Seeing as Dark Souls 2 is just around the corner, March 11th (tomorrow) in NA on PS3 and 360, I thought it would be good to think about what I liked and disliked about the first. As you can no doubt see with the title, I have a few issues with Dark Souls that I hope may be remedied in the sequel.
Before going into what I thought wasn’t executed well in Dark Souls, I’ll say what I liked about it first.
The oppressiveness of the environment and general tone/feeling of the game was great. This is more subtle, but the moment you start thinking about the world of Dark Souls, some synonyms close to despair or gloom come to mind.
They achieved that through well-executed level design. In many cases, you cannot see everything around you, causing you to be cautious of what is ahead. Everything is dark, and many things are hidden which you have to be wary of. The environments and the creatures that inhabit them are placed in a way to constantly keep us as a player on edge.
The fact that there is no overt story places far greater weight on the environment as well. A story and lore behind the game does exist, but it is not explicit and it is up to you as the player to seek it out. In other words, in terms of the environment, it is soul-crushingly empty of any good anywhere – of any kind of interaction that has the possibility for good.
That sense of despair about your character’s situation and the places you have to go is something to be lauded.
The other great thing about Dark Souls is the combat system it has in place. It is relatively simple to understand at the beginning, but as with many things, it takes a lot of practice to be any good at it.
It has a real weight behind it too and feeling that your character has to put up tremendous effort to achieve the movements you want to do. In addition to that, every movement has a great value to it. It takes a lot to swing your sword or move out of the way of an enemy. You have to expend a lot of effort to do so, making each decision something carefully considered.
In other words, the combat does a great job of taking away that one man army / superhero feel you get in other games to create a sense of desperation behind each action.
Now what I don’t like about Dark Souls.
It has no real respect for your time. I can die relatively easy, losing the many souls I had gathered and having to go back to a checkpoint earlier, then fight my way back through the enemies I just killed in hopes that I can make it back to my souls, so they all don’t go to waste if I die again. I think I can understand the mentality behind that – to force the player to “master” something or an area before moving on to something that may be more challenging.
That doesn’t really change the fact that a lot of my time and effort goes unused. In just a few minutes I could lose all of my progress for the past hour and that is just how it is, nothing that I can really do about it. That finality is fine if I feel like I was able to accomplish something in the meantime, but I really can’t have that feeling of accomplishment with the way Dark Souls punishments are designed.
Now, I know some people will just say that I am whining because Dark Souls is “hard,” like old games used to be where you couldn’t save at all and lost all your progress if you died. It is so laughably not like that, which makes this odd community and meme-like phenomena so hard to understand. Too often are jokes made about the incredible difficulty of Dark Souls that the internet, particularly Reddit, seems to eat up.
The mentality of losing a significant chunk of progress, or all of it, as is the case in many older games, just doesn’t hold weight when I am investing a significant amount of time in a game. Some older games could be completed in a few hours, and maybe six or seven, but it has now become regular in modern gaming for 20+ hours of playtime to be expected.
What Dark Souls essentially does is artificially bloat the amount of time it takes to complete a game due to the way that it punishes you by removing previous progress, which sometimes could be quite significant.
Much of the so-called “difficulty” arises in areas where an enemy jumps out of nowhere and kills you, or some kind of environmental thing kills you. That is just poor design and artificial difficulty. Just because something causes you to die in the game, doesn’t mean it is hard. Instead of learning how to use the combat system properly or learning to identify particular “triggers” of certain events, the “difficulty” then becomes a game of memorization so that you aren’t killed by that seemingly random event again.
People will say that, well, you just need to be careful and not rush into rooms. Yes, that is very true for Dark Souls, but so often it doesn’t really matter how cautious you are, the event happens and with great likelihood will end in your death.
Even curiosity and exploration becomes discouraged when unknown consequences seemingly happen from nowhere when looking at something, or looking for something hidden. And in many cases it is not as if I could see where the “trigger” for such an event would happen, it just would happen.
What this is all to say, is that Dark Souls does a poor job at creating an intuitive experience. Instead, it becomes a game about learning from your mistakes – mistakes that the game forced you to make. There are too few instances where my own intuition as a player should have allowed me to avoid something terrible or allow me to make my own mistakes, Dark Souls happily provides you with your own mistakes.
I said earlier that Dark Souls has a good combat system, which I still stand by. But, I think that it goes vastly underutilized within the game.
As you progress, I would argue the game becomes increasingly easy. That is only because I learned how to “cheat” the system within the game to allow me to win. The only reason that the earlier bosses in the game seem to be more difficult is that I hadn’t really learned how to “exploit” the game yet.
The more bosses you fight, the more the combat just turns into dodging their big lumbering attacks, and running behind the boss, hitting them a few times, then running away. Then you just rinse and repeat until the boss is dead. Too often did that strategy work, that it just became second nature and did not offer any real form of learning how to use the rather good combat system in the game.
Even in instances where that strategy didn’t work, it became learning the gimmick to defeat a certain boss, like jumping off a ledge to slam down with your sword over and over again. There was no sense that I was actually doing battle with something significant, but that I was just learning the cheap strategy so that I could move on.
There was no sense of achievement in slowly understanding how to deal with a boss and develop a strategy for it.
Again, it was another example of taking away the player’s intuition. Having a player puzzled, then figuring out how to defeat something or pass some obstacle is what games are about. A sense of achievement based on the situation you are in, in the game. Instead, Dark Souls just has you reapply the same thing over and over again.
I can already hear people saying that it was my choice to play that way. Yes, it very much was. I could have tried to develop some kind of different strategy for bosses, but why would I? I found something that worked, and most of the bosses were similar enough that the same strategy could defeat them. That is not a problem with my choice of strategy, but with the fact that the same strategy worked so many times in so many situations that should have been different from one another.
Basically, Dark Souls became a game of sameness, doing the same thing over and over again, just in a different environment with different enemies. Memorize the traps and stuff that jumps out, apply the combat strategy, and move on.
Sameness that was not player-created either, as if I found some unintentional flaw to exploit, but that sameness was almost encouraged by the game’s design.
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