dark souls – a masochists’ gathering

Demon’s Souls is a Japanese RPG that came out of nowhere. Its developer, From Software, was famous only for a few niche titles such as King’s Field and Armored Core series. Their most recent releases, like Enchanted Arms, Chromehound and Ninja Blade, received lukewarm reactions at best and were quickly forgotten except for a few small, dedicated groups of gamers.

And then it came. A PS3 exclusive role-playing game with a different kind of online mechanic and a focus on tough-as-nails difficulty. While I’m not saying those other games developed by FS didn’t have their own quirks and differentials much like Demon’s Souls did, nevertheless it was this one which finally put the company under the spotlights. And I found myself mostly agreeing with all the praise the game received, as it was overall quite a unique and enjoyable experience in its entirety, despite some shortcomings.

Needless to say, I was excited for Dark Souls.

In many ways Dark Souls didn’t change too much from its predecessor. As soon as I started the game, HUD was pretty familiar and so were the basic move sets. A few hours later some of the most basic differences became apparent, such as the plunging attack, or run-n-jump. Being somewhat experienced in Demon’s Souls, it didn’t take too long to get used to the new controls without noticing anything too broken, which is good. But much like in the previous game, the clunky, mechanized feel of the controllers bothered me a little considering it’s an action-oriented game. For all of you who like exaggerated counterarguments, I wasn’t expecting an improvement close to the levels of God of War, Devil May Cry or Ninja Gaiden… but considering the amount of enemy pattern learning, and timing your dodges, and defending, and measuring your attacks, and gauging your stamina depletion, and the fact that you not only fight against NPCs but other human players who also take all of the above in consideration…*takes a breather* With that level of action-y gameplay, I’d expect some more polished controls. It’s not game breaking, mind, just mildly annoying.

One of the biggest and better changes to the game was the level design. Demon’s Souls was largely praised for it, and yet Dark Souls still managed to take it up to another level (unintended pun). In the previous game, we had amazingly designed worlds, which were isolated from each other, making it look disconnected and your progress feel mechanical. Now, we still have the same quality of levels, except they’re all interconnected, thus the world feels much more natural, nonlinear, and overall it makes more sense. Not to mention you never know just where they’ll take you, like when you are suddenly transported to Anor Londo, or when you find out that there’s even more areas to explore after The Sewers and Blighttown. And while we’re on this subject, it’s worth mentioning the bonfires, safe spots slash checkpoints, and the Estus Flasks, your main healing method which can only be replenished at said bonfires. The areas are HUEG, bonfires are sparsely scarce, the game is still as unforgiving as ever, and all that helps create a new feeling of tension. It’s not just “oh man, I have this many souls, I hope nothing bad will jump on me out of that corner” anymore, but also “oh man, I have this many souls and have been in this place since forever, I could be this close to a bonfire, I can’t die just yet”. Here, every step makes you feel more determined to survive, and it feels pretty damn rewarding when you succeed… in not dying. It’s just not the same with shortcuts that take you back to the initial area of a world in Demon’s Souls.

One thing that I immediately missed as I began playing Dark Souls was the World/Character Tendency mechanics or anything similar. I really enjoyed fooling around with it in order to look for unique events and happenings. Unfortunately nothing similar came as a substitute, instead you are introduced to something completely different: convenants. It’s common to see in guilds in MMORPGs or clans in online shooters, and the convenants are something like that in DS. Might sound strange, having clans in an online game whose focus is not direct player interaction. What it actually does is give the players a secondary objective, an incentive to try playing online more often (they are not required for online play, though). There are convenants that’ll tell you to invade helpless players, while in others you’ll be invading the invaders and bring them to justice. If you like coop better, there are those for you too (Praise the Sun!), and if you like to screw other players without invading them, guess what you’re in luck. The downside of this mechanic is the lack of rewards for increasing your rank in the convenant.

Graphic-wise, the game stepped up in terms of lighting, reflections and color schemes. Demon’s Souls was mostly drab and dark in order to create a depressing and lifeless atmosphere, but let’s be honest it just wasn’t pretty to look at. Sure, cute looking stages wouldn’t fit at all with what the developers were trying to convey, but Dark Souls went for the obvious yet effective solution: diversity. Darker tones still rule, but every now and then you’ll there’s an exception to that, like the greenery that surround Firelink, the bright red colors of Demon’s Ruins and Lost Izalith, the annoyingly slippery… I mean, the blue-filled Crystal Caves, or the sun-blessed bright Anor Londo. Unfortunately, I can’t praise the graphics too much because of one of the worst problems with this game: frame rate drops. It’s very much noticeable (heck, sometimes it can get to near freezing the game), and it usually happens in the worst situations possible, like when you’re surrounded by enemies. Very irritating.

Similar to Demon’s Souls, the story and music are very minimalistic. I have mixed feelings on the former, since I’ve grown to dislike overexposed plots in movies, anime or games. On the other hand, it’s kinda hard to properly grasp the events of the game without talking to every NPC dozens of times, and then go back to talk to then again whenever you think you have done some random achievement that’ll unlock another piece of dialogue. As for the music, I didn’t really like it… how to explain it? I liked some of those boss tracks and whatnot, and I disliked all those other moments when no music was on. I understand the need to establish a depressive, aggressive and/or solitary atmosphere, but my amateurish opinion says it could be done with subtle, non-intrusive pieces just as good (or even better) than leaving no sound playing at all.

Dark Souls had many positives and many negatives during the 60 hours that took me to finish the first run. In the end, I felt like the goods outweighed the bads, and my experience was more enjoyable than frustrating, similar to Demon’s Souls. But if someone asked me if which of the two games was better, I’d promptly answer “I dunno” and proceed to make a speech out of what I just wrote in this post, without ever giving them a straight answer. …Well, I’ve wasted too much time typing all this, so I’ll see you all later in Lordran for some…

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