Dark Souls Review

*Review based on Dark Souls release as Dark Souls Remastered*

Dark Souls is a difficult game. Many enemies and bosses can kill you with one stroke, deadly traps will lead to instant death, and invading players always have it out for you. The challenge of Dark Souls has become the stuff of gaming legend. And yet, that difficulty is hardly the summation of Dark Souls. Rather, the steep challenge is justified by being part of one of the most tightly constructed, immersive and overall satisfying experiences in all of video games. Yes, Dark Souls is difficult, but it’s so much more than that.

Director Hidetaka Miyazaki followed the blueprint of his earlier title Demon’s Souls when crafting this spiritual sequel. Dark Souls transcended its predecessor by delving into deeper gameplay territories. The most prominent of which being its merging with the Metroidvania sub-genre, with each land to be discovered in the game connecting with another, and shortcuts between them to be found once you meet the right requirements.

The world in question is Lordran, one of the great settings in video games. The people of Lordran suffer the curse of being undead. Unlike most fantasy stories, the undead of Dark Souls look like human beings, but they are unable to die, instead losing more and more of their humanity upon death, eventually becoming a ‘Hollow’ (essentially a mindless zombie, and more akin to what is usually labeled as ‘undead’). Players take on the role of the ‘Chosen Undead,’ who escapes from the Undead Asylum and arrives in Lordran, where they begin a pilgrimage that is destined to bring them face to face with Lord Gwyn, an old god responsible for the undead curse.

As is the standard for the series, most story and world elements are intentionally vague, with snippets of character dialogue and flavorful descriptions of items giving insight into the world of Lordran. It proves to be one of the more effective means of video game storytelling, with players able to delve into the narrative should they choose, or simply bask in pure gameplay.

From the get-go, Dark Souls’ gameplay presents a staggering amount of variety: Players can customize their character to be more focused on heavy physical damage, magic attacks, healing, quick strikes, and more. And even when you do decide which direction to take your character, there are still several different routes you can take with each build. Even the core gameplay provides different styles, whether it’s a weapon in one hand and a shield in the other, two weapons, a weapon and a staff, there’s no shortage of options. You can even swap into holding a weapon with both hands at the press of a button.

The depth in gameplay just never lets up. There are new mechanics constantly being introduced, and some which are so subtle you may not realize they were there until late into the journey.

Two of the key mechanics players will need to know are souls and humanity. Souls are acquired from defeating enemies, and work as both experience points to level up your character and currency for buying items, weapons and armor. Humanity is a bit rarer, being an occasional drop from enemies and scattered about the world, as well as rewarded for helping other players fell bosses. When the player dies (and you will die), they become Hollow which – along with making their character look more deathly – prevents you from summoning other players for help. Adding to the game’s challenge, every time you die, you lose your souls and humanity (though you retain unused humanity in your inventory). You have a chance to reclaim your lost earnings if you can return to the spot you died, but if you die again before you make it, you lose everything.

The now-iconic Bonfires serve as checkpoints, but are also where you spend souls to level up, repair and upgrade equipment, and where you can spend a humanity to undo the effects of Hollowing. Resting at bonfires also refills your Estus Flask – your primary source of healing – and you can increase the usage of your Flask at any bonfire you’ve kindled, which also costs a humanity. Suffice to say, discovering a new bonfire after a series of rough patches is a godsend.

The sheer amount of detail that emits from every environment of Lordran is staggering. The level design is among the best of any Metroidvania title, with every destination being perfectly staged with enemy and item placements, not to mention secrets around every corner (a number of which rival Symphony of the Night’s inverted castle in how they change and expand upon the whole experience). Even in its most painfully difficult moments, it’s all too easy to get absorbed in Dark Souls’ structure and depth.

If things get too difficult, you can always call on other players to help you out by finding their summon signs across the land (with players usually leaving them around bonfires and boss doors). You can summon up to two other players to aide you in an area until you rid it of its boss, but you can’t summon players when hollowed. There is a caveat to staying human, however, as whenever you’re not hollow you are susceptible to invasion by enemy players. Of course, if you’re getting stuck on a particular segment, or simply want to help or hinder someone else, you can always leave a summon sign or invade another player for a change of pace.

On its own, the multiplayer of Dark Souls – both cooperative and combative – has rightfully proven influential over the years, as it remains a fun and refreshing change from multiplayer norms. But to add another layer to everything, players can join Covenants throughout their journey, which often have their own benefits and rewards for both friendly and fiendish multiplayer.

I suppose we do have to go back and talk about the notorious difficulty of Dark Souls. While the game can get brutally difficult – to the point of intimidating some players – it’s never unfair. Whether its equipping the proper armor to withstand poisoning or finding the right spot to best hide from a boss’ devastating attack, there are always methods to what seems like madness. More importantly, there is always a sense of strategy, with players able to survive any onslaught if they know when to dodge, block or attack. While a lesser designed game may simply leave you throwing your hands in the air and giving up under such difficulty, Dark Souls is so well designed that it will leave you wanting to push yourself to see things through. Dark Souls may have you feeling like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, going about the same situation in different ways until you get it right. And when you do get it right, there’s seldom an experience in gaming that even approaches its sense of reward.

Though it was originally released in 2011, Dark Souls’ visuals have held up nicely, with the remastered version making it look all the more at home on current hardware. Better still is its art direction, which should rank among the best of the medium. There’s not a location or creature that doesn’t stick with you. Combine that with the game’s incredible musical score and unparalleled sound work, and Dark Souls is quite the spectacle, and presents perhaps the most absorbing fantasy world in gaming.

There are a few minor issues with Dark Souls, but nothing that truly undermines its overall excellence. Later in the game you gain the ability to warp between specific bonfires, though you may wish you gained the ability a little sooner when you find yourself going back and forth in the earlier half of the game. Then there’s the backstabbing mechanic, which is just far too easy for players to perform on one another. While being invaded by opposing players may be par for the course, it kind of sullies a lot of player-versus-player encounters when everyone is simply trying to pull off a backstab on each other in place of using their full moveset. But again, these are little more than quibbles.

Yes, Dark Souls is a very difficult game, but it’s so much more than that. While most of the video game world became preoccupied with trying to replicate the spectacle of Hollywood once the medium made the jump to 3D, Dark Souls instead feels more akin to what would have happened if the older style of games from the 80s and early 90s had evolved into the present day. Like the best games from those early years, Dark Souls requires its players to gain an intimate knowledge of its every last location and trinket in order to see things through. It combines those older traditions with one idea after another that are entire its own, and continues to build on them throughout its entirety.

Dark Souls is a difficult video game. But it also happens to be one of the very best.

Praise the sun!

 

10

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Giving For Honor its Due

We all make mistakes. And I recently realized I made a pretty big one during my 2017 video game awards earlier this year… I completely snubbed For Honor!

For those who may not remember For Honor (I’m apparently not the only one who forgot about it during award season), it’s a multiplayer deathmatch game released by Ubisoft in which players take control of characters from one of three (soon to be four) factions: Knights, Vikings, and Samurai. Players not only swear allegiance to one of those factions during competitive seasons, but can select classes from any faction during any given match.

For Honor combines its melee combat with game modes usually found in FPSs, while throwing in fighting game-like combos and abilities, and RPG elements to progress the character classes. It’s not a perfect game – with some balancing issues still present – but it is a unique competitive multiplayer game in a time when competitive multiplayer games are a rare breed.

Not only did I fail to list For Honor in my list of the 10 best games of 2017 (a list it really should have been on), but I also failed to mention it in my award for Best Multiplayer which – looking back on things – it really should have won. Instead, I gave those honors to PlayerUnknown’s BattleGrounds, a game that’s fun and engrossing and started the current battle royal crave, but one that’s a lot more flawed and shallow than For Honor is.

I’ve recently started playing For Honor again with my friends, and it’s better than ever (dedicated servers now!), whereas in PUBG’s case, I played it for a while, but don’t feel the urge to go back to it, especially now that Fortnite has more or less supplanted it as everyone’s go-to battle royal title. Meanwhile, For Honor’s mixture of genres still feels fresh and original well over a year later. There’s nothing else quite like it…warts and all.

Long story short, For Honor should have been my Best Multiplayer winner of 2017, and deserved to be named among my top 10 games of last year. Better late than never.

Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom Review

A kingdom reborn…

The original Ni No Kuni, Wrath of the White Witch, is not only one of my favourite games on what is arguably my favourite Sony console, but it is arguably the greatest modern JRPG in recent memory – ranking meteorically high amongst the small repertoire of contemporary greats. With its brilliantly realized world – complimented with gorgeously animated sequences produced by the masterful Studio Ghibli –, an exquisite musical score co-composed by the brilliant Joe Hisaishi, a Tales meets Pokémon battle system, and a surprisingly poignant narrative that resonates on multiple accords, Wrath of the White Witch is a rare treat of an RPG that never fails to impress. Its sequel, Revenant Kingdom, takes a number of steps forward -establishing some new ideas while polishing the original’s foundation – but questionably stumbles in other areas, arguably taking a few steps backwards. Studio Ghibli’s involvement is objectively non-existent, exposition is divulged in extensive text-based dialogue sequences, the intuitive hybrid active/turn-based system is entirely replaced by a simplistic, yet fun, action-based combat system, and its narrative is disappointingly shallow in comparison to the original’s emotional brilliance. Despite its disappointing nature, Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom is an undeniably fun experience that is exceptionally beautiful and surprisingly engaging. Revenant Kingdom never reaches the resonating heights of its predecessor but manages to establish an aura of its own, thanks to its fantastic world-building and unexpected level of gameplay variance.

Continue reading “Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom Review”

Shaq-Fu: A Legend Reborn Review

In this day and age, where pop culture is obsessed with nostalgia, it seems anything is fair game for a remake, reboot or sequel. Whether it’s beloved franchises making a welcome return, or something more obscure crawling its way back into the spotlight, if it existed in the 80s or 90s, it’s making a comeback. 2017 saw the baffling return of Bubsy – the nadir of the 90s platforming boom – and now 2018 follows suit with the “long-awaited” sequel to Shaq-Fu, widely regarded as one of the worst video games of all time. Though to its credit, Shaq-Fu: A Legend Reborn at least knows what it is, and while that may mean it’s a bad game, does it hurt it that much if that’s pretty much what it was trying to be?

Calling A Legend Reborn a sequel to the original Shaq-Fu may not be entirely accurate, as both are actually very different games. The original was a fighting game, while this entry is a side-scrolling beat-em-up. What they have in common, however, are Shaquille O’Neal, and a whole lot of absurdity.

Here, Shaquille O’Neal is a “humble, Chinese rickshaw driver,” who learns kung-fu from Master Ye-Ye. Shaq ends up being a chosen one destined to defeat an evil demon who threatens the Earth every 1,000 years. The demon’s newest plan is to subvert the human race by “stupefying” them with celebrity culture. So it’s up to Shaq to fight armies of demons and celebrities in order to save the world.

Yeah, it’s stupid, and it knows it. The downside is that the whole “ironic, self-aware, fourth wall-breaking” brand of humor is kind of white noise in this day and age (sorry Deadpool fans). Making fun of tropes has become the single most cliched trope out there by this point. With all that said, I will admit that Shaq-Fu: A Legend Reborn has some genuinely funny moments, due in no small part to Shaquille himself, who certainly seems to have a great sense of humor at his own expense (one of the game’s best meta-gags is that its life-replenishing item is the Icy Hot Patch, which Shaquille O’Neal is of course the spokesperson of in real life).

The jokes on celebrity culture can be a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, basing a boss fight off an angry, drunken Mel Gibson is something that will always be funny, but a boss fight parodying Paris Hilton seems about a decade late. Of course, due to legal reasons, the game can’t use the real names of these celebrities (a la South Park), so instead has to make due with approximations that you wish could at least be a little bit closer to the real thing (a la The Simpsons).

In terms of gameplay, well, it’s fittingly mindless. Just punch hordes of enemies to build up “combo points” which you can then use to unleash Shaq’s size 22s to flatten the bad guys. And if you build up power (which is strangely separate from the combo points), you can perform the Shaq Smash, which easily dispatches foes. Occasionally, you can find two different power-up transformations: The Shaq Diesel merges the basketball star – excuse me, rickshaw driver – with a diesel engine, allowing Shaq to perform rapid punches simply by holding the attack button. But punch too much and you’ll have to unleash a diesel powered Shaq Smash, lest the engine burn up without unleashing that power. The other transformation (and another one of the game’s best gags) is the “Shaqtus,” which is, as it sounds, Shaq as a cactus, allowing him to shoot spines at enemies.

The transformation sequences are the game’s best bits, as they are really the only times the gameplay changes from what is a rather monotonous beat-em-up. Sure, you can pick up weapons here and there, but nothing else really changes up the button-mashing gameplay to any significant degree.

But hey, this game was designed entirely to be a joke and follow-up one of the most infamous games of all time. So I guess the monotony was intentional? Even if we give Shaq-Fu: A Legend Reborn that benefit of a doubt, however, the game still has some glaring shortcomings in execution and technical polish.

First and foremost, it’s baffling to think that Shaq-Fu: A Legend Reborn is exclusively a single-player game. Beat-em-ups are a genre made for couch co-op, and with a game like this, which is intentionally stupid, wouldn’t it be the kind of joke that’s funnier if you’re sharing the experience? This is only magnified more by the fact that, at six stages, Shaq-Fu: A Legend Reborn is incredibly short, and provides little (if anything) in the way of replay value. Had the game featured multiplayer co-op, the act of sharing Shaq Fu with someone else might have been incentive enough for some replays.

Then there are technical issues, and not just simple slow-downs and light freeze-ups, either. During my playthrough, the first time I died wasn’t by an enemy hand, but by Shaq randomly sinking into the ground and the game suddenly telling me I’m dead. And the game completed froze on me at least four times (two of which were on the same section) in my playthrough.

Look, I don’t know what else to say. Is Shaq-Fu: A Legend Reborn a good game? Certainly not. But that’s kind of the point. It’s a title made entirely to live off the legacy of a notorious 90s game. It purposefully sets the bar low, and, well, it hits the mark it set out to. Not all of the humor works, the gameplay is repetitive, and the technical issues are glaring. But hey, Shaquille O’Neal himself has a good sense of humor about it. So I guess I can too.

 

3

Rediscovering Dark Souls

I love Dark Souls.

I think I’ve made that pretty apparent here at the Dojo. I named Dark Souls 3 as my Game of the Year for 2016, placed BloodBorne and Dark Souls 2 within the top five of such lists for their respective years, and really haven’t stopped singing their praises. With that said, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that it wasn’t until Bloodborne that I really got into the series. Now, it wasn’t the first one I played, but it was the first one I finished and really got sucked into.

That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the Dark Souls games before then, because I did quite a bit. But I didn’t quite “love” them, for lack of a better word. Though that’s probably more on my part then the games, because I never got very far in them. Again, I really enjoyed what I experienced, but I didn’t properly get sucked into them. In fact, in the first Dark Souls (the most acclaimed entry in the franchise), I only reached the Gaping Dragon before I got pre-occupied with other games and, tragically, didn’t go back.

Well, I of course had to get Dark Souls Remastered now that I’m a proper nut for the franchise, and started playing through it recently. I still have a long ways to go, but seeing as I just defeated the Gaping Dragon, I figured now would be a fitting time to write about it.

Frankly, I was surprised at just how much I remembered of the game up to the point where I last left off. From shortcuts to enemy placements to secret items, it was amazing how well it’s all been coming back to me, even though I probably hadn’t played Dark Souls since 2012 (shame on me). But really, I probably shouldn’t be surprised. Part of what makes these games so special is how strongly they resonate and stick with you. They are presented and progressed in such a way that memorizing the layouts and dangers become second nature.

Not only do I remember what I traversed before to surprising detail, but with my new(ish) appreciation for the series post-Bloodborne and Dark Souls 3, I find that I have a far deeper involvement in it. I can now safely say – as I wish I could have back in 2011 – that I “love Dark Souls.

While there are some obvious elements that the sequels improved on (Bloodborne has more accessible combat, and Dark Souls 3 has fast-travel, which I now feel naked without). On the whole, Dark Souls 1 is every bit as masterful as those aforementioned successors.

It’s amazing how well it holds up, really. While many more contemporary titles can feel like standouts in the year of their release, they seem to wow less and less with return visits. But going back to Dark Souls feels like going back to a timeless SNES classic, where you still feel constantly surprised and delighted, even when you know exactly where everything is.

Simply put, even though in the past I may have “merely” respected, appreciated and enjoyed Dark Souls from an objective standpoint, I now feel a more personal level of admiration for it now that my eyes have been more widely opened to the genius of its design. Yes, I still have a ways to go, and it’s still a tough S.O.B., but I’m loving every minute of it.

Spider-Man (Playstation 4) Delivers!

Well, E3 2018 has come and gone. And while I hope to recount my personal experiences at the event soon, let’s wrap up these E3 game-related postings on the days of the show with Marvel’s Spider-Man on Playstation 4.

Now, Spider-Man was at E3 last year, but I never got around to playing it. I feared that would also be the case this year. Because geez, were those lines long! Thankfully, however, on this last day of E3, I managed to wait it out. Sure, it was still a long line, but nothing I wouldn’t see during a usual day at Disneyland.

I’m glad I decided to wait, because Spider-Man is now one of my most anticipated games on the horizon. I admit I was a little skeptical at first. Even though licensed games have deservingly removed much of the stigma that was once associated with them, I wasn’t exactly sure what would make this Spider-Man game stand out from any others.

This may sound incredibly cliched, but Spider-Man on PS4 works because of how much it makes you feel like Spider-Man. From the second I picked up the control and explored New York City, I had a big, stupid grin on my face from pure childlike elation at the ability to climb up/swing from pretty much anything. You could activate markers for different objectives, but I largely ignored them, and for the most part just wanted to explore the city. I spent most of the demo simply making my way to the tallest building I could find, and then proceeding to ascend it.

“Is Spoder-Man.”

It’s in how Spider-Man controls that makes it all such a joy. The sheer fluidity in which Spidey can go from swinging on webs to latching onto a wall to running up a building just feels…right. It’s hard to explain, but hopefully when the game is released and more and more people play it, they will get a similar feeling.

I did eventually do some mission objectives, which mainly consisted of beating up bad guys, and here’s where things do get a little worrisome. The combat pretty much made the game feel like Spider-Man: Arkham City. That is to say, it was basically just the combat from the Arkham series, but with a replacement in super hero.

Now, on its own, this isn’t a big problem, because for all intents and purposes, the combat of the Arkham games was fun. However, it would have been nice if the game felt a little more original in this area. This was especially true because – like the Arkham games – these combat sections seemed to drag on and on. Sure, the combat is fun and affective for a while, but it kind of went on to the point that I missed simply running around and goofing off as Spider-Man.

There was, however, a refreshing boss encounter against The Shocker during the demo. I say refreshing for the reasons most people might, like a completely new take on boss fights, but for the exact opposite. The Shocker boss fight was very much a video game boss fight, which in this day and age is becoming something of a lost art, and is always welcome in my book.

That’s not to say that the boss fight was just phoned in from another game or anything, of course. But it flowed like a traditional boss fight (three hits in the first phase, three hits in the second phase, third phase requires you to perform a more cinematic action to finish him off). Much like the exploration, the boss fight felt like experiencing one of Spider-Man’s battles, and wouldn’t have felt out of place in one of the Sam Raimi directed Spider-Man features (or Homecoming. Let’s not bring up those Amazing Spider-Man films though). You avoid Shocker’s attacks until you have an opportunity to strike (via throwing debris at him with webs, of course), in which case you give him a few swift punches. The aforementioned final phase sees you bringing the ceiling down onto Shocker (it’s okay, Spider-Man doesn’t kill him somehow).

“That’s not Willem Defoe! 0/10!”

The exploration alone had me giddy, but if a fight against a lesser Spidey foe like Shocker provided a good old-fashioned boss fight, imagine a throw down with one of his more memorable baddies? The standard combat is a bit overly familiar, but hopefully the final game adds some nice twists of its own, and learns when to trim things down a bit. Or maybe just make most such situations optional. After all, who cares when Spider-Man catches a bunch of books, right? The option to just head for primary objectives like boss fights might be a good alternative.

Any concerns I may have with the combat don’t come anywhere close to the sheer joy of traversing New York City as Spider-Man, however. The simple joy of swinging around on webs, sticking to windows, and scaling the tallest tower as your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man is nothing short of a joy.

Mega Man 11 is the Real Deal

I don’t get this “Mega Man 11” thing! It just looks like Capcom is trying to rip off Mighty No. 9!

All joking aside, I got to play Mega Man 11 at E3 today (after an excruciatingly long wait in line), and walked away very impressed with the game, which is now on my radar as one of my most anticipated titles of the year.

When Mega Man 11 was first revealed, a lot of fans were disappointed with the new visual look, and wanted another 8-bit throwback title. Personally, I think making another 8-bit entry would have felt a bit tired by this point. Besides, Mega Man 7 and 8 weren’t 8-bit, so it’s not as if Mega Man 11 is the first entry to go against the series’ NES roots.

“At least the long line included monitors with fun questions and factoids about Mega Man’s history. This was by far my favorite one.”

One concern I did have though, was that the new look may have meant a new direction for the series’ difficulty, and maybe ease things up a bit to grab a new audience. I’m not one of those people who demands that every game be extremely difficult, and that any game that’s on the easy side is automatically bad. But in Mega Man’s case, the difficulty is as much a part of the series as the Blue Bomber’s ability to steal the powers of defeated Robot Masters.

Although only one stage was available in the demo (Block Man’s), it proved to be pleasantly challenging. Perhaps more importantly, the challenge was brought about by some creative ideas in the level design, with the standout moment being Mega Man navigating through confined rooms which are on a conveyor belt heading for an insta-kill grinder. Mega Man has to shoot path-blocking stones, and navigate the rooms by jumping and sliding in order to escape them and, by extension, escape the grinder. But once one such mini-room is completed, there’s another one in line on the conveyor belt.

It’s concepts like that why platformers remain one of gaming’s greatest genres. Even with a template as old as Mega Man’s, getting creative with the level design is all the developers need to make things feel new again.

Additionally, Mega Man now possesses an ability to slow down time for a short while, with certain level elements and enemies taking advantage of the mechanic. One enemy hides within a spinning wheel, which has only a small opening for Mega Man’s blast can make it through. While Mega Man can time his blast to destroy the enemy under normal conditions, the enemy’s wheel spins fast enough to make it difficult to get the timing down. That’s when slowing down time comes in handy, as it turns the small opportunity to hit this particular enemy into a much bigger one.

The time-slowing mechanic is a fun little twist on the Mega Man formula, and hopefully a few similar mechanics are introduced to keep things fresh.

From what I can gather from my limited experience with the game, Mega Man 11 looks to not only revive the series after a notably lengthy absence, but also adding to the series’ norms in ways to make it feel like a proper continuation for the franchise, and not simply a throwback.

I was tentatively excited for Mega Man 11 when it was announced, but after playing a stage of the game, it’s really looking like the Mega Man title the gaming world needs…especially after Mighty No. 9.

“I’m a better Mega Man than Mega Man! I’m actually aiming my mega buster at the bad guy!”