, and offered a ridiculously small amount of weapon variants to chose from (a decision which is being largely rectified in Mass Effect 3).

There's a quite-interesting multiplayer aspect of Dark Souls which can seamlessly pit players against each other, or allow them to work together to defeat bosses.  Sadly I cannot comment on this, as I could only play the game in offline mode.
Risk vs reward is perhaps the most interesting and most important of these three elements, however, and it's the one Dark Souls does best.  Most games these days will let you accomplish everything within them at minimal risk, and most games will hold you by the hand in some way, and allow you to reduce the difficulty setting if you please.  No such systems exist within Dark Souls; if you want all the coolest items, if you want to kill all the bosses, if you want to discover every area within the game, you're going to have to take some risks and explore inhospitable territory.  Alternatively, you can push your character into territory you're not yet suited for.  The risk of dying and losing all your souls and humanity (the 'currency' within the game) is huge, but the rewards can be equally so.  The freedom of choice to risk all at the chance of gaining a big leap in power is...well it's just awesome.  So few games allow this, that it's actually quite concerning.  I can't really think of a game out there that rewards exploration nearly as well.  And of course, much of that exploring comes with nasty surprises that could very easily and quickly mean the end of you.

So just what is Dark Souls anyways?  I hate sounding this ridiculous and fervent, but it's something of a beacon of hope in gaming.  It's not perfect, to be sure, but that's okay, because the areas it excel in it does so well that you can easily forgive shortfalls, such as unclear storytelling, technical issues and an excessive amount of backtracking.  It does difficulty extremely well, being unforgiving yet fair; inflicting feelings of hopelessness at times, while being utterly rewarding and satisfying at others.  It's not just a great game, but rather a great piece of gaming, a statement on the old ways of gaming coming together with the new, combining the best of both worlds while having little in the way of faults from either.  What is Dark Souls?  It's bloody brilliance.

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