Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Dark Souls: Not As Hard As You Think

dark souls video game 2011 gaping dragon boss
Pfft. Eaaaaaasy.
So, you've heard about Dark Souls I assume? The spiritual successor to the PS3 sleeper-hit Demon's Souls (a game I've started twice and never finished, for shame), Dark Souls is most well known for being a brutal gauntlet that redefines the human perception of suffering. Your own knowledge of it may start and end at "You die. Lots." and, to a degree, that is pretty accurate. Death is everywhere in this game and if you fuck up, which you will, it will greet you more enthusiastically than a Labrador on ecstasy.

dog jumping pond happy
"Sir, is that your dog frantically trying to have sex with a pond?"
"Yes. Yes it is."
As such, when I leapt into the grimy, utterly depressing world of these now 3 games, I was expecting the worst. Demon's Souls took me by the throat and made me eat it. Have you ever seen a video game force a man to eat his own throat?! No, I thought not. That was the level of awful fuckery I was expecting. And granted, the first half of Dark Souls is pretty darn hard, but frankly, by the time the credits rolled, I was underwhelmed by the overall difficulty of the whole affair compared to how it sounds coming from the mouths of those who champion it as an interactive trial by fire. It's tough, yes, but with perseverance and a little time anyone can crack it. The greatest number of times I had to repeat any boss was around 10, which is hardly repeating yourself ad nauseum.

Since I spent the best part of a year playing this game (and thoroughly enjoying it) I thought it best to write at least something about the experience on here. This won't be a complete review or an in depth explanation of the game, there's enough of those already, but just a few observations I've made that stick out to me as often being forgotten when this series comes up in conversation. Here we go.

Stupidity, and Only Stupidity, Begets Punishment

The most common one-word description of Dark Souls, and a description I myself have used, is "sadistic". Why do we say this about it? Is the game revelling in your misery? Does it try to make you fail as often as it can, just to watch the little helpless mouse that is your character scuttle through the maze of spears, ooze and traps again and again? 

dark souls video game 2011 ceaseless discharge
"Hi there, I'm here for my 5 o'clock immolation...?"
All in all, "sadistic" could really be a synonym for "unfair". It makes you think that this game is setting everything up into a little domino set of moments designed to fuck you over, like the immensely popular I Wanna Be the Guy, a game specifically designed to screw with you to make you die. It's a complete and utter load of crap, though. Dark Souls does a spectacularly good job of laying everything out in front of you fair and square to then allow you to make your own mistakes. The tutorial level of the game has bad guys hiding behind doorways, so if you forgot to check your corners later on, that's all on you. Didn't think there was going to be a giant boulder rolling at you? Then how do you explain the mangled corpse and crushed tiles lying there in the light of day for anyone to see? Dark Souls is never unfair because it gives you everything you need, either by experience or environmental clues, to manoeuvre the situation correctly; like a puzzle whose solution results in you not getting your ass handed to you.

dark souls video game 2011 sens fortress outside
"We hope you like swinging axe blades and giants hurling boulders, cause we got you a whole castle full of 'em!
Now, question one: Why is a raven like a writing desk?"
 The two most recent occasions I can think of when I died the most suddenly and unceremoniously, together causing me a net loss in the tens of thousands of souls and a half dozen humanity (if you've no idea what I'm going on about, just roll with me here), came in two late-game areas. In one, I had just been killed by a giant flaming tree with a bug-heart and lava wings (again, just let the words wash over you like a wave) and was eager to get myself back to the fight. I sprinted out into a pool of lava, completely forgetting that I had unequipped the ring that was meant to stop me from getting burnt to a crisp by said lava so I could wear something more appropriate for the fire-bug-tree fight. Fwoosh, I died.

In the other, I'd just cleared out a cave of giant skeletons and was feeling pretty good about myself. I found a crypt that was likely full of loot and thought I could take on the three skeletons I'd spotted wandering around down there, so dropped down. Four or five more immediately sprung from the shadows and I was made into yummy adventurer sashimi before I could scream peanuts. Both of those times I was foolish and brazen, forgetting about simple aspects of the game that I'd seen a hundred times before. 

dark souls video game 2011 mimic open attack gif
For the rest of my life I'll even kick Tupperware before opening it.
There is then, however, the few occasions when Dark Souls is most definitely unfair, which mainly comes in the form of gammy combat or slightly too tight environments. I'm calling shenanigans right now on those two god-forsaken Anor Londo archers who just...fucking sniping...nnnggghh! Them and the bloody Capra demon are single-handedly preventing me from wanting to play New Game+ right here and now.

dark souls video game 2011 new londo ruins landscape
Well, that and the entirety of New Londo, but I kind of take that as a given.

The Combat is Great and Awful in Equal Measure

I've been in a total of one fight in my life (I put the guy down in a single hit, like One Punch Pan before her was cool; true story), and so I feel like I'm well versed enough in the martial arts to comment on the quality of video game combat. The Arkham series? Spot on.

batman arkham knight video game 2016 backflip kick gif
This move was actually modelled off of my own fighting style.
After the Arkham games, I would not hesitate in suggesting that Dark Souls take the silver medal when it comes to satisfying, meaty fighting. Which is very fortunate, as it is literally the only thing you do in the game: fight increasingly larger enemies, fight an even larger boss, fight other players invading your game, fight the seductive draw of the fathomless despair that engulfs your world. Initially, it looks like you've really just got the standard light/heavy-attack dealio, but then there's jump attacks, parry/riposte, running attacks, back-stabs, drop attacks, two-handing weapons; and that's without even going into the sundry weapon types which each act and react differently.

The depth to the combat system is splendidly deceptive, particularly as the game never properly introduces it to you, leaving you to find it all out for yourself. There's something very rewarding about discovering that your spear, when held in two hands, inflicts two hit-boxes of damage, or becoming particularly adept with a certain combination of stabby things all on your own. And with the subtle ways in which different equipment react with each other, you're always changing up the way you play; well to a certain extent...

dark souls video game 2011 naked gaping dragon boss fight
Here we see the famous "Run around naked with a halberd and hope for the best" method.
You see, even with all this delicately-balanced guff going on, fights all usually end up going the same way: block, wait for opening, attack, retreat, repeat. When applying that to almost every boss fight in the game, the "wait for opening bit" is pretty much synonymous with "run around in circles and shove your head up its arse". As for other players, it becomes a matter of who has a bigger stamina bar or, alternatively, resorts to pyromancy first; which is, frankly, a dick move.

dark souls video game 2011 black dragon kalameet boss
"Not cool, mate."
Oh yes, and then there's those moments when the game simply decides it doesn't like you. You see the whole entry above this one about Dark Souls generally being fair and playing by its own rules? Sometimes the enemies don't get that message, and attacks you've clearly dodged will connect, or others will simply decide that walls and other barriers don't count for them (Gwyndolin, I'm looking at you...). It doesn't sound like much, but tell that to the massive boulder-rolling guy who somehow managed to Katamari me up after I was behind him, taking the remainder of my health (and 10'000 souls) with him. Bastard...

No-One Talks About the View

Well, OK. Not entirely true. In-game, it's impossible to go within fifty paces of a sprawling, sun-drenched vista without getting drowned in a hundred "Praise the Sun!" and "Gorgeous view" messages from other players.

dark souls video game 2011 amazing chest princess gwynevere
"Heh, giant lady boobs."
But back in the real world, people are far too busy discussing what a grammatical change in an item description in the latest update means for the extended lore (see below) to remember that these games could sell themselves on their looks alone. Yes, sometimes the backgrounds look like they wouldn't be out of place in a cheap Dreamcast game, but that's an exception to the rule, and the general environment building and enemy design is phenomenal! I actually had a genuine stop and "Woah..." moment (teensy spoiler alert) upon reaching the Kiln of the First Flame, the game's final area, just due to the brilliant, ash-soaked beauty of what would soon be the setting for an epic final showdown. It was atmosphere at it's very best.
dark souls video game 2011 kiln of the first flame landscape
It's not often that games manage that real awe factor.
I've heard that Dark Souls 2 really lets it go on the interesting boss design front, but with this one there were multiple occasions where my first death at the hands of some of these brutes was entirely down to me being dumb-struck at how cool they looked (the big guy up top being a prime example). 
dark souls video game 2011 seath the scaleless boss fight
"Goodness, you have wonderful complexion! Do you exfoli-auuuughaeorhppp..."

The Story Doesn't Matter

Die hard Dark Souls fans just love their lore. They get all up in scouring the minutiae of every item to find out what relation giant spider lady was to this that and the next thing. Yes, the story is exceptionally esoteric and open to a multitude of interpretations, as well as extremely engaging and well put together if you'd like to put the time into it (which I, and the some 20 wiki tabs I had open for quite some time, did), but it's really not necessary. Yes, Seath the Scaleless up there may have betrayed all of the other dragons and become the creator of magic as we know it in this world, but to me he's just the naked lizard dude who killed me one time before I got to stab him to death in his weird wriggling dick-snake legs. But that's fine, because these games boil down to being very fancily dressed boss-rushes, and the story is just another treat for those who want it. 
dark souls video game 2011 menu cat covenant ring
Who needs weapons made from the tails of felled dragons when you could have menu screens instead.
You're not missing out on anything by not bothering to go back to that area you only visited that one time to speak to someone you had no idea was even going to be there, and it's mental that anyone could suggest that. Enjoy the game for yourself the first time around (you'll still be able to complete it even if you miss a few quests or items), and if you liked it, go back with the wiki open and scour every inch to your heart's content.

All in all, Dark Souls has been a lesson to me in taking the consensus on something with a pinch of salt. The expectation of gruelling difficulty in my head couldn't possibly have been lived up to, which marred my enjoyment of the still very hard and possibly best designed late areas of the game, and often I found myself swamped in research trying to understand little breadcrumbs of lore so I could find every secret or just learn more about the world. That's partially a character flaw on my part and also endemic of the community that surrounds these games. People want you to get as much as you can out of what could otherwise be a very sparse experience, which is admirable, but we all need to realise that it's OK to miss a few things or not understand what the hell is going on, because in the end you just killed a giant flaming centipede and all you want to do is savour the moment.

I love you, Dark Souls, you imperfect beauty, you.

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