I don't think there's another game in recent memory that disappointed me as much as Dark Souls. I guess there was Catherine, and that was probably worse, but other than that, Dark Souls has to be one of the most disappointing games I've played in a long time.
I mean, I rate Demon's Souls right up there with Persona 3 and Persona 4 as one of my favorite games of all time. So to have another favorite developer put out a follow-up like this is just downright depressing, and in such close succession too.
But as it turns out, there aren't that many people who share my opinion of Dark Souls. Evidently, Dark Souls is so awesome that it's only like one of the best games around. Or something like that. I don't fucking know.
And I can't understand why people like the game so much. I have to assume that most of them just never played Demon's Souls and aren't aware of how much better that game is. Because if they had, I would imagine you wouldn't hear people talking about how 'this game is sorta like Dark Souls' or 'well, Dark Souls did this in a really interesting way' like Dark Souls was the first game to ever do all this shit. Obviously that's just wishful thinking on my part, but that's how I keep from losing sleep at night.
It's straight-up frustrating, because Demon's Souls did pretty much everything Dark Souls does before it and better. But lets see if I can effectively enumerate what makes Demon's Souls the better game, rather than just hurl idle insults at it.
The thing about Demon's Souls that's so great is that it's hard, but it's hard without resorting to lame, half-hearted gimmicks. The difficulty mostly comes from learning how to finesse your way through the combat. If you can get good at the combat, then you're not likely to have much trouble getting through the game, with the exception of the odd environmental hazard here and there, and a few enemy types. The game is very rarely cheap. If anything, the game has a much greater propensity for letting you lame your way around its challenges than the other way around.
Another of the game's better qualities is the levels are designed in a very intuitive fashion. By the time you make it to the boss room at the end of the level, you will have opened a shortcut that lets you bypass a significant portion of the level, should you die on the boss or decide to warp back to the Nexus. So while the levels can be quite long and labyrinthine, they do a fairly good job of separating the level proper from the boss encounters, which is an awfully nice thing of them to do for a game with such a grizzly reputation.
Having the Nexus connecting the five areas, broken up into sub-levels makes a great excuse to have a fast travel system. You can essentially teleport from any one area that you've already explored to the other with a great deal of ease.
Demon's Souls has much less in the way of customization when compared to Dark Souls. You've got your player's stats, rings, armor, weapons and weapon upgrades, and that's about it. As it stands though, each of those options has tangible benefits attached to it. The difference between being soul level ten and soul level thirty are noticeable at first blush, as is the difference between a rapier and a +2 crescent rapier. Having weapon damage attached to player stats makes increasing your soul level all the more important and useful. In that way, specializing is rewarded, rather than penalized.
Yet, at the same time, it doesn't take half the game for you to find a bow and arrow. If you know what you're doing, you can have just about everything you could want in the way of gear within the first few levels. So assuming specializing isn't your bag, you can spread out your stats and all of your weapons will be effective for killing enemies.
Speaking of which, when you shoot an enemy with an arrow, it actually does something, which is a good thing I think. While it gives you the option of being cheap with the game by exploiting enemy alarm states resetting at certain doorways, it also allows you the option of focusing on archery. And that's good. Demon's Souls is very much in the vein of Dungeons and Dragons in the amount of freedom its mechanics allow. You don't have to worry about what way you spec your character.
So long as you know how to use your equipment, you don't have to worry about bows being useless or certain kinds of magic being woefully underpowered. I mean, you might really get your heart set on using the hands of god seriously in combat, and you might end up disappointed with that, but most of the weapons, or at least types of weapons you get in the game can be competitive.
This game's version of the Estus flask, the various moon grasses, are always in overabundance. Now you might think that this would make the game too easy, since you can heal all the time, but it really never was a detriment to the game play. You can heal in the middle of a fight if you're good. You really have to plan your timing if you're going to actually try and do it though, since you're liable to get yourself killed doing it, not unlike with the Estus flask in Dark Souls.
But outside of battle you can heal to your heart's content, meaning you can go into almost every enemy encounter with full health. And given how lethal the enemies in these games are, I feel like that's perfectly fair. This is probably the one point I've made here that comes down to personal preference, but I feel like there is this zen-like quality to the combat in Demon's Souls that just isn't there in Dark Souls. Every enemy encounter is evenly pitched, with both sides coming in with full health and a reasonable shot at winning. And I think that's so cool. Certainly cooler than the alternative.
And if fending off black phantom skeletaurs in shrine of storms on a naked run on new game plus plus plus under black world tendency wasn't hardcore enough a challenge for you, you could always take to setting up duels, which was an eminently doable, though albeit somewhat cumbersome, affair.
First on the list of annoyances is the environmental hazards. The developers apparently decided that the occasional cheap trick wasn't good enough, and built entire areas of the game around having certain items just to merely survive.
Now, this is going to be a running theme in this article. This idea wouldn't be as stupid as it is in a vacuum; it smacks of Metroid even at first blush. But when you pair it with the open world design, with the bonfires and all that, it sticks out like a sore thumb. It's like they set out to make the game harder without even a second consideration as to weather it would make the game suck, which is exactly what I think they did.
The open world structure is a cheap line of lazy game design. They wanted to make the game harder, and I can deal with that. But they didn't make the game harder. They made it bad. And there's a real difference there. Having your game be hard is a difficult trick to pull off because most generally, people only react well to fair challenges, not cheap garbage, and the open world is one of many ways that Dark Souls is cheap garbage, as opposed to being genuinely difficult.
It only serves to artificially pad out the length of the game by making you backtrack all the way back to Firelink from the first bell tower, and then back to Firelink again from the second bell tower. Now think about that for a minute. How much backtracking is there between Quelaag and Firelink? Is that a fun round trip to make the first time? The answers to those questions are 'way the fuck more than there should be' and 'absolutely not.'
Now, advocates for Dark Souls might suggest that the open world design 'encourages exploration.' That's kind of like saying that the level design in Bullet Witch encourages you to approach enemy encounters from different angles. You're just putting a pleasant spin on a bad situation. I'm not entirely convinced that the level design in either of those games encourages you to do anything other than put a loaded gun in your mouth. Believe it!
All of the customization options make next to no difference to your character. Part of the problem is that there's just too many of them. You can level up your armor, which just seems like a complete wash. They brought weapon leveling over from Demon's Souls, but seems completely pointless when you take into consideration the fact that your drake sword is pretty much the most powerful thing your going to come into possession of until you get the lightning spear.
The covenants are all completely pointless. And, what's more, they are just another lazy trick to try and fool you into thinking the game is deeper than it actually is. You spend all this time wandering around Lordran, thinking to yourself, 'man, self, I can't wait to get into the gravelord servant covenant. I bet it's gonna be so rad. I'm gonna make out with that sexy beast Nito and have all his babies.' only to come to find out that all you get is a useless sword, a useless spell, and a second, slightly more convoluted way of invading other players' games. And that's one of the more exciting covenants you can join.
Another point, arrows do absolutely jack shit for damage, except, of course, when it's the black knight archers in Anor Londo shooting at you. (Am I right fellas?) The game straight-up funnels you into a couple different specializations, fire magic in particular and lightning magic when that doesn't work. Everything outside of the few overpowered specializations are completely ineffectual by comparison. And there's nothing fun about that. How is that any fun at all? I mean, they technically added all these spells and equipment, but hardly any of them are worth using. That's just depressing is what that is.
The Estus flask is another example of the lazy, cheap game design. As though it wasn't already bad enough that they convoluted a sleekly streamlined world design into one huge backtracking quest, they decided to impede that backward progress further by killing you every now and then simply by virtue of the fact that you didn't have enough healing items on your person between bonfires. If They hadn't fumbled the level design, it might have worked. But between those two additions, the gameplay is almost slower than watching paint dry, and nearly half as fun.
The online is just a complete mess. There's no good reason for them to have changed it from Demon's Souls. Word on the street is that they wanted to obfuscate the online component intentionally, so that friends couldn't simply get together and do what we all already know they were going to do with it anyway (i.e. get on skype and place summon marks until something finally works.)
Now, it's obvious that they were basically working toward the same end with Demon's Souls' online component, and it worked well enough. It's kinda tricky to get together with your friends in Demon's Souls, not impossible, but tricky nonetheless. It's never a pain in the ass though. And I don't particularly care for games being a pain in the ass.
At the end of the day, Dark Souls isn't the worst game ever made, probably not even third worst. But for being the followup to Demon's Souls, it's just downright depressing to see how abjectly inferior it is. The fact that the game has generated so much buzz behind it only serves to baffle and frustrate me, as people who never played Demon's Souls praise the pseudo-sequel for the poor choices its developers made. On the one hand, I'm glad people are even playing these games at all. But on the other hand, why the hell couldn't it have been Demon's Souls instead?
It just goes to show that there's no such thing as a meritocracy, especially in video games. Have you ever noticed how nobody talks about how brilliantly designed White Knight Chronicles is, even though they're always talking up Dark Souls and won't shut up about Ni No Kuni? I have. But there's no accounting for taste. If there was, then Cavia wouldn't have been shut down after releasing their greatest game yet. Real men would play real man games like Demon's Souls and wouldn't be so preoccupied by posturing that they are blind to the fact that just because Dark Souls is hard doesn't make it good.
I'm not even saying people should hate Dark Souls or anything. Like I said, it's not that bad of a game. I just wish they were a little more nonplussed by it's less than savory qualities. I'm definitely not looking forward to what the next game in the now venerated Souls series is going to look like when everyone around me seems so enamored with the time wasting tricks and artificially inflated difficulty. I can't imagine how the next game will be very much fun to play.