Shedding Light on My Dark Souls

In 2009, Demon’s Souls was released.  Initially a cult favorite, its popularity grew and put From Software on the map worldwide.  The game spawned four titles that the copyright lawyers assure you are only spiritual successors, as well as a host of imitators.  The series really hit the mainstream with Demon’s Souls’ immediate not-sequel Dark Souls, and its incredibly challenging, unforgiving and epic dark fantasy quests became iconic.  Until reviewers passed the title on to Crash Bandicoot and Cuphead to hide how terrible they were at old-school platformers and action shooters, Dark Souls became the go-to example of a hard game.  It was the Dark Souls of lazy and often nonsensical comparisons.

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No, seriously, they compared this to Dark Souls, look it up.

My feelings on the series (Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls 1-3, and Bloodborne, the fan name for the collective being Soulsborne) are… complicated.  I wanted to like the series, lengthy and challenging action-adventure games in a dark fantasy setting sounded great to me.  But with all those stats and equipment to manage, despite being Japanese I would classify the Soulsborne games (or at least the earlier ones) as really hard WRPGs.  I have no problem with hard games if they’re in a genre I like, but WRPGs are definitely not one of those genres.  And the controls and hit detection seemed too clunky for such a demanding game.  But were my complaints legitimate, or just me refusing to adapt to a series outside of my comfort zone?  I was never completely sure, which was a major reason I haven’t said much about these games before.

Well, the series offered to meet me halfway, and I accepted.  Bloodborne and Dark Souls 3 addressed some of my major issues (the characters move faster and checkpoints are a little more sane), and I managed to beat both of them.  For reference, I made it around a quarter of the way through Demon’s Souls before giving up, and only played a little bit of a friend’s copy of Dark Souls to confirm it hadn’t fixed my issues.  I didn’t bother trying Dark Souls 2.  I’m not claiming to be an expert on the series, but am I a fan?  I’m still not completely sure, which is why I’m writing this article.  While playing Dark Souls 3 (I beat that very recently, while Bloodborne was a couple years ago), I switched several times between finding it an enjoyable and satisfying game, and being furious at it and wanting to quit.  But either way, it was addictive and dominated my gaming time.  When I finished it, I felt a wave of emotion that was part accomplishment and part relief.  I’ve been trying to understand and articulate my thoughts on the series, and I think I’ve finally gotten it.

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I hate this asshole more than any other boss in recent memory.

The Soulsborne games have a concept I love, they are in a genre that has great potential to draw me in.  I really want to like them, but I feel like there are some serious flaws that could be easily fixed.  However, many of these flaws haven’t been addressed, and I think a major reason for that is that reviewers and the gaming community are refusing to acknowledge these flaws.  As the series progresses, some of my problems are addressed, but others are completely ignored.  I trudge through these issues to get at the part of the game that I enjoy, while wishing that the genre could fix these flaws and feeling resentful towards the rabid fanbase of the series for refusing to acknowledge these issues as flaws.  As these thoughts went through my head, I realized there was a very close parallel to my feelings about Soulsborne in a different series.  Yes, for all the games that supposedly are the Dark Souls (apparently the first difficult game ever made) of their genre, Soulsborne itself fits into that mold.

Dark Souls is the Grand Theft Auto of the 2010s. 

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Forget King’s Field, this is the Dark Souls prototype.

Yes, Soulsborne lines up almost perfectly with the beloved sandbox codifier that contains my personal punching bag (Grand Theft Auto 3 will always be terrible no matter how much the series improves).  And I think I’ve pinpointed what I find so frustrating about both the Soulsborne games and the pre-Grand Theft Auto V GTA games…

Recently, I’ve grown fond of the term “quality of life” as it relates to game design.  I define quality of life as features in a game that reduce frustration and inconvenience without making the game easier.  Being able to quickly equip items or abilities in real time instead of constantly pausing, information about items and stats prominently displayed and easy to access, the ability to retry challenges on the spot instead of being forced to commit suicide if you think you’ve messed up too much to finish an area.  And I’m sorry to say that in many ways the Soulsborne games seem to pride themselves on being anti-quality of life.  Want to fight a boss again?  In the later games you can almost always run to that boss easily without enemies getting any hits on you, but every time the boss kills you have to make that run again.  To make matters worse, you have to deal with a load time that’s longer than it would be if you could just respawn in the boss room.  You aren’t allowed to have a map, which isn’t even justified by realism, explorers made their own maps.  You… you can’t even pause.  There’s an offline mode, for God’s sake, let us pause!

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Seriously, how the hell is not being able to pause an offline game acceptable?

This is in addition to things that do make the game harder, but in ways I feel aren’t legitimate.  Having one shot at collecting the souls/blood you had at your last death is an interesting feature, but something needs to be done about how it punishes you for making progress between checkpoints.  Die early?  You can easily get your experience points back.  Make lots of progress then die?  You are very likely screwed.  And don’t get me started on using an item, dying, the enemies you killed along the way respawning, and that item STILL BEING GONE.  The line between challenging and cheap is always… one of those… to draw, but I think there are some elements of the Soulsborne games that are legitimately cheap.

So, what is my overall point, what am I hoping to get out of this?  Well, it ties back to the Grand Theft Auto parallels.  In 2008, Saints Row 2 came out, and in 2012 I finally tried the “GTA rip-off.”  It was night and day, SR2 kept everything I liked about GTA and fixed all of my problems.  That’s what I want: the Saints Row 2 of Dark Souls.  A game that improves the genre so much that previous games in it feel unplayable in comparison.  Something that even makes the developer of the earlier, more famous series take notice and improve their games.

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We may have the Dark Souls of everything, but what we need is the Saints Row 2 of Dark Souls.

So, back to the question of how I feel about Soulsborne, it remains complicated.  The later games are for the most part enjoyable for me, but I’m actively hoping for a game that will make me unable to ever go back to them.  So I guess I’m a fan at the moment, but a fair amount of that comes from Stockholm Syndrome.  Soulsborne draws me in with things I love, and holds them hostage with needlessly annoying and frustrating “traditions” that its fanbase refuses to acknowledge as flaws.  I seriously saw people arguing that the pre-patch Bloodborne load times were a good thing because they punished the player for dying.  Few internet gaming opinions have aggravated me that much.  For the time being, the Soulsborne games are good, but they could be so much better.  Let’s just hope that someday a Saint-like franchise fills these Dark Souls with light.

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Respect the Unexpected

Sometimes when you look back on a game after the fact, you realize it wasn’t as good as you made yourself believe when you first got it, or you realize it was actually a lot better than you gave it credit for.  Those games aren’t the focus of this list.  This list is for games that instantly changed my strong preconceived notions as soon as I played them.  It can either be a game I went into with hype that was instantly deflated, or a game that I expected to hate or at least be indifferent towards that I ended up liking.  I have three examples for both types, and I’ll be alternating between negative and positive.  Since I always like ending on a positive, I’ll let the negative examples start the pattern.  Let’s get started!

Mega Man X6

What I Expected

I really, really love the Mega Man X series.  I would consider the first three games to be my favorite trilogy in all of gaming, and the original Mega Man X is one of my favorite games of all time.  The first four X games are my four favorite Mega Man games of any type, and Mega Man X5 is a step down but still a great game that I have played through dozens of times.  So, it should go without saying that I had very high expectations going into Mega Man X6, it looked like just a level pack for MMX5, but I was fine with that.  Two console MMX games in the same year seemed too good to be true, but really, what could go wrong?

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What Actually Happened

I’m still not sure what the hell happened with Mega Man X6.  MMX6 isn’t a lazy level pack, that would be so much better than what we got.  No, X6 is a train wreck that seems to go out of its way to make as many stupid, frustrating level design choices as possible.  Levels range from the same tedious and frustrating mid-boss fought four times in a row to nightmarish extended dashes to safety as a one hit kill ceiling tries to crush you.  Bosses are just as bad.  Even the story is terrible.  I beat X5, X8, and even the infamous X7 on the day I bought them.  I didn’t force myself to beat X6 until over six months later.  I could tell something was wrong right away, and to this day I don’t understand what happened.  This isn’t the result of greed and laziness, it’s a calculated attempt to twist one of the best gameplay systems there is into a horrible parody of itself.

Doom (1993)

What I Expected

I am a console gamer, I have been ever since I stopped being forced to subsist on Hi-Tech PC games, and I always will be.  So, Doom being a PC originating series that only got inferior console ports for most of its existence put up quite barrier to me getting into it.  I wasn’t all that into first person shooters to begin with, so I didn’t feel like I was missing out on much, a mid-90s western PC series didn’t sound like it was going to offer much.  I tried the famously arcade like and over the top Serious Sam games via their console compilation, and enjoyed them.  I decided that it was worth trying the Doom compilation, three games and several expansion packs for around $10 made the risk exceptionally low, so why not?  But I wasn’t expecting that much out of it, especially the original Doom and its very direct sequel.

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What Actually Happened

Damn you realism, damn you real guns and human enemies, and damn you every mid-90s magazine dismissing all FPSes as worthless “Doom clones.”  I love old style FPSes.  The varied weapons, the enemies with attacks you can directly dodge, the fast movement and lack of reloading, the creative level design, Doom is everything I wanted in the genre but didn’t know until I played it.  The modern console remasters of Doom and its sequel have everything the PC versions did, and I love them.  Doom and its level pack like sequel are probably my favorite western developed games of the 20th century, and easily my favorite PC originating games of all time.  By extremely good fortune, I got into the series just a bit over a year from the phenomenal DOOM 2016, which I have raved about at length in previous articles.  Doom expanded my horizons in a wonderful way.

Twisted Metal (2012)

What I Expected

I was fascinated by Twisted Metal 2 years before I owned a PlayStation, the characters and concept were very interesting to me and I read all I could about it in game magazines.  My instincts correctly blocked any interest in Twisted Metal 3 and 4, but I eventually got to play TM2 and I liked the gameplay just as much as the characters and concept.  Twisted Metal Black rekindled my interest, even though I once again didn’t have the system it was on when the game was released.  I eventually got it and loved it even more than Twisted Metal 2.  Then the series just disappeared, despite the acclaimed revival.  There was nothing but a decent PSP game for a decade, but then hope came, another reboot of the series.  Not having stories for each car was a big negative, but maybe the unified story mode could make up for it, and the important part was getting more of that signature gameplay, with online I could use!

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What Actually Happened

989 rose from the grave and cursed Twisted Metal 2012.  That’s my best guess, anyway.  For one thing, the “real story mode” was actually just three traditional driver stories (previous games had 4-5 times as many, for reference) glued together, ranging from decent to an idiotic pun ending.  But that’s not the worst part.  The controls were extremely slippery and mocked me by putting in the classic style that I wanted to use but making it unplayable with a small change (Human biology trivia: we only have two thumbs.  Do not demand we use both analog sticks and face buttons at the same time).  And the “story” mode put in absolutely atrocious and mandatory checkpoint race missions that the controls made into pure torture.  Assuming this doesn’t kill the series, the next reboot needs to be much, much, MUCH better.

Knack

What I Expected

Knack has been a running joke ever since it was announced alongside the PlayStation 4.  A generic PS1/2-era platformer with a character getting bigger gimmick, this was what Sony chose to showcase their new console!?  Sony giving digital copies away with PS4s and not bothering to tell the people who bought the systems just made the game more of a laughing stock.  While I didn’t think the game looked horrible, it seemed like it focused on mindless combat with minimal platforming.  I had little desire to play it unless I could find it for really cheap, and even then it would mainly be so I could make fun of it while streaming it.  Well, the game was $5 on a PSN Flash Sale, so I jumped on it.  While in my Skype group chat I started the stream, ready to laugh at the infamous Knack.

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What Actually Happened

My thoughts upon starting the game were that the controls were actually very good.  Combat was pretty solid, much better than I was expecting and actually a significant challenge on hard mode.  Good enemy variety.  Wow, the levels are really long, and there are a ton of worlds.  I thought, “Maybe people were too harsh on this game, or maybe it all goes to repetitive hell soon”.  It didn’t.  The levels and enemies stayed varied throughout the game, the platforming wasn’t too frequent but there was enough to add variety to the combat.  The combat was fast paced and reminded me of classic beat-em-ups, specifically Turtles in Time for some reason (my favorite game in the genre).  Knack… Knack is a hidden gem.  It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s a very solid game that definitely kicks the crap out of PS4’s other 2013 and 2014 exclusives.  I’m genuinely anticipating Knack 2, which looks like a significant improvement on what turned out to be a solid foundation.  Give this game a chance: the fact that it’s getting a sequel is a miracle.

Grand Theft Auto III

What I Expected

If you’ve been following my articles, you probably saw this coming a mile away.  But if you haven’t, this is probably a pretty big surprise.  The first two negative example games are hated by most people, but not Grand Theft Auto 3.  This is considered one of the most influential games of all time, it basically started a genre and just look at how much you can do!  Being under 17 and having just recently convinced my parents to let me play M rated games when GTA3 came out in 2001, I decided not to push my luck and ignored it while everyone raved about it.  Years later, I finally picked up the game, my first GTA.  Having heard everyone rave about this game for years and intrigued by the length and scale of the game, I had pretty high hopes when I started.  What could possibly go wrong?

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What Actually Happened

Did you realize that I was referencing Bubsy there?  Now don’t worry, I’m not going to be a hyperbolic hater and say Grand Theft Auto 3 is comparable to Bubsy 3D in quality.

…But it is about as good as the original Bubsy.  Now before you tear into me and I retaliate with my story about how I missed out on a genre I really enjoy for years because everyone insisted GTA was the pinnacle of it (the first good GTA game is Saints Row 2), let me go over everything GTA3 does wrong.  Horrific aiming system, absurdly harsh penalty for dying that means you basically have to load your save every time that happens (and save points are NOT frequent), having to drive back to the start of missions every time you want to try again, needing to track down hidden packages that could be absolutely anywhere in the entire game if you want to mitigate that penalty for dying, this open world game from 2001 not having a freaking MAP.  Trying to actually play this game for any purpose besides mindless chaos is a nightmare, and the game still makes said chaos a pain in the ass to accomplish.  The consequences for dying or being arrested being so harsh goes completely against the “freedom” this game supposedly gave players.  And while future GTAs would fix some of the problems from this game, several gigantic ones stayed around until Grand Theft Auto V in 2013, the first game in the series I actually like.  And it would have been so easy to fix these problems (the HD remaster of San Andreas fixes enough to make it enjoyable), but no one seemed to care about them in any way until Grand Theft Auto IV’s fan backlash.  Sorry, but I think GTA3 is a genuinely bad game and probably the most overrated of all time.

Tetris Attack

What I Expected

Puzzle games seemed inherently boring to me when I was new to gaming.  Doing nothing in a game but rearranging blocks seemed completely pointless.  I was aware of Tetris because everyone on the planet is, but I had no desire to play it, similar games, or games that I would later discover only had its name slapped on them for a marketing gimmick (you know, we’d probably have this game on Virtual Console if it was called Yoshi’s Puzzle League).  I never would have chosen to play Tetris Attack, but Blockbuster had a promotion where renting it came with a free other game rental of your choice, so there was no reason not to rent it.  And since I had the cart, why not give it a quick chance?  But aside from the Yoshi’s Island setting, I wasn’t expecting to really enjoy anything in the game, it would probably be a more colorful Wordtris.

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What Actually Happened

Literally the second I started playing I loved it.  I could go on about why Tetris Attack is the best puzzle game of all time, going into how the mechanics fix a massive flaw inherent to almost every other competitive puzzle game, but that wasn’t what I was thinking when I played the game the first time.  The intuitive and addictive base gameplay is what drew me in when I thought I hated puzzle games.  The competitive mode gave things a fighting game feel that I loved.  There was just something so inherently satisfying about the game, I don’t remember exactly what I identified it as on that day over 20 years ago, but I know my love was instantaneous.  My horizons were expanded that day, and Tetris Attack has remained one of my favorite games on my favorite system without ever wavering.  That moment where a game connects with you instantly and against all your expectations is something that can’t be fully recreated at both my age where I have played so many games, and in the age we live in where you can easily watch videos and read all you want about every game before you play it.  There’s a magic in my first encounter with Tetris Attack that I will always remember.

So, there you have it, six games that flipped my perception of them upside down within the first play session.  Aside from my personal reminiscing, the takeaway from this article I want everyone to have is that you can’t really know what a game is like until you play it.  Even with games where my expectations weren’t so radically shattered, nothing except ruining the game by watching a full playthrough can really let you know what a game is like before you play it.  Always be prepared going into a game, it might be a tragic disappointment, but it could also be a magical moment or great surprise that you never saw coming.