So much stuff has come may way this last few weeks. The Steam sale, combined with a shitload of preorders and some other titles on top of that has kept me insanely busy. But the game I am playing more than anything else is Dark Souls.
There are probably one too many blogs on the internet gushing about this game, but after jumping into it for a second time, on PC now as opposed to PS3, I just can't think of enough good things to say. It is the first open world game I have played that truly feels like a real place.
I remember when the game released, how it was constantly compared to Skyrim; an unfair comparison due to the difference in playstyle between them, but still a very interesting one. The Elder Scrolls series has always had some severe faults in my opinion. The random encounters get old and trite extremely fast, the dungeon design is lacking a lot of the time, and the combat has never been fantastic. The idea of a game that wants to do everything is great, but when it does nothing superbly well, I can't help see the glaring faults amidst the ambitious, grandoise nature of it all. And this is one place where Dark Souls never missteps due to an extreme focus and awareness of exactly what it wants to be.
The reason I could never get into Skyrim was because, although I personally use games as a form of escapism, I don't have much of an innate desire to "live" within another world. The only game that has ever done this for me remotely, and done it quite well to the point where it became an extremely memorable experience was Ultima Online. No game has done it since, and I'm not too sad about that. So while I can totally understand the idea of a totally "immersive" experience, and why that idea is such an appealing one, I will always prefer direction and polish over and above that. I think at this point, it's just too difficult to make a truly open world game that isn't slogged down with bugs, glitches, and the inherent problem of balance in its challenge. It's just all too easy to create "content" for a game of that kind by filling it to the brim with fetch quests, pointless random encounters, and other diversions that don't satisfy individually, and only serve to stretch out the time spent with the game.
But enough about games that aren't Dark Souls, I just wanted to touch on the rest of the genre momentarily to highlight what makes the game so damn good. The environments in Dark Souls are linear for the most part, but have an incredible sense of interconnection and flexibility. You can easily access points in the game you won't revisit for hours later to get a glimpse of what the game has in store in the future, you can see areas in the distance that you will not visit until much later in the game, and due to some ingenious level design, it can be very easy to travel to and from hours that are usually hours apart thanks to some clever shortcuts peppered throughout the game which are usually unlocked after exploring new areas, but which feel legitimately connected in some way; no teleporting or invisible walls here, two of the things seen in many other large games which completely bring me out of the experience as a player and remind me that I exist within the confines of an artificial world, and not a "real" one that the developers are insisting I should be experiencing.
Tonally, the game doesn't miss a beat, and knows exactly what it is from the outset; the bleak, dark age European environments are detailed every step of the way, from the moss and rust collecting on old ladders to dense foliage and misty atmosphere of the Darkroot Garden, the game is a truly beautiful thing to behold. It is ugly a lot of the time in terms of things just being jarring, spooky, or gloomy to look at, but that only serves to emphasize the few moments of awe that come with a clifftop sunset; the times you are relieved of the excessively macabre environments feel all the more satisfying when you are in peril throughout most of the game.
One thing I am finding about my second play through is that, while the game is still very difficult, now that I have gotten the hang of the controls and understand exactly what Dark Souls expects from me as a player, the challenges this time around are not nearly as intimidating. Caution is emphasized first and foremost; you are going to die. That is inevitable. But you can take the edge off by keeping a keen eye for exploration, paying attention to clues left by other players, and making sure to check every nook and cranny of the game. Keeping your souls as often as you can is essential, so you will always want to play it safe; it is easy to get cocksure and get killed in an area which you normally breeze through just because you weren't being careful or paying attention; stats and armor mean nothing if they are in the hands of a sloppy player, so the difficulty always feels fair in some sense. There are parts of the game that are just overwhelming, but many of the bosses have hooks and tricks you can use to easily bypass them; techniques that will become apparent to the more observant players, but which will completely bypass people who are used to a run 'n gun experience. I have seen more than one awful "Let's Play" of the game where players were screaming in frustration like mental patients with severe personality disorders because the game wasn't guiding them by the hand and patting their butt along the way. Dark Souls is a mature game in the truest sense of the word, and not in the way the word is used now; blood, violence, and sex are mutually exclusive to maturity if used in context aimed towards pre-pubescent teens.
That being said, I can completely understand the division between the audience who embraces and loves Dark Souls, and the audience who thinks it is "overrated"; it would be arrogant to say that the former is more well informed and enlightened for recognizing what a masterpiece the game is; it is an experience for the few that has managed to capture the attention of many. And the inherent challenge the game has become notorious for is something that has piqued the interest of the curious, causing them to want to share the experience with others. Despite being fairly niche, Dark Souls has become something of a water cooler discussion game; it's as fun to talk and reminisce about as it is to actually play, and that is a testament to its uniqueness in a market gone wrong. It's also one of the few titles out there today where the online play doesn't simply feel tacked on, but is rather an integral part of the experience, and one that meshes perfectly well with the single player component of the game without being invasive or necessary. As someone who prefers single player games, it is nice to be able to play the game while still feeling some sense of connection to other players. The loneliness the game exudes can sometimes feel quite overwhelming, so it is a small comfort to know others are facing the same challenges, and are willing to leave a fragment of their experience behind for others like myself to make the journey just a bit more palatable and easy to deal with.
Despite the upcoming sequel, I think it's important for people to give Dark Souls a try. For me, it was a game changing experience, one that transformed my expectations of a genre I had long felt was becoming stale in many respects. I was one of the few people out there who was completely disenchanted by the likes of Skyrim and Dragon Age, both being journeys that were dissimilar to others, but familiar in comparison to their predecessors. That isn't to say I thought either of them were bad; I just wanted something new, something different, and Dark Souls delivered where no other game has. And nearly two years after playing it for the first time on Playstation, and stopping due to a growling lack of access to that console, I am finally back in the game, this time with my full attention given on the PC. And my opinion of the game hasn't changed; I am actually even more fond of it now than I was back then.
A superb game, and hopefully, a superb franchise once the second one finally hits store shelves. I am skeptical it can live up to the original just because a part of the appeal for me is the uniqueness of the play style overall. This will be the third visit to the Souls game "system", and I think you can only strike gold so many times before your ax starts to chip and the experience becomes stale. But for what it's worth, Dark Souls will always stand out to me as one of the best games I have ever had the pleasure of playing, and no amount of botched sequels can tarnish that.