Review: Dark Souls

During the course of the Herculean undertaking that this series has proven to be, I’ve found time to beat Dark Souls. It’s been a wonderful experience, sometimes exhilarating, sometimes frustrating, always addictive. It’s easily one of the best-looking, most well-designed, and all around greatest games of the past console generation. It is everything that Demon’s Souls promised to be but didn’t quite live up to.

It’s not quite a sequel to Demon’s Souls, as it takes place in a slightly different scenario in a nominally different world, but it is in all respects similar. The controls and gameplay style are very much the same—though I note with enthusiasm that Dark Souls is designed to allow a greater variety of approaches to the game, so that its plethora of classes have actual distinctions between them. One of the innovations is a third class of magic (other than the traditional white and black) called pyromancy, which is available to all classes of character. This means that some low-level magic is accessible to anyone, which allows warrior and knight-type characters to use the spells they need without crowding in on the casters’ territory.

The promise of Demon’s Souls was difficulty and big scary bosses. It delivered on one of those things. For the most part the bosses were rather pesky pushovers, none of whom were very impressive-looking. In Dark Souls, you fight a massive demon within the first ten minutes of the game. There are a few lazily palette-swapped demons, but there’s a much wider range than before and they are so imposing in size that it seems scarcely believable that you can block their attacks.

Dark Souls is at least as difficult as Demon’s Souls, but in better ways. The enemies are too powerful to be taken on in several at a time, the way you might in a different game. But this means that it forces you to play intelligently. Instead of a hub world with very few checkpoints inside the levels, Dark Souls has a continuous world with checkpoints at regular (though often distant) intervals throughout. Each checkpoint restores your health and status, refills your healing items, and respawns all the enemies in the world. You can upgrade these checkpoints to increase the number of healing items you get, which allows you to venture farther in one go. This makes the sense of being at home in the world, of pushing forward and establishing camps along the way, much more palpable.

Another similarity with the previous game is that the levels are extremely well-structured, with a coherent sense of geography throughout. The innovation of Dark Souls is that it all takes place in one more or less continuous world. So the background scenery in one area becomes playable territory later on and vice versa. The graphics are also much improved, which makes for stunning visuals—the fantasy city of Anor Londo is by far one of the most remarkable-looking levels in recent gaming history. Continue reading


Demon’s Souls: Sérénade mélancolique

I first encountered Demon’s Souls during an unhappy time in my life. Without going into details—it’s more a matter of conserving space than privacy—we’ll say that I was feeling down, I had a lot of free time and access to a pile of video games I had never played before, and I was on some level convinced that my thoughts were interesting enough that they were worth transcribing for the benefit of others. I had intended to play a number of games and write moderately in-depth critical articles on all of them. But Demon’s Souls and dark feelings both have a way of sucking you in, and the project absorbed my summer. What you’re seeing now is the culmination of that project, years later, after I cut everything I didn’t feel up to writing.

So for about two months, I had a comfortable but rather pathetic routine. Wake up, read a lot of articles on the Internet, eat, get dressed. Sometimes I practised; mostly I didn’t. At least once a week I walked. Sometimes more, if I could not resist my craving for junk food (you can imagine the junk food budget was tight, on this schedule). By late afternoon my will had collapsed and it was all I could do to lie there with a CD of Tchaikovsky blaring and play Demon’s Souls till the wee hours of the morning. Continue reading

Demon’s Souls: The Bane of My Existence

I never did quite get the NPCs in Demon’s Souls. For one thing, the world is supposed to have been taken over by the demons, and yet there are a surprising number of non-demonic people kicking around. You see them in the loading montages long before you meet them in the game, and this gives them an aura of mystery. This is intensified by the fact that the characters are all photographed from bizarre angles that distort their proportions, and some weirdness about character names (“Blacksmith Ed and Boldwin”, “Patches the Hyena”). Some of them are friendly and some of them are hostile, and it’s not always the same ones. You never know on approaching them.

Some of them seem to be completely superfluous—the apprentices, for example—and only serve to crowd up the Nexus, weaken the siege mentality, and make the player character seem even more insignificant than they already do. Some of them have a specific role but it’s not clear how you would discover this if the Demon’s Souls wiki didn’t exist, as must have been the case at one time in history. In general the NPCs tend to wander around the world, appearing seemingly at random. Their paths are predetermined, of course, but they are predetermined according to a set of rules that is mind-bogglingly complex and never adequately explained: World Tendency. Continue reading

Demon’s Souls: Class Warfare

A textual note:

In the summer of 2012, I played Demon’s Souls for a written Let’s Play that I never finished. We’ll call this Playthrough Alpha. I produced a few complete instalments before losing steam. This past summer of 2013, I returned to take care of unfinished business, in an ultra-quick run we’ll call Playthrough Beta.

Rather than pick up directly where Playthrough Alpha left off, which would be rather awkward, I have elected to make a condensed and heavily edited account of both playthroughs that incorporates some text from the original articles. Additionally, due to time constraints the straight playthrough articles were cut from the series, so this is more of a thematic Let’s Play. Each separate instalment focuses on a particular topic, rather than a particular section of the game.

Due to the temporally confused nature of the series’s composition, certain time-anchored references may be anachronistic.

Playthrough Beta was recorded in my audio notes, which I intend to publish in edited form later on. Some additional gameplay and commentary was provided by Doug and Ian Ingram.

The game’s third level is the Tower of Latria. The first section is the “Prison of Hope”, a clammy dungeon full of wailing undead prisoners. In the outdoor areas, you can see shadowy outlines against the night sky, hinting at something unspeakable above. Inside, there is not much floor space. Each cell block has narrow walkways against three walls and a bottomless pit in the middle. Anyone attempting to escape will have trouble eluding the Cthulhuvian sorcerer-guards.

These creatures are nasty, especially early in the game. Their magical attacks, which they can deploy quickly, will drain most of your health in one hit (except for the one that paralyzes you, opening you up to the other attacks), and at this stage in the game they take quite a few whacks with a sword before succumbing and descending into some slippery nautiloid hell. Getting off the first attack is crucial, and not letting the monster get a word in edgewise even more so. Not being seen is therefore paramount. The Tower of Latria demands stealth. This fact is a little problematic.

It has often been said that the stealth sections in otherwise non-stealthy games never come off well. This is because stealth as a mode of gameplay requires certain mechanics in order to work properly. You have to be aware of how alert the enemies are. You have to know, not just graphically, whether the game considers you to be concealed or not.1 The level design and other details need to follow suit: you have to provide a challenge without creating a level that is impossible to be stealthy in. Gadgets like Sam Fisher’s sticky cameras are also helpful.

More generally, your dominant mode of gameplay (melee fighting, shooting, stealth, avoidance, etc) is the star around which everything else orbits. Your levels, your mechanics, your character models, everything must serve this central concept. It might actually be impossible to make a good job of switching between modes. Certainly so much would have to change that levels involving different modes would not be recognizably part of the same game. Great games are usually highly unified in this respect: Half-Life is a shooter through and through; the Legend of Zelda games are strictly about hacking and slashing and suffer whenever they try to incorporate anything more than the crudest projectiles.

This level, so carefully designed to be a stealth level, will ultimately fail because the rest of the game is not designed to accommodate stealth. You will bumble through gracelessly until your character is strong enough to take out the mindflayers (as I later learned they are called) in one or two hits, at which point stealth is irrelevant.

Even more generally, the class system favoured by many RPGs might be flawed at a basic conceptual level. Demon’s Souls has a bevy of poorly differentiated classes that can all be grouped under familiar headings: warrior, thief, wizard, etc. But here’s the problem: each one implies a different style of gameplay. Even beneath these headings, there is a not inconsiderable amount of difference between playing as a knight and playing as a wanderer (as I did).

I learned this when I saw my brother playing as a knight. The reason that the knight enemies in the Boletarian Palace are so difficult is that they are designed to be fought in a certain combat style: big swords and shields, lots of parrying, long one-on-one fights. If you play as a knight (as the creators evidently assumed you would), then there is no problem. But if, like me, you positively relish the idea of being Fifth Business and choose a less-played class, you’re fighting an enemy that was not designed to be fought by you, and it just feels frustrating and senseless. Continue reading

Demon’s Souls: Another attempt

Consider this take 2.

A year ago I had a plan to play several video games and write in-depth expositions of them. I never really got round to playing more than one game because around the same time I fell into a deep depression. The effort of mind needed to choose what to play next was beyond me. I still had the idea in my head that I was going to do a written Let’s Play of the idiosyncratically titled 2009 PS3 game Demon’s Souls, but it was going to be a more elaborate, multi-part deal.

If you have experienced a similar emotional funk, you probably know what happened next. I spent my mornings sleeping, my afternoons reading websites and wishing I was practising the clarinet, and the evenings drinking rum, eating jujubes, and playing Demon’s Souls. None of this time was spent writing, and I didn’t even take notes as I played.

Finally I broke down and spent a week away from home to collect myself. I had no computer and no Internet access. All I had was a stack of illicit CDs of classical music and a variety of pens and notebooks. I slept on a mattress on the floor and spent my days either reading books on CBT or writing. I finally finished the first two parts in my Demon’s Souls series, but it was long, pretentious, and poorly written. It was also disturbingly vague because by that point I had played through roughly half the game and forgotten a lot of my initial impressions. I continued writing the series, but it fizzled out some time around mid-October. As I write this the abortive attempt at Part 7 (of a planned 12-13) is open in another text editor tab (Notepad++, represent), and has been since that time.

Needless to say, I still hold out hope for the idea. I am not always persistent, but when I am, it’s usually in pursuit of something stupid. Consider this a manifesto. Continue reading