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From Software Has Not Always Been Golden
Demon's Souls is my favorite game of the last five or six years, my favorite of this console generation, and one of my favorites of all time. It is brilliant. Brilliant enough that, as I've waited for the sequel, I've considered tracking down copies of its spiritual predecessors, the King's Field series. The price on them is high, so on needing a new game to play, I browsed my existing collection of unplayed games for one to try, and in doing so, happened upon a From Software game that I already owned: Eternal Ring. It's a first person, medieval-European, dark action-RPG, as I understand the King's Field series is, and as, with a swap of first person to third, Demon's Souls is. Why not give it a go, even if it is a bit long in the tooth?

It's easy to wonder, when a game as good Demon's Souls comes seemingly out of nowhere, why you've never heard of the company that made it before. Eternal Ring provides an easy answer to that question for From Software: you've probably never heard of From Software prior to Demon's Souls because the games they made before it were absolute shit. Actually, to be fair, and upon a trip to Wikipedia to check out their release history, they have a fair few games I've heard of, but the only one I remember playing, Lost Kingdoms, was crap. And Eternal Ring, to be certain, is absolute, absolute shit.

Let's get past the easy, obvious targets: the game is a bit old, dating back to 2000, making it a very early release for an old system. Despite this being a first person game, the analog sticks do not work, completely throwing off every instinct that I have with regards to controls. The graphics are not very good, nor are the animations, and the environments are as barren as a highway in the dessert. The music is of the sort that makes you want to reach for the mute button, or perhaps simply stab someone - preferably the composer. The soundtrack is naught but poorly written music coming out of a poor quality midi soundbank, and is looped after about four bars. Seriously, speaking technically and just in terms of listening experience, I have never heard music this bad in the post-SNES era.

The audio and visual presentations of the game have not aged well, to say the least. There are two aspects that have between little and nothing to do with age, however, that utterly kill the game. Dead-on-arrival kind of stuff that sent the game back to the case on the shelf within four hours of play time, which is minuscule for an RPG.

When I arrived on the island the game takes place on, I was given a letter and instructed to take it to some guy. It was in my inventory; I could use it, and I tried, but nothing happened. Upon making it through the intro dungeon, I found myself in a settlement. I walked up to the vice-captain of the place, and after some trial and error, figured out how to talk to him. As a note, in the world of Eternal Ring, focusing on the face is generally not the best way to start a conversation. People just plain old won't respond to you. Maybe it's a cultural thing? Perhaps they discourage eye contact? I don't know. The belt buckle or perhaps chest is a much better target; only on looking low enough on a person's body that I couldn't see their face anymore would they converse with me when I hit the "interact" button. This held true for the one and only female in the place - that is, she would only talk to me if I eschewed looking at her face to stare at her chest - which makes the world of Eternal Ring some kind of bizarro place where it's permanently opposite-day.

In any case, I talked to the vice-captain, and he took the letter from me. Remember that. I talked to him, he took the letter. He asked for my sword, for some incomprehensible fucking reason, and for some even more incomprehensible reason, I gave it to him, and then to better the irrational idiocy of even that, he gave me a letter to give to the quartermaster so that he would give me an even shittier weapon than the one the vice-captain just took from me. Sweet. At that point I walked to the quartermaster - though I didn't know it was him - and talked to him. He mentioned nothing about giving me gear. He did not take my letter. I talked to everyone in town, and found myself without a weapon and with nothing to do. I wandered into a dungeon and died. Then I read an FAQ.

It turns out that - despite the fact that, on talking to the vice-captain, he took the letter for him from me - I had to stand in front of the quartermaster, open my inventory, and then use the letter. That is completely fucking stupid, both from the standpoint of being horribly unnecessary and user unfriendly, and from the standpoint of being completely fucking inconsistent. Also, it is not a good sign when I am consulting an FAQ in the first thirty minutes, nor when I'm consulting the FAQ to figure out how to get any weapon whatsoever so that I can actually play the fucking game.

This issue struck again later when I finished the second little intro dungeon, the first real mission. I left the place in good shape and went back to town. I wandered about it for ages, not knowing where to go. The game kind of sort of pointed me toward a blue door that appeared to be locked. So I assume, as when I tried to use it, I got a text box that said "Blue door". Awesome. Sometime later, I checked my inventory again, and found that I had a blue key. I do not ever, ever recall getting it. I think I know where I did, because only one thing of consequence - a mini-boss fight - happened between me checking my inventory on returning the town and me checking it later and finding the key. They never gave me any indication that I had picked up the key. And furthermore, to open a door with it, I actually have to stand in front of the door, open my inventory, pick the key, and pick use. Sweet. That is Dragon Warrior type shit. That is Nintendo Entertainment System shit. That is 1980s shit. That is shit.

That's a pretty big kick in the nuts for the game's chances of surviving in the PlayStation for longer than it takes me to laugh uproariously. The killer, though, is the game's stupid difficulty. I mean, hey, it's one thing to pick the left fork in a road and find a room full of enemies who kill you on looking at you. It is another, however, to have your save game fucked into an unsalvageable state.

After the little intro section, there is, as far as I can tell, absolutely no way to recover all of your health and magic. None. You can use consumables to heal, sure, but if you run out, you're out. You're fucked. There is no one to buy them from, there is no one to heal you, there is no salvation. None. If you go to a save point poisoned and with half health and no magic, you load your game to find yourself poisoned and with half health and no magic. Which is, roughly, what happened to me.

I fought some stupid flying creatures who poisoned me with ease while I stared up at them. I had, on luck, acquired two poison-curing items to that point in the game. I used one, and for some incomprehensible reason, nothing happened. I used the second, and my poison was cured. Then I took several more steps and found another such creature, and was poisoned again. Poison in Eternal Ring is not a slightly painful thing that goes away after awhile. It drains your life on roughly a point-per-second basis, meaning that at my 100 life total, I had about a minute and a half to live. I had no antidotes, and I had no way of acquiring antidotes. I am pretty certain that there was literally nothing I could do to save my game. All I could do was watch as I died. Which I did. I sat and watched my life disappear, and when it hit 0, the screen went white and I was thrown back to the title screen without even the courtesy of a "Game Over".

It was at that point that I took Eternal Ring out of the PS3 and put it back on the shelf.

Recent additions

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The Mistake That is Inferno and the Auction House

Diablo 3 - Improvements, Changes, and Problems

Glen Cook - Chronicles of the Black Company

Dark Souls

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Okkervil River - I Am Very Far

Explosions in the Sky - Live 4/11/11