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Cutting Through the Fog of Dark Souls (Part One)

In this first of two parts, I begin my analysis of Dark Souls, looking at the first few hours of play and where my issues with the game begin.

From Software's Dark Souls, the spiritual sequel to 2009's Demons' Souls has been released. If you have been following me at all over the last few years, then you know that I have a huge manly crush for Demon's Souls. In 2009 it was my 2nd favorite game of the year and you can probably guess how much I couldn't wait for Dark Souls. With all the rave reviews coming in you would assume that I would fall right in line with them. However, as it pains me to say it, I think Dark Souls is worse off than Demon's Souls.

The beauty of Demon's Souls' game design was in how balanced the game was. Similar to the rogue-like genre, most deaths were at the fault of the player requiring them to improve their skills. Because of this, the difficulty of the game straddled the line between being challenging, and being cheap. The issue I have with Dark Souls is that it crosses that line into cheap territory and keeps going.

The problems with Dark Souls are not in your face compared to other games. There isn't one huge red flag that upsets the balance of the game, but numerous small design decisions. As such, it makes doing this analysis that much trickier. For the first time in doing these analyses, I'm going to have to assign some homework. In order to understand the issues with Dark Souls and how they compare to Demon's Souls, you need to have played the first game, or everything that I'm going to complain about could fly right over your head.

I wasn't sure if it was even possible, but the story of Dark Souls is even more depressing then Demon's Souls. In the world, there are people marked by a strange curse that turns them into the undead, which eventually leads to becoming hallowed, or insane. In response, the people of the world decided that the best thing to do is to round up all the cursed people and lock them away. You are one of those people who have been imprisoned, when one day you are given a chance at freedom and take it.

Dark Souls basic theme remains unchanged from Demon's Souls but there are both major and minor changes to the formula. The first is that the game is not level based anymore. Here, the entire world is open to the player in similar style to Metroid, with each area having a name and theme. Like in Demon's Souls, there are shortcuts scattered around once activated, will save you the time going back to some of the more remote locales.

With the Nexus gone, bonfires are now the safe havens of the world. When you stop at a bonfire you'll fully recover your health among other things (will come back to this in a little bit). Most importantly, resting at a bonfire will revive all dead enemies with exception to boss and mini boss creatures.

Magic has been drastically altered as well; in Demon's Souls every character had a magic pool that allowed them to cast a variety of spells. Instead of having magic points, in Dark Souls, spells are limited by # of uses before the player can't use that spell anymore. The only way to replenish your quantity of a spell is to use a bonfire. The consequence of this is that a pure spell caster build is almost impossible due to the limits of spells.

The last big change is with the removal of the world tendency mechanic which has been replaced with humanity points. At the start of the game, you are considered undead and look like a corpse, as you play the game you'll gain humanity points over time, or by using special consumables. You can use humanity at a bonfire to turn you back to being human (until you die,) which raises the drop rate and raises your resistance to curses. You can also spend one point to enhance the bonfire which in turn will give you extra uses of the healing bottle that replaces the grasses from last game.

With all that out of the way it's time to talk about problems and I have a lot to say here. I'm going to start with my biggest complaint and that is with progression. Enemies from the very start are a lot more dangerous than the early hours of Demon's Souls. Within the first area you'll meet normal enemies carrying shields that the player can't attack through. They can also block magic attacks wasting your limited supply of shots. Like in Demon's Souls, your equipment is the prime factor in your combat capabilities; the only real way to increase your damage is with better gear.

The problem is that true upgrades to your gear come few and far between. While enemies can easily tear you apart with their weapons, you'll have to attack then several times more to do the same damage. Upgrading weapons at the blacksmith returns, allowing players to enhance their weapons, but the cost to do so is expensive early on which I'll get back to further on.

Making progress in the world also feels like taking two steps forward and one step back. In Demon's Souls, the levels were designed with specific shortcuts that once unlocked would allow the player to skip a huge chunk of the level. Here, bonfires are placed far and away from each other, requiring the player to trek back through areas filled with enemies since using a bonfire revives everyone. There doesn't seem to be as many safe shortcuts compared to the first game, since every level is connected to each other as opposed to just warping around.

What that means is that any safe progress you make is simply erased at the bonfires. Which I could understand if the bonfires were also near potential shortcuts(which the majority I've seen aren't,) or if you could just simply teleport between them which at where I'm at in the game is not possible.

In Demon's Souls, every inch you get through feels like a milestone, especially once you have unlocked a shortcut, knowing that the previous ordeal is past you. In Dark Souls, it feels demoralizing when after making progress to realize that there is no shortcut to avoid sections you've been to, forcing you to repeat them with the same dangerous enemies again and again. Now, in Demon's Souls more enemies meant more souls which were used to level up and buy new items, but that presents another problem.

The risk/reward for fighting enemies is weighted too heavily on the risk side, as enemies drop negligible amount of souls. To put things in perspective, most regular enemies for the first several hours of the game drop at most 100 souls and raising your soul level once you are in the double digits quickly ramps up into the thousands. Compared to Demon's Souls where the amount of souls ramps up to the dangers of the world.

Bosses don't drop anywhere near the same amount of souls that were in Demon's Souls. As a side effect, it makes losing your souls due to dying twice, even harder to recoup. Yet while it is harder to collect souls, it is far easier to lose them in the first place. Enemies hit a lot harder this time around and fight in groups more often and without the aid of staying hidden as a phantom, means that you'll be stuck fighting more enemies at once. The designers have given the enemies even nastier tricks, such as being able to riposte your attacks and follow up with a counter-attack of their own.

Since the world is now open, you have to take your chance whenever you cross into a new area to make sure that you are even able to survive there. Some areas are filled with enemies that you literally cannot kill with your basic equipment, but they can kill you in a few hits forcing you to hopefully retreat. What annoys me about this is that it takes the player's skills out of the equation when exploring. No matter how good I am at avoiding damage and counterattacking, what's the point if I can't even kill the enemies?

My final complaints are returning elements from Demon's Souls that the designers either did not catch or ignored. The camera still gets caught very often on the player in tight areas making it hard to see what is going on, and in a game like this that can be deadly. The auto lock on feels very sluggish and there were plenty of times that I couldn't switch between nearby targets no matter how many times I pushed the stick.

Speaking about sluggish, controlling my character felt less responsive this time around. Adding insult to injury are the new attacks done by pushing the analog stick forward and attacking at the same time. There were plenty of times that the attack would not go off, getting me killed in the process.

The most annoying technical issue involves group fighting. Due to the collision detection in the engine, enemies will attack through each other when bunched up. This makes fighting groups of enemies painfully annoying as you can't attack the guy in front at close range without the ones behind getting free hits. With enemies attacking in groups more prominent compared to Demon's Souls, this issue rears its ugly head more often.

At the point where I finally threw my hands up in disgust, I had to face enemies who could poison without being able to buy items to cure it, enemies who could curse reducing my total health until it was cured, and a boss that not only attacked in a narrow area but also had minions fighting at the same time. The straw that finally broke the camel's back was fighting my way through a sewer to reach a boss who killed me in one hit while I was trying to get the auto target to work to use my spells.

Now not all the changes were bad in Dark Souls as I do like how they changed leveling up. In Demon's Souls, putting a point in an attribute would raise a few attributes along with your total health. Now, when you raise any attribute it will improve all your main defenses and leave health alone, unless you raise your vitality attribute. What that means is that while in the short run, you won't notice a big deal in surviving; over the course of the game you'll be able to absorb more damage than in Demon's Souls.

As I once championed Demon's Souls for providing a difficult, but fair challenge, I condemn Dark Souls for being a cheap frustrating experience. To summarize this rant up, the reason why Demon's Souls worked so well was how all the elements were balanced with each other. Difficult enemies were balanced with suitable rewards in the form of souls, and challenging level designs were balanced with sufficient short-cuts. With Dark Souls, the designers built upon the framework of the first game without properly balancing the new mechanics and challenges.

At this point, my inner masochist will push me to continue to play Dark Souls, but it is definitely no longer in the running for my game of the year. As the saying goes "there is a fine line between love and hate" and with Dark Souls, I don't know if the developers want to marry me, or have me killed and thrown into a ditch.

Josh Bycer

This analysis was written about 30-40% through the game. To be concluded in part 2 which is from closer to the end of the game.

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