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Cutting Through The Fog Of Dark Souls (Part Two)

Concluding my look at Dark Souls, I examine late game shenanigans and issues with boss design.

(Warning: the following post is a closer look at the areas of Dark Souls, this entry will be spoiler filled and discussion can include spoilers, don't read unless you have beaten the game or don't care about spoilers.)

I've reached my boiling point with Dark Souls and can no longer play it without feeling my blood pressure rising. When I first wrote about the game I was about 30-40% done the main game, not counting optional areas. At this point, I'm close to 70-80% finish and can see more of the big picture of the game.

When Dark Souls works, it is a great experience, unlike anything else this year. However, the times that the design fails, and it does multiple times, it keeps the game from reaching the same heights as Demon's Souls. Before I begin, you should read my last post on Dark Souls, as I already covered some of the problems with the design there.

Let's start with how magic works. In the last post I talked about how building a pure caster build was almost impossible due to the limits of how many times you can use a spell. Getting further into a game I want to edit that to say that it is completely impossible to be a spell caster in Dark Souls. Basic spells that cast somewhat quickly do too little to be effective, while the decent spells leave you wide open for at least 4 to 5 seconds, which is a very long time when a boss is charging at you.

Originally I was going for a similar build that I had in Demon's Souls, which was a magical samurai. However, it never felt that magic was worth it in Dark Souls. By the time I created a weapon from a boss's soul, it was doing more damage per second then my strongest spell, and safer to use.

I know why the designers changed how magic worked, to force people into close combat more. However, I would argue that removing a potential option from your game does more harm than good. If someone wants to spend the time becoming a mage, they shouldn't be punished with systems designed against them.

Another point I want to talk about are my issues with the lack of shortcuts. As I got farther into the game, the amount of shortcuts open improved dramatically. Sen's fortress has a huge shortcut that literally drops you back at the start of the level from near the boss's chamber. However it remains to be answered why there are so few shortcuts in the world itself. I spent plenty of time doing nothing but running to and from bonfires. Blight town is a clear example of this. Even though there is a back and front way into the area, there are no shortcuts making the place a pain in the ass to get around and to get out of.

Eventually you do unlock a minor warping ability, but it only lets you warp between three bonfires once it is originally unlocked. This means that you still have to spend a lot of time running through areas you already went through because of the lack of bonfires and shortcuts.

Speaking about the level design, one problem that I had was that the graphics and art made the levels look aesthetically busy. I had plenty of times that I couldn't tell if I was looking at the right way, wrong way or about to kill myself. In Anno Londo, I was lost for about thirty minutes as I couldn't find the way out of the starting area. The Duke's Archives seem to be about repeating the same room structure and feels creatively flat. There were plenty of times in the game that I got lost by the sheer amount of visual content in the levels, hiding the right way to go. The crystal caves was a nightmare for me, as I killed myself several times thinking that the crystal below me was the correct path when instead I slid off to my doom.

Going through darkroot gardens, I completely missed the path to the butterfly boss several times because I couldn't see the way due to how the camera was pointing. The level design seems like it was design for visual quantity instead of quality.

Once again going back to Demon's Souls, the levels seemed to flow a lot better than in Dark Souls. Each area in a level had a different look and feel to it allowing you to figure out where you are by the environment. I rarely got lost in Demon's Souls, with exception to 5-2.

Moving on, the boss fights in Dark Souls were one of the worse parts of the game for me, especially coming from Demon's Souls. In one of my many posts on Demon's Souls, I talked about how every boss in the game was designed to provide a unique challenge, for example, you couldn't fight Man-eater the same way as Flame Lurker.

In Dark Souls, the majority of the bosses follow the same pattern of having a lot of health and requiring you to keep attacking until they die without any other real strategy. One big issue I have is that a lot of the bosses were designed to be fought with a 2nd person, as when you are in human form, there will be a summon sign outside of the boss room even when you are offline. This is a big issue for me and a huge departure from Demon's Souls. In Demon's Souls, you could fight every boss solo, but if you were online you could get a helping hand if needed.

What this meant was that the bosses were balanced and designed for single player fighting only and their stats were adjusted accordingly. In Dark Souls, bosses like the duo fight in Lundo, the spider boss in Blight town and the gargoyle fight at the parish pretty much require a second person by design. Fighting more than one enemy at once shows one of the main problems with the Demon's Souls style of combat, which I'm come back to further on. With the spider boss, she attacks so quickly and has so much health at that point of time, that you need someone to take the heat off of you to fight it.

Some of the later bosses seem like they belong in the Monster Hunter series and not Demon's Souls in how they are designed. They are slow moving creatures that rely on you spending 5 to 10 minutes hitting them to deal with their huge health bars, where they can kill you in 1 to 2 hits. The only boss fight that felt like a return to form was the Pinwheel fight in the Catacombs, as the boss produced copies of itself and you had to find the right one (like the false idol battle of Demon's Souls).

The Capra Demon is perhaps one of the worst offenders of bad boss design in the game, as it systematically hits every bad point of Dark Souls design. We have a boss in a narrow environment for the camera to get stuck on, able to attack with wide attacks making it hard to avoid. Who also has two fast moving enemies as back up keeping you from focusing on the real threat. The only way I saw how to beat this thing was to cheese it while standing in an area he can't get to.

The main theme of the issues that I have with Dark Souls and what I mentioned in the last entry is how Dark Souls seems to capitalize on the problems in Demon's Souls without improving them and being imbalance. About half way done the game, it was no longer exciting finding enemies who were placed in the blind spots of the camera forcing me to always keep my guard up; it just felt lazy at that point. Having to fight more groups of enemies while dealing with the poor collision detection without any fixes to the engine was bad form; worse, is when you head into the ruins and have to fight ghosts who not only have no collision detection to begin with, but can attack you through walls and floors.

On my first run in the ruins, I was stun killed in a narrow hallway by six ghosts who attacked me through the floor before I could raise my shield or see them. I also noticed far more technical issues present in Dark Souls compared to Demon's Souls. Slowdown occurred more often making it hard to react to attacks. I was also knocked through the floor in one area by a special attack and the only way out was to kill myself. Larger enemies are so big that the camera gets stuck on them every time, making the auto target more of a death sentence then being useful. Along with the control issues mentioned in the first entry, makes Dark Souls less polished compared to Demon's Souls.

Playing Dark Souls I had to "find the fun" more often than I did in Demon's Souls. Sure I got frustrated in Demon's Souls plenty of times, but I always felt like the game was fair with how I died. In Dark Souls it felt like the game's own mechanics were out to get me and while that is a challenge, it is a different kind of challenge compared to Demon's Souls. The concept of wandering around a vast, dangerous world was well done and I have no complaints about the overall regular enemy design. However, one of the mainstays of creating a proper sequel is to get the foundation set and fix any issues present in the first game. Dark Souls feels like someone built a 2nd floor on their house without making sure that the first floor was completely stable.

At this point I've lost my remaining desire to play the game and will probably shelve it for now. Maybe a patch or two could fix my issues, but I'm not holding my breath. It's very discomforting to me how one of the games I was dying to play has disappointed me to such a degree. For people new to the series as a whole, I still recommend Demon's Souls as an amazing title that still holds up and I would say to wait on Dark Souls so that it doesn't kill your wallet as much as your character.

Josh Bycer

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