After taking a break for a few months while I finished off university and decided where I was going next (most likely getting a job to fund a part-time MA in Museum studies if anyone was wondering) I’ve been looking for an opportunity to have another go at writing a blog. My past efforts have been a mixed bag but with Gamescom happening and the threat of further Dark Souls III information looming over the horizon I thought I’d give my thoughts on the series; especially since discussion of the Souls games has become entirely one sided. I’m about to give the series the most damning piece of criticism it has received in the last few years, so you may want to brace yourselves: I really don’t see what all of the fuss is about.
Admittedly this intro still gives me the chills, if I was to give the series one last chance I think I'd return to where it all started.
Firstly, I want to point out that I was playing Souls games (and listening to that band you like) before it was cool. Demon’s Souls was one of the first games I got for my PS3, and I played it for a good 30 hours, so I don’t think it’s bad by any means. However, pre-empting the person angrily typing that 30 hours is nowhere near long enough to have an opinion of a Souls game, the fact I didn’t finish it just shows that I didn’t find it all that compelling. I lost interest in Demon’s Souls after 3 or 4 particularly disappointing boss fights (in particular I remember a particularly dull fight with a monk and a giant demon/dragon thing that was essentially a QTE) had all meant that I had progressed from a series of dank, poorly lit ruins to more dank, poorly lit ruins. Some may call this an oppressive atmosphere, I call it dull. Like many, I had also appreciated the increased difficulty, but the novelty soon wore off. Eventually the combat became a slog; I would squat behind a shield and poke at things when there was an opening. When I play hard games I like things like Murumasa’s 1HP difficulty level, or games like Ys the Oath in Felghana. Fast paced fighting which allows me to take the initiative in combat, whilst still involving learning a boss’ tells and punishing over extension. Finally, Super Metroid/Zero Mission are probably my favourite games- I enjoyed the non-linear focus and exploration, but much like my issue with Metroid Prime I don’t feel that this mode of gameplay translates well into 3D, which necessitates that games slow down and further added to my slog-like impression of the game.
My experience with Dark Souls itself is in fact minimal. When I hadn’t liked its predecessor why would I have bought it? My friend however did buy it and get quite into it, and I watched him play the bulk of the game when we met up on an evening, what I saw and what little I played did nothing to really change my opinion, although the environments were at least more interesting. When Dark Souls II came out however the decision was made to try and win me over, he again bought the game and with a cruel glint in his eye he decided that I was to play this time. I was only allowed to stop playing if I admitted that the game had won. Dark Souls II beat me. Fully aware of my issues with Demon’s Souls I played Dark Souls II in the complete opposite way, I used a character who wore no armour until we found some with a negligible weight, and built my character to be nimble but with a good poise stat so that if necessary I could use the light leather shield across my back to good effect. In all fairness, I think I enjoyed Dark Souls II quite a bit more in no small part due to this change and the game did keep my attention for a fair while. However the other issues still remained and I again grew tired, especially due to Dark souls II’s weak bosses; those which couldn’t be beat by standing behind them and dodging the odd stomp thing, often simply mobbed you rather than having a genuinely interesting fight. To liven up this play through me and my friends came up with a surprisingly in depth backstory for our character, named Bubba Watson, who had been tricked into coming to Dranglake to improve his golfing skills. Now a Zombie he was forced to rescue the soul of his mother, who had been trapped in the fire longsword (dubbed the Fiery Molly Magee), by fighting his way out of the twisted alternate dimension. Dark Souls II won after roughly 40 or 50 hours, the game had long started to wear thin and I recognised a spell casting sound effect from Demon’s Souls. Sure it was petty, but it was just the sort of stupid excuse that meant that I could give up without losing too much of my dignity. A placed the controller on the side, and just said that I had had enough.
My defining moments with these games were when in Demon’s Souls someone clearly much better equipped than me with a gurt-big sword invaded my world. Determined to look cool he was constantly trying to back stab me, I didn’t let him and just kept on taking pot shots until I had pretty much won. He ran off and appeared to start healing; I pressed my advantage and ran in for the final hit. I then was sent flying backwards over a ledge it turned out that there was a high level spell whose animation was almost completely indistinguishable from the healing animation. In Dark Souls II it was when walking along a rickety bridge, looking at a castle which was clearly the focal point and to which my attention would obviously be drawn. I then fell down a hole. In both of these cases, I feel like this would be called poor design in any other situation, but because they are Souls games they get a free pass. I have also never really understood the whole gathering souls as XP thing either. Sure, it makes for a nice risk reward dynamic, but it also means that you are essentially rewarded for doing badly, with a person who died just before reaching point B having the opportunity to get twice as much XP as the person who did it on their first run. The knock on effect is an erratic difficulty level which plummets after the first few hours but will occasionally spike upwards before falling again.
Just to clarify, I don't think these are bad games, and I often consider giving Demon's Souls another go using a similar build to my Dark Souls II playthrough. However I do feel their quality is over exaggerated and that they get away with a lot of bad decisions. Maybe I’m alone in this opinion, if I am, oh well- I’ll be over here delusionally claiming that the TurboGrafx 16 version of Ys books 1 & 2 is one of the best videogames of all time. That said I highly doubt I am alone. Similar to Skyrim’s success I think the Souls series is an excellent case of being in the right place at the right time, an above average action RPG with an above average difficulty level hitting shelves as fatigue over overly linear and handholding game design really began to set in. The internet then acted as the echo chamber it always does, exaggerating the claims of a vocal majority and drowning out a dissenting minority until:
“OMG! Dark Souls is literally the Second Coming, which has for some reason materialised as a game series”.
Picture the scene: The light of the dying sun is blocked in its entirety by a heavy layer of black cloud. Rain drips from your brow as you try to track the figure climbing the hill in front of you, illuminated against the sky only by the occasional flash of lightning. He stops, and drives something into the ground, you hear him bellow something but what little of his voice would reach you through the rain is drowned out by a clap of thunder. By the time you reach the top he has already gone, you can just make out his commanding frame disappearing into the wooded valley below. The object is a standard, and though it is completely sodden you can see that when dry, this would be an impressive piece of needlework. The poor light means that the precise details are indistinct, but a motto, embroided in the finest filigree can be made out:
“OK, I get it. The Souls games are pretty good, but don’t you think you’re being a bit over dramatic about it?”