Friday, 22 April 2016

Dark Souls - Retrospective Review [Part 1]

Developer: FromSoftware
Publisher: Namco Bandai Games
Platforms: PS3, 360, PC 

Dark Souls is arguably the most important 'Souls game (and I'm including Bloodborne here) primarily because it was most players first experience with the series. It's widely regarded as being the “best” in the series as a whole, primarily because of its mechanical changes/improvements on Demon's Souls. It took its predecessors formula, tweaked it and then built upon it.

Just as Demon's Souls was a successor to the King's Field series, Dark Souls is part successor and part sequel. Dark Souls begins with an almost identical start to Demon's Souls, with the player locked away in a grim castle or dungeon that they must explore. Both beginning levels give you the same rudimentary tutorial and do so through almost identical game mechanics, rather than stopping the player and doling out instructions equivalent to bland exposition. Moreover, both beginning levels end with a very similar boss encounter; a large monster with a club that's intimidating, but, once you've got to grasp with the core combat system, is actually not all that difficult.

And that's arguably the best way to look at Dark Souls as both successor and sequel. It improves upon the mechanics of Demon's Souls, but it also wants to experiment and do its own thing. Miyazaki and his team didn't create a straightforward follow-up to their previous success but rather a game that simultaneously stands on its own and comments on the previous title.

This idea extends to the game's story and tone. The portentous opening is, in story terms, completely separate from the events of Demon's Souls, but still possesses the same unique blend of dark, somewhat Gothic style of fantasy that melds both Eastern and Western sensibilities. It's only when you finish the tutorial section of game that you realize what's so different this time around.

The level design of Dark Souls is perhaps the biggest diversion from the previous game in the series. Gone are the isolated levels and in their place is an intricately designed world that operates like a gigantic puzzle. There's no longer a wheel-and-spoke structure to follow – progress through one level open up a new level – but a coherent world that the player must navigate.

The “Metroidvania” design of Dark Souls is easily one of its most compelling features. This is seen in the game's first real area, Undead Burg, a dilapidated town that's seemingly filled with nothing but animated corpses. As you navigate through the burg you realize just how interconnected the whole level is. Get so far and you'll knock down a ladder, opening up another path to the bonfire, which operates as a respawn point. Find a key later on and a locked door from earlier (which you'll have passed countless times) will open up a different part of the level.

It's a very “layered” game space. Areas don't just open up in a “go down the left path, now down the right path” but in a much more organic fashion. It gives the sense of a real place as opposed to a generic level.

The entire world of Dark Souls operates in much the same way. For a seasoned player, there's numerous different routes through the game's challenges. At the beginning of the game you're asked to select a starting gift, and by far the most useful is the Master Key, which allows the player to unlock a number of doors right from the get go.

It might be the best gift technically, but it's a credit to the depth of Dark Souls that it's also the worst possible choice a new player could make. The Master Key will make your blind experience of Dark Souls utterly miserable, as you wander around locations getting mauled by things you have no skill or equipment to overcome. Yet, this is what makes it so fascinating, FromSoftware were brave allowing players to wander into areas they weren't (necessarily) ready for yet and it's an aspect of the 'Souls experience that's utterly unique to Dark Souls. Demon's Souls doesn't quite possess this aspect given its structure, and neither does Dark Souls II.

I'd argue it's the game's layout that makes it unbelievably addictive to speed run. Watching speed runs of various games can be fun, but with Dark Souls each run is like an entirely different game. Each build of a character alters both the play style (what your character is equipped with) and what order you have to navigate the game's areas (in order to get the equipment your build requires for the run), meaning each playthrough can be radically different from one another.

Dark Souls & Survival Horror

I wrote an article a few years back pointing out that Dark Souls, and the entire series, has a surprising amount of mechanical and thematic similarity to traditional survival horror games.

Along with the Metroidvania level design, Dark Souls effectively resurrects a collection of older game mechanics that have long since been put by the wayside. The series as a whole does this. In my Demon's Souls retrospective I talked about how the combat of the 'Souls games is akin to a fighting game. I won't repeat what I wrote there but suffice to say it has a distinct rhythm and pacing similar to those types of games. Something happens; a monster launches a certain attack for example, and the player responds. Respond correctly and you create yourself an opening to counter-attack, fail to respond with the correct action, be it blocking or dodging, and you take damage.

With the introduction of the bonfire system Dark Souls also sets out to co-opt mechanics from traditional survival horror games. Throughout Dark Souls your minute to minute goal is finding bonfires. Granted, the real objective might be to defeat a particular boss, or get through an area, but on the whole your entire progress is dictated on:

A). Where's the bonfire that you're spawning from?

B). Where's the next bonfire (or shortcut) that I'll be getting access to?

Bonfires in Dark Souls are where everything happens. Not only are they thematically intrinsic to the story that's being told, they're also important to you as a game device. Primarily, they are there to level up your character, with each trip out netting you a bunch of souls that you'll only usually be able to cash in when you reach another bonfire and start levelling up.

Secondly, they restore your Estus Flasks. The Estus Flask system is by far one of the best twist that Dark Souls provides on its predecessors gameplay. In Dark Souls, your only source of healing is how many Estus charges you have left. While you've got plenty you can trek along. Start running low and you have to begin thinking more cautiously.

It allows the player to plan out their resources from point to point and dovetails perfectly with the game's emphasis on navigation and exploration. Journeying forth from a bonfire means taking stock of your supplies, and the Estus Flask sums this concept up perfectly. Demon's Souls had various healing resources, and your supplies would dwindle and restock as you played through the game. There's a lack of consistency however, with this approach, with players capable of grinding for additional items to artificially deflate the difficulty of various sections, reducing the game's internal consistency. With the Estus Flasks however, every journey from a bonfire through a particular route will give you the exact same amount of healing resources.

What's funny is that, when you dig deep into this “stock up, find next bonfire” loop of gameplay, you find that's it's not all that different from what the early Resident Evil games did.

In Resident Evil your primary challenge isn't the zombies. Granted, they're a threat; an obstacle that you have to work your way around. Yet, your main goal is learning to navigate the mansion, or, in the case of the sequel, the police station. Just like with Dark Souls you're rewarded for your ability to internalise your surroundings and learn how to get from A to B more efficiently. And, just like Dark Souls, your point-to-point treks around the area are dictated by how soon you can reach the next item box.

Both games place limitations on how much healing (in other words, mistakes), the player can incur. In Dark Souls this is done through the Estus Flask, in Resident Evil it's achieved through limiting the number of healing items you can carry at one time. Throughout Resident Evil, you'll have more herbs and first-aid sprays than you do inventory slots, but that doesn't make the game much easier when there's still a limit to the number that you can take with you.

In short the way that the Estus Flask mechanic works with the game's exploration is one of Dark Souls crowning achievements. None of the 'Souls games, including Demon's Souls, does this as well. In fact, if there's one thing that should have been changed in Dark Souls II it was the way that life gems and the changes to the Estus Flask were implemented. But that's all for another time...

I should stress that I'm not saying that Dark Souls is technically a survival horror game in that way that Resident Evil and Silent Hill are, but rather that it utilizes some of the mechanics of the genre and weaves them into its overall game design. I'd go as far to say that what has made the 'Souls series so popular for many video game fans is that it has resurrected, tweaked and implemented many classic gameplay aspects that so many modern games seem unable or unwilling to experiment with.

Continued in Part 2


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