Friday, 27 May 2016

Yo-Kai Watch - Review

Developer: Level-5
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: 3DS

I was going to try and set an arbitrary challenge for this review and see how long I could go without either comparing Yo-Kai Watch to Pokemon, or referencing Pokemon when talking about the game. But then I realized that's all but impossible, so I decided to nix that idea completely.

What's fascinating about Yo-Kai Watch is that its overall design says less about itself and more about Pokemon and that series' huge fan base. Pokemon has grown up with its players. What began as a children's game, that, to be fair, was already far more complex than many give it credit, has evolved (no pun intended) into a complex, surprisingly competitive, series that manages to bridge the gap between hardcore players and the more casually-oriented fans that just want to mess around and catch cool-looking monsters.

Yo-Kai Watch is seems almost like a reset button for Nintendo. A chance to appeal towards a younger group of fans that haven't had the two decades worth of experience learning about and playing Pokemon.

Functionally, it's a similar game. You play as a young boy or girl who discovers that a host of otherwise invisible creatures called Yo-Kai inhabit everyday life. With the help of a Yo-Kai Watch, your character is able to befriend and recruit these creatures and deploy them in battle against opposing Yo-Kai. Anybody that's played Level 5's previous game, Ni-No-Kuni, will be right at home here. In fact, a large amount of the game's mechanics and general gameplay feel like a holdover from that game, which is both a blessing and a curse.

Like Ni-No-Kuni the game's world is a joy to explore. Given that it's set in the real world, there's a grounded sense to a lot of Yo-Kai Watch's gameplay. You explore side streets and old shrines to root out hidden Yo-Kai, and even have to cross the road safely if you don't want to be attacked by an angry (and rather high level) monster. Many of the games episodic chapters have a general problem such as your dad forgetting his work papers, or your family arguing, all of which is usually caused by some Yo-Kai mischief.

It's all bolstered by a sharp localization that's obviously designed to be kid-friendly but has enough humour in there for older players. Whisper, a “Yo-Kai butler” that assists your character, will regularly throw out quips or even acknowledge he's in a game, breaking the fourth-wall when it comes to throwing out gameplay information. Likewise, there's a slight touch of morbid humour to the game that gives it an edge. One spirit, Jibanyan, is the ghost of a cat that got run over by a car, so now he spends his days as a ghost trying to punch cars with his paws.

Unfortunately, whilst the world-building and writing are on point the gameplay of Yo-Kai Watch is what ultimately lets it down. Like with Ni-No-Kuni, the player has a rather limited control over what's happening during the minute to minute gameplay. During combat, your Yo-Kai critters don't feel like they're under your command, which, whilst perhaps keeping in theme with their personalities, makes for a frustrating RPG experience.

You assemble a team of six Yo-Kai which are there inserted into the titular Yo-Kai Watch, with three comprising your active party and three being held in reserve. Yo-Kai attack and defend by themselves, with you only having a tangential control over what they actually do. Each monster has its own attitude and personality which dictates both how they behave in battle and what stats are prioritised upon level up, much like the natures in Pokemon. The only move you have control over is a Yo-Kai's “Soultimate” attack, which involves doing a simple mini-game such as tracing lines, or hitting orbs with the stylus, on the lower screen of the 3DS.

Your party members can be moved in and out of battle at any moment by rotating your collection of six Yo-Kai. There's a basic strategic concept here, with the game encouraging you to switch from defensive Yo-Kai and Yo-Kai that “inspirit” (inflict buffs or debuffs) to more aggressive monsters when the time is right. Furthermore, enemy inspirit attacks force you to move the afflicted unit to the back row in order to purify them with some more simple stylus mini-games. This all makes for a game that focuses less on the actual monster battling and more on your reactions, as you rapidly flip your team back and further before unleashing an ultimate move or two. It's fun in small doses, and the overall tactile nature of the system makes it clear it was designed with younger fans in mind.

It doesn't change the fact however, that the actual core of the monster combat is dictated by the whims of RNG. Nothing feels more hopeless than in the middle of a crucial fight having your monster loaf around doing nothing, or your healing Yo-Kai suddenly decide it wants to start attacking.

Rather than seek to downplay the random elements however, Level 5 play them up. Acquiring new Yo-Kai uses a similar system, with new creatures potentially joining your party after you've defeated them. I say potentially because there's very little way you can improve the odds that they'll join you. There's a touch of Shin Megami Tensei here, with monsters being more likely to join your party if you provide them with the particular type of food that they enjoy. Yet, it lacks any strategic nuance. The game could have used its sharp writing to make this element more interesting, perhaps have you converse with Yo-Kai in order for them to join, playing up their weird personalities and funky monster designs. Instead the end result is still essentially a coin toss.

As if in response to this, Level 5 simply make the game remarkably easy. Rarely will a mob of enemies prove too much of a problem, even if you use the basic Yo-Kai that the game doles at as part of the story. Should you explore, and play a few of the numerous, and, frankly, repetitive side quests, or dabble in the (rather basic) monster fusion system which comes available later on, then things will be even easier.

Yo-Kai Watch has great production values and was clearly developed with care. However, so much of it is random and repetitive that it pales in comparison to other RPG series. Nintendo are clearly banking on Yo-Kai Watch being a success. It's already beaten recent Pokemon game sales in Japan, and it seems like the company is hoping it'll be able to do the same overseas, especially with the release of the anime series alongside it.

There's plenty of promise with Yo-Kai Watch, there's elements of a great RPG buried within here. What we're given though is a rather muddled, with an underdeveloped combat system and monster-catching element that has next to no strategy attached to it.

The answer to this, though, will likely be “it's just for kids”. Pokemon was also aimed at kids and had a far more deep and complex mechanics from its inception. There's still room for the Yo-Kai series to grow, which is hopefully what the series will do. There's already two more games in the core series to be released outside of Japan and hopefully they've expanded upon the combat mechanics.

As for this release though, it's only likely to keep the least demanding RPG fan occupied.

Friday, 20 May 2016

The Banner Saga 2 - Review

Developer: Stoic Studio
Publisher: Versus Evil
Platforms: PC (version played), PS4, Xbox One, Mac 

[Warning: This review contains spoilers for the original The Banner Saga. You've been warned.]

The Banner Saga was an interesting take on a fantasy RPG, in part because it was a low budget game that attempted to tell a story that was large in scope. Its clever utilization of game mechanics that go all the way back to The Oregon Trail, enabled it to tell the kind of world-ending Lord of the Rings plot without having to design heaps of environments. Instead, the world became a (rather pretty) scrolling backdrop to your group of travellers.

The Banner Saga 2 is less of a sequel and more a direct continuation of the original game. It's like booting up disc two of a multi-disc RPG.The game picks up almost immediately where the previous instalment left off, with either Alette or Rook leading a rag-tag band of Varl and humans away from the mass of unstoppable Dredge after defeating Bellower.

If the first game was about coming together, with its two story threads, Rook's and Hakon's, slowly merging as the game progressed, then this sequel is about being driven apart. After several chapters, the game splits its remaining episodes between Rook's group and Bolverk's band of mercenaries.

It's a nice contrast to have the player command Bolverk's group, who were briefly established at the end of the first game. The overwhelming theme or focus of the original game's choices was “doing the right thing” when practically every option was bad. The emotional and psychological toll it took on Rook was a primary thrust of the game's story and so to have the player instead commanding a sword-for-hire there's suddenly the flip-side to all of that. Bolverk has no major stakes in anything that's happening, be it personally or in regards to the wider world, and so is free to act accordingly.

And that's still the main draw of the series. Alongside the decent writing and its cold, melancholy atmosphere, there's a solid effort to constantly reflect on player choices. Characters that survived the previous game (sorry, Egil) make it through to this one, and, given the murky morality and shades of grey that the story throws up, you're never quite sure whether you made the “right” choice. Most likely because there wasn't one.

It's somewhat awkward then, when the game awkwardly railroads you into certain decisions. Characters might be flat-out untrustworthy, yet the most you're likely able to do is mildly criticise them. Major characters will make sudden important decisions that you suspect are completely wrong but it'll do you no good to change their minds, because the game has made its mind up already.

It's a bizarre and rather difficult problem for games that introduce choice, and place so much emphasis on it as The Banner Saga 2 does. When it works it's great and makes the game that much more immersive, but the moment it locks you into a certain decision, that all comes crashing down.

The combat system, meanwhile, has remained unchanged. The game still possesses some of the most bizarre and in some cases counter-intuitive combat mechanics in a tactical RPG. In reality, it's incredibly simple, but the way it plays out means adjusting your strategy to “game” the system rather than behave in a plausible way. In short, armour negates damage whilst health governs both your vitality and your attack strength, meaning hits to a character's health results in a comparative hit to their attack power. If your health is lower than the enemy's armour rating, you're not likely to be doing any damage to them.

Similarly, combat is divided up so that each side gets a turn, with you moving a character followed by the AI. What this means is that, in many fights, you're punished for actually killing enemies (since doing so simply gives the remaining enemies, who are likely still at high health, more turns). Instead, crippling each opponent in sequence before trying to wipe them out in quick succession, once they've been made relatively harmless, is the best way to succeed at most encounters.

It's not a terrible combat system, but it regularly feels artificial and counter-intuitive. Why the hell am I leaving this archer alive? Who, coincidentally, is pounding my Varl's armour with attacks. Oh, that's right, it's because its stopping a bigger enemy on the other side of the battlefield from moving a turn earlier – makes sense.

Fights then become dragged out slogs as you carefully whittle down the various enemies' strength whilst trying your hardest not to kill them outright. It lacks thrill or excitement, simply because each time you play in a way that that's strategically right but thematically nonsensical, it's sapping away at any sense of immersion you'd otherwise have. It lacks the satisfaction that tagging an enemy does in say X-COM, or slowly manoeuvring your forces in Fire Emblem, by far the biggest inspirations for The Banner Saga's gameplay.

Characters who max out a particular stat can now pump more points into that stat to purchase stronger upgrades, such as recovering armour points mid-combat or dealing critical hits. Given that the game continues with the same levelling system, renown, effectively the game's experience points, are dished out with greater abandon, and basic training challenges can reward the diligent with extra points.

Yet, so many of The Banner Saga 2's gameplay elements seem at war with one another. Just as the combat is counter-intuitive, the level up system is bizarre in a game that frequently forces you to play with different party compositions, as different members join and leave your group at the whims of the plot. It's hard to guarantee, beyond the obvious main characters, who's going to be around several hours from now, so putting points into a party member who might be dead or leave soon feels like a waste. Why not remove the levelling system entirely? It's little more than tagging a couple of points onto a stat, and by doing so you'd be encouraged to play around with your party composition more often knowing that they're all at roughly the same power level.

The game does expand on the various party members you recruit. There's the addition of bards, who can power up nearby units with additional willpower whenever one of them scores a kill. The basic class combinations, deciding which person to pair with someone else for the best synergy, is by far the game's most compelling element, and would fare far better were it not bogged down by conflicting gameplay decisions surrounding it.

The Banner Saga 2 is a game so devoted to its epic scope that it sometimes forgets to look at the smaller details. Its story has potential but suffers from plot conveniences and suddenly wresting control from the player when at other times it seems to bend over backwards to cater to choice. Meanwhile, the additions it does make over the previous instalment can seem random and sometimes pointless.

As a story, The Banner Saga 2 is engaging, if sometimes woefully underwritten. Whereas the first game was a smaller complete story that had the potential to tell a larger tale, this sequel ends abruptly, leaving you in the dark until the inevitable third game is released. Again, the second disc in a multi-disc RPG is an apt comparison. The Banner Saga 2 is hardly a sequel, given that it barely improves or attempts to change the faults of the previous game, adding elements but without any particular rhyme or reason. Why introduce the ability to train clansmen for war if there's so few wars to engage in throughout the game?

And the answer is probably “we'll find out in the sequel”, and that's the major problem here. This is the second chunk of a larger game, rather than the second episode of an epic trilogy. This isn't The Empire Strikes Back of the series so much as it is the middle portion of a game being played in isolation. It's fun in parts, and gorgeous to boot, but suffers from a disconnected story and a contradictory combat system, one of which it at least needed to get right.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Ratchet & Clank - Review

Developer: Insomniac Games
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Platforms: PS4

The Nintendo 64, for all its struggles, was the place for open world platformers that fully embraced the new 3D era of game design that came with the new mid-'90s hardware; from Super Mario 64 to Banjo-Kazooie.  It would take Sony a whole extra generation to come close to what Nintendo had achieved, and resulted in the PlayStation 2 having a surprisingly large, (and somewhat underrated), bevy of quality 3D platformers, with Ratchet & Clank, Sly Cooper and Jak & Daxter all making their debut on the console.

It's a testament to Insomniac's abundance of creativity that it's taken us this long, fourteen years in fact, to get what amounts to a semi-reboot/remake of the original Ratchet & Clank. Insomniac have always seemed reluctant to retread old ground with each Ratchet & Clank release adding variety to the existing formula to some degree, or altering it in some way. In the space of fourteen years we've had six main series releases (seven, if you count Quest for Booty) and a host of other spin-off instalments on various pieces of Sony hardware.

And, on the whole, the series has remained relatively strong, even if some releases have been better than others. Fortunately this latest Ratchet & Clank continues that strong trend, making up for the somewhat underwhelming farewell the series had on the PS3 with the budget Into the Nexus back in 2013.

What's perhaps most unusual about this latest instalment is why it exists. It's both a remake and a reboot and a bizarre film tie in to the brand new movie, with the game's plot stitching together elements from the original 2002 game and the new film.

Insomniac though, manage to juggle of these elements fairly well. There's a clever framing narrative that has the game's story be Captain Qwark's explanation of the events of the first game, preventing the tale from simply being a bland retelling with shinier graphics; whilst also ensuring the original isn't wiped from series canon for those that care about that sort of thing.

Likewise, the gameplay avoids simply aping the 2002 version. This is classic Ratchet & Clank, but with the experience and improvements that have been made over many years. Plenty of the original weapons make it back in check, whilst there's also room made for some of the series' other classic weaponry such as Mr Zurkon and the Buzz Blades to name a few, all upgraded with the (honestly, rather bland) raritanium upgrade system used in later games.

Insomniac do an impressive job of modernising the original's gameplay. Despite the ridiculous weaponry, there's a decent level of skill involved in the game's combat, with a core loop of finding the right weapon for whatever challenge you're facing. Swarms of robot dogs will fall quickly to the flame-spewing Pyrorocitor, whilst tougher foes are perfect targets for your bomb glove or rocket launcher. It makes for a surprisingly satisfying combat system for the eight to ten hours it takes to finish the game.

It's slightly disappointing that the enemy types aren't treated with the same love as the weapons, mind. Robot dogs and War-Bots are the enemies early on and they never go away. Even during the game's final level you're stuck mowing down the same three or four enemy types you've faced umpteen times beforehand, meaning that later encounters rarely add any new challenge or broader strategic considerations, other than simply throwing more bad guys at you.

But, much like Super Mario, it's the variety of gameplay that makes the series compelling and Ratchet & Clank ensures that variety remains intact; blending platforming, combat, exploration and basic puzzle solving into a creative mix that ensures no one part drags on for too long. In fact, the game does a clever job of updating what worked in the original title whilst scrapping the weaker moments for something better. Gone are the original's boring moments with Clank, that played out like a bad version of Pikmin. In there place are simple puzzles where Clank must use his little robot pals to open doors and make it across walkways. Simple? Sure, but a welcome alternative that helps the pacing.

Likewise, some levels have been given a complete overhaul, both to improve the pacing and to make use of the PS4's technical prowess. One level is now completely devoted to the jet-pack, with you bunny-hopping from fuel station to fuel-station as you blast away enemies mid-flight.

It's also worth mentioning how darn great the game looks too. This isn't just a case of having nice shiny graphics on modern hardware. The animation and vibrancy of each planet gives everything just the right amount of cartoonish life. In this respect at least, Insomniac's comparisons with Pixar are justified.

Sadly, that doesn't extend to the game's writing. Perhaps it's a result of the game being a movie tie-in, but there's a lot less humour this time around, and what there is feels pared down and made more palatable for a younger crowd. Granted, the series has always been kid-friendly, it's a platformer game after all, but the writers have been especially careful this time. Remember, this is the same series that had Up Your Arsenal as the subtitle to the third game in North America.

Likewise, given the reworked story, the central relationship between Ratchet and Clank has taken a hit. The game's story was not necessarily the primary focus, but there was a charm and simplicity to the original's focus on a heroic mechanic and his clever robot friend. Now there's a whole Avengers squad of generic Galactic Rangers for Ratchet to team up with, and, Captain Qwark aside, they lack the personality and character that the series is otherwise known for.

Ratchet & Clank is fun, solid and enjoyable from start to finish. As a reboot/remake/tie-in (we really need a name for whatever this technically is) it's about as good as anybody could have hoped for. This isn't a crapped out rehash to tide fans over but rather a game that's been laboured on with care and attention. There's the sense that the development team is somewhat hamstrung by the movie tie-in aspect, and it's disappointing that a studio that's capable of creative new ideas is left producing remakes, no matter how good they are. That being said, if you can set those negatives aside for a while, Ratchet & Clank is an adventure worth going on.

Friday, 6 May 2016

Star Fox Zero - Review

Developer: Nintendo/PlatinumGames
Publisher: Nintendo 
Platforms: Wii U

Star Fox Zero is both quasi-remake and semi-sequel to the Nintendo 64's Star Fox 64. I suppose the best way to describe it would be as a spiritual successor. It's not necessarily a direct sequel but rather a reimagining of that game on modern hardware.

Naturally, for the Wii U, that means factoring in the gamepad somewhat. Yet, if there's something to take away from Star Fox Zero, it's that Nintendo (and Platinum) know how to exercise restraint. This isn't a last ditch gimmick-laden attempt to justify the Wii U's gamepad.

In fact a lot of what makes Star Fox Zero enjoyable is simply what makes the entire Star Fox series fun to play. At its heart this is still a classic arcade shooter, complete with power-ups and wave after wave of enemies to shoot at. It's not particularly difficult either, the challenge isn't to beat the game, just about anybody could manage that, but rather to do it with a high score rating.

That being said Nintendo know what makes Star Fox tick. Whilst it's primarily an arcade shooter it's also a love letter to the Star Wars, with many of the game's levels being subtle and not-so-subtle nods to the series.

Slippy, Peppy and Falco make a return alongside Fox McCloud and provide the usual mid-fight banter. Occasionally, they'll need help or warn you of a fighter on your tail. It's simple in terms of how it affects the game but adds to the fun, space adventure tone that the series has always succeeded in nailing down

Whilst the meat of the game is in its dogfights and space battles, each level typically throws another vehicle or two into the mix. The tank, walker and hovercraft all get their spot in the limelight through the campaign.

What's impressive is how Nintendo use each of the game's vehicles to affect the ebb and flow of the game's pacing. After a frenetic dogfight aboard your spacecraft, one particular level has you piloting the new Gyrowing hovercraft through a maze of tunnels and enemy spotlights, dropping bombs on targets and hacking into machinery using the gamepad. Its a distinctly different take on Star Fox's basic formula but ensures that its core gameplay rarely becomes one note or predictable.

Likewise, many levels have you switch, Transformers style, from one vehicle mode to another, using the strengths of each, gentling notching up the complexity of each scenario without things becoming convoluted. The Walker, previously condemned to the unreleased Star Fox 2, is a welcome addition, as you go traipsing about the inside of an enemy ship after taking apart its shields aboard your spacecraft.

Moreover, Platinum's influence can be felt throughout the game, especially during the boss fights. A hulking eight-legged monstrosity on a Hoth-like planet is a particular highlight in a game that rarely disappoints in this department.

In fact, throughout the game's campaign it's easy to forget about what the Wii U gamepad is used for. Primarily, it's there to handle tighter shots. Looking down at the controller's screen gives you a first-person cockpit view from which to fire from, whilst the motion controls provide (somewhat) tighter aiming.

It's not perfect, the controls never feel completely spot on, primarily because you're still simultaneously trying to pilot the craft with the left stick, which is especially cumbersome with the new Walker. Yet, it manages to work partly because the game rarely enforces their use. It's almost a tacked on treat for those that like the immersion but can almost be safely ignored for those that don't wish to tangle with it.

There is an unfortunate slip-up during the final boss fight, however, where the gamepad controls are enforced throughout the entire scrap. For a game that up until that point had resisted such clumsy and gimmicky encounters it leaves something of a bum note to end the game on.

If anything though, this is a game that wants you to play through it multiple times, again, a Platinum trait that worms its way into the games overall design. Many levels have alternate routes and hidden levels that can be accessed on repeat playthroughs. Bosses get remixed too, usually with additional requirements or added layer of challenge.

These post-ending treats make up for the fact that the main campaign can be finished in just a few sittings. Rarely does the game's difficulty become a factor and most of the levels don't stretch over the thirty minute mark.

Star Fox Zero is a sleek game, in other words. There's hardly an ounce of fat on it and it makes the most of its runtime to simply have you engaged in great boss fights or exciting set-pieces, and emulates the classic Star Wars tone better than many licensed Star Wars games have ever done. In an age where many games have resorted to the same bland padding to bolster their game's length, it's refreshing to have a game that ruthlessly cuts out the boring bits and instead has you focusing on its best moments.

Star Fox Zero isn't likely to win over any newcomers. In fact, on the surface it reads terribly, a second tier Nintendo character on a pseudo-remake with motion controls. In a certain light it doesn't make for an exciting game pitch.

For what it is though, Star Fox Zero is thoroughly satisfying to play. It's a nostalgia trip both in terms of its series and its genre. It's unapologetically old-school, but uses that philosophy to create one of the most entertaining action games to be released so far this year.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Dark Souls - Retrospective Review [Part 2]

A Game of Two Halves

Like a good film script, Dark Souls has a masterful sense of pacing. In contrast to Demon's Souls, where the player had control over what order they encountered levels (and therefore dictated their own pacing to a greater degree), Dark Souls instead has much more control over this aspect then the previous game. Even with the greater focus on non-linear exploration there is still a clear “correct” way to tackle the game's challenges, at least as a beginning player.

So, after clearing the Undead Burg, and teaching the player the importance of good navigation, they are placed in a maze of sewer tunnels as they march through The Depths. This is a much tighter, smaller level than the Undead Burg, and is the first real spike in difficulty. Not necessarily through enemies mind, the creatures in The Depths are largely weak, consisting of a bunch of rats, basilisks and the occasional slime blob. No, The Depths challenges the player into properly orienting themselves in the game space.

There's an important lesson about Dark Souls game design here; challenge isn't always generated from enemies but from level design as well.

Including the entirety of Blighttown this opening comprises what I'd argue is the first “act” of Dark Souls and arguably its strongest. Undead Burg, The Depths and Blighttown are all connected with a loose “quest” that the player is given at the start of the game; ring the two bells of awakening.

The second act of the game begins with Sen's Fortress, and I include Darkroot Basin as part of this second act. It marks the biggest leap in difficulty so far. Sen's Fortress is an intricate puzzle, tight and concise in contrast to the sprawling areas that preceded it.

This second act continues with the player's arrival in Anor Londo – a dramatic change in visuals and another wider, more open environment. Anor Londo can almost feel like a second hub after the Firelink Shrine; where one is decrepit and built overlooking a decaying kingdom, the other still feels majestic and impressive, bathed in perpetual sunset.

The fight with Ornstein and Smough marks the midpoint of the entire game. It's arguably the game's most challenging fight and, once overcome, enables the player to reflect on their skills to a certain degree. The fight with the two gargoyles early on is child's play when compared to taking on Ornstein and Smough. Dark Souls is a game of pattern recognition, it's because of this that adding a second adversary to a boss fight makes things so much more challenging; it's not just a second health bar, it's another load of attacks which complicate the rhythm you're trying to respond to.

The final act of Dark Souls consists of everything after this encounter in Anor Londo. Your character is given the Lord Vessel, and the final strands of the game are able to be tackled in any order you see fit. After doing so you're left with one task; find Gwyn. After that's dealt with the credits roll.

In summary you have:

1.) Northern Undead Asylum – Blighttown.
2.) Sen's Fortress – Anor Londo
3.) The Four Great Souls – Kiln of the First Flame

Note that this is Dark Souls essentially playing with the traditional J-RPG conventions of old. Take any Final Fantasy and you'll always receive an airship that allows you to go wherever you please during the game's final hours. The way the Lord Vessel “quests” work is in a similar fashion. It's only now that the game allows you to warp to previously lit bonfires, dramatically altering the amount of time spent navigating from area to area.

Big Bad Bosses

This is perhaps the best time to discuss the game's boss designs. On the whole, this is one area I find the game takes a step back from Demon's Souls. In Demon's Souls the bosses were part challenge and part puzzle, each had their own unique aspects that set them apart. I've already written extensively in my previous retrospective about how Maiden Astrea is the best darn 'Souls boss ever invented, but for the most part all of the bosses in the original game stand out in their designs.

By contrast those in Dark Souls fluctuate much more in terms of quality. There's a much faster pace to the combat in Dark Souls and that naturally has an effect on the bosses that can be designed for it. Many are more standard “arena” fights with a big monster (Quelaag, Sif, Gaping Dragon) and several others are twists on previous bosses (the Gargoyles, Asylum Demon, Iron Golem). I mentioned earlier that 'Souls games are part sequel and part redesign and commentary on the previous game, but I feel that Dark Souls struggles to set itself apart more in terms of what it can do differently to Demon's Souls.

They're brilliant visual designs, don't get me wrong. The Freudian horror that is the Gaping Dragon is pretty darn genius, and the way the short cut-scenes are directed before each fight are handled incredibly well too. No, the issue is more in how they all play out. They're good fights, but seem slightly lacking when compared to the previous game.

It's here where Dark Souls becomes a game of two halves, where the less impressive boss battles and weaker pacing of the latter part of the game make for a comparatively poorer experience when compared to the first half.

The fight with Seath is decent but is preceded by one of the biggest mistakes in Dark Souls, it's fairly minor, but it remains baffling to me why it remained in the game in its finished state. Prior to fighting Seath you're left to wander his enormous library in what is actually a fairly entertaining level, and is the game's attempt at a “magic-themed” dungeon. The enemies are all clearly conjured up somehow either by Seath's mastery of magic, or by the power innate in the area itself.

Yet, at one point you get to a room and encounter Seath. For all intents and purposes this is a boss fight, except you can't kill him. There's nothing you can do in this encounter other than wait to die and be sent to a new part of the area. As a cut-scene this would have been fine, but by remaining as a player-controlled sequence the trust between player and developer is broken. No longer can you guarantee that you died as a result of your actions (in other words, you didn't play well enough) but rather died because the game dictated that you need to die at this point.

It's a very sloppy way for the game to handle this segment. Other parts of the series have made a boss intend to kill you, but not actually make it impossible to win. During the opening level of Demon's Souls against the Vanguard for example, and should you survive that encounter the subsequent death at the hands of the Dragon God is out of the player's hands. It's a bizarre oversight, and could have been solved simply by making that encounter with Seath a cut-scene rather than a player-controlled battle.

Likewise, the Bed of Chaos battle is widely touted as being poorly handled. I often hear that Miyazaki even apologized for how this encounter turned out, but I can't find the interview where he's supposedly says that himself. Regardless, it is a rushed boss battle, and, like large portions of the post-Lord Vessel Dark Souls, suffers as a result. It's disappointing too because the Bed of Chaos is an attempt to do a boss fight differently, and harkens back to the puzzle elements that were ingrained in so many of Demon's Souls boss fights.

By far the most frustrating boss however, is the Four Kings. This is a stupid fight, forcing the player into two different go-for-broke strategies; either they tank up to absorb each boss' attacks or go all-in on DPS in the hopes of killing it before it becomes a problem, as more versions of the king begin spawning at set intervals. It's a horrible encounter and a waste of a perfectly good location, considering the fight takes place in nothing but perpetual darkness.

All of this makes for a noticeable dip in quality in Dark Souls during its second half, or third act, however you choose to look at it. I don't think it's a coincidence either that all of these weaker parts (and weaker bosses) should all be at the tail-end of the game. My guess is that time limitations/rushed development became a factor. Contrasting the opening parts of Dark Souls to some of its latter areas is shocking. I could play through Undead Burg upwards of a hundred times (and at this point probably have done). Going back to Lost Izalith just makes me groan.

The contrast in quality is only further highlighted during the subsequent DLC. The Artorias of the Abyss expansion is perfectly handled. All of its boss fights feel stronger (even if three of the four subscribe to the “arena boss” mentality that so many of Dark Souls' do) and maintains the strong level design that's consistent throughout the entirety of the game.


Dark Souls is a wonderful game. It cleverly builds on the previous instalment of the series without feeling like your typical run-of-the-mill sequel. It's part successor, part sequel and part commentary on what made the original game so good. You get the sense that Miyazaki is arguing with his own creation almost, picking at what made it click by simply making something else to contrast it with.

No doubt some will read this as just someone going “well it's not Demon's Souls” but that's not the point of this criticism. Demon's Souls and Dark Souls almost operate like two sides of the same coin; they're best played when they can be compared to one another…

...but give me Boletaria and Maiden Astraea any day of the week.