Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin Review

Dark Souls II is something of the black sheep of the Souls series. Given the standard laid forth by the original Dark Souls, it was always going to be a tough act to follow. In addition to not achieving the same impact as its predecessor, Dark Souls II is also noted for being the only entry in the series not directed by series creator Hidetaka Miyazaki, who merely took on a producing role this time around. Dark Souls II would be directed by Tomohiro Shibuya and Yui Tanimura  (as such, it’s also the only entry in the series to not feature Miyazaki’s signature character, Patches, who even found his way into Bloodborne).

It probably didn’t help Dark Souls II that it didn’t get a whole lot of time to build its own legacy. Dark Souls II was the first in a line of three “Souls” entries released in as many years. While there was a three year gap between Dark Souls and this sequel, Bloodborne was released the year after Dark Souls II, and Dark Souls III capped off the series the year after that. Bloodborne is widely considered the best follow-up to Dark Souls, and has a setting distinct from the Tolkien-esque fantasy worlds of the rest of the series, while Dark Souls III felt like the proper culmination of all previous entries. Dark Souls II, by comparison, got a little lost in the shuffle, with less identity of its own to make it stand out.

When Dark Souls II was first released in 2014, it was the highly anticipated follow-up to one of the biggest hits of the decade. But because of the aforementioned reasons – as well as a couple of questionable design choices – Dark Souls II has gained that reputation as the black sheep of the franchise.

But being the black sheep is really a relative term in instances like this. Despite its drawbacks (and yes, it does fall short of its predecessor, successor, and Bloodborne), Dark Souls II is still an excellent game that retains the series’ quality. And for my money, it’s still a much better game than Demon’s Souls.

The “Scholar of the First Sin” edition of Dark Souls II was released on the PS4 and Xbox One in 2015, and featured improved visuals and some minor tweaks, and also included all of the downloadable content from its original release.

If Dark Souls II has any immediate drawback, it’s that it’s a little tepid when it comes to branching out of its predecessor’s shadow and constructing its own identity. Now, given that the first Dark Souls is one of the best games ever made, that’s not a horrible thing. But suffice to say that Dark Souls II is the safest entry in the series, creatively speaking.

The gameplay retains the depth and intricacy the series is known for. You create a character whose play style becomes more and more customizable as the game goes on. You can equip weapons, armor and shields, as well as gain magic abilities (which come in the form of sorceries, miracles, pyromancies and hexes). You fight your way through incredibly difficult lands and dungeons – where many foes can fell you in a single hit – and search for those heavenly bonfires for those blessed moments of reprieve.

That’s not to say that Dark Souls II doesn’t feature any tricks of its own. One feature – unique to the series – is that each area has a finite number of enemy respawns. True to its predecessor, igniting a bonfire may serve as a checkpoint and a means to recover health, spells, and your ever-trusty Estus Flask, but doing so will also respawn every enemy in the area surrounding said bonfire. Unlike its predecessor, or either of its successors, however, is that if you slay particular enemies enough times and keep using the local bonfire, these enemies will eventually cease to spawn for the remainder of the playthrough.

It’s an interesting concept, admittedly. And if you’re having too much trouble with a particular area or enemy, it gives you something of a cheat in that you can keep chipping away at such troublesome moments until the source of said troubles just disappears entirely and is cleared out of your path.

However, this concept of finite enemy respawns comes with a few caveats. Notably, if a certain type of enemy holds particular items or materials you’re looking for, you only have so many chances to try to farm said items during any given playthrough. And should you choose to use the aforementioned method of exhausting certain enemy spawns  to make progression a bit smoother, be prepared for a large amount of tedium.

Unfortunately, I get the impression that the developers assumed many players would go the route of slowly extinguishing enemies, because there seems to be way more foes in any given area than in any other entry in the series. That’s not innately a bad thing, but it becomes an issue when some places within the game feel like they’re just tossing in hordes of enemies willy nilly.

“This place may look heavenly, but with the sheer excess of sorcerer enemies and monsters that pop out of the water, it’s probably closer to Hell.”

By that I mean one of the strengths of the first Dark Souls (and Bloodborne and Dark Souls III) is the sense of staging. The games not only feature excellent level and enemy designs that add to the gameplay, but the placement of those enemies in those areas really add to the gameplay. There’s a brilliant sense of staging that few games can match. But in Dark Souls II, there are more than a few areas where it feels like there’s no cohesive structure in the enemy placements, and that it simply bombards the player with as many enemies as humanly possible as it assumes said player will gradually exhaust the spawning of these enemies.

For those who would like to farm items and souls (the series’ combination of experience points and currency), you can start the enemy spawn cycle of a given area over again by using a rare item called a Bonfire Ascetic, but even that comes with the drawback of upping the difficulty of the area (for example, using an Ascetic during your first playthrough will up that area’s difficulty to that of New Game Plus, with each additional use upping it further to the difficulty of the next playthrough). And doing so can’t be reversed for that character. So it’s a bit of a double-edged sword.

The finite enemy respawns are a mixed bag, then. But at least I understand why FromSoftware experimented with the idea. Less understandable is that Dark Souls II saw fit to resurrect Demon’s Souls’s punishment for defeat by lowering your maximum health with each death!

Like the other games in the series, the player’s acquired souls are dropped upon death, but they have a chance to reclaim them, if they learned from past mistakes and make it back to the spot they died. But die again before reclaiming them and those souls are gone for good. This element is fine, as it has always been a key part of the series, and one that proved influential to video games as a whole. But lowering the player’s maximum health upon every defeat is a component of Demon’s Souls that never needed to be brought back. It just feels like the game is punishing the player for its own difficulty.

You can undo this effect with a particular item (the “Human Effigy” this time around), but this item is much rarer that the “Humanity” item of Dark Souls, and chances are you’ll run out of them faster than you can get more, until maybe your third playthrough. So you’ll be spending a good portion of the game with only a fragment of your full health. The game would already be more than difficult enough without this feature.

I’m probably sounding a bit negative by this point, but these are the major issues with Dark Souls II that prevent it from being on the same level as its immediate predecessor and its successors. With these negatives out of the way, however, it should be emphasized that, when Dark Souls II hits the right notes, it’s exceptional.

The core gameplay is as fun and deep as ever, and the world design remains exquisite. The boss fights are still epic encounters, though perhaps a bit less memorable than other entries in the series due to a relative lack of variety (a good portion of the bosses are giant suits of armor with swords). There are secrets and hidden areas around every corner, instilling a strong sense of exploration into the player. And while I may have noted the cumbersome nature of the areas packed with excessive enemies, there are still places in the game that are the opposite, and evoke the series’ usual design strengths.

There are a few other tweaks made to the Dark Souls formula. Like in Demon’s Souls, the player doesn’t level up at any given bonfire, but instead has to speak with a particular NPC (the “Emerald Herald” in this case, who resides in the game’s hub of Majula). Some might say having to go to a specific spot to level up isn’t as accessible as its predecessor’s method, but given that you have the ability to warp to any previously visited bonfire from the get-go this time around, it’s not a problem.

Some may also not be too keen on the way the Estus Flask upgrades in Dark Souls II. Rather than Dark Souls 1’s process of boosting the individual bonfires to give you more uses of the Estus Flask, you now have to find two different rare items that, when burned at a bonfire, increase the number of uses of the Estus Flask itself (to a maximum of 12) and increase how much health each usage heals. But I don’t find it to be any worse than its predecessor’s method, just different.

As usual, Dark Souls II looks and sounds great. Although the Scholar of the First Sin edition doesn’t look as pretty as its sequels that were made from the ground up for PS4 and Xbox One, its art direction and visual aesthetics have held up nicely. And, when coupled with its sweeping musical score and the series’ untouchable sound design, it all really gives the game a strong sense of atmosphere.

On the subject of atmosphere, Dark Souls II follows series’ tradition of having the majority of its story and world building told through the level design, item descriptions, and passing NPC dialogue. The story and world here are still interesting (and tell of how the kingdom of Drangleic fell to ruin), but it is a little odd that its story and setting seem far removed from that of the first game. This would be emphasized all the more later on when Dark Souls III felt like a closer follow-up to the first Dark Souls, while only giving the world, characters and elements of Dark Souls II a few passing references. So if Dark Souls II weren’t already seen as the black sheep of the series by fans, it seems its sequel would canonically magnify this labelling.

That’s a bit of a shame. While Dark Souls II undoubtedly falls short of the two Dark Souls entries it’s sandwiched between (and Bloodborne. Can’t forget Bloodborne), it’s still a great game that expands on the world of the series.

Dark Souls II’s faults may be few, but they are certainly more noticeable than those of its sister titles. Only in a series of this pedigree could a game as good as Dark Souls II be considered its “black sheep.” If taken by its own merits, Dark Souls II is close to triumphant. It’s only when one remembers what came before and what came after that its blemishes really start to show.

 

8

Demon’s Souls Review

The Dark Souls series – and its sister title Bloodborne – have become so influential and acclaimed in the video game world that it often seems like people forget that the Souls series didn’t start with 2011’s Dark Souls, but with Demon’s Souls, released two years prior. Before Dark Souls became the all-encompassing influence on video game design in the 2010s, Demon’s Souls helped cap off the 2000s, opening the door for its spiritual successor to take charge in the new decade.

The video game world is no stranger to spiritual sequels to beloved titles, but its rare that a spiritual sequel completely eclipses its predecessor. Unfortunately for Demon’s Souls, that seems to be the case. Though Demon’s Souls remains a uniquely engaging experience, some of its more aged elements make it apparent why, whenever a game is dubbed “Souls-like,” people are comparing things to its spiritual successor, more so than Demon’s Souls itself.

Now, that’s not to say that Demon’s Souls didn’t have an impact. When it was released in 2009, it received widespread acclaim, and even won its share of Game of the Year awards. Some fans still hail it as the best (or second best) entry in the franchise (although I think that’s a stretch). But comparing Demon’s Souls to its successors is like comparing Super Mario Bros. to Super Mario World. The former may have laid the foundation, proved influential and still holds up in its own right, but it would be incredibly difficult to argue its merits over those of its sequel.

Granted, some might say my current perception of the game is slightly tainted by the fact that Demon’s Souls’ servers shut down in 2018, so there’s no interaction with other players. But during my most recent playthrough of the Switch version of Dark Souls Remastered, I barely summoned anyone to help me (and when I did, it was more out of the sheer surprise of actually seeing a summon sign – which seemed sadly rare in the Switch version – as opposed to requiring the help), and I enjoyed it every bit as much as I ever did. So I don’t think the lack of online features has clouded my judgement too much.

The difficulty of the series is something I’ve come to expect and embrace. But it has to be said that Demon’s Souls – perhaps as a result of being the first entry in the series and thus lacking the hindsight of its successors – lacks polish in a number of areas. While Dark Souls and Bloodborne could get excruciatingly difficult at times, I never felt cheated by them. But there are a couple of instances in Demon’s Souls where it feels like director Hidetaka Miyazaki and FromSoftware simply stacked challenge after challenge on top of each other, without researching whether or not it was fair to the player. No matter how difficult they got, I never felt like the Dark Souls games or Bloodborne were unfair. But I have to admit there were a few instances in Demon’s Souls where I felt my failures were the result of questionable game design, as opposed to my own error.

For a good example of what I mean, the game’s fourth stage – The Shrine of Storms – features flying manta ray enemies that shoot their stingers at you, which hone in on your character, no less. That’s not so bad in and of itself, but many of these manta ray enemies are far enough in the distance that they won’t be in your focus and will be off-screen. When things start tracking players from off-screen is when I start to lose my patience. Still, I could live with it. When this scenario went from difficult to aggravating, however, is when I’m expected to fight skeleton phantoms who can kill me in one hit, all while on a narrow ledge, while dozens of these manta rays are shooting their homing stingers at me from off-screen!

There’s a difference between a steep challenge, and just stacking one obstacle after another over each other to the point that it becomes unreasonable to the player. Dark Souls and Bloodborne would learn this lesson, so I suppose Demon’s Souls was a necessary test run for its follow-ups to improve on those elements. But it doesn’t change the fact that, when replaying Demon’s Souls, moments like this can sometimes kill the fun of the experience.

If I’m starting to sound a bit negative, it’s not because Demon’s Souls is a bad game. It’s just that, relative to its spiritual successors, it does show its age a bit. Again, I compare it to Super Mario Bros. in relation to Super Mario World. That’s hardly the kind of company to be ashamed of being in.

While the core gameplay remains largely the same as it would in future Souls titles (equipable weapons in both hands, light and heavy attack variants, a stamina meter to prevent you from constantly spamming attacks, lots of rolling, etc.), there are some key differences.

The first, and most obvious, would be the lack of an Estus Flask. In Dark Souls, the Estus Flask would serve as your permanent means of healing (starting with only five uses, but you can refill it by resting at a bonfire, and increase the total number of uses by boosting said bonfires). But here in Demon’s Souls, you have more traditional, consumable healing items (grass). This alone feels outdated by comparison. The Estus Flask – one of gaming’s greatest items – tells you exactly how many slip-ups you’re allowed to make before you reach the next bonfire. Its presence makes you able to strategize every section of the game accordingly. It’s the perfect item for the gameplay provided by the series. By comparison, the grass in Demon’s Souls can be a bit of a pain to build up. Sure, enemies will drop it pretty often, but until you make it to New Game+ or have improved your stats enough, they won’t drop it nearly enough to keep up with what most players will need. Yes, there are vendors in the game that can sell you these (and other) items – charging the player’s acquired souls in return (souls work as both experience points and currency, per the norm) – but again, until New Game + hits, these items often cost more souls than you can keep up with. So you’re often caught farming enemies for souls to buy items, only to be killed (often in one hit) while farming, thus losing the souls you’ve gathered thus far. Yes, as would become a staple of the series, you can reclaim your lost souls if you make it back to the spot you died, but if you get killed again on the way, they’re gone for good.

Again, this is a feature in Dark Souls and Bloodborne as well. But here in its initial incarnation, the concept isn’t nearly as well executed. Part of that is because the Estus Flask was the perfect companion piece to the way the series is set up. By relying on more traditional consumables, you often get caught in a cycle of farming to try to claim souls for more items, only to get killed before you can get enough souls because you don’t have any items to heal you. It’s true that Bloodborne also featured more traditional healing items, but Bloodborne also learned from Dark Souls’ bonfires (with lanterns being its equivalent), which means there were checkpoints to stop and heal.

That brings us to Demon’s Souls other big gameplay difference: there are no bonfires in Demon’s Souls as there would be in later games. Now, there is something of a predecessor in the form of swords in stones, called “Archestones,” but there are some key differences here that make these stones considerably less useful than Dark Souls’ bonfires or Bloodborne’s lanterns.

For one, the Archestones only appear after boss fights, making them far less frequent than their successors. Second, they don’t automatically heal you when touched, instead merely asking if you want to go back to the game’s hub world (dubbed “The Nexus”). Third, touching the stones does not respawn enemies like the later bonfires would. That may sound like it makes things easier, but it just makes it all more tedious. If you’re trying to get specific items from enemies, or just trying to farm souls, you have to touch an Archestone to go back to the Nexus, wait for the loading screen, then re-select the stage and Archestone of your choice, and sit through the loading screen again, in order to respawn enemies. So if you’re trying to gather specific items to craft a better weapon, you’re going to be at it for a while. Compare that to Dark Souls: You touch a bonfire, and bam, the enemies are back. It sounds like simple stuff, but it’s changes like this that make all the difference in the world.

It’s true, there are items that return you to the Nexus that you can use at any time. But the item you constantly have on you that does this takes you back at the expense of losing all your acquired souls, while the items that send you back without penalty are in short supply. It’s demanding, to say the least.

“Another problem is that, in order to make room in your inventory, you have to manually take your excess items to an NPC in the Nexus. Otherwise, if you find an item you can’t carry, you risk losing that item for good if you die or leave the stage. Compare that to Bloodborne, where your excess items automatically transfer to a storage when you’re overburdened. That’s a godsend!”

There are other, smaller differences between Demon’s Souls and its successors that showcase the former’s rough edges. Example: As would become tradition for the series, Demon’s Souls includes a poisonous swamp stage, where trudging through its waters is necessary, but will inevitably poison the player. However, in the later games in the series, a status bar will pop up on screen to show the poison building up until it takes effect. In Demon’s Souls, there is no visual cue. You won’t know when the poison will take effect until you’re poisoned. Similarly, Dark Souls informs the player when their weapon is close to breaking and needing repairs. But again, in Demon’s Souls, you won’t know until it happens. These are small issues, sure, but it does show how small visual and audio cues in games can really go a long way.

The biggest difference between Demon’s Souls and its successors, however, is in the structure of the game world itself. While Dark Souls onward would feature one connected world a la Metroidvania, Demon’s Souls instead has the Nexus serve as a hub, where the player can then access the game’s five proper stages, with each stage being separated into different segments, and each segment being capped off with a boss fight. Stages 2 through 5 have two proper segments, with a third that is mainly just the world boss, while stage 1 has four segments. Thankfully, you don’t have to completely finish a stage before moving onto the next (once the first boss is defeated, the other four stages become available), so there’s still some leeway for player’s to tackle the game at their own pace.

While I love the Metroidvania style adopted by Dark Souls and its kin, I also find myself enjoying Demon’s Souls more Mario 64-esque approach of having a hub world and stages. I honestly would not mind if FromSoftware adopted Demon’s Souls structure for another game, albeit with some of adjustments learned from the later games in the series (again, gotta love those bonfires).

One thing that’s surprising about Demon’s Souls is that, despite being the predecessor of Dark Souls featuring many of the same gameplay elements and a similar dark fantasy world, said fantasy world of Demon’s Souls still manages to feel so distinct from what came later.

The mythology here is that the kingdom of Boletaria has – under the king’s instruction – reawakened an ancient entity known simply as the ‘Old One’ in order to resurrect the “Soul Arts” the creature’s existence provides. The Soul Arts are a great power once known to Boletaria, but they came at a great price. Though the Old One’s presence grants mankind this power, it also unleashes a deep fog that encompasses the world, with soul-hungry demons existing within that fog. As the fog spreads, so too do the demons, who in turn transform humans into mindless monsters upon taking their souls. As you may have guessed, the king’s lust for the Soul Arts and awakening of the Old One has brought the fog back into the world, plunging it into chaos. Thus it’s up to the hero character to slay demons, and acquire ‘Demon Souls’ powerful enough to lull the Old One back into its slumber.

As always, further details of the game’s mythology are sprinkled throughout the level design and descriptions of characters and items. In some ways I may even like this mythology more than that of Dark Souls, but it’s a testament to Hidetaka Miyazaki and company’s world-building abilities that Dark Souls became its own entity simply due to publishing issues preventing a direct sequel to Demon’s Souls, and yet both games feature such deep, unique worlds of their own.

It’s in its world where Demon’s Souls truly shines. Not just in that world building, but also in level and enemy design. While, as stated, the levels do feature some sections that don’t know the difference between a tough-but-fair challenge and mindlessly stacking obstacles on top of each other, the level and enemy designs on their own right remain as strong as any in the Souls games.

Despite my previously stated grievances, the fourth stage, Shrine of Storms, is probably my favorite. A dilapidated temple that looks like it was pulled out of a Team Ico title, filled with ghosts and surrounded by storms, capped off with those intriguing (if infuriating) flying manta rays. It’s an absolute beauty to look at. The other levels are similarly interesting. Stage 1 takes place entirely in Boletaria’s castle, stage 2 is a fiery mine filled with exploding beetles, and stage 3 is a dreary asylum run by Lovecraftian monsters (a concept that would be revisited and bettered in Dark Souls 3). Admittedly, the fifth stage is a little more of a mixed bag. I love the look of the first segment, which reminds me of Davy Jones’s ship from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, but once that part is done and we move into the poisonous swamp, its a lot less appealing both in look and gameplay.

There is, unfortunately, one other weakness to Demon’s Souls that was removed from its successors: World Tendency.

Back in its day, Demon’s Souls featured both an online and offline mode to the World Tendency feature. Seeing as the online servers are no more, there’s not much point to address them here, but the offline equivalent – at any rate – is a convoluted mess. I just don’t understand it.

World Tendency describes the status of each stage. The different phases are pure white, white, black and pure black. From what I can gather (the game largely leaves the details unexplained), if the world tendency of a stage is in the white, your character is more durable to enemy attacks, making things slightly easier on you. But when a stage goes into the black, more enemies show up – including painfully difficult “black phantom” versions of enemies – but with the benefit of more frequent item drops and more souls granted from each foe.

Like in the later Souls games, once your character dies, you come back in ‘soul form,’ only here, that comes with reduced hit points. Once again, Dark Souls made the process of reclaiming your physical form a much more tolerable ordeal by means of the “humanity” item, which you give to bonfires to reclaim your body. In Demon’s Souls, you reclaim your ‘living’ state either by defeating a boss, or by using an item called “stones of ephemeral eyes.” The problem is there are only so many bosses per each level, and once defeated they won’t show up again in the same playthrough, and the stones of ephemeral eyes are – yet again – quite infrequent to find, with the sole enemy that drops them being found in the last section of stage 5. So unless you want to brave stage 5 early on and farm the heck out of its final section, you likely won’t have too many ephemeral eyes at any given time. Naturally, with how difficult the game is, this means you’ll likely be in your weakened soul state for most of your playthrough.

Why do I bring this up now? Because apparently dying in your physical state on a given level is how that level falls into the black in World Tendency. I guess dying in your soul form doesn’t affect a stage, but the more times you die in your physical form, the darker the level gets, and you can only reclaim it by progressing through the level and defeating its bosses. But think about that for a second, there are only so many bosses, so if you’ve completed a stage but want to revisit it to farm some enemies, but you end up dying numerous times, the level will fall into the black and there’s nothing you can do about it for the remainder of the playthrough.

So basically, we have an incredibly difficult game, that gets more difficult upon defeat, and only gives you a few chances to set it back to normal. Demon’s Souls is essentially punishing the player for its own difficulty in this regard. It’s this convoluted World Tendency mechanic that sums up how far the series has come since Demon’s Souls. Hell, just going from Demon’s Souls to Dark Souls 1 feels like a night and day difference.

I know, I’m sounding incredibly negative, but I stress again that Demon’s Souls is a good game in its own right. And back in 2009, when there was nothing else like it, it’s easy to understand why it may have seemed so incredible. But now that we live in 2020 and have an entire trilogy of Dark Souls and the exceptional Bloodborne, it’s impossible to not see the rough edges of FromSoftware’s initial Souls outing.

Yes, the gameplay is still intricate and deep, the world and level design are still engrossing, and even when it pulls some cheap tricks, there’s some weird sensation to keep at it and push yourself ever further in Demon’s Souls. But just because Demon’s Souls laid down the blueprint doesn’t mean its successors didn’t perfect it. And boy, did they ever do just that.

While Demon’s Souls may have launched one of the greatest video game franchises out there, it has to be said that it now feels like the rough draft of the winning formula that was to come.

 

6

Replaying: Dark Souls Remastered

Seeing as we’ve entered a new decade, I – being the sappy, festive person that I am – decided to replay an old favorite as my first game played in the new decade. So naturally, I picked Super Mario World.

And then after that, I picked Dark Souls. That’s two all-time greats back-to-back. Not too shabby.

Yeah, I know. I’ve mentioned I still have some 2019 games to review so I should really get back to them. I don’t know, I just felt like playing a game for the enjoyment of it for a change, instead of putting the pressure on myself to review it. Yes, I will still get back to those remaining 2019 games, notably Pokemon Sword. But if I’m going to be perfectly honest, I’m finding myself struggling to get through Pokemon Sword. It’s actually inspired me to write a future piece about my overall opinion of the Pokemon series. I find that I love the IP, the concept, and the creatures of Pokemon. But I’ve kind of realized I’m not the biggest fan of the games themselves. Of all Nintendo’s franchises, Pokemon is the one that – ironically enough – just doesn’t evolve.

But that’s a discussion for another day. For now, we’re talking Dark Souls. Originally released in 2011 as a kind of spiritual successor to Demon Souls, Dark Souls would become one of the most beloved and acclaimed games of the 2010s. And frankly, it has very little in the ways of competition for the title of the most influential game of the 2010s. Seriously, how often do you hear terms like “Souls-like” these days? How many of its elements have you seen integrated into games of all different genres? As much as people want to pretend that Rockstar and Naughty Dog are the big influencers of gaming today, neither of those studios have seen their design philosophies reverberated into the works of others on such a deep level. Rockstar may have popularized open-worlds, and Naughty Dog has continued to make people think having a story equates to good storytelling, but Dark Souls has fundamentally transformed game design in ways akin to the grandaddies of the medium like Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda.

When I originally reviewed Dark Souls Remastered, I awarded it a rare 10/10. While I don’t think awarding a game like Dark Souls with top honors is misplaced, I do admit I have (at least temporarily) lowered my score of it to a 9/10. Not because I think any less of it per se, but I might prefer Dark Souls 3 and (especially) Bloodborne in the ways of Hidetaka Miyazaki’s very specific series of games. It’s a case of “which giant is the biggest among giants.” Even Dark Souls 2, the supposed “black sheep” of the lot, is still a great game. This is a series which definitely feels like a 10/10 is warranted somewhere though, it’s just tough to say which one is the definitive installment.

The first Dark Souls still seems to be the most beloved overall (with Bloodborne being its closest competition). And it’s definitely a fair argument. There’s just so much about it, from its level design, monsters, intricate gameplay, countless atmospheric locations, and genuinely original lore that makes it all so memorable.

In fact, Dark Souls is a game so good that I bought the remastered version twice, the first time around on the PS4, and the second time on the Switch (because Switch has everything). With my current playthrough, I decided to take the Switch version for a whirl, though in retrospect maybe I should have gone back to the PS4 version first since I’m only one trophy away from platinuming the game…

Eh, another time. On the plus side of things, Dark Souls Remastered looks and plays just as well on Switch as it did on PS4. And the great thing about the Switch version of any game is, of course, that you can play it as a handheld. Sure, I usually play Switch docked as a console, but to have the option and ability to play something like Dark Souls as a handheld game is just wonderful. It’s such a huge advantage for Switch games, and I don’t think that detail about the console gets the recognition it deserves. Again, Dark Souls as a handheld title, with no compromise! I love the Switch.

Anywho, my current playthrough is reminding me why I love Dark Souls so much. You always hear people go on and on about the game’s legendary difficulty, and while it certainly is a steep challenge, there’s so much more to Dark Souls than its challenge. This is a game (and subsequently, series) that seems to have an intimate knowledge of game design. What at first seems simply like brutal difficulty is actually a lesson in patience and dedication. Approach Dark Souls as you would most other games, aiming immediately for action and to take out your enemies, and your haste is destined to fail.

When you die in Dark Souls, you lose all of your acquired souls (essentially experience points and currency rolled into one). But you’re given a chance to reclaim them. Learn from your mistakes, make it back to where you died, and succeed where you once failed, and you can reclaim your lost souls. It’s a terrific risk and reward mechanic that firmly asks the player to study every element of the game, as opposed to simply running in and killing stuff willy nilly.

Hidetaka Miyazaki’s 2019 title, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice (another 2019 game I gotta get back to) was beloved by many, even receiving Game of the Year by a number of outlets. But that particular game has – so far – not clicked for me in the way the Dark Souls/Bloodborne games have. A large reason for this is that it removes the “reward” aspect of the aforementioned risk and reward scenario. In Sekiro, whatever experience you’ve accumulated is lost and gone for good immediately upon defeat. It’s a difficult game that seems to send the player into its challenges blindfolded, and then arrogantly punishes them for not being able to overcome said challenges the first time around. That’s not the case with Dark Souls. No matter how difficult Dark Souls gets, there’s always that semblance of hope that makes you want to persevere.

I’ve heard some people describe Dark Souls as being about “hopelessness,” and some even referring to its dark world as “nihilistic.” But that couldn’t be further from the truth. As grim and elegiac as the series (Bloodborne most definitely included) can be, Dark Souls is ultimately an incredibly hopeful experience. It may not be apparent at first, and surely the uninitiated will get angry a time or two at its seemingly unfair odds. But as you struggle, and endure, and pick yourself back up and carry on, you begin to realize what makes Dark Souls special.

Dark Souls isn’t simply a ‘hard game.’ It’s a work of art that teaches you the importance of even the smallest ray of hope in the face of hopelessness itself. The brooding, often-grotesque monstrosities of Dark Souls at first seem to mock you in defeat. But as you learn to press on, and learn from your experience, and know that with just a little extra effort you can conquer anything, you end up doing just that. And when you finally fell a particularly dastardly monster, the sheer joy and relief that washes over you as your foe vanishes into light is euphoric. And by the time you make it to New Game Plus, you are so wizened from your experience that you feel like a combination of Sherlock Holmes and Superman, knowing every nook and cranny of the game while being able to topple foes that once seemed unbeatable.

It’s hope that got you there. Hope that Dark Souls beautifully, deceptively implants into you. So many video games these days are hellbent on proving the artistic merits of the medium by means of replicating cinema, but Dark Souls is one of those titles that becomes a work of art by fully embracing its nature as a video game. 

No other medium could instill hope in its audience in the same way Dark Souls does. Hopefully, its players will be able to take that message to heart, and let that same kind of hope help them in the real world as well.

Suffice to say, Dark Souls has earned its place as one of the best games of its decade.

Top 5 Most Wanted Super Smash Bros. Ultimate Characters

The release of a new Super Smash Bros. game always gets people hyped. And while the E3 Direct and playing the E3 demo accomplished just that, for me, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate was something to be excited for, but one that seemed a bit familiar. That is until earlier this month with the second SSBU-focused direct, which revealed a host of new information on the upcoming entry, and kicked things into high gear with the announcements of Simon Belmont and King K. Rool!

Of course, being a series built on Nintendo’s history (or just plain video game history at this point), people always have their characters that they’d like to see make the Super Smash Bros. roster with every new entry. So far, the newcomers for Ultimate reads like a shortlist of winning selections: The Inklings represent a contemporary Nintendo franchise, Simon Belmont hails from the third-party franchise most synonymous with Nintendo’s early years (except maybe Mega Man), and Ridley and K. Rool have been among the most requested characters to join Super Smash Bros. for ages, so their inclusions feel like gifts for the fans.

The following characters are the ones I’d most like to see be announced in the coming months to join the ranks of Super Smash Bros. fighters in Ultimate. I know, people might bring up that Sakurai has already stated there won’t be too many newcomers (outside of echo fighters) this time. But this list isn’t called “Five Characters Who Will Totally Make the Cut in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate in Addition to the Ones Who Have Already Been Announced.” It’s a list of the five characters I’d most like to see make it. Not expecting all five, but I like to think my top two picks have more than a fighting chance.

The funny thing is I had originally planned to make this list before the last Smash Bros. Direct, but never got around to it. And since Simon Belmont and King K. Rool were originally going to be on this list, I had to change things up a bit after they were announced.

Also, my list includes a mix of Nintendo characters and those of third-parties. Because honestly, Super Smash Bros. now has most of Nintendo’s most notable characters. There aren’t too many left that would make a big splash outside of an Assist Trophy. Kind of have to branch out at this point.

With all that out of the way, here are the top five characters I’d most like to see become playable characters in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. But first, a runner-up.

Continue reading “Top 5 Most Wanted Super Smash Bros. Ultimate Characters”

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!

 

9

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.

Dark Souls and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze Coming to Nintendo Switch!

I normally don’t like posting stuff here that feels more like news and less like my glorious opinions, but with how much I constantly gush with my love of Dark Souls and Donkey Kong Country, I just had to write on this.

Essentially, Nintendo held a “mini-Direct” earlier today, and while many Nintendo fans were predictably upset over the lack of new Metroid and Fire Emblem details, I was doing backflips of excitement and performing Captain Ginyu’s Dance of Joy. Why?

Dark Souls and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze are coming to Nintendo Switch.

When I woke up this morning and saw the news, I was like…

But then I quickly went like…

And then I was like…

 

Good heavens, it’s like Nintendo has been reading my constant tweets about the magnificence of Dark Souls and Tropical Freeze, and my desires to see them on the Switch, and decided to pull the trigger on them just to shut me up. Thanks, Nintendo!

Okay, so Dark Souls Remastered (as the 2018 edition is called) will also be on Playstation 4 and Xbox One, which is amazing. But for the first time in forever (*Cue Frozen song*) Dark Souls is on the same console as Super Mario, which is basically the best thing to have ever happened. It seems the only caveat to this news is that Tropical Freeze will now include a new super easy mode for wimps beginners. Now, unlike many elitist “hardcore” gamers, I don’t have a problem with easier difficulty settings being available for those who want/need them, but the disappointing element is that the new mode features Funky Kong as a playable character. If they were going to add a new character, why can’t he just be in the standard game, and the easier setting could be just that, an easier setting. I want to play Tropical Freeze in all its brutal glory with Funky!

But that’s probably the only time I’ll complain about Tropical Freeze. Ever. In life. Though I suppose now that my favorite Wii U game is coming to Switch, I now have a harder time justifying the Wii U’s quality (it was a great system at the time, damn it! So misunderstood!).

Oh, and on top of all that, Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is getting Donkey Kong as a playable character, and Super Mario Odyssey is getting a new quasi-multiplayer mode in which players hide magic balloons, which other players can then search for. Basically, it’s the Mario version of From Software’s offline-online features, like leaving summon signs in (you guessed it) Dark Souls. Plus, this adds a whole new layer of depth to Odyssey, now that players are essentially adding their own equivalent of Mario’s usual collectibles, the sandbox style of Odyssey will never end!

Getting back on track, Dark Souls and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze are coming to Nintendo Switch this May. Praise the sun!