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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.

Conclusion

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.

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