I don’t know much about game reviews, except that they’re generally useless. Or at least that’s how they were when I stopped reading them, which was years ago. On top of that, after all the words I’ve already written, I should hope it’s clear enough whether or not I enjoyed the game.
At the same time, I can’t help myself from critiquing the things that I experience. So I like to think about what I would do if I had been a game’s director. And it’s a good thing I’m not, because I’m also well aware that I would make games that nobody else would want to play.
Dark Souls has an interesting, fairly well-realized world with plenty of atmosphere and personality. While graphically it is hampered by the constraints of last-gen consoles, it has a distinct and cohesive art style. That, combined with imaginative area designs, help it stand out despite how generic it seems at first. Dark Souls also has weighty combat mechanics that make encounters feel meaningful (at first), and a wonderfully minimalist plot that is nearly optional, which is something that I particularly enjoyed.
For me, though, it was hampered as much as it was helped by the non-linear parts, something that I’ll get into later.
Mostly I would have fleshed some of the areas out, but I imagine that the developers would have as well, if they’d had the resources. Specifically, Demon Ruins, Lost Izalith, and parts of Undead Burg (it seems like there are a lot of paths that go nowhere down there), Tomb of the Giants (I wanted more!), and Ash Lake.
It would also have been nice if a couple of the environments were more interactive, but that would damaged the sense of decay in Lordran. Still, it might have been interesting to find a small enclave or band of non-Hollowed Undead to work against, or maybe even one that had decided to make themselves a little kingdom. There are many references to a cavalcade of adventurers passing through Lordran near and around the protagonist, but we never get to see them. Sure, some of that is Gwyn’s time warping, but even that should amount to the same thing. It shouldn’t have been a constant thing, but it would have been a good contrast to the rest of the game.
For example, having another frequent invader like Kirk, but with a more interactive persona, like Marvellous Chester. Being invaded by him a few times, and then meeting him at the end of an area as a talking NPC would have been neat. It would have been nice to use more of the online components in the singleplayer game like that. They could even leave Orange Guidance Soapstone messages as taunts before invading–or, even better, their invasions would be slightly randomized, to add a bit of flavour.
That would have taken a lot of extra work, and maybe I was just feeling that way because I played offline and didn’t have regular human invasions to deal with.
Though bosses are particularly sad, every enemy in the game is as dumb as a brick, which is a problem when they’re what I spent most of my time fighting. As with the bosses, normal enemies only have a couple of attacks, and most of those are pretty bad. Enemies are dangerous primarily because they do a lot of damage or are an unknown quantity, not because they are smart. Generally, that’s just how action-RPGs work, so it wasn’t much of a surprise, but it was disappointing.
To make matters worse, almost every enemy is fought one on one, and those that aren’t are usually pathetic to begin with. In both starting areas, the Graveyard and Undead Burg, as well as the Catacombs and Undead Parish, it was common to fight small groups of skeletons and Hollowed, even in the Depths and the upper parts of Blighttown there were times where enemies came in pairs or trios, but soon after, that stopped. Of course, the flip side of is that, as a non-linear game, a lot of backtracking is required, so it would quickly become tedious to have to keep thinking every time the player was just passing through.
I suspect the developers realized that was a problem, because it was changed for the better in the DLC. Those monsters had much more aggressive move sets, and would also pull in groups, so that trying to fight one meant fighting his buddies as well. That was fun and exciting, because individually they were pretty worthless. It also made all of those weapons with broad, sweeping attacks seem feel more useful, compared to fighting a single enemy that isn’t moving around enough to require extra effort to hit.
At the very least, sub-bosses, like the Black Knights, should have had more dangerous, intelligent, and aggressive personas.
There is no getting around this: the bosses in Dark Souls are its weakest link. It was almost always a let down to arrive at the end of a dungeon only to be faced with weak-willed and flaccid opposition. It didn’t help that the first real boss I faced was Pinwheel, who is a true sad sack even by Dark Souls standards, but after that it didn’t get much better.
The Taurus Demon was not a great threat, even though I didn’t use plunging attacks on him. Sure, I had the benefit of my time in the Catacombs, but I still didn’t know what I was doing (if I did, I might have used said plunging attacks), so I didn’t exactly make good use of my advantages. After that was the fight with the Gargoyles, and I’ll admit that I died a fair few times to them, but then I was still finding my feet and wasn’t doing much with my upgrades. The problem was that almost every subsequent boss was easier than the last, with only Sif putting up a fight (and killing him when I was so weak was where I decided my approach for the rest of the game) before Anor Londo, and nothing at all being much of a challenge afterwards.
Even without their ease, the real problem was that they’re dull and stupid, which is unfortunate because there were some neat designs with evident personality. They’re marred by only having 2 or 3 attacks and very simple patterns, so that there ends up being little to the fights except finding the easiest to exploit attack and then running it into the ground. Most other games will mix those weaknesses in amongst escalating patterns of more difficult attacks, but Dark Souls has bosses that are just big damage sponges with better stats.
What I think is missing is any sort of creativity about the fights themselves. Other games will try to make a boss a set-piece for a unique or interesting mechanic. There were weak attempts at this, but they’re few and far between. I’m thinking of Seath, who had that crystal keeping him alive–in any other game I would have broken it, been able to do some damage, and then it would have reformed, probably on the other side of the room, and each time it reformed it would be more difficult to break, and he would protect it with more ferocity. In Dark Souls I break (or he breaks it) once, and then it’s a straight fight for the rest of it. There was the Ornstein and Smough fight, which had multiple opponents and a second stage, but those guys were also on the simple side, and didn’t do enough to work together. The fight with Gwyndolin was unique, but optional, and still could have used a little something extra. Same with Crossbreed Priscilla. As I said, other bosses are simply larger than normal monsters that have extra HP, and that only worked a few times (Gwyn, Artorias, Manus).
For most practical purposes, there is little difference between many of the bigger bosses: the Stray Demon, Demon Firesage (which I’ll admit are just palette swaps anyway), Taurus Demon, Quelaag, Gaping Dragon, Iron Golem, and to an extent Sif, are all too similar in their tactics, their only differences being how they look and their stats. Once I’d fought one, there was no need to develop a different strategy for the others, aside from paying attention to their own unique attack. It’s not that they don’t have differences, but compared to the difference between Gwyn, Gwyndolin, and Priscilla, they don’t amount to much. I was not forced to develop new skills and tactics as the game went on.
It would also have been nice to have a couple of bosses who had more presence in their areas. I thought the bridge Drake in Undead Burg would be that way, but it only shows up once, and then ends up being an optional (and awful) fight. I went all the way to Anor Londo convinced that the Drake would show up again for a real fight, but it never did, and it turned something memorable into a forgettable bit of scenery–do most players even bother killing it, or do they just shoot its tail off and leave it alone for the rest of the game? Nothing comparable happens for the rest of the game, either.
I’ll allow that the way the game is designed around death may have prevented the developers from going all-out. The surprise of a multi-staged, multi-area boss is lost when the first couple of stages have to be repeated many times, and how does that work if the monster is wrecking the environment? The closest the game came to that was Bed of Chaos, which many seem to think is the worst boss in the game. It’s certainly the strangest, with how each stage carries over if the player dies. (It probably would have worked better if instead of dropping the player to their deaths, the boss flung them away to a different area, so that they would have to fight their way back to the boss, maybe going through a Daughter of Chaos each time.)
This will seem strange after all of that, but there were also fewer bosses than I wanted. I could have done with more unique sub-bosses, and more area bosses as well, optional or not. Just sticking a big knight in the corner isn’t quite enough. It’s a scatter-shot solution, but more of them would also mean a higher chance of another Nito, even if that also meant another Ceaseless Discharge.
As the DLC was much denser and had more varied and interesting boss encounters, I assume the developers are in partial agreement with me. I know nothing about Dark Souls 2, but I would expect plenty more bosses in general, and for them to have more variety.
First, there was the Resistance trap, which I was fine with; I expected it. Not every stat is going to be useful for every build, and not every stat is going to be useful at all. It’s like that in every game.
For the most part, stats had a decent give and take. Investing in something felt like an investment, and the decisions felt somewhat meaningful. I made a build without being able to plan ahead, and it was far from optimal, but I don’t hold that against the game.
There is one stat (well, it’s a sub-stat) that I didn’t like very much, and that was weight.
The problem wasn’t that weight existed and was a thing, nor was it that being encumbered slows the player down and alters their roll animation. It was that, more than any other stat, weight was too negative. Being encumbered is always bad, and the game tries to relate that with poise (heavier armour has more poise), but even that was something that could be corrected, in time. Want to walk around with Havel’s set? Sure, you can do that, and if you wear the right rings and pump some iron to raise your Endurance, you can do it will still rolling around like a ninja.
What I would have liked is for weight to actually make me heavier. This is related to poise, deflection, and stability, so maybe adding another sub-stat in there would be too complicated, but it was something that bothered me in a few situations.
When I was going through Demon Ruins for the first time and fighting all of those Taurus Demons, what got to me was how they smacked me around even while I was blocking. My initial assumption was that heavier shields with more stability would do more than just reduce my stamina loss. The problem was that even with a solid shield, if I block an attack I still get knocked half way across the room. There were slightly different animations, but the effect was the same: I would be too far away to retaliate. Stability doesn’t help, poise doesn’t help–I’m not being hit, after all–but what if weight did? What if how heavy I was changed how far I could be knocked back? In that case, it would be beneficial, in some situations, to be heavy. I know I’m supposed to just roll instead, but it would be nice to have an alternative.
It could even have been a factor of poise itself, which seems to be somewhat neglected at times. If a player is planning to block and roll instead of trading hits, poise is less relevant, so instead of making weight itself the factor for knockback resistance, poise could be something that helps a player stand strong while taking hits, but also while holding their shield.
That’s a pipe dream, though, so it’s not something I expect to change in Dark Souls 2 or Bloodborne.
I don’t mean damage scaling on weapons, or the soft caps every stat has, I mean scaling the enemies and areas.
Perhaps I’ll come off as a masochist, and perhaps this is entirely my own fault for playing the game how I did, but I enjoyed the Catacombs, from a pure gameplay perspective, more than any other area aside from some bits of the DLC and Tomb of the Giants. Going through that place at the beginning was hard, and that’s what I like. I wouldn’t have been turned off if the rest of the game had ended up being just as difficult.
This is something I always struggle with in games like this, ones that give me the chance to take forks to different areas. Inevitably, one of those areas is meant to be first, and is designed to be the easiest. For me, that’s not interesting. If every area had a little colour-coded sign outside telling me what its terror alert status was, I would surely head for the most dangerous every time, as long as I could actually beat it (no passages that can’t be accessed till later in the game, like the golden doorways which require the Lordvessel to pass). The problem with that is going from hard, to medium, to easy only makes the contrast greater. Should I assume that every area is designed to be as difficult as possible for a character of a certain level, and tackle them like that? Even if I do, how am I supposed to know which is which before doing them? I could sample the enemies, but as I think I’ve demonstrated, it takes more than getting gang molested by a bunch of invincible skeletons that can kill me in 2 hits to turn me around.
I know that I missed out on things that were supposed to be really tough, like the Capra Demon in Lower Undead Burg. By the time I got to him, I killed him and his dogs in 1 hit. Would I have enjoyed that more if I’d gone straight to him while still relatively weak? Certainly. Just as I’d have had more fun with Blighttown if I wasn’t already packing all the tools I needed to breeze through it.
At a certain point, I should expect the game to catch up with me, but that never quite happened. Nothing I did compared to the Catacombs, or going through Tomb of the Giants with crappy gear and no light. Expecting it to would have been setting the bar much too high, but that’s only because of the way the game is designed, with non-linear branching paths and no scaling.
I felt let down when, after a while, each new monster was smashed to a pulp before it could even do anything to me.
I think it would have been interesting if the game accounted for the fact that players can go through it via different routes. Even if it was a flat scaling like Diablo 3’s former Inferno difficulty, where every area is as tough as every other other, in terms of monster levels. That could have been a new game+ option.
Ideally, going one route would cause the others to compensate. It seemed especially necessary because there is less and less indication of which area is next as the game goes on. Sure, Undead Burg before the Catacombs, but Tomb of the Giants or Lost Izalith? Duke’s Archives or New Londo Ruins? What ends up happening is that I get to the boss fight that I liked the most (Nito), but I’m so far ahead of it that I smash through on my first try. What if for every Lord Soul I acquired, the other bosses deployed extra defences and toughened themselves up?
That sort of thing would take careful balancing, and many would hate it. It removes the benefit of casual grinding, which is a problem. If a player can’t tackle an area with their current gear and their own skills, how will they feel if leaving it for later only made it that much more impossible? From what I’ve heard, games with scaling monsters, outside of loot-based ARPGs like Diablo, are not very popular with players, and making it an optional “hard mode” would only rub it in the faces of those who felt like completionists.
Finally, there’s new game+. I’ve only played a bit of it, but I looked up the differences and apparently it’s nothing more than extra HP and more damage for enemies. I find that strange, because Dark Souls seems like a game that encourages repeat plays with the same character. I would have loved to see them do what the Tales games or the Ninja Gaiden games do, where new game+ means bosses have new attacks, enemies are in different formations and locations, and new dungeons and bosses become available. What if new game+ Pinwheel had a couple of giant skeletons in there with him? Would make him a bit less of a joke at least.
But again, that’s a lot of work, so it’s not something I expect many games to do–especially when they’ve been somewhat rushed. (I know there are the Gravelord Covenant’s black phantoms, but even those are just monsters with even higher HP and damage, and getting infected with a curse is not a sure thing.)
Suffice it to say, I’m not that big a fan. It feels like Monster Hunters, but with fewer options, which I didn’t like. I get that it works for most people, but too much of how the weapons and actions worked seemed to be based on things that I wasn’t doing, like PvP. There was a lot of wasted space on my controller, buttons I never pressed and never felt the need to press. I’m not expecting even simple Ninja Gaiden movelists, but it would have been nice to have a couple more moves.
It also goes back to the AI being dumb as a bag of rocks. The vast majority of enemies are simply zoned, baited into whiffing something with lots of recovery frames, and then stabbed or clobbered. If there had been more variance in how they fought, there might have been more variance in how I fought back, but I doubt that just because of the type of player I am. I tend to bulldoze AI with whatever is most effective for me, and only mix things up when I’m forced to by circumstances. Thing is, I was almost never forced to mix things up in Dark Souls–though I did go out of my way to try some new things, for the sake of experimenting.
There were 3 basic weapons and tactics that I used throughout the game. My spears, my club, and my great hammers and ultra greatswords. The spear was all about baiting attacks and then using my range to punish them. The club was all about baiting attacks and then using the jumping overhead heavy attack to punish them. The big hammers and swords were all about baiting attacks and then using the heavy smashes to punish them. (Or, as I got further into the game, just killing my enemies before they could do anything at all.) The only difference between each weapon was which attacks I was able to punish and how many hits it took to kill things. (There were also occasions where the opening provided was big enough that I would just go 2-handed and whack away, but those were few and far between.) If the game doesn’t stop me from doing that type of thing, I will just keep doing it. That’s how it’s done in fighting games, and I have trouble shaking that off, even against AIs.
Would I have liked it more if I’d done some PvP? Probably not. I’ve watched some videos of PvP and it doesn’t look very interesting to me, but does look like there’s plenty of lag involved. That’s not my bag. Nothing wrong with people who enjoy it, though.
Thing is, I don’t just want more moves for the sake of it. Like I said, I will happily use whatever works forever, because it works. Giving me extra options won’t change that. It’s a 2-way street, so my enemies would need more as well. Which goes back to improving the AI, or at least giving them more they can do.
That’s about all I can think of to say about Dark Souls. Again, it’s a good game. I have heard that Dark Souls 2 is an easier game, which is too bad, but I still look forward to playing it after the DLC is out.