Friday, October 28, 2011

Darkness in Lordran

Any boss becomes easy once you know how to deal with it,
but jumping into The Abyss with no grasp on how your poise
works will lead to a hateful relationship with The Kings.
I've made it no secret that I've been pretty knee-deep in Dark Souls for the past few weeks (currently broke 220 hours last night), but I've yet to actually articulate any meaningful thoughts on it yet. My weariness with doing so stems mostly from trying to come at writing about it in the same manner that I did with Demon's Souls last year. Dark Souls really is quite a different experience, but the majority of criticisms and thoughts I applied to Demon's Souls can easily be carried over to this title as well[1].

What's interesting I suppose, is my reaction towards the way the game has been received and looked at, particularly in comparison with Demon's Souls. I wasn't around for Demon's Souls's initial release, I picked it up about a year later, so my secondhand impression of it was just being a decent third person RPG with a wonky difficulty curve. After picking it up and discovering it for myself, I realized what a gem it was, despite a number of glaring issues that I took with it. With a couple of personal biases factored in (i.e. third person, more action-focused combat, narrative ambiguity, etc), it was easily my most favored console game in this generation (probably still is too).

Now comes Dark Souls, and with it I begin to see how both titles affect gamers as a whole and to some extent---the developers that made it. I speak on the developers because most prominently the advertising for the game was geared specifically to emphasize the title's difficulty. This sadly runs contradictory to how I view the 'difficulty' of both Demon & Dark Souls. I suppose my 'methodical and uncompromising' description isn't as catchy and flashy as 'Prepare to Die'[2],, but I certainly see it as being significantly more accurate. Running up the difficulty as a marketing tagline told me something very important about the game. That was that From Software was digging into their little niche, but they may have gotten a little tunnel vision in doing so.

This is because the difficulty of the game spirals out of control at points. This is to the extent to where someone focused on single player will be forced to use online help or re-outfit and grind their characters (a practice which can take days if they're not using a guide), tailoring a specific build to circumvent getting too frustrated. Demon's Souls only had one fight that I took issue with (the Maneater encounters)---Dark Souls has three (admittedly, one of which works to a positive effect). These are fights where it's not just about throwing overwhelming odds at you which you'll face and eventually triumph, it's simply about beating you into the ground with no regard to anything else. The three bosses are as follows:

1. The Capra Demon

2. Ornstein and Smough

3. The Four Kings

The one for which the difficulty actually works is the Capra Demon. Due to his somewhat wild nature and accompanying dogs, he's a bucket of cold water in the face of anyone trying to come to grips with the game's world. You face him early on in a narrow passage to which he has two massive swords of great reach. The majority of players initially will die, unless they're prepared for it. It's a death meant to throw players off. He requires a shift in gears no matter what class build the player is working on at that point. He also presents the player with a problem they can solve in a number of ways. The most popular is running across an awning to get a couple seconds reprieve in order to gain footing, kill the accompanying dogs, and keep an eye on the Capra Demon as he paces at the player. After facing multiple versions of him later in the game, the player can see how much of his formidable assault relied on his previous surroundings. In short, the encounter(s) with him becomes a dynamic presence in the game thanks to his initial assault. He also allows a sense of progression in terms of what the player will see of him/herself at a much later point in the game.

The other six bosses won't get too much credit from me because they crossed the line for me in terms of being a cheap ploy at 'being hard'. The one positive thing I will mention regarding them is that they are both intense, memorable, and composed of bosses that are aesthetically fantastic in terms of general art and design (the music for both of them is among my top five favorites in the game as well). Playing solo against either however will lead to many frustrated encounters if the player isn't either overly prepared for them or is conveniently equipped with a build geared at taking advantage of a weakness in either one of the characters. I personally got lucky with the latter, but that didn't change the fact that both of these battles are ones in which the player will typically have to break the game's world somehow in order to triumph over them single-handedly. Either one could have been easily solved by the likes of a fog-gate having a Soul Level prerequisite in order to proceed.

Even I'll admit that I only beat these two due to luck my first time through.
Ornstein and Smough cross the line because of how much they complement each other, Smough being a gigantic hammer-wielding juggernaut that literally crushes anything standing in front of him, Ornstein being a nimble and powerful lance wielder with an imbuing of lightning. Beating either one supercharges the remaining fighter and refills his health bar. There's very little the player can do other than strafe throughout the somewhat cavernous area (which is the fight's only saving grace in terms of a reprieve) hitting them when it's only marginally appropriate. Again, this could have easily been avoided if Smough's fat ass actually got tired every five minutes and stop to rest (even if it was for only three seconds). Yes, he's slower than Ornstein, but he's almost always running around so the difference in speed between them is nearly irrelevant when trying to be strategic about it (not to mention the amount of reach he has with his hammer). There are very few sound cues between either of them and even learning the visual ones in terms of reading patterns will hit a wall in terms of what the player can do to counter. Were there some form of reasonable solace granted in the fight, this battle would actually be my favorite one in the game.

The Four Kings cross the line because of how much of the fight relies on time. If the player is unable to deal a certain amount of damage to one, another will join, then another---and another until they're facing all four massive figures in a dark abyss from which there is no means of escaping (apart from picking a direction and running in it, hoping they don't immediately follow you). The Kings I should mention aren't humanoid as the name implies. They're massive ethereal statue-like figures, each with swords capable of striking the player at least fifty feet off. Even when most of them are defeated, they respawn in some capacity just to keep the tension in the fight up.

These fights certainly aren't impossible, but they just show how when compared to the rest of the experience, they only stand out because of how severely imbalanced they are---not because of how 'challenging' they are. One can summon NPCs (while offline) to help with a few (if not all) of these fights, but the summoned characters are hardly any more than mere fodder for the boss to hit while the actual player can figure something out (they don't last long, and the game's AI is just as horrible as Demon's Souls's was). The trouble here for me is when summoning some of these NPCs, it's presented in the same manner that summoning an actual human player is. This created a dissonance for me, as a summoned Solaire suddenly doesn't talk or respond to me at all. He's just there to tank Smough for about two minutes. It wouldn't have killed From to allow a bit more of a lens on the game's lore through some of these summoned NPCs (also introducing more things that depend and change on their survival and treatment).

Speaking on not using a guide is intrinsically important with this game because it reminds me personally how and why I've always played games the way I do. Slowly, methodically, without help---and taking pride in discovering and building a character by myself---for myself. As great as the Dark/Demon's Souls Wikis are, how rewarding the game's community can be, they also satiate an easily rampant insecurity in gamers, to where they just have to create the most tailored builds and allow them to have the least frustrating time as possible. This destroys the entire point of the game in my eyes. A quote coming from Masahiro Sakurai is a nice summation of this problem[3]:
"The thing is, this sort of thing happens all the time in games, especially RPGs, running into situations where you permanently miss out on important items or story events because you didn't know any better. I make every effort to avoid reading strategy guides or sites because I want to explore worlds for myself, these worlds that dozens of people worked hard to build, with as fresh a perspective as possible. This can have its drawbacks, because there are some things where it's completely to your advantage to have previous knowledge about. In the end, though, there's a lot of fun that comes out from the fact that you can't go back. This game wouldn't have been half as fun if it wasn't built that way."
The joy of making mistakes in a game like Dark Souls is what makes it such an experience, much more so than other games that hold your hand so much---it doesn't really matter either way. It's not just about pride in saying "Well, I'd much rather play the game like this", it's about insisting that you play the game on terms where it's actually worth something to complete even the smallest section or task on your own. Given the number of times that New Game Plus carries over for the Souls titles, the Wiki can easily be picked up after an initial SOLITARY playthrough (i.e. how I played both Dark Souls and Demon's Souls) to appreciate just the number of things one may have missed, messed up, and gotten on their own.

Dark Souls's narrative shares my criticism with Demon's Souls in that it's at many points too restrained. However, it beats out Demon's Souls for the sole fact that Lordran is a large interconnected world that feels more alive than Boletaria did. Like its predecessor, Dark Souls's narrative is gleaned through ambiance, atmosphere, and whatever the players fill the holes in with themselves.  Even more than Demon's Souls, Dark Souls's world is more oppressive in the sense that this is not a quest to save the land(s). That battle has already been lost. As a player, you're simply in the hollow shell of what was once a thriving world now gone to hell. There's almost no optimism in the game, be it through characters, the world's design, or even both of the game's conclusions. Lore is gleaned through anecdotes, conversations with NPCs and item descriptions---just as Demon's Souls was. There are also subtle touches of interactions between certain characters in Dark Souls that leave their motives to question and just what place that have played (or do play) in the world.

Initially intimidating as hell, The Capra Demon loses his bite after
you silence his bark.
There are also some praises in design I should note, as most people skimmed over the game without noticing exactly what influenced the design of some of Lordran's areas. It was far more understandable for people to relate Demon's Souls to some singular categorization of a medieval aesthetic. Dark Souls doesn't do that at all. The Undead Parish/Burg are the only areas in the game that evoke this now. The rest are reminiscent of more 'high fantasy fallen very low'. Some areas show influence from periods not seen in games enough these days. For example. When the player goes from Blightown to Ash Lake, the forlorn nature of the game's world quickly becomes evident. That and the player can typically see the outskirts of other parts of the game's world from another, far off in the distance (Ash Lake is viewable from the Tomb of Giants, as is the Demon Ruins). Not only that but, the design is so dense that these far off areas give more sustenance to the area in which the player is currently in. For example, the Tomb of Giants is a labyrinthine cave on a cliffside. It's such an alerting experience thanks to the darkness, that it is almost impossible not to notice that the only natural source of light that the player receives is coming from the far off glow of the Demon Ruins's lava.

The entire thing starts in Blightown ,which is this game's version of the Valley of Defilement[4]. This quickly turns into the Demon Ruins, which is a crumbling underground (not to mention lava-filled) path leading to the Lost Izalith, a nigh-impenetrable fortress run by a lost matriarchy of witches and showing a Mesoamerican influence (a particular favorite of mine) in its architecture. Personally, even the Izalith paled in comparison to the Duke's Archives which took a couple of features prominent in my favorite Demon's Souls area[5] and rammed them into an aesthetic which is appreciative towards my current job.

Dark Souls is still mostly a challenging and richly rewarding experience, but it's also much less punishing than its predecessor thanks to the bonfires peppered throughout the world (which are arguably the game's most rewarding things). It keeps and builds upon most of Demon's Souls strengths while showcasing all the same faults. Like I said...tunnel vision.

1. One of my many posts from last year, giving my impressions with Demon's Souls. []
2. The official website's url. []
3. Masahiro Sakurai Plays Dark Souls []
4. Demon's Souls's poison marshland. []
5. The Tower of Latria []