Friday, August 31, 2012

Dark Timesink of Souls


My video game poison of late has been Dark Souls on the Xbox 360.

I've played Space Marine with my kid some... enough to finally get my multiplayer dude up to level 41 (the cap) and unlock more weapon and armor perks. And I've gone through about 30% of the modern update to Splatterhouse, a decidedly mediocre game that reads like it should be tailor-made for me, but is actually kind of a drag. I don't know whether to quit playing it or just see it through because of the investment I already have in it. And I've started on the Chrono Trigger, a classic you-must-have-played-this RPG, that I really DIDN'T play owing to the fact that I seldom play RPGs and didn't own a Super Nintendo when then the game originally released. That's on the Wii Virtual Console.

But Dark Souls is really the current crack du jour. Or has been. I've nearly finished my second playthrough and I think I'm finally giving it a rest. Veteran Dark Souls (or Demon Souls) players know what I'm talking about: this game will own your life.

Not strictly an RPG or really even an action-RPG (by whatever fluid definition that can actually be applied), Dark Souls is probably accurately described as an action game in the third person mode (like Bayonetta or Darksiders) but heavily influenced by RPG mechanics. So technically, if you come to grips really well with the combat system you could 'skill' your way past a lot of the game without paying all that much attention to the RPG aspects like leveling up or tooling up your weapons. It'd be really tedious, because the combat is technical and complex, and if you don't level up or manage your equipment, the fights will drag out to an almost interminable degree. The game already encourages slow and careful play as it is, so players greatly benefit from utilising the RPG aspects as much as possible to gain whatever advantage they can over the game environment and enemies, just so progress continues quickly enough to hold player attention.

There are forty bazillion web entries covering Dark Souls. There's a whole thriving community that goes on and on about just this one game. And I can see why. It is utterly compelling. There's no need for me to really go into game details that thousands of other people have already covered. But there are some caveats to the game I wanted to get into... quite apart from the 'it's so hard' stuff so many others have said. I DID actually have an earlier post on this blog talking about Dark Souls and how it really wasn't so brutal as everyone was making out.

That was before I'd hit my own personal wall in the game. I tried repeatedly to get past it. I had a guidebook. No help. I read stuff online. The enemies acted differently than everyone was saying. So I put the game down for what I'd intended to be, like a week, but turned into months as other games (and life shit) intervened and distracted.

As it turns out, when I finally dug back into the game, my biggest problem was 'skilling' my way up to that point as I'd mentioned earlier in this post.

Dark Souls basically amounts to 'runs' between checkpoints. At each checkpoint (bonfires in the game) you can replenish, repair, whatever. At the cost of most enemies respawning. So to play you really just foray out from a bonfire, exploring and memorising what comes between you and the next rest stop. Every enemy can be dangerous, but they have patterns that can be learned or weaknesses that can be exploited, and what I'd done in the early stages of the game was to use my years of video game playing experience to fight really well using what I had, and upgrading only when it might occur to me to do so, and to work out strategies for defeating those few foes I couldn't overcome in a standup fight. Which is what you are supposed to do. But it isn't the ONLY thing you're supposed to do.

I was getting by, thinking I'm all awesome. Even the bosses up to that point, though difficult and causing me to die a fair number times, could be defeated with some not-too-complex strategy and a bit of luck or timing. Finally, the game put me up against a boss where my characters stats or equipment was a problem. Literally his inability to take a punch. It wasn't that I couldn't figure out what to do, but my character couldn't hold out long enough to do it. Up to that point, I'd been using timing, spacing, the reach of my weapon, and memory to ensure my enemies didn't really lay a glove on me. Even if they did, the damage that got past my armor and shield could be dealt with using healing potions. But now I was facing a boss who was going to hit me, pretty much no matter what. AND hit me so hard I really wouldn't have much opportunity to use healing potions. My guy just wasn't ready for him. I didn't KNOW this at the time, I figured it was just too hard or unfair. BUT. I had every intention of re-approaching it because the whole reason I got Dark Souls in the first place was because I'd understood it to be challenging. I just didn't get back to it very soon.

Upon picking it up again (with the encouragement of an online buddy-- thanks Jason) I discovered you really can't ignore the RPG aspects forever. Going back to that hurdle, I figured I was just somehow missing something. I had done some grinding in RPGs before, the process whereby the player goes over previously conquered areas to amass experience points or gold in an effort to gain levels or items that will boost their character and make a difficult challenge easier. This was an action game seemingly and I just hadn't done any grinding-- or even tried to amass souls (the game's experience points and currency) and level up 'properly' through the progress I HAD made. I'd tried to bulldoze my way through using thumbs on controllers only.

So I walked my dude back toward the beginning as far as I could and tried to be as frugal as possible about gaining and losing souls, and be really attentive towards leveling up and upgrading my weapons. Lo and behold, I was able to weather that troublesome boss's attacks and take him down. Because with some careful accounting/leveling, and paying attention to various types of equipment do, my character was able to weather some hits. Weather them long enough to strike back and kill the bastard.

That might mean the moral of the story would be a take on the old adage to 'read the instructions'. Dark Souls is hard, no shit, but if I'd played the game being as attentive to the numbers aspect of it as I was to the moving and fighting... playing it as it was intended... I'd have been past that hurdle sooner. Afterwards, when I'd cottoned to that fact, no part of the game-- no trap, no boss-- was as difficult or frustrating. The part I was stuck on is considered pretty tough, but I more or less sailed on past the other 'toughest' spots. The game continued to be challenging, but the other cool aspects of the game, the atmosphere, the multiplayer, and the upgrade system became the most compelling parts and still are. All the tools a player needs to make the different enemies in the game manageable are there. You don't even have to be all that 'action-game' skilled.

I give From Software really high marks on this game. Some of the stuff that bothers players and critics doesn't faze me. I'm used to seeing past some rough edges in games to enjoy a unique experience. So when I read people bitching about the framerate bogging down or being invaded by other players too often, I'm not very sympathetic. My biggest complaint about the game is arguably one of its strengths, its opacity. The game is really frickin' stingy about what you're supposed to do. The mysterious areas, and surprise traps and enemies help make this game what it is, and the intense, highly-strung state the game puts you in is like no other game-- on par with the best survival horror titles.

Figuring stuff out IS part of the games fun and challenge, but I feel that should cover narrative and in-game puzzles or strategy. NOT the basic workings of the game. The game is a sort of open world, with one or two hubs and the rest of the areas branching out. You are free to go to many areas and die many times before you figure out an area is one you really aren't equipped to handle yet. But here's the tricky part. How do you distinguish between an area you aren't ready for and one that is just super-challenging but that you CAN get through? You could potentially get pretty far into an area before running up against something you just cannot handle and lose all your accumulated souls in the bargain. Conversely, you could get into an area where you manage to kill the first few enemies, but surviving was such a near thing that you believe anything past that is just not something you're up for. The game already intimidates with a pretty unforgiving experience system, making almost any combat a risk. And the NPC's give very little information, expecially in the early going. Whether you risk going into a new area or hang out and grind known areas to beef yourself up, a lot of time is wasted in trying to work out what to do next. Later in the game this is less of a problem, as a specific NPC outlines your goals and a crucial item invokes a cutscene indicating some paths. But if you don't really pay attention at that point, you'll be just as clueless as you were before. People who take a lot of notes might have an advantage here, but the days of having to do this for RPGs are supposedly past. It is one of the things that kept me from getting into RPGs in the old days!

The other overly-obscure aspect is the handling of magic and equipment and the upgrades involved. In hindsight, it is actually pretty simple and pretty cool, but until you have a handle on it, you can spin round and round wondering why the hell you can't do something that seems bone-obvious you SHOULD be able to do. Again, the NPCs give almost no help, and what little they DO say,  you have to really pay attention to, and make some not-so-obvious deductions from.

I guess From Software figured the community would fill in the blanks, and largely they do. There are at least three full wiki projects centered around Dark Souls. The PvP (player versus player) aspect has all sorts of active forums and tips pages written on it. This is all well and good, but I'd rather have figured it out from in-game tools and not by going asking. Online advice didn't help me get past 'that one boss'. I had to work out what would work for me. And frustrating ast that was, it'd been nice if all of Dark Souls mysteries would've been like that. I mean you COULD work it all out for yourself, but dying over and over just to figure out where to go, or trawling through menu screens to figure out why I can't upgrade my mace just isn't my idea of fun. THOSE aren't the kind of puzzles I want to work out.

Early on I bought the Dark Souls guide. For some complex games I buy guide books so that after I beat a game I can get indications of where to go to find extra items, subquests, complete achievements, whatever. I don't care to get help from them while I'm on my initial playthrough. With Dark Souls though I had to give in. I used the guide for two things: what area to go to next (when it wasn't pretty obvious) and how the equipment and magic system works. The guide is attractive (a black hardbound from Future Press) but not nearly as useful as one would think. On where to go next, it was fine. Helping me finish NPC quests or find hidden items in my second playthrough? Pretty good. So as a map book it was decent. Some of the maps could be clearer but I didn't need a step by step walkthrough.

The book also explains how the magic and equipment system works, but it is more or less scattered through the book, making it painful to get the whole picture. Suffice to say, if you buy the guide, read the first section about basic play, then the beginning of the items section (to understand item attributes), and the very last section, the extras. The extras section actually explains the upgrade path because certain achievements require you to upgrade to the fullest extent, so the text explains what is involved in that. The craziness is that it isn't giving anything away to read that-- you kind of need to know what is expected to do this just to play the game, and THE END of the book is the place it is given. If you don't get a handle on this, you'll spend many a head-scratching moment wondering why the fuck that sword you just made into a +5 just disappeared off your list so you can't make it a +6 even though you have plenty of materials and money. The system is NOT particularly difficult, but is made so because there's no in-game information apart from brief dialogue from blacksmiths or other NPC that whizzes by.

On strategies for beating enemies or bosses (arguably the thing many or most players might actually buy it for) it is terrible. There are hardly any suggestions for combat strategies in the thing that would line up with what I did. And many times the book omits any help at all. What is probably the trickiest non-boss encounter in the game (and I'm agreeing with the legions of players who feel the same way) gets barely a passing mention. It doesn't really matter too much, I figured out my own battles. Even this obstacle didn't hold me up long. But just a word of warning. I can recommend the book as probably 'the nicest' collection of Dark Souls data in one place, but its usefulness lies mainly in its item tables (though somewhat outdated on a few items owing to patches) and its maps. If you're stuck in a place, the book can help you. If you're stuck on an enemy, the book really won't help you. Weirdly the book omits how to perform a parry, an important basic mechanic in combat.

So I'm not proud of it, but I did go to the book for a few things during my initial playthrough. More than once, I found myself entering an area, and not wanting to waste a lot of time finding out if I should be there. I suppose the contrived methods most RPGs use to prevent you from going somewhere ahead of time are less realistic, but now I'm beginning to look at that shit a lot more favorably. There's an area in Dark Souls where a huge gate blocks your way until you reach a certain point, then you see a cutscene of a giant raising the gate. That was an exception to most of the access in Dark Souls, but the way almost every other game operates. A little bit more of THAT would've helped me save face!

This game has also stoked my hitherto flaccid interest in online multiplayer. More about that next time. My fingers are tired now.


I'm a terrible person!
At least I'm terrible at keeping up on this blog!

I've had a number of downturns in my life, particularly the one about joining the masses of unemployed in this country. But I've still been plugging away at nerdery in various forms and so I should be frickin' maintaining this thing.

Not to be too personal... the blog really isn't supposed to go there...  but depression can make neglect-ers of even the best of us.

So here I go updating.