Wednesday, June 25, 2014

My unpopular opinion: Dark Souls Vs. Dark Souls II.

A major complaint among the gaming fanbase today is that modern games are just too easy. A lot of more recent titles are easy to blaze through in one or two sittings due to the advent of things like generous amounts of checkpoints, regenerating health, and "pay to win" games. Players often have to impose their own challenges or switch to the highest difficulty setting to get a more satisfying experience. However, in more recent years, a lot of difficult games seem to have emerged. Notable examples include I Wanna Be The Guy, Super Meat Boy, and the subject of this post: From Software's critically acclaimed Souls series.

It wasn't always as popular as it is today, however. The first game in the series was the 2009 PS3 exclusive, Demon's Souls. It was a relatively short game, but it was brutally difficult. Everything was stronger than you. Mistakes did not go unpunished, and new players weren't given any breaks. If you died, it was your fault. Checkpoints were few and far between, and to top it all off, you could be "invaded" by other players at any time if you were connected to PSN, and they could and would kill you. The game was somewhat popular, but it was more of a sleeper hit with a cult following.

A surprising amount of big-name titles were released during the second half of 2011, such as Saints Row The Third and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and one of them was Demon's Souls' spiritual successor, Dark Souls. Due to the huge amount of hype built up for this game, it was much more popular than its precursor, and became a huge hit. Like Demon's Souls, it was mostly known for its brutal, unforgiving difficulty. You were thrust into the dying world of Lordran with a vague objective and whatever items you started off with. This game offered no hand-holding. You had to figure out everything for yourself, and many parts of the game became trial-and-error due to the sheer amount of times you would die, and you would die. Most of the bosses towered over you and could easily dispatch you in a hit or two. No longer could you "tank out" every boss like you can in other games; your main priority was to not get hit.

Naturally, as big of a hit as it was, it created quite a large community of people that worked together to tackle the game's toughest areas, find every secret, strategize about the best builds, and slay each other in PvP over and over again. The community was an iconic part of the game, spawning memetic phrases like "git gud" and "jolly co-operation". Naturally as well, a sequel was in high demand.

Fast forward a few years and we're introduced to Dark Souls II in March of 2014. The hype behind this game was unreal, but when it released, some fans were at least a little bit let down. One major issue was that Hidetaka Miyazaki, the main director of the first two games, didn't have much involvement in the game other than overseeing its production, and they essentially got From Software's "B Team" to work on it. Why did this game disappoint some fans of the original, and why do I disagree with their feelings toward the game?

Before DSII, I'd never actually played a Souls game. I was toying with the idea of picking one of them up when I had a little extra cash, but nothing ever came to fruition. One day in May of 2014, one of my best friends came to my house and literally gave me the game for free. Of course, I was excited to play the game. I hadn't even seen much gameplay yet apart from the infamous "This Is How You DON'T Play" series that DSPGaming spawned, and even that I didn't pay much attention to. Long story short, I instantly fell in love with the game. Right from the get-go, it drew me in. Every area was dynamically different from the last, the progression was very open-ended, and the minimal story involvement after the intro gave me a chance to roleplay as my character and add my own bits to the story. I knew what I was getting into, a game known for its difficulty, and I still died a lot on my initial playthrough. It was this type of difficulty and challenge that didn't frustrate me because just beating one section was all that much more rewarding.

It was also easily the longest game I have ever played. If you don't skip any of the main areas, this game can take you a while. After about a week, I'd finally beat it, and it was a feeling that no game had given me in a long time. I'd overcome a huge challenge, and I did it by myself without guides or cheap tactics. I truly felt like I was a part of something bigger. I loved the game all the way through. The dynamic character customization and advanced graphics made me look and feel like a badass, even on console. It was such a cool feeling when you decide to help out a character and find out that they'll repay you by joining you in a boss fight later on or something like that. Each of the 30 bosses provided a unique challenge and made you want to know more about their backstory and how they came to be. All in all, a satisfying experience.

However, the game did suffer some flaws like any game would, and I think these are a few of the reasons why the fanbase thought the game fell short. Many of the bosses boiled down to "a big dude wearing armor", where Dark Souls had bosses such as Ceaseless Discharge and Bed of Chaos. Though Dark Souls II did have some equally memorable bosses such as The Rotten (a huge mash of flesh made up of many undead bodies wielding a cleaver), or The Duke's Dear Freja (a two-headed spider the size of a house that shoots lasers), I guess it just wasn't as prevalent to Dark Souls players. Another issue came from the Player-versus-Player aspect. There were a lot of cheap and easily exploitable strategies that made the combat unbalanced, and a lot of the issues still persist after several patches.

On one hand, people say that Dark Souls II was easier than its predecessor and more geared toward new or casual players. Your objective was made somewhat more apparent, and excessive use of magic made the game easier. Combat was also made more fluid and manageable, but I don't see that as a negative. There's even a ring you can wear that nullifies your loss of souls. However, death is far more punishing in this game. Each time you die, your max health will decrease and you will have to use items to get it back. Dying also no longer prevents invasions. Additionally, enemies are generally harder to kill even from the get-go. Starting enemies in Dark Souls go down in two hits from even the weaker weapons, while your early encounters in the second game will easily take three or four strikes to kill, and they know when to use their shield. They don't zerk as often as DS1 enemies, but their weapon reach is much greater and they have more of a tendency to gang up on you. Lastly, parrying, once an easy task in Dark Souls, is now near-impossible in the second game. It's almost always more viable to just block or roll out of the way because of the picture-perfect timing needed to pull this off. Speaking of rolling, you're not invincible when doing it anymore.

Weapons also have far less durability this time around. Even your stronger weapons will teach you to conserve your attacks, keep repair powder on hand, and hold onto an extra weapon for this game's many lengthy segments. Traps are more commonplace as well, and more well-hidden. Some restorative items no longer heal you or increase your defenses at all. That Giant's Armor you used to increase your poise and tank your way through the game isn't there anymore. Dark Souls II is by no means harder or easier than Dark Souls; rather it's as hard as you make it. There are ways to cheap your way out, but you know when you're doing it.

Yet another complaint was the lack of memorable characters. Dark Souls introduced us to brave knights such as Solaire or Siegmeyer, who followed us through our adventure and allowed us to watch their own story unfold alongside ours. The second game doesn't start off quite as well in that regard. Shanloette just talks too much until she actually becomes more important to the plot (much later in the game), Lenigrast acts like he's annoyed by you and takes stuff way too seriously, and Straid mocks you and calls you names even after you save him. But again, I think Dark Souls players ignored some of the characters that were just as good. Lucatiel joins you on your quest to seek out the same goal as you, all while being oblivious of the cure to her curse. She presents herself as a strong female character and her tale is very tragic if you hear her out to the end. This game also features Benny, who is my personal favorite character in the game. You meet him early on and he seems somewhat minor to start out with. After helping him out, he slowly comes to have great respect for you and will fight by your side to the end. He displays a genuine sense of honor and I enjoy the bond you form with him as the game progresses. He even accompanies you during all three final bosses.

 Honestly, I think it was an overall improvement over the first game. The story is more apparent as long as you take the time out to listen to the characters' dialog, and there is an abundance of references to the first game to bring old players back in. Not only is the combat improved, but the controls in general feel more "right". Everything from climbing ladders to exploring new areas feels faster and less tedious. Dark Souls had the issue of artificially padding out its length by making you walk absurdly long distances through huge areas that didn't even have enemies in them. Dark Souls II is easily twice as long as the first game, but you can tackle the areas in whatever order you see fit, so players of different skill levels could enjoy the game, and each playthrough could potentially be done differently.

I think that's a perfect way to segue into my final major point: Why I just don't think Dark Souls is as good. For context, the game was given out for free if you played on Xbox 360 during June. My main problem with this game versus its sequel is that not only does it feel dated when coming to it from Dark Souls II, it feels much more bland and slow-paced. The best way I can describe it is that Dark Souls is a fantastic game, but it takes a considerable amount of playing to get to "the good part". In my opinion, the game doesn't pick up for me until you start to uncover more of Lautrec's (my personal favorite character) story and what his true motives are, especially when you get to Anor Londo and face off with the Silver Knights and Ornstien and Smough. Until then, I find myself trudging through the somewhat-generic environments of Undead Burgh or Undead Parish and fighting easy enemies and bosses that have a certain flaw you an exploit to win, whereas in Dark Souls II I was immediately impressed and drawn in by locales such as the Forest of Fallen Giants and its interesting bosses and many hidden secrets.

I think my problem is that I would've liked Dark Souls a lot better if I'd played it first. The controls and interface are by no means clunky, but they sure as hell feel like it compared to the sequel. I always find myself holding B in the vein that I'll be able to climb ladders faster or swinging my mace to do a combo that isn't in the game. There's also a stat in the game called Resistance that isn't worth leveling up at all. I'm not sure why it was even there, and Dark Souls II completely did away with it.

In conclusion, I spoiled myself on a much more polished game and now I can't enjoy Dark Souls the way everyone else did. Like I said, I still see it as a great game, and I will complete it soon, but I have every reason to prefer the sequel where most did not.

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