Why So Hostile?
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Dark Souls
Demon's Souls was perhaps the most out-of-nowhere one-of-the-greatest-games-ever of all time. If that makes sense. Even in retrospect, looking at From Software's previous titles, the absolute brilliance of Demon's Souls doesn't quite compute. They had a few games you may have heard of, but none of them were really that memorable or awesome. The King's Field games were apparently the spiritual predecessors to Demon's Souls, but you're a rare person if you've played them, and from what I gather, there really isn't an easily traceable line from the quality of those games to the perfection of Demon's Souls. But regardless of how difficult it was to see coming, Demon's Souls is one of the best video games ever made, surely the best of its generation, and probably the best of a span greater than one generation, too. It's in my top five ever, and I'm certainly not the only one who would put it there. It's an amazing game that pushes boundaries that people didn't even know existed, and moves in directions no one else thought were there.

All of that is a grand way to say that Demon's Souls (henceforth DeSo) made Dark Souls (DaSo) one of my most anticipated games ever. Its release was my version of a religion holiday, complete with the clouds parting as a single ray of sunshine illuminates the game while a fanfare of trumpets swells and all of that. It was a pretty big deal for me - and many others. And all of that is a grand way to say that evaluating DaSo can be pretty difficult. It inevitably involves comparing it to its predecessor, DeSo, even as I attempt to evaluate it on its own merits. There's a lot that I can (and will) say about DaSo, but I guess the root of it is pretty simple:

I love Dark Souls.
I hate Dark Souls.
I love Dark Souls.
I hate Dark Souls.
I love Dark Souls.
I hate Dark Souls.

It's like an abusive spouse that I keep coming back to. It's so beautiful and so amazing and treats me like no other games do and it's so oh wholly shit I fucking want to murder it I want to take it out of the PlayStation and just break the disc over my knee and I'm done playing it I'm never going to play it but I'll give it one more try because it's so awesome and so incredible and I guess I don't hate it that much after all and...

The love and the hate both come from identical and disparate sources. It's easier to start with the things that cause both love and hate, because they are the trademarks of the series.

First of all, DaSo, like DeSo, is a very, very, very fucking hard game. The kind that you will not find anywhere else. Truly. It's somewhat old school in that it demands perfection from you, and in that it can suddenly go from being absolutely goddamn fuck-this-game impossible to being trivially easy once you get the patterns down and finally figure out how to cope with this or that enemy. And it can and will go right back to being absolutely goddamn ridiculously hard once you stop taking something that has become easy seriously. The game will punish you if you're not careful, thoughtful, and cautious. It all but mandates patience, study, and calculated response.

One of the major aspects of DeSo that made the difficulty tolerable was that it was fair. Crushingly fair, even. If you rolled backwards to avoid an enemy and fell off an edge, it was because you stopped paying attention to the existence of that edge. If you got pinched by two enemies and attacked from behind, it's probably because you ran ahead too fast, screwed up your positioning, or didn't take the enemy seriously enough. The game was basically without bugs, and weapons and enemies reacted as you would expect them to. In the close quarters of a claustrophobic hall, an enormous sword that you have to swing from side to side isn't worth much, but a stabbing spear is. Everything made sense, and everything was fair. If you died, it was your fault.

In DaSo, that's true... for the most part. It becomes less true the longer the game goes on.

First of all, the game has an easily reproducible bug that bites me in the ass on a regular basis and frequently causes my death. Walk around an enemy in a circle with your shield up, by holding L1. Wait for the enemy to strike and miss, and then lower your shield by releasing L1 and swing your weapon by hitting R1. If you hit R1 at just about the time you release L1, nothing will happen. That, in and of itself, is an enormous frustration, but it won't get you killed - it'll just prevent you from getting in a strike that you should have. What will get you killed, however, is pressing L1 to bring your shield back up when an enemy is about to attack you. Instead of bringing your shield back up to save your life from an incoming blow, pressing L1 will trigger the attack that R1 never triggered. This is maddening.

It took me perhaps sixty hours to realize it, too, but this bug extends to other events, as well, such as using healing items. For the first umpteen hours that I played, I would curse the game for not drinking a potion when I told it to drink a goddamn potion, leading to plenty deaths. Eventually, I realized that the same thing was happening - I was trying to drink a potion just after dropping my shield, and thus it ended up never happening. This is not consistent behavior - you can queue up abilities while getting hit, and you can use them while your shield is up (which will drop your shield). But if you trigger the action just as your shield is dropping, you'll end up doing nothing.

I've run into a few other weird bugs that killed me, too, but they've been rare enough that they don't cause me the frustration that the one above does. That said, it is annoying when you're deep in a difficult area, loaded with souls, and you just finished killing an enormous demon on a tiny ledge far above a pit of lava, and, as you stand there, solidly on ground, he falls over at your feet, disappears, and then you are suddenly well off the ledge and falling to your death.

More annoying than one-time deaths to bugs like that, though, are some of the approaches that the game takes to generating difficulty. They remind me far more of the modern day Ninja Gaiden games, which I always felt were guilty of using cheap tactics to ratchet up difficulty. Making every enemy take twenty hits to die while at the same time making them capable of killing you in one hit makes the game harder, but it is the cheapest, laziest, easiest way to make it more difficult, and it does not make it more fun. Toward the end of the game, DaSo becomes guilty of this, too.

Witness the four-legged skeletons deep in the Tomb of the Giants. One of their attacks, should they randomly choose to use it, will deplete even the most well-equipped warrior of all their stamina, which means that there's no way to block their attacks. That, in turn, means that if you're not supremely well equipped, or even if you are and you don't have all your stamina when they start attacking, you will unavoidably get savaged, and most likely for enough damage to kill you, or come very close.

Witness perhaps the single worst part of a game, where you run up a narrow ramp to a narrow ledge with two archers shooting arrows at you the whole time. If you even so much as block one of the arrows, the knock back will knock you off of the ledge and to your instant death.

Witness the wolverine rat things in the forest, with a roll attack that will do significant damage to you, and that is, mysteriously, unblockable. Everything else in the game that I have met thus far is blockable. This appears to be a normal physical attack. Why can't I block it?

It's actually very similar to the attacks of the skeleton wheels, which roll into you, and are blockable. What's wonderful about those guys, though, is that their attacks, like those of the four-legged skeletons, will hit you again and again and again, chipping away your stamina until it's gone, unless (again) you're extremely well equipped and have plenty of stamina to spare. If they make it through your shield, they will hit you again and again until you die. That's annoying enough, but it's even more annoying when the game throws you into a valley full of them, which means that one hit - often coming from behind you, where your shield will do you no good - will stagger you, dropping your shield, leading to instant death. It's also annoying when the game throws you into a series of tight corridors filled with them, preventing you from rolling to dodge them.

It's also annoying when enemies - even bosses like Giant Ornstein, have unblockable (practically) instant-kill moves. And it's annoying when victory over bosses such as Great Wolf Sif seem to be dependent almost entirely on the luck that you have with the AI. I fought him many times. When I lost to him, he typically chose to jump around constantly and charge me again and again. The time that I beat him (and to a lesser extent, the times that I did well), he chose to stand around while I stood beneath him, raking at his stomach with my battle axe.

Most of the time DaSo is just as fair as DeSo, but too often, it feels like your death or triumph is left up to luck. It only takes one unfair encounter in an hour to ruin that hour's worth of play, and those unfair encounters seem to mount as the game rolls on. In DaSo, the creators quite obviously tried to make the game more difficult than DeSo. They succeeded, but unfortunately, I feel like they had to resort to cheap tactics like nigh-unavoidable instant-kill hits to do so. In this regard, I think that DaSo takes a bit step back relative to DeSo.


The other core component of DeSo, and DaSo, is the game's startlingly creative, asymmetrical approach to multiplayer. In most games, multiplayer is a separate mode that is entirely symmetrical. There's League of Legends, in which the map is quite really a map that can be cut down the middle to form a mirror image. There's all the various FPS games, in which deathmatch means that each team gets a nearly identical half of a map and identical weapons, and for each the goal is to kill the other. Granted, the genre has taken a big step forward in that regard in the last several years, but even with differing objectives, things still remain highly symmetrical.

In the Souls games, however, multiplayer is an integral, always-on part of the game, even though it's ostensibly a single player game. The tremendous difficulty of DaSo, like DeSo, is blunted by a number of non-traditional multiplayer features. You can view in-game hints from other players, voted on by other players. You can see short replays of the last ten seconds of an unfortunate player's life, potentially warning you of ambushes ahead. If you're stuck on a boss fight, you can summon other players to help you out. They have to be in their "dead" or "hollow" state, and you have to be in your human form, and there is no direct text or voice communication allowed between you, but they can and will help you beat bosses. If they do, they get souls, they get humanity, and, if they're in the right covenant (think guild), they get a reward, too. There are more atmospheric multiplayer touches, as well - like seeing ghostly images of players currently alive and in your area wandering by you, or seeing the statues of other players killed by being turned into stone via a curse.

But that's all fine. That's well. That's good. That's awesome. Granted, summoning players on a boss can make the fight utterly anticlimactic, but that's something you learn and react to accordingly. I usually don't call for help, unless I'm sick of the fight and want it to be done. You have no real complaints from me there.

Where I do have complaints is in the PVP aspects of the game, and particularly, with relation to the aforementioned covenants. All of it sounds so very, very, very cool on paper. I was shitting fish as I read about the many aspects and goals of various covenants. I was excited and awed. I was amazed that From Software had taken things in a direction no one else had even considered previously. When I actually got into the multiplayer in question, though, I found it to be one huge, colossal grief fest.

For example, let's take the Darkmoon Covenant. The point of the covenant is to seek out the guilty - those that have broken their covenant or have invaded other players and been indicted by them. Since you are a spirit of vengeance, the player gets no warning when they are invaded, and if you kill enough players for the Darkmoon, you get rewards. You also receive a ring, which will allow the covenant to summon you to invade someone in their home turf.

Sounds awesome, right? It does to me, anyway. I am the embodiment of vengeance! I will be rewarded for destroying the guilty!

Here's how it actually works out.

First of all, the home territory of this guild is Anor Londo, which happens to be home to a very hard boss fight. How do you take down a very hard boss? You get help from other players. How do you get help from other players? You turn human. What happens when you turn human? You open yourself to invasion from other players.

Do you see the problem here?

I was frustrated with the Anor Londo boss fight to the point of quitting the game. I decided to go human and make the two minute run from the safety of the bonfire to the boss fight, where I would summon help and hopefully win the fight. Virtually every time I attempted to do so, I was invaded by other players and killed, which means that I go from being slaughtered for hours on end by bosses to being slaughtered instantly by other players. In addition, turning human to get help takes humanity, which is rather precious and somewhat rare. The apparent solution to my frustration with the difficulty of the game was a more frustrating, more difficult problem. Which is to say, there is no solution.

To make matters even more hilarious, when I finally did open up the Darkmoon covenant for myself, I, too, put on the ring to invade other players because I, too, wanted those rewards. I became part of the problem that I hated so much. Well, in theory, anyway.

The way it went for me was something like this: I put on the ring, I wait awhile, I get summoned. I appear in Anor Londo, and as my character does his stand up animation that segues into my control of him, I notice that I am surrounded on all sides by three hostile players. They kill me inside of one second - literally - and I am returned to my world, dead. I probably spent twenty seconds loading into their world and loading out of it, and I spent two seconds playing watching my character be killed.

I keep the ring on, hoping that I will be summoned to another world, and I am, except it's the exact same fucking bullshit. Then I get summoned again, and it's back to the first guy's world again, where I die. Again. And after five or six of these instances, I take the fucking ring off and never use it again because it's fucking bullshit. People just stand around and farm summoned invaders, which goes so far beyond the reverse of the intent of the covenant that it's hard to describe it.

No matter which side of the PVP equation I am on - invader, invaded - I feel like I'm being griefed. It's a frustrating, unfair mess regardless of your position. There are more covenants, and they all have more or less the same flaws. They even accent a few other ones.

Earlier on in the game, I was part of the Forest Hunters covenant, which works in a fashion similar to the Darkmoon. Put on a ring, and when unfriendly players come into the covenant's home territory, you can get summoned to fight. I eventually racked up enough kills to get my rewards, but what I found there - in addition to the issues mentioned above - is that the people camping the forest for PVP kills were also likely to practice a very particular sort of power leveling. You only get summoned into the worlds of people within 10% of your level, but you can spend souls on gear, upgrades, and spells, in addition to leveling up. I'd often be pitted against people with similar stats to mine, but who were twice as far through the game, with armor and spells many times better than what I had, making them effectively twice my level or more.

So the amount of "fair" fights I get into (since the game is asymmetrical, and invaders have the advantage of having monsters on their team, and hosts have the advantage of using healing potions and calling other players for help, there's no such thing as truly balanced and fair, but you know what I mean) works out to roughly ten percent of the fights that I have. Even in those, though, things aren't really fair.

DeSo had some notoriously bad net code. I backstabbed people without doing any damage to them. I got hit by attacks that didn't happen. I rubber-banded around the stage, going ten steps forward, appearing backward, going ten steps forward, appearing backward. DaSo is improved, for certain, but it remains largely the same. I have been backstabbed by people I am facing. I have been hit as if my shield was down while my shield was up. Once I was backstabbed by someone in front of me that I was hitting, while I was hitting them, and it did no damage. The relative reliability of the game's mechanics go out the window when you get online. It makes me think I shouldn't even bother trying to get better at PVPing, seeing as how it's unreliable at best. Better to just luck out, get the ten kills I need to get another rank in my covenant, and then move on.

There was a certain purity to PVP in DeSo, too, that is sorely lacking in DaSo. I DeSo, being human was a relatively rare and precious thing - while dead, you had between 50% and 75% of your maximum life, along with all the other benefits like summoning other players. Being invaded really ramped up your tension, because you did not want to die while human. Even more importantly, though, invading was a big fucking deal. Invading and losing would mean losing a full level, which at best meant a long stretch of farming to get it back, and at worst meant that you lost the point of dexterity necessary to use that cool new sword. The rewards were nice - you stole their human form and their souls - but it was much about PVP as anything. You didn't do it if you weren't into the PVP. And if you invaded, you made sure you got the kill, no matter how long you had to take. You'd lure the player back into a choke point surrounded with enemies. You'd wait in that one great ambush spot. Too much was at risk to just charge in and take your chances.

In DaSo, by contrast, if you die while invaded, you lose humanity, which is annoying, as it is somewhat precious, but it can be farmed off of a variety of creatures, bought from a number of vendors, and found all over. Far, far more importantly, however, in DaSo, if you invade and you lose, you lose... nothing. Nothing. Nothing.

Can you see a problem here?

For the host, there is plenty to lose. There is relatively little to gain. For the invader, there is everything to gain, and there is nothing to lose. Why not go balls out? Why not invade non-stop? There's at least one covenant that requires ten PVP kills (you can farm an enemy for the kill tokens, but it will take ages). You have all the reason to invade, and no reason not to. The game is, unwittingly or otherwise, designed to be a grief fest. And it is. It is as badly exploited and unfun a PVP system as I have ever played in any game, anywhere, ever. I have missed lots and lots of content because I have no interest in being human because it means being invaded nonstop.

If you're human in an effort to get help on a boss, expect to be invaded constantly. If you're invading to get kills for a covenant, expect to be farmed by ridiculously out-of-your-league players. If you have a balanced, fair, interesting, tense PVP fight that doesn't end with your obliteration in two seconds, treasure the experience; it will not happen again soon.


There are other bizarre steps back, too, simple but inexplicable. In DeSo you could see that it would take 34,587 souls to level up. In DaSo, you cannot, meaning you have to guess how many souls you need to collect before leveling. How does that make any sense whatsoever? Every single person I know that has played the game has remarked on the very first occasion of being able to level up. Every goddamn one.

There are also some strategy guide or pure-dumb-luck only events, which may not be that much of a step backward from DeSo, truth be told. The convoluted actions you are required to perform - and not perform - at very specific points in very specific ways make me wonder if any human could have ever done them properly without the help of insider knowledge or a walkthrough. This is hardly unique to the Souls games (Final Fantasy, I am looking at you), but it still sucks.

And then, for the rest of the game, there are steps back for every step forward. Every positive brings with it a negative.

For example, the scope of the game is absolutely, mind-blowingly unrivaled by anything else I have ever seen, heard of, or played. Absolutely. Unrivaled. Immense. Epic. Incredible. The size and scope of the environments in the game is just unbelievable. Unbelievable. I cannot reiterate those words enough. There are plenty places in the game - Ash Lake, Anor Londo, Kiln of the First Flame - that make you just stop and stare. The graphics are incredible, the framing is incredible, the concept is incredible, the atmosphere is incredible, the scope is incredible.

But the framerate! Oh, the framerate! It is fucking amazing to look down from my ledge on a huge, arching bridge that is hundreds of feet above a shadowed, swampy pass between two walls. A pass that is hundreds of yards wide, between two walls that must be half a mile tall. It is amazing because of the scope, but it is more amazing because I can see the spiderweb shambling of rotted wooden planks and ladders that are built against one wall, leading all the way down it, into the swamp, and then up the wall on the other side. It's fucking amazing. Amazing. But the three frames per second that my Playstation 3 is getting is not amazing. It is not amazing at all.

And then there's the size of the game. I'm not sure how long DeSo took to make, but I am sure they spent as much time hammering out the engine as they did hammering out the content. DaSo, however, is basically 90% the same engine, which means that the development crew could devote the two years of development to making content, content, content. And they did. DeSo was a reasonably sized game, with probably fifteen to thirty hours worth of content on your first play through, more if you're a completionist. I am at the end of DaSo - but doing completionist-type things before I finish it - and it has taken me some ninety hours to get there. Ninety. That is immense. The world is probably five times the size of that in DeSo.

There's ten times as much armor, as many rings, as many weapons, as many spells. There's a whole new spell type - pyromancy. There are far, far, far more zones, with far more unique flavors. There are covenants. There are optional areas. There are bosses all over the place. There are secrets. There are vendors. The game is just goddamn massive.

But it almost feels too big to me. DeSo left me begging for more when it ended. I was praying for downloadable content. I am not quite done with DaSo, but I am pretty much burnt out on it. I think when I finally finish the game, I will feel relieved. I don't know that there's anything I would cut from the game, but I feel like there's almost an exhausting amount to do.

And there's the whole one huge, seamless world aspect of the game, too. DeSo had you entering five separate, distinct levels from the Nexus, your home base, your safe haven. That was where you went to level, to store items, to buy things. In DaSo, the world is one huge, enormous, seamless entity. There are absolutely no load times while traveling, which is pretty fucking impressive, and there is between little and no direction on where to go. Bonfires, scattered throughout the world, make up your mini havens. Given the proper upgrades, when you're at them, you can repair, store items, level up, and more. They're where you'll respawn when you die. They're where you restock on healing items.

Part of me misses the Nexus, the ebb and flow between killing monsters, acquiring gear, and gaining souls, and then going back to your safe house to spend those souls, level up, store items, and talk to NPCs. There is something approaching the Nexus in DaSo - another hub for NPCs - but it will not be your lone base camp. It has been broken up and scattered throughout the world. Ultimately, I do think I prefer DaSo's bonfires, but they are different, for sure.

One thing that they do allow for is an overhaul of the healing items, which is a great step forward for DaSo. In DeSo, you farmed certain mobs for healing herbs. Any time farming is an integral part of being able to progress (and healing items are necessary, which means farming was), you have a problem. In DaSo, you refill your healing flasks whenever you visit a bonfire, and if you want to spend the humanity, you can up the number of flasks you'll get each time you visit that bonfire. It's a nice system, and one that I have no complaints with.


There is plenty to love about the game, really. The level design is amazing. The graphics are incredible. The animations are incredibly lifelike. Attention to detail and little touches that make the game abound. The music - while limited - is perfect. The sound effects are excellent. The atmosphere is great. The voice acting is wonderful. What little dialog there is is perfectly crafted. The amount of technical brilliance on display in the game is nothing short of astounding, really. It feels like From Software is on a completely different level than every other game out there. Almost like they're cheating, or something. They flawlessly pull off things that other games don't even begin to attempt. The scope of their vision is daunting. DaSo is just so flat out amazing in so goddamn many regards that it boggles the mind.

In the end, there is nothing out there even remotely like Dark Souls - except for Demon's Souls. That makes it both the obvious and the only point of comparison, and it also makes it extremely hard to judge Dark Souls unto itself. I love it. I hate it. I love it. It's amazing how easily I can switch from just hating the game and wanting to snap it over my knee to wanting to prostrate myself before its brilliance - simply by writing about different parts of the game. Playing it is like an exercise in experiencing the ups and downs of a bipolar relationship. It's so incredible, but it's so frustrating. The only thing I can really say is that it absolutely requires playing. Games like this stand alone.


 
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