Gravelords and Passive Multiplayer in Dark Souls 2: Meaningless Just-For-Fun Thought Experiments

Hopefully this is the last bit of my current Dark Souls posting madness. Anyways I was having a conversation with someone over how multiplayer currently works and was talking about the things they’d probably want to do in Dark Souls 2. The return of dedicated servers probably represents an increased capacity for inter-game communication. The ‘lobby’ system build upon XBL/PSN/GFWLs intrinsic room systems is cute, but I have a feeling it really restricts how much they can do.

Passive Multiplayer

They’ve probably been thinking about this since Demon’s Souls. The idea of slipping into someone else’s world unknowingly is deeply in the spirit of Dark Souls. Imagine while exploring an area, you encounter a “grey” phantom. In fact, both of you look grey to each other. You can harm each other, share souls for enemies that were slain and can share the victory of boss battles. This is similar to when a red and blue phantom meet in Dark Souls… Do they gang up on the host, or do they fight each other? The tension is wonderful.

Now, even if they could have done it in Demon’s Souls though, they probably wouldn’t have. The maps in that game would not lend themselves well to it. You’d slip into another players world and everything in front of you would be dead. Dark Soul’s more open maps make this more of a possibility, but the game is already doing too much when it comes to juggling connections.

Dark Souls 2, with an open world map and dedicated server could make this happen. It’ll likely also change how the world is formulated if they do it. Approaching areas from different directions is key to making this sort of interaction interesting and jarring. An idea that sticks with me is the idea of an important bridge or road that connect parts of the world, where, even in the absence of a boss, such connections could be made. Where when crossing the road, you might for a moment pass other player traveling in the opposite direction, who might continue on his way, attack you, or who knows what else. Such transient interactions deeply interest me, as does the tension surrounding them.

Another small idea is simply using an item (maybe just the white soap stone) to ‘ally’ with the host (for practicalities sake if you decide to help each other) but also having the ability to break this alliance on a whim (say, using a red eyed orb).

Grave Lords

I’ve written about this before. Conceptually, Grave Lords are awesome. I gave the idea earlier in the year of ‘placing’ grave lord signs as a source of enemies. While this would be more fun than the current setup, the result would just be attempts to redundantly clog important areas with piles of BPs. So I came up with what I thought would be a decent implementation for DS2. What they do, if the continue the Gravelord concept at all, will likely be much better, but this was a rather complete implementation, so I decided to share it.

On the Gravelord sign, I would put 3 markers, one for each world. You see them ‘fill in’ as you successfully corrupt worlds. When a player you corrupted dies, one of the markers turns red. This means there is a bloodstain in the area, much like the ones invaders leave. You explore the level to try to see where the player died to collect some souls/collectibles/whatever. You can also watch a more in depth death replay than normal (just show the enemy silhouettes too, basically). Now you have tactile feedback and you’re doing more than standing around waiting for PVP.

Now, to make this more interesting, you can also have it so BPs spawn in the gravelords world too. Perhaps his local ones get weaker as he infects more worlds or something. Now, anyone who invades him will also be attacked by these phantoms, as will the host. So the gravelord has to be able to carefully navigate his world to collect his winnings. Aural decoy, alluring skulls, some new spells that are covenant specific? He can use this BPs to his advantage when invaded, but that can also turn on him and get him killed. The Gravelord will probably want to clear out some enemies to make his life more manageable, but if he empties the level, or the level around him, he can’t make use of the advantages of his BPs. You can try to balance this in other ways too. I don’t know what the mechanic would be for handling this, but I like the idea that the strength of the BPs are based on the Gravelord sacrificing strength (if only for that life). So the more powerful the BPs in the world, the weaker the gravelord is… but the weaker the gravelord is, the harder it is for him to reap the blood stains of his victims and the more dependent he becomes of the enemies in his stage to do the fighting for him.

So yeah, just wanted to throw those two thoughts out there. I feel the neutral phantom thing is something that FROM has to be considering (whether they actually do it is another thing entirely), but the Gravelord thing is just my own little thought experiment. I should probably get to working on Brave Earth more, rather than wanking it to Dark Souls. :P

Dark Souls Map Explorer

darksoulsbanner

I’d like to introduce the Dark Souls Map Explorer. The Dark Souls Map Explorer is a simple tool made by me, in Unity, using Vlad001’s data files. The Dark Souls Map Explorer does not replace the Dark Souls Map Viewer, but instead, focuses on an aspect Dark Souls Map Viewer was poor at: In close camera control.

DSME allows you to explore the Dark Souls collision data Map both in first person FPS style controls. Made in Unity, It also allows you to switch to a no-clipping free flight camera. This allows for a closer and more personal interaction with the map data. It is not as good as the DKSMV or the .obj data when it comes to more precise analysis, like taking technical pictures of the world, as I’ve done with my analysis of Oolacile and Darkroot Garden. Unity’s FPS style POV and other factors would probably produce far more distortion, with far less clarity. DKSMV is also amazingly lightweight.

DSME’s data is also slightly flawed in some places. Unity, to allow such big data pieces to even be loaded, had to cut up some of the stages in ways that occasionally leave unsightly and inaccurate seams in parts of the world.


Controls
WASD+Mouse: Move and look around
Space: Jump
Shift: Quick Move (only in Free Flight mode)
Q and E: Move up and down (only in Free Flight Mode)
R: Cycle between FPS and Free Flight Mode
F: Toggle Oolacile and Darkroot Garden

As a note, ‘detached’ words have been adjusted from their in game position. Oolacile is placed exactly over Darkroot Garden for the purposes of comparison and is invisible by default. The Kiln was moved slightly to not clip with parts of Oolacile. The Painted World and Undead Asylum have also been moved slightly, to make them easier to find. Besides this and the necessary ‘slices’ in the map to work around object size limits, no intentional changes to the world geometry have been made. If you find any, please report them.

If the unity logo fades and you’re stuck on a black screen… just keep waiting. On some computers it can sometimes take minutes to properly launch (another point toward DKSMV).

Download PC Version
Download Mac Version (Might only work in Mountain Lion? Anyone with Lion or lower, please test this out and comment)

I have also decided to release the source code. You can do whatever you want with this, but I encourage you to get in contact with me if you make any significant improvements to the program. A lot of simple features could probably be added relatively quickly by people with more experience than me. If that happens, i’d like to host whatever the best version is.

Download Unity 4 Source Code

edit: Due to crazy amounts of spam for this link and the lack of any real discussion at this point, comments have been disabled. Feel free to email me with any questions instead

Dark Souls Map Viewer

dsmap

The Dark Souls Map Viewer is one of those wonderful things that most people in the Dark Souls community don’t know about. Part of this is because there is no obvious public place talking about it, and because the update made by a 3rd party which added the DLC content was on a website that was infested with spyware.

Dark Souls Map Viewer is a program made by vlad001 on the xentax forums, who released the program open sourced. Ispohr on the Dark Souls Reddit re-released the map viewer, with the DLC content and a online map analytics too, but for whatever reason his website is now down (likely got hacked). Because of this, the Oolacile data file was kinda ‘lost’. A nice person over on Reddit posted it and I decided to package it up and host it. Now it’ll have a place to exist other than random rapidshare links. This is Vlad001’s with the map files from Ispohr’s release. Vlad001 has also been kind enough to endorse this mirror.

If you wanna get some idea what the Dark Souls Map Viewer is like, check out this video.

To Download the Dark Souls Map Viewer, Click Here

Thansk to Vlad, I was able to convert the DKSMV files into .obj files. The maps themselves are not the -actual- maps of Dark Souls but instead the collision maps. The game’s collision maps are surprisingly complete, even when it comes to objects you should never be able to reach, but keep this in mind if something seems missing.

I plan to use these to make a more ‘first person’ map viewer (Likely to be called Dark Souls Map Explorer). It likely won’t replace the viewer, as it is very effecient at what it does, but the Map Explorer will hopefully excel where DKSMV fails: In close and in doors. But feel free to use these in your own projects, but keep in mind that we’re technically playing with other peoples property.

To Download Dark Souls Collision Map Data, Click Here

Keep in mind that the data here is technically the property of Namco-Bandai and FROM. I think we can claim fair use on this tiny subset of data. Sharing it only benefits the community and, by extension Namco and FROM and the value of their products. but be respectful and know these resources many have to be removed at any time. I doubt that will happen (IWBTG still exists, after all), but it can.

Dark Souls 2, Popularity and Edge Magazine’s Big Mouth

Dark Souls 2 is announced and I’m obviously excited. I have the same concerns as everyone else. I’m a fan of Miyazaki, Shibuya’s comments about preferring “direct” over “subtle” concern me, but ultimately I’m positive. It takes a company and a complete culture to make a game like Dark Souls and I don’t think Shibuya, a former Monster Hunter guy, can ruin it. His strengths will be shared with the project. I’ve even heard that Miyazaki has said in a Japanese interview that he wouldn’t even want to direct another Souls game — not because he doesn’t want to do one, but because he wants to be freed of the ‘director’ responsibilities so he can get more down and dirty with design. The role of Supervisor is a vague one, so what he’ll actually be doing is anyone’s guess. Hopefully more rather than less.

Still, there was a line in the Edge Magazine teaser that bothered me. Some people even attributed this to From Soft due to shoddy writing on Edge Magazine’s part.

We sympathise if that sort of statement concerns you, but at the same time, we can surely agree that we would all like to see Dark Souls attain as great a presence as The Elder Scrolls. How it gets there is a worthy matter for debate, but it’s certainly a noble task.

No, we can’t all agree on this. Perhaps in a theoretical world where the Souls games could get to Elderscrolls level without compromise, sure, but we do not live in that world. The compromises needed to make a Souls game as popular as an Elderscrolls game would kill the essence of what makes it a Souls game. And on a financial side, if it tried to compete with that audience, could it even win, or would it instead kill the series? The strength of niches is the fanatic level of devotion fans have. You might not be able to support the most massive projects off a niche, but they can be safe and stable once you have a fanbase. Dark Souls proved From has access to quite a sizable niche and it makes sense to grow it more. Adding accessibility, even if it negatively effects me, is probably for the best as long as it done cautiously and tastefully. I don’t think people should have to look up what “poise” does or have to read that resistance is a dumb stat. I even think having a more direct, top layer narrative would be fine, as long as the subtle layers are just as deep. It could even be a tool to make players dig deeper. It’s easy to play Dark Souls and think there is no plot or lore to be found and that’s a shame. So you can make a friendlier and more accessible game and hopefully From will do it as tastefully as I hope they do it. I hope Dark Souls gets as popular as it can, without horribly compromising its self. But that basically assures it will never be as popular as something like Skyrim. Even if it could, that isn’t a ‘noble goal’. The “noble goal” would be not to compromise — to make one’s art with passion. To do what one things is best for the ‘game’ rather than maximizing profits. We can’t expect a company to do that, but putting forth the idea that cashing in a Brand Name to try to get Skyrim-Dollars is a ‘noble goal’ is absurd. For art, popularity and money is not a ‘noble goal’, it is a necessity and the means to an end.

Again, these are Edge’s words, not From’s. Regardless, they still make me cringe, even if I’m still expecting the best out of From Software.

In Response to EpicNameBro’s “Future of the Souls Series” Video

The video can be seen here. EpicNameBro (also known as Marcus, which I’ll use from here on out because it works better in sentences!), a staple of the Souls community, talks about what changes should be made to the series in future installments that we have to assume are coming. He makes many astute points and it’s hard to peg anything he says as flat out wrong or bad. So this will be more of an… addition to that discussion. Some of this might be redundant with my previous writing on the Souls games, but whatever.

I mostly will be talking about the multiplayer aspect, much like Marcus was but I just want to note some stuff on story…

Storytelling

Marcus and I are mostly in agreement on this, but I really do think the Soul’s game need to put a LITTLE bit more forward to the player. The game get’s too many complaints about being hollow and storyless for this to stay. It kills me every time I hear it. I’d say the Soul’s game need…. like, “10%” more story. I don’t know what 10% actually means in StoryTellingUnits, but I think it invokes the right idea. A substantial but still minor push. I’d like to see more things that are on item descriptions be things that NPCs say offhandedly. I don’t want there to be any pre-boss-fight monologues, but I would like if NPCs added a bit more to your knowledge of whats going on. Just enough to give some sense of propulsion. I want the vagueness and mystery to remain, I just want some more clues to be put in plain sight to tell the player. I agree that cutscenes is not how the Souls games tell stories, but I don’t think item descriptions are a particularly good way to do it either when that represents such a large percentage of the information in the game. Ultimately what I want is for more people to be able to notice and enjoy what is there. I doubt, under that context, Marcus would even disagree but it is somewhat contrary to wait he said in his video.

The Gordian Knot of PvP

Marcus probably caught a lot of flak for referring to the multiplayer as Garbage and I don’t much disagree with him. That said, I thought a lot of his solutions missed essential and fundamental problems. It’s also a problem that changing one system almost kinda breaks the game. Many knobs need to be turned in unison to progress the Souls series along, making this a tough topic to theorize about.

The first thing in the video that made me want to comment was his thoughts on the Bottomless Box glitch. He stated that From is clearly okay with Gankers and has to be up on stuff like that and the dragonhead glitch if that’s the case. Technically that’s correct, but that is an unrealistic expectation. You can not make perfect software with any sort of confidence that it won’t break. Atop this, is tacit approval of over-leveled griefing really something worth preserving?

You cannot ever be sure that stuff like the Bottomless Box glitch or the Dragon Head glitch won’t happen. So all you can do is design your game so that if they do happen, their damage is limited. Non-scaling weapons are a pox upon the game. For a character at level 1 to 10 to do as much damage as a 120 vit-gouge build is absurd and it is madness that PVP match making is balanced round level when gear makes up the majority of a character’s strength. If gear properly scaled or had certain requirements along certain upgrade paths, then you could effectively limit how overpowered a low level character could be. This means that a skilled player who got a character through the game at a low level would be able to troll low level players better than another player, but that it wouldn’t be like being practically invaded by a level 120 character. Sure, their health and endurance is a lot less, but when the best weapon you could hope to have is the Drake Sword, the difference is almost invisible to all but the most skilled players.

AR, like defense, should scale with level. By doing that, an elemental build and caster builds could have decent weapons according to their level, but would not be unstoppable godmonsters at level 1. This also means people invading or being summoned can be stronger enough than the host for things to be meaningful, but not so overpowered that they trivialize the experience. Atop this we also got to assume that the invading player already has the skill advantage anyways.

If I were to be more radical, I’d say the next Souls game perhaps should not even have levels. Exact stat configurations in Dark Souls are not particularly interesting and are mostly focused on what equipment you want to use. Being able to switch your build on the fly via equipment could lead to equipment with various types of synergy bonuses (A Thief’s armor could improve backstab damage and be synergistic with light and stabbing weapons while a big set of armor might give synergy bonuses to large weapons). The only thing that makes me not like this approach is aesthetic reasons. I almost feel the same as Marcus about wanting to dress up to look cool. I want armor choices to be meaningful, but not so complex that I have to forgo a nice looking combination because not wearing an ugly mask is just not being competitive. You could do some things with specialty armor and weapon upgrades too (and thusly you can basically ‘change characters’ by changing equipment sets) but that is approaching a level of gaminess that might not fit right in Dark Souls. Personally I always felt rubbed the wrong way by characters who’s strength came primarily from their equipment too, but given that this ALREADY is true in Dark Souls I could perhaps let it slide.

Fortunately this stuff can be changed without fundamentally breaking the system, but lets talk about netplay. Marcus talks a lot about LAN support for the game. Regardless of the validity of that idea, I want everyone to think about something. If the game was played without any lag, how good would parries be? If you answer anything besides “Totally game destroying”, you’re fooling your self. The attack speed in Dark Souls is such that, without lag, a high level player would be able to parry most moves in the game on reaction. The competitive answer to this would be to speed attacks up, or remove parries. Speeding up attacks removes a lot of the personality from the game and removing parries removes a very cool PvE feature. You can’t make parries slower either, because then you make them even WORSE for PvE and they’re already on the borderline of “something a player might never use because they never figured out how to”. The needs of PvE, vs PvP, plus the knot of weird bugs and exploits that hold PvP together lead to a strange game that is hard to change without re-envisioning it. Lag also allows stuff like Pivot Backstabs to work and between that and glitches like Dead Angles, you’re able to overcome shields. Improved netplay (which I think is technically achievable AS IS while still introducing the same issues as Lan play — just to a lesser extent) changes backstabs even more for the worse, making their punishing capabilities better while making the positional, lag focused jukes to find an advantage less good. All these systems are, in a sense, degenerate, but it’s a huge question that will reshape the series to decide what they need to be replaced with. Like Marcus, I think grabs could be good. Ultimately we need ways to break turtling and for position to matter more and those are great for that — not currently, possibly if designed with that purpose in mind. And considering how many interactions happen with large enemies where parries are useless, having a multifunctional grab (I guess roughly like Dragon’s Dogma) has some obvious advantages and gives a way to balance mechanics between modes.

Another general issue is that Dark Souls PvP is far too all-or-nothing and it’s painful that a lot of the stuff I shared above is so damaging yet so essential. It feels lame to fish for backstabs but at times it’s the best thing you can do. Nerfing backstab damage was one of the best changes made to the AotA expansion. Between that, stunlocking attacks and ridiculous magic that has to be overpowered to be good in PvE but as such has to miss a lot in PvP to avoid being overpowered. That’s a huge problem. Spells like Dark Bead and Dark Mass wouldn’t be so god awfully retarded that they needed a special item to get around them if they didn’t have to do so much damage to be useful. Dark Mass is an amazing concept for a spell, and Dark Bead has the most interesting zone of control out of any spell in the game. But they end up being grossly degenerate now because either players will die immediately to those tactics or will survive them with relative ease. Magic in general is an area where the Souls games need a lot of work and the first step to doing so will be getting past the idea that spells are big nukes to use against dumb AI. Even the roll system possibly needs revisiting, though perhaps medium roll and even to an extent, fat roll’s semi-viability is a vast improvement from the vanilla game (Funnily, I think the best part of the DWGR nerf is that the roll is much shorter range and thusly makes it harder to pivot backstab slow-rollers. I agree with Marcus fully on things like how offhand weapons should work and such, as well as with covenants. Still, I think for the PvP to really shine without detracting from the PvE, a lot of deep, fundamental changes must be made. The basic control scheme can remain, but systematically, a lot of huge changes will be required, else Dark Souls PvP will always be a silly, semi-casual affair.

Improving PvP: Weight and PvP Diversity

So I hear people complain about diversity a lot in Dark Souls. In a sense, I don’t think the situation is too bad, but it could use a lot of improving. Still, many people look at several ‘over powered’ options that are commonly used and suggest that removing one would improve the game. I think this is missing the point.

Dark Souls PvP lacks diversity because, mechanically, Dark Souls PvP lacks diversity.

Okay, that’s not satisfying, but the point is, the diversity isn’t there to be unlocked, because Dark Souls is loaded false choices and relatively meaningless options.

Lets start with rolls. There are 3 weight classes in Dark Souls. Under 25% equip load, under 50% and over 50%. The Dark Woodgrain Ring ( one of the several items people want to see disappear) gives a roll slightly better roll than 25% equip rate and the same walk speed at 50% equip, but for all intents and purposes it’s the 25% equip rate ‘class’ of movement’.

And it is only that class that is viable n any way. If you are slower than your opponent, you can’t do too much to avoid a backstab. Even a defensive roll can often end up with you getting backstabbed. The faster player can also kite you indefinitely. To be viable you HAVE to be in the fastest possible weight class. It’s suicide otherwise.

What of Armor? Armor has 3 factors. Stamina Penalty, Defense and Poise. Well, and weight, but generally you’re picking the armor for the weapons.Stamina penalty is almost ignorable, defense is weak on most things and poise is the most meaingful stat, which helps you not get staggered by hits. Playing with 0 poise is a doable, though not very recommended thing though. so generally you get a certanin amount of poise (usually 55 for those wondering) and try and get as much defense as possible while looking cool and staying under weight. It’s mosty meaningless though. Poise does matter, but not to a great deal. Even if Light Armor was ‘viable’ all it would do is change how people look for the most part. No interesting choices are being made because armor isn’t particlarly interesting.

As already established, most magic is also not viable in PvP.

For rings, we have a few usable options. Wolf Ring (give spoise), Hornet Ring (increased damage on parries/backstabs), Dark Woodgrain ring (see above), Havels (doubles equip load. Only worth using in conjunction with DWGR for super weight bonuses) and the Ring of Favor and Protection (which boosts health, stamina and equip burden but breaks if removed). There are a few other rings that are somewhat usable, but generally these are the best and most run DWGR and the Ring of Favor and Protection.

The issue here is not that these rings are ‘too good’. It’s that most other rings are “30% Fire resist”. The DWGR and the RoFaP are possibly too good, but in general, the problem is that most rings are just damn boring.

That leaves weapons, which has a lot of samey choices, but is still relatively good.

As such the only real choices you have are ‘what weapon do I use’ and a few supplmentals. “Do I use buffs and/or scaling weapons”. As the game is now, it’s good that you can wear a lot of armor and carry a bunch of weapons, because mixing and matching weapons/shields is possibly the only way you can really make your character have any sort of flavor.

So how do we fix this? The sad answer is, we don’t. Not in Dark Souls at least. Maybe they’ll somehow patch the game with some carefully made decisions that will turn things on their head, but that’s not the type of stuff I can theorize about. So what can a sequel to Dark Souls do? This is tricky because the changes will also exist in PvE too.

Okay one of the big problem is that attacking is inherently risky and defense is really strong. It can be quite tricky to do real damage to an overly defensive player and your aggression opens you up to the ever dreaded backstab (or even getting parried!). Part of this is it’s hard to catch up with a retreating opponent who has his shield up and tag him with a slow weapon. If you can’t keep that aggression up, they can put down their shield and recover their stamina fairly quickly. So lets start with a few things. Backpedeling should be slower than normal movement and moving while blocking should also be slower. I also constantly think that Dark Souls needs a way to punish people who block to much directly. Some sort of guard break. Sadly the Kick doesn’t function in this role quite well enough. The guard break should be slower, but far more effective. Perhaps a benefit for certain weapons or heavy shields (better shield bashes would be sweet)? Perhaps in exchange for even slower movement while in use. Conversely a dagger might not have a shield break, but it’s low stamina drain and speed of attack allows it to put on pressure and chisel down an opponent, while also letting it punish roll attempts. Less damage resistance amongst smaller shields could also work. Limiting 100% resist to great shields so chip damage could play a better role.

Then there are weight classes. I think that all weight classes should physically move at the same speed. This might not be required if other abilities were in place (like say, being able to have a charge attack or something to close distance). Turn speed should definitely be the same for everyone and the medium roll should be better (It should be of AVERAGE utility, not awful). Hopefully with this, they wouldn’t get backstabbed all the time. Also linking armor type to the various rolls would probably help. Like, if Heavy Armor could NEVER do a 25% roll or something. As part of the tradeoff.

So now heavy and light armor need to be viable. RIght now heavy armor doesn’t defend THAT much better than light armor and it’s mostly the poise. First, having armor that DOES stuff is awesome. Be it light armor that increases critical damage, or ability to use magic or whatever. This might make playing dress up harder, but could be fixed by making it an element of a Demon’s Souls style upgrade tree, allowing all armor in a class to have various abilities (maybe even the charge, or other types of buffs). Stamina penalty if necessary could also be higher to offset the improved defense while also maintaining PvE balance.

Spells are their own thing, but making them usable would do a lot to help the game..

So basically, while I put out some suggestions, the whole idea goes like this

*First, the weight classes have to matter.
*Then the armor has to matter (and no, poise isn’t enough)
*Then aggression in combat has to matter.

Once you get those 3 things, you can start adding in all sorts of other elements (like better magic and rings) and then get a game with some actual diversity going on. Basically what you need are meaningful choices to make betwen different ideals. Dark Souls lacks this. There is one viable weighclass — not because it’s the best, but because the slower weight classes lose to it cleanly. There is no armor variety because armor has very few properties to meaningfully distinguish pieces. Weapons DON’T have this problem because there is something to be said about fast weapons compared to slow ones. One is not clearly superior. In fact, the Lighting Zweihander people complain about is not nearly the ‘best weapon’. It’s slow attacks leave it extremely unsafe, but it only has to hit you once or twice. A fun and interesting tradeoff! So if we do that for armor and make attacking a little safer, we know have a ton of new design space and everyone wins!

Improving Dark Souls: Covenants

I don’t know if I’m going to make a series out of this, but I might as well set my self up just in case. Anyways, this should be a quickly.

The Covenant system is both one of the biggest differences between Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls, but also one of the least polished parts of the game. While everything functions to a somewhat acceptable degree, there is clearly room for a lot of improvement. That said, it was probably time rather than effort that lead to such a flawed covenant system and I’m sure many of the things I mention were at one point planned or talked about. Doesn’t mean we can’t talk about it, though!

Also before anything else, let me just say that every covenant would benefit from the changes I suggested in my in-depth review. Lower level cap, better matchmaking, etc. So I’m not going to bother talking about any of that unless it’s extremely relevant.

Way of the White

Lets start with the most boring. Clearly this is the least spectacular covenant. You gain nothing material — simply matchmaking and, by virtue of the dedicated server-less lobby system, less of a chance to be invaded. The covenant has no rank and little purpose, outside being the baby version of the Warriors of Sunlight. Perhaps this is fine, as it is the first covenant that you encounter and can be seen as a way to coddle new players. I would speculate that the coin Petrus gave you would have been a covenant item in the same way as the sunlight medals would be. Due to the complete emptiness of this covenant, it could be improved any way someone wanted (sunbros-lite, story based covenant where you level up by doing things like getting the rite of kindling and kindling bonfires, etc etc). Any of these would work. Personally and fluff wise, kindling bonfires seems like the best way to level up this covenant.

Princess’s Guard

Almost, but not quite as unspectacular. This covenant gives us some direction. I would imagine both the miracles that are exclusive to this covenant would have been given as covenant items (perhaps using the gold coins, but that is entirely speculation). Clearly the way to improve such a covenant would be more support miracles (a spell like the channeler’s dance, mayhaps!), but the question remains: How do they gain covenant items? In a way this is the same problem that plagues Way of the White. Do we need three different sunlight warriors? Perhaps they were to function in the same way as the darkmoon ring, before it was decided that it was a better fit for the Blades of Darkmoon (probably due to them having a hard time getting matches). That said, I think, assuming the way of the white had a non co-op leveling system, that it would be okay to have a second style of Sunbro. While the Sunlight Warriors gain offensive spells, the Princess’s Guard gains healing.

Blade of the Darkmoon

These guys are so broken. They have a naturally hard time finding matches and their covenant rewards require an absurd amount of kills. Obviously that can be fixed, but that’s not mechanical. Two things would particularly help though – the level cap I said I wouldn’t get into (but it would make being summoned into Dark Anor Londo less of a joke), and, humorously, making it easier to be a Darkwraith (but we’ll get to that later). Blades of the Darkmoon SHOULD be able to invade and be summoned to any sinner, anywhere, but that clearly doesn’t work well with the lobby system. Perhaps another system that might be workable would be using the book of the guilty to display players that are currently playing and then selectively invade them. Problem there is while it is probably possible (in the same way the lobbies share messages with each other) but would probably be too much of a network burden. Invading darkwraiths who are alive, regardless of whether they defeated the areas boss is probably the best solution, though that could create a chilling effect among darkwraiths. Perhaps what would be the funnest, but most technically challenging solution is ALSO having the ability to “counter-invade” and come to a phantom’s aid. The biggest difficulty would the host getting offed before you can connect, so the idea is sadly probably not workable.

To make the ‘invading darkwraiths anywhere’ thing work, I think it would have to be linked to the Darkwraith invading. Perhaps a way to do both is that an invading Darkwraith leaves a mark (or may, depending on their current level of sin?). By touching the mark, the Darkmoon can either invade the Darkwraith OR whatever game the darkwraith is currently invading. Perhaps a little difficult to implement, but it would certainly be fun.

Warriors of Sunlight

One of the few fully functional covenants in my opinion. The Sunbros are pretty great. They have great rewards, a great requirement and are all gold and awesome. No changes required, outside of more rewards for later covenant levels (Solaire’s stuff without having to kill him plz). Jolly Co-operation is apparently its own reward, though.

The Forest Hunters

I always have mixed feelings about the Forest Hunters. The forest is one of the goofiest and most unreliable PVP zones as far as ‘fairness’ is concerned and the only places that the zone attracts is trolls. That said they have some of the best rewards and an amazing merchant. I think the best way to make the covenant work would be to make it possible to invade players who are hollow and nonhollow and to have the invasions occur regardless of the state of Sif. If you litter some more goodies throughout the zone and make it an even better place to farm souls, then it should receive the attention it needs from non-troll characters.

Chaos Servants

Clearly a lot was planned that never came to fruition. Straight forward leveling mechanic with only sporadic rewards, a lot of room for more fluff an d a servants roster with no particular purpose. If I were to guess, an original purpose of the covenant would have been to infect online players with eggs. Instead of having another redundant PVP covenant, they made it a rather lackluster one. You pay 30 humanity and get two spells and a shortcut. Linking it to Queelana may have helped make it more valuable but would make less sense for fluff. Perhaps another zone like the Forest and Dark Anor Londo would be good, where infection gives the rewards of humanity. It could almost be seen as taking Queelag’s place. Though what this covenant more needs is a bit more story progression and more spread out rewards. Temporary plot driven covenants seem like they would be both fun and a good alternative for players who aren’t much interested in the online elements of the game.

Gravelord Servants

Ouch, if only this covenant worked as well as everyone hoped. The concept is so cool, yet it has no tactile feedback. This is the first issue. Originally everyone thought you gained souls by having people die in other worlds and this should be brought back. It gives tactile feedback and could come with a message (“Player XXXX was defeated at the hands of your minions”). The sign should also be visible and show how many worlds you have infected, just to let the gravelord know it’s working. I have a suspicion though that gravelord infections and invasions are not perfectly interconnected. I think it may be possible that if you invade a gravelord through a symbol, you might invade ANY gravelord in the area, not the one that was infecting you. Upon success, you would get a flag that you’ve successfully defeated a gravelord (thus stopping any BP enemies). If this is the case, giving you souls would be extremely difficult. Gravelords in an area would either have to help communally or we’d have to deal with the broken system we have now. Perhaps Form feared that such a system would plunge the game into permanent “Pure Black World Tendency”. If these limitations are true, that’s a shame, because this covenant NEEDS tactile feedback to be successful.

One way to also do this would be to let the gravelord lay down multiple signs that each spawn BP enemies in their vicinity. Since we know how White Soap Stones work, we can assume this method would also work. This would add to the level of planning a Gravelord could do and make sure that gravelords weren’t ‘hiding their summoning sign’. What would make this a homerun would be if the Gravelord then could go to his symbols, collect the souls and eyes they collected by killing players and perhaps then even watch a bloodstain of that players death. I’m sure From would have loved to do something like that, so we can only hope they succeed at it in some other game (or.. in DLC D:).

Path of the Dragon

The Path of the Dragon functions and gives some of the coolest rewards. If the game threw in a few dragon weapons in the covenant rewards, things would be perfect (outside of matchmaking issues). While those matchmaking issues can be problematic, for the most part this covenant works as intended.

Darkwraiths

Mechanically, Darkwraiths work great. They even have a full reward tree! The problem is, they don’t work for everyone else per-say. To re-iterate what I said in my in-depth review (since it IS extremely important here), being a Darkwraith SHOULD be easy. This makes it so worse players are invading. This makes more sinners, for the Darkmoon Blades, and this leads to less curb stops. Combine this with a reasonable level cap (so Darkwraiths also don’t get mercilessly stomped themselves) and you create a healthier ecosystem with less incentive to twink (again, if you beat the four kings at a low level, you’re ALREADY twinked, so why would you ditch your gear?). This still isn’t the perfect world where gear factors into matchmaking, but it helps.

Anyways, that might not be the most interesting thing I ever wrote, but it only took a little bit and was fun to think about.

Dark Souls: In Depth

Before I begin, let me thank long time listener of TMT, Trynant, for sending me this and Demon’s Souls. I had no idea the joy I was depriving my self of by passing them up.

My Other M: In Depth post was a tear down of a significantly flawed game. This time is different. Now it’s time for me to heap praise on a superficially flawed game as well as an analysis on how future games of it’s ilk can improve. It’s time for me to expound the virtues of perhaps my favorite single player experience in the last five years and time to get into the nitty gritty of why this game works. So if you’re looking for a spoiler free review because you don’t know what to do with the GameStop gift card you got for Christmas, all I can say is “If you like hard, skillful games, buy it”. So just like last time, be wary of spoilers (not that the game has many). So anyways, lets do this thing!

The Premise and Mechanics

The Sunk Ruins of New Londo

Dark Souls is a dark fantasy themed, metroidvania-esque, combat driven action RPG, with a heavy focus on combat mastery and accumulating knowledge. Despite putting an emphasis on learning, the game also has many ways to instill a fear of death in the player. Death often involves replaying long sections of an area again — forgiving checkpoints are a rare. The player can also risk losing all of their unspent currency/experience in the game by dying. A bloodstain is left where the player died, but if the player dies again, it’s gone forever. This is problematic because the game is also trying to do everything in it’s power to kill you. Unlike most action RPGs, levels and stats play second fiddle to skill. The game, played by an expert, is beatable at level one (though using powerful equipment). You are never expected to be able to tank near-unavoidable damage and running up to a boss and mashing at them blindly is often a fatal strategy.

The player character is a classless entity (the classes at character creation are merely starting kits) comprised of numerous stats, most of which only have to do with equipment pre-requisites and damage scaling(Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, Faith, though dex does decrease spell casting time), and a few others. Attunement gives you more spell slots, Vitality gives you more health, Endurance gives you more equippable item capacity and Resistance does what it says and should never be leveled up (the stat probably shouldn’t have been in the game). Every level up also increases your defense a little bit. How generous! You got 4 weapon slots to define your offensive capability with and two actions for each hand (mapped to the appropriate shoulder buttons). Left is defensive (generally block and parry, but for wielding two weapons, one is often a block and the other is an attack. Or an attack and a parry), right is offensive (two attacks. You’ll attack even with a shield if you put one there). There are tons of melee weapons, shields, bows and three classes of magical implements (talismans for miracles, cataylists for sorceries and pyromancy flames for.. pyromancy!), so what you equip your self with really defines the capabilities of your character. Sure, you can change equipment in the menu, but considering that the game plays even when you’re in the menu, that’s not always practical. Thus, your loadout is an important decision making process.

Kindling a Bonfire

The key ability in the Souls games is the roll. Much like Bayonetta and newer games, avoiding damage is one of the biggest challenges. Unlike new games, Dark Soul’s roll does not have staggeringly large windows of invulnerability (well, unless you get a certain ring…), doesn’t give you any bonuses for dodging successfully and doesn’t always give you a brisk recovery. Yet somehow this move is of critical importance. The reason is, unlike games like Bayonetta, attacking is very dangerous too. You need to use your ‘mediocre roll’ to survive until you get into position to attack. You also need it to cancel a portion of your attack’s recovery when you whiff. Contextually, this weak roll is amazing and given both your flawed offensive and defensive abilities. As such, even simple foes can do significant damage if you’re not careful! Despite these flaws, your attacks still feel powerful. The slow windups just add to the impact of individual hits. Which swing is a build up and release of tension and a key point of excitement and fear. Instead of feeling like a loose and clunky game, it feels like a tight game where every decision matters — because every decision DOES matter.

Attacking, blocking and rolling all use the stamina bar. The stamina bar recharges very quickly (in a few seconds while not holding any buttons), but in the heat of combat, it never fills up fast enough. It’s a resource to manage and it makes even blocking relatively weak. Damage done while blocking is turned into stamina damage (With some portion hitting your actual health, depending on the stats of the shield) so if you attacked too much, you cannot roll to escape and any hit to your shield will stagger you and do normal damage. When you run out swinging and mashing attack, you have to either expect your enemy to die or prey you will have just enough energy to roll away when you’re done. This adds a rich tension to combat. Even relatively easy enemies require a methodical approach to kill safely!

The player has two states — human and hollow. By using a semi-rare humanity item (or doing some other stuff that’s not worth talking about) the player can resurrect themselves. This has only a small handful of advantages (unlike Demon’s Souls where you lost most of your life!) — the ability to summon other players and get invaded, as well as the ability to kindle bonfires. The exact mechancis of humanity are arcane and silly, so we’ll just ignore them and move on to the kindling and the bonfires.

The bonfires shattered about the world act as both a source of healing and your checkpoints. Going to one fills your health bar but resurrects all (non boss/unique) enemies in the stage. You have no ready access to stores of healing items like Demon’s Souls. Large stockpiles of grass have been replaced with the Estus flask. Every time you go to the bonfire you get 5 swigs of the flask, which provide significant healing that must be rationed carefully. You can kindle your bonfire with humanity to give you larger amounts of Estus (Normally you can only kindle once to get 10 flasks, but later you can kindle more for up to 20 flasks) and you can upgrade your flask to have it heal more per swig. This controlled healing gives the developers a better way to balance levels and bosses as well as giving the player a new resource to manage. It also removes the desire to ‘horde’ healing items, while also punishing their overuse. In short, it gives the player the perfect amount of healing! With about two bonfires per boss, you get a pretty traditional level structure, despite the game’s free roaming nature.

The rest of what you do is simple. You proceed through parts of the game to achieve relatively simple tasks. Less ‘fetch quests’ and more ‘just kill all these fuckers’. So you roam the land finding new areas to clear and more fuckers to kill, with any progress in any direction bringing you closer to the end of the game.

I suppose I also should not ignore the difficulty of this game. It’s hard. Very hard and very unforgiving. But it is also fair. Luck in Dark Souls can always be replaced with skill and planning. It is when one relies on luck that one dies the most. Sometimes you die because the game is teaching you a lesson. If you roll with the punches, next time can always be different and you will get a little farther. This game questions the entitlement gamers have to not die. Despite the punishing aspects of death, as soon as one stops worrying about losing souls, the game gets a lot easier. The pressure is relieved and you can just continue to play through this fierce meritocracy. Many reviewers paint the game as horrible, oppressive, soul crushing experience, but I find that to be downright hyperbolic. If you’re the type of person to like a real challenge and self improvement, you will find the majority of this game to be deeply enjoyable because you will have earned but of success you receive. If you’re soul is getting crushed, it’s because you’re probably not respecting the game. You are hoping to luck your way through a boss battle that you have to learn and it’s just not going to happen.

Enemies in this game are dealt with through careful observation. Often a new area may seem overwhelming, by analysis of their attack patterns. Getting to a new room might lead to quick, brutal death, but each subsequent attempt will increase your ability to cope with your situation. Your handling of a situation will get progressively more refined until once difficult sections become relatively easy. Each Boss often starts out feeling like an effort in futility, but knowledge is power. Often when you finally win, you don’t feel lucky, you feel mastery. You might often feel like if you fought the boss again, it’d be easy! It’s that deeply satisfying feeling that drives a player through Dark Souls.

Wonderful Level and World Design


Outside the combat, one of my favorite thing about the game is how the world is constructed. Not so much the lore — we’ll get to that later — but the structure. Firstly, the world is amazingly and complexly interconnected and incredibly easy to navigate. If you can see something in the distance, you’re probably going to go there at some point. The world is so interconnected that often it’s surprising how to areas link, but once you find the link, it makes sense. The world is also ecologically sound. Areas reasonably blend into each other and, in fact, the deeper you go, the more you can infer about the world. The dark and shadowy places of the world are deep in the lower ravines of the world. Looking up from the dark sewers of Blighttown, you can see the sun, sky, and the walls of the castle above you. It doesn’t cease to exist because they demanded a dark atmosphere for a segments of the game. It’s right there where you can see it, confirming the validity and persistence of the world. It’s a place you could draw a map, if not for the staggering 3d aspect of it. It’s also darn easy to navigate and this is accomplished with a few simple, but invisible tricks.

First, main path branches never lie to you. Forward is virtually always forward. Rare do you come to a crossroad, not sure which direction to go in and even rarer does the ‘wrong’ path have any significant length to it. Going down these harder to reach, short paths usually reward the player with treasure and other items before quickly setting them back in the right direction. This might seem minimalistic and rather shallow, but this conceit allows them to construct a staggeringly 3d world. Another tool is showing you what is ahead. In say… the Prime series, you are restricted by doors. While mostly a concession of the times, these doors created sealed environments that that often prevented you from telling what was ahead of you (that said, I wanna play a 3d Metroid that goes “Metal Gear Solid 3” and embraces a super open map, but thats another story). The only hints you get are the door frames. In Dark souls you can SEE the tower where you fought the Demon and the Dragon and you can just run in it’s direction and mostly find your way pretty easily. Remember a few key sights and paths and you can get virtually anywhere you want with minimal effort. While being open ended, the world is, for the most part, a series of linear paths with a hand full of relatively large areas that have very obvious goal points.

Dark Soul’s dense cylinder of a World perhaps navigates better than any large 3d game I have ever played and does so without a map screen.

Individual areas are designed for distinctness and well crafted combat encounters. They are not afraid to put enemies in the most annoying spots possible and as such, they squeeze all the mileage they can out of their enemies. This is a design trick used famously in older Castlevania games but has been forgotten in modern times. But as long as a situation can be learned, it can be dealt with. The decaying nature of the world also makes it easy to create a world that plays like a level while not breaking suspension of disbelief. Collapsed walls, makeshift bridges and destroyed structures are a staple. The areas that do not abide by the decaying aesthetic are designed to resemble places. The pristine Anor Londo has bedrooms, filled with paintings and furniture. It has a church, a tomb and other important sites. Not-pristine-but-not-decaying Sen’s Fortress gets a pass, having been DESIGNED to be a complex, trap ridden structure. The aged nature of the world also makes it great for creating dangerous and precarious combat encounters where falling to your death is a real possibility.

Dark Souls also hits it’s aesthetic elements spot in. it embraces the classical medieval look and feel in ways that their competitors cannot not. Some games go crazy and anime-esque with their armor (which is fine), while others tole and rot in almost a medieval uncanny valley, much like Oblivion and Skyrim. Dark Souls owns it’s look. It’s equipment feels real and functioning. Function surpasses the rule of cool and when the rule of cool is applied, it’s because some weapon or set of armor came from an unlikely source, such as a demon or long dead entity. It embraces the awkward helmets and odd armors that rarely make an appearance in fantasy and use them to add a sense of reality to the world. It’s simple, yet amazingly distinct.

Story and Lore


A criticism commonly levied on Dark Souls is it’s poor, primitive story. I want to set the people who say this on fire. The story and lore of Dark Souls is “shown”, not told, and it is shown so subtly that one can blink and miss a lot of it. Details of the world, bits of dialog and small excerpts from item descriptions allow the player to piece together many details. The world is not centered around you — the world of Dark Souls feels no responsibility toward you and doesn’t require that you understand it. You stand as ignorant as the numerous NPCs that inhabit Firelink Shrine. In a world like Dark Souls, why should you be any different? This might even add to the joy of victory one feels while playing. Your success is not preordained in a significant way and even when the weight of the plot is finally put on your shoulders, it’s hard to tell if you have the whole truth. You are just an entity in a dying world and while you can piece together quite a bit you will never have all the answers.

Let me give an example of a deduction that can be made in Dark Souls.

In the Duke’s Archive (a mad laboratory for a crazy magi-science dragon), there is a section filled with Cells. There are a bunch of squid-headed-snake like enemies — Picasas — crawling about and being driven to attack by a sound. When you turn this sound off they hang around in a cell and if you fight through them, you’ll notice two at the back that avoid you and won’t attack you and seem to be crying. If you kill them, they scream out like women and drop two spells. One of the spell descriptions reads…

Bountiful Sunlight

“Special miracle granted to the maidens of Gwynevere, Princess of the Sun.
Gradual HP restoration for self and vicinity.

The miracles of Gwynevere, the princess cherished by all, grant their blessing to a great many warriors.”

Well this isn’t going anywhere nice. Lets read more item descriptions! How about some of the jail cell keys!

Archive Tower Giant Cell Key

“Key to the giant cell below the Duke’s Archives Tower.
The giant cell once imprisoned countless maidens, but is now empty, save for a few key persons. They struggle to uphold their sanity, as the horde of “mistakes” writhe at a fearfully close proximity.”

Archive Tower Cell Key

“Key to the cell of the Duke’s Archive Tower.
The Archive Tower, once a trove of precious tomes and letters, became a prison after the onset of Seath’s madness. The serpent men who guard the prison know not the value of what they hide. In the basement of the tower are the writhing “mistakes” of the terrifying experiments which were conducted there.

Okay so these things are probably Maidens of Gwynevere who have been horridly experimented on…. Oh wait there are these enemies called Channelers in the level! Let’s read what their weapon description is!

Channeler’s Trident

“Trident of the Six-eyed Channelers, sorcerers who serve Seath the Scaleless in collecting human specimens. Thrusted in circular motions in a unique martial arts dance that stirs nearby allies into a bloodthirsty frenzy.”


Well isn’t that wonderful. It makes it all the worse when the hollowed body of a female NPC end up there later in the game. An NPC who you saved. From murder. By someone who claimed to be her friend. Several characters in the game game warn you about Petrus the Cleric and most of them are unsavory folk. Somehow this guy is looked at pretty lowly by some of the biggest creepers in the game. if you do enough talking you can find out at one point that she abandoned him and hints at wanting her to die. If you save her and leave the two of them unattended for too long, he’ll murder her. And you’ll know he murdered her, because after you find her body, you can kill her and find her casting talisman on him. Oh such sweet little details.

A lot of this might feel like “telling” and one could make the argument that it is, but I think the big difference is this sort of plot discovery leads to active thought among the player. They feel like they are putting together a puzzle if they choose to look. It’s active participation. This also clears the game up of a lot of the cruft, such as cut scenes and other non-interactive elements. Not that cut scenes are necessarily bad, but they certainly do something to the tone of the game and that change of tone is not befitting of Dark Souls melancholy world. None of the Bosses give you a pre-bossfight speech. Only two optional bosses talk to you at all and the final boss doesn’t even have an intro cutscene. This does not necessarily mean the bosses are aimless and shallow. For example, we can learn that Queelag was using the second Bell of Awakening as a place to hunt adventurers to collect humanity for her dying, blight ridden sister. You can find the bottom of the world — a giant sea of ash with giant arch trees that support the world above it. In there you can find a large fledgling Dragon, pulling into question the accuracy of things said in the introduction as if it was a story told to you and not necessarily the truth. The world does not feel like it’s there for you — it seems like the answers are there, but you are simply not privy to them. Not out of spite, but because the player can only gather information that would naturally come to him. This helps paint a world that is beautiful, sullen and lonely.

Only one character, Kaathe, ever goes out of his way to illuminate the truth of the world to the player. His “Truth” though can be hard to swallow and possibly not even honest, but serves to call into question which of the games two endings are the good and bad ones. This game, which is derided for it’s shallow story and world have spawned numerous threads and conversations involving individuals nit picking every carefully chosen detail in the game to squeeze every ounce of knowledge they can out of this fantastical, dying world. Dark Souls tells it’s story in a way that is hard to emulate, yet so perfect for the medium of Video Games.

Online Elements


While the game stands without it’s online elements, they do add significantly to the game experience. Unlike Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls does not use a central server, but still has all of the features of it’s predecessor (just with more connection issues). Without ever even being alive, the transparent phantoms of other players can occasionally be see, fading into existence and either running off or getting killed before fading away again. You can look at blood stains to see how other players in an area died. When sitting at bonfires, you can the transparent aura of other characters who are playing at the same time. The two bells you have to ring in the game toll when other players close to your network(the ad-hoc network the game forms to make up for the lack of central server). You can also leave messages from from a pre-existing list of terms to try and give hints to others, telling them about ambushes, secret passages and suggested tactics for dealing for enemies. Even when not directly interacting with other players, the world feels like an occupied, haunted place.

The interactive elements are pretty good too. One gets a stone early on that allows the player to be summoned for co-op in exchange for humanity. Only human characters can summon (and can only summon two phantoms at a time), but if someone succeeds in helping someone else, the idea is that he can unhollow and then summon help of his own. Human players can be invaded by other players though (assuming they haven’t beaten the area boss yet), who will attempt to kill them for various rewards. Thus being able to summon help comes with the risk of PVP combats. Phantoms that summon and invade are likely around your level but cannot access their estus flask (though when the Host uses his flask he will heal any phantoms he summoned to help him). so the invader has to be skilled and have strong gear for his level to stand a chance. Fighting another player can be one of the biggest rushes in the game and, for an unprepared human player, one of the scariest.

There are covenants that the player can join that can help with both co-op and invading. Three of the Covenants are Co-Op based (Way of the White, Princess Guard and The Warriors of Sunlight). Not only do they tend to make you favor networks with other people of the same covenant (thus reducing invasions and facilitating PVP), successful PVPing can grant you access to new spells and equipment. For the PVP side of things, you have the Covenant of the Eternal Dragon, which allows players to partake in mutual PVP in exchange for dragon scales (used to level up the covenant and upgrade dragon weapons). By doing this, members of the covenant can earn items that allow them to convert their head and torso into that of a humanoid dragon. The Darkwraiths are a hard to join covenant that allows members to freely invade other players without using a normally limited item. By defeating their enemies, they gain humanity that they can turn over to their covenant in exchange for gear. The Blades of the Dark Moon allow players to invade the worlds of Sinners — players whom have invaded other games, betrayed covenants or murdered innocent NPCs. This allows players who don’t want to be jerks the ability to invade other games and feel like they’re delivering justice. They also receive a ring that, when warned, basically will randomly let them invade the world of players in ‘Dark Anor Londo’, an area that can only be accessed by killing one of the world’s Gods. The Forest Hunters have a similar mechanic. By wearing the appropriate ring, players may be summoned to defend a second of forest and can also bypass the usual “single invader” limit. The Gravelords (which unfortunately don’t work too well) can lay down a sign that will corrupt 3 game worlds, populating them with stronger enemies. If they kill the player of those worlds, the Gravelord collects a portion of their souls. If the player finds their soul sign, they can invade the Gravelord and attempt to murder him, thus ending the corruption of your world.

As such the game has countless ways for players to interact, but in this strange, impersonal way that is befitting of Dark Souls.

Criticisms and how the Souls games can Improve

First I’m going to talk about PvP and what is both great and bad about it. At this point, it is perhaps my favorite aspect of the game while also being heavily flawed. First off, despite all the stats the game has to offer, characters play mostly the same. Currently, levels could be discarded and the game could be built around equipment/spells. Unfortunately, while this method would be simplier, it is perhaps better to induce more character variation into the game. Many weapons are viable currently, but they all fit into a handful of classifications. Off the top of my head, Fast weapons, slow weapons, weapons that can attack while blocking and weapons with reach. Sometimes these things are combined (Spears for example can attack while blocking and have reach) but in short you deal with most of these problems the same way. Sure, you might have a trick or too for getting in against a spear user, but ultimately you get in and smack the shit out of your opponent. The game has another problematic element. Attacking is also not a very strong option! This game can be very turtlish, especially among competitive, level 120 1v1 pvpers. It’s much easier to wait for a mistake than to attack and ‘chip’ damage is usually insignificant (until you run their stamina down, break their guard and hopefully murder them). Boring games are created when inaction is the best strategy.

Most spells are not particularly useful either and also have the worst kind of balance (Does insane damage but shouldn’t reasonably ever hit) with a few exceptions. Most useful buffs in the game only increase damage output. No spells increase stamina regeneration, teleports, stun or allow you to move faster or to lay traps, or have any decent area denial (all the clouds are far too weak for that purpose) or basically any kind of spell that would be common in a competitive game. I could think of a million spells that would be super cool in the game and the only one that exists is Wrath of God — a fast cast, area of burst damage that does a lotta hurt. It’s rather ‘lame’ but has that ‘it’s so good it’s fun’ feel that a lot of spells need. I could go on forever describing spells that would have rocked in Dark Souls for PvP and PvE but they’re just not there, leading to a lot of saminess. Equipment is also pretty boring. A few novelty weapons are cool, but there are few interesting effects granted by equipment. You basically pick the weapons you want and pick armor to get as much poise as possible while keeping to the weight class you want. As such I never found much fun in the mutual PvP stuff. I think From Software was actively trying to discourage it, but that’s a fools game. Still, invasions are where it’s at for me. The host has a purpose — to get to the end. You have a purpose — to kill the host. He can heal and is probably well supported. You can’t heal, but probably have much better equipment and can create ambushes with the enemies. It’s the massive situation asymmetry that makes things shine.

That said, there is still too much variance in who you get matched up with. You cannot re-spec your stats and builds are easy to mess up. Since PVP players are going to know this better than new players, PVPers will have better stats for their level. An unaware player can be, strength wise, 10-20 level lower than what is appropriate for the invader. Also the level cap is absurdly high (level 711, compared to the level 1-200 most people get to). Invaders have no upperlimit on who they invade, just a lower limit, so invading a world with 3 max level characters and getting ganked is somewhat common. Now, in the multiplayer ecosystem of the game, you take your lumps with the gankers and get lucky with unprepared newbies and then a get a few fair fights, but that’s not OPTIMAL. The upgrade system isn’t optimal either. Weapons that scale with stats are outclassed by elemental weapons that are the same strength at any level. Why do any weapons not scale? Perhaps SOMETHING could not scale, but that should not be a common thing. All this allows is for invaders to have overpowered weapons well before their victims can. Now, this is necessary with how the game is now, but you could balance it in much better ways. Why can’t invaders heal? Why isn’t say, their health tied to how many phantoms their are? Or maybe them being able to heal is enough? Then you can remove the elemental weapons that dominate the sub-100 level range. The numbers could be crunched in so many other ways that aren’t as abusable and scale better with levels. When levels are the determining factor of who fights who, why does equipment matter so much more? It’s far from optimal and just barely works. When it works, it’s brilliant — a brilliance that eclipses any flaws the multiplayer has. This shows how much room this “Genre” has to grow. You can adapt to the players who want to do 1v1 while also enhaving PvE and invasion gameplay. You can improve the matchmaking and help players not ruin their characters and help equipment scale better off of your level. You can cap levels at a reasonable point that doesn’t lead to insane shenanigans and focus on a limit that forces interesting choices. By doing so you improve all aspects of the game — the guys who want to 1v1, the guys who want to invade, the co-op guys who can run interesting support spells or even the guys who are playing Solo. Limiting the levels also helps put players within reach of each other, maximizing the amount of players available to play with at any given time. The games that follow in Dark Souls footsteps have a lot of room to improve from the multiplayer component that that’s amazing.

The game also seems to have over-reached it’s budget and schedule. The Covenant system is somewhat broken and unfinished Rewards are limited and often too come quickly or far too late. Some covenants don’t even have rewards, or rewards after the first level. Gravelord BARELY works. Actually seeing powered up enemies due to a curse is super-rare. Some of the later areas, while architecturally interesting, are lacking in interesting enemy encounters Lost Izalith was clearly rushed, both in enemy placement AND the bed of chaos boss battle, which is perhaps the worst in the game. I also imagine that the Valley of Drakes was originally hoped to be a bigger area (possibly with a hellkite wielding a spear, like was pictured in many early screen shots). Demon’s Souls clearly had a lot of cut content. The Land of Giants (I wonder if it became the Tomb of Giants? Most probably, but I’m not sure). Every archstone was also probably intended to have an additional area. The game reduced it’s self a way Dark Souls couldn’t — with grace. Perhaps it was for the better to have those weak areas instead of no areas at all? I’m not entirely sure, though the 1.05 patch did smooth out the worst bits, making those sections at least somewhat worthwhile.

As wonderful as I find the story, I do sort of wish there was more direction and a little bit more “showing”. Not in the ‘hunting for clues’ way, but literal showing. Just the tiniest, most careful bit more, to just give a little be of cohesion to the game and allow for a few areas of closure. It is definitely that they were conservative with story elements, but they haven’t quite struck the perfect balance yet. Having to really examine the world to understand it is amazing, but the fact people think it doesn’t exist is a real tragedy. Just enough needs to be shown to help encourage players to look harder. They just need to know that something is there, waiting to be unearthed.

Most of Dark Soul’s flaws are very easy to get over. If the game play the game provides jives with you, you will probably enjoy even the worst segments. It’s faults instead point to a greatness that is yet to exist. Perhaps from From Software, perhaps from future clones like Dragon Dogma that might truly establish these conventions as a genre. If they do, it will be a victory for gaming in general.

Edit: E-W-G-F, a prominent Dark Souls youtuber wrote a nice rebuttel to some of my points on reddit. While some weren’t entirely applicable to what I meant, it’s all interesting. So please, give it a read.

Multiplayer and Demon’s/Dark Souls subverting my hatred of Co-op

So I’ve been playing Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls thanks to Too Much Talking listener Trynant, who was kind enough to buy me both of the games as a surprise. Despite knowing I’d like these games, I skipped on them due to time commitments and I’m glad Trynant basically forced me to play them (how can I not play something someone bought me that I know I’d like? That’d be like the rudest thing ever!).

So I beat Demon’s Souls and it’s probably my second favorite game of this generation (Behind Bayonetta) and might get bumped to 3rd if Dark Souls continues it’s wonderful pace and I have a lot to eventually say about both, but right now I just want to talk about the multiplayer.

First off, I am notorious among my friends for hating co-op, ESPECIALLY in otherwise single player games. Single player co-op mostly involves people getting in my way, or making it so I can’t pause and get a drink or take a piss without forcing someone else to wait. I have to play considerately. In games, I am willing to die many many times in a row to do things ‘my way’ or ‘the hard way’ or something. As soon as I made it to 1-1 in Demon’s Souls, I must have died 10 or 20 times in a row, just because I wanted to learn the parry timing, which is something I couldn’t do if I was playing the game with another person early on. I don’t get the joy other people seem to get from ‘doing things with friends’. I’d rather talk to them about other stuff than tell them what alien to kills.

Even in team based multiplayer games, things can be rough. I can’t stand MOBAs due to the roll of team work. Lots of “Cog in the machine” gameplay. Low player counts mean I can cause multiple people to have a bad game, or conversely, allow a friend to really piss me off…. and it goes on forever. I personally enjoy games with public servers, where players come and go freely and things are more relaxed. I enjoyed TF2 quite a bit back in the day because even if my team sucked, I could still enjoy rocketing people. I like my multiplayer teamwork to be ‘optional-yet-encouraged’. I’m a rather self centered gamer, in that regard. I prefer 1v1s, where my success and failure are all my own and that I can experiment liberally or basically just do whatever I want.

I’m in the minority on this one for sure, but I generally don’t feel bad about it. I just don’t play co-op in games and that’s that.

But then I was playing Demon’s Souls. Now I played through most of Demon’s Souls while dead. I had White Tendency, so I did more damage while dead and all I lost for it was 25% life and a ring slot. Being alive was nice, but I really didn’t care and as such, experienced very little multi-player content. I also never felt the need to invade anyone. White character tendency was nice, being alive was overrated, and fucking with some poor guy just seemed unnecessarily. Once I did the Old Monk fight, I got to enjoy sPvP and started getting curious about the multiplayer. On a whim I put down my blue eye stone, and did some co-op. Then I kept doing it.

I found this weird. A lot of my complaints about co-op seemed to still be true, but it seems that Demon’s Souls did enough other stuff to win over a salty introvert like me.

You and the Host are not equal. One thing I enjoyed about the co-op was that I was helping something. I wasn’t doing something for me. I didn’t have to worry about beating the boss. Becoming alive again didn’t matter to much, it was just fun to try and help someone out. I was expendable. If I died, oh well. I wasn’t needed, but whatever I could do would be appreciated.

No communication.These aren’t my friends. This works on several levels. First, this makes the interaction transient. When you play games with a friend, you generally play through a lot of it together. You’re involved. It becomes an activity. You plan for it. In Demon’s Souls case, I decide “I want to play with some other people” and I spend up to 20 minutes playing with another person with no commitments. If we beat a level, that’s it. We probably won’t see each other again.

The game is legitimately hard and the advantages of co-op are something that is earned. Co-op doesn’t seem like “This thing you just do to get through the game”. One of the real advantages of being alive is being able to summon help and staying alive is hard. When you’re offering your self as a phantom, you’re helping someone do something legitimately hard. It feels more rewarding than any L4D campaign I’ve forced my self to play.

My only problem with the game was the invasion system. Mostly skilled players picking on less skilled ones. You could go do some mutual PVP stuff with Old Monk or by using a Red Eye Stone, but that’s it. Dark Souls unfortunately suffers from some network issues relating to it’s lack of a dedicated server, but the multiplayer concepts intrigue me in theory. I haven’t experienced any yet, but let me talk about why I think it helps.

Firstly, your typical invasion is somewhat limited and requires a special item that is used up when you use it, adding a higher cost to the invader than what existed in Demon’s Souls. Secondly, more varied and interesting interactions are added to replace this. You have the Blades of Darkmoon, whom invade players who have gotten into “The Book of Guilt”, a book that lists players who have either betrayed characters in game or have ‘illegally’ invaded other players worlds. This gives players a guilt free way to go invade another person’s world. There are other covenants that protect certain areas of a game. So if a player enters such an area, you could be summoned to defend it. Another one of my favorite ideas (though it doesn’t seem to work well in practice) is the gravelords, who put down sigels that make the games of 3 other players in the same area as you harder. IF they die, you get half the souls they drop, and if they find the sigel, they can counter invade you. Unfortunately the difficulty change is minor and the sigels are usually so well hidden that you’ll never find them. Hell, you’ll never know that you’d even want to find them. But the idea is great. A Passive aggressive situation that allows your average player a guilt free reason to go PVP. He’ll want to PVP because you’re an asshole. That’s amazing!

There’s also other covenants meant to aid in finding PvE partners and reducing the chance of invasion (Apparently, due to the game’s mesh style peer-to-peer setup, this is done by making you more likely to connect with friendly nodes or something, which I find interesting). Hell, there’s a covenant about mutual PVP where you fight to become more like a dragon and this is all seamlessly integrated with a single player game.

There is just something appealing about this setup for me, as it gets me to play co-op, when I usually wouldn’t, and makes me play a competitive game without all the effort I usually put into learning how to play a game competitively. It’s just there!