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…
“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!
“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.
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.