Thursday, 14 June 2012

My thoughts on Dark Souls

Dark Souls infuriating and sadistic level of difficulty brings me dangerously close to self harm. I enjoy a challenge and I love to push myself. But Dark Souls presents an unfair one, where the concept of everything being out to kill you is taken to a ridiculous and obscenely powerful degree. After being killed in one hit far too many times by regular enemies and being forced to waste such a massive amount of time going through areas I've already been through, I came to the conclusion that this game is simply not worth playing.

EDIT: I lied. I have returned to Dark Souls and have now beaten it. As I got further into the game, it actually became a lot easier and a lot more fun - particularly on my second run when I decided to play as a Sorcerer. With that said, I stand by most of my comments in this post, but I'll admit it mostly applies to the first half of a New Game. There will be a few amendments in bold throughout the post.

Probably the most defining aspect of Dark Souls is that the game doesn't really tell you anything. Aside from the very basic controls, the game doesn't offer any real hints as to how it should be played. You are expected to die... A lot. This is fine when it comes to learning game mechanics or how to deal with a new kind of enemy because it feels like a genuine learning experience. The flaw in setting up a game in this way occurs when what you're "learning" is that an enemy has a completely unblockable attack which kills you in one hit, or was hiding in a corner and is now stabbing you in the back. I should never have to restart an entire section of a game because I was sucker punched by something I had no way of foreseeing. That kind of trial and error gameplay is bad game design and revoltingly unfair.

This is a comment based more on comments than further experience, but "sucker punch" isn't quite the right expression. It's more just "Fuck you" whether you're prepared or not. The comment brought up the example of the Capra Demon: A fight against an extremely vicious boss in a very confined area. The Capra Demon would be one of my favourites in the game if it weren't for the fact he's aided by two attack dogs who all gang up on you the second you step into the boss room. Whether you can escape their first attack and get to a relatively safe area to dispatch them is quite literally down to pure luck. It shouldn't be.

Then there's the section in Anor Londo which puts you up against two Snipers wielding bows which basically shoot spears at you. You have to run up narrow pathways to avoid them and once you get to the top, dispatch of at least one to get past. This is one of the most frustrating sections of the game; it took one of my friends at least 50 times to actually get past it. I got slightly lucky. Once you get up to the Sniper, you have to kill him or find some way of pushing him off the very narrow walkway you're on. His attacks can knock you off very easily, even if you have a good shield. Did I mention the other Sniper is probably still shooting you? 

The final example I want to give here is Ornstein and Smough: easily the hardest bosses in the game. I also consider them to be the worst bosses in the game, and it's connected to the difficulty. Firstly, getting to them every time can be just a bit of a pain. Secondly, you face them both at the same time. Much of the emphasis in Dark Souls is on picking off enemies one by one wherever you can. Good luck with that against these two. They are both very fast and wont let up on the attack for any more than a second each. Even if you manage to kill one of them, the other will then become a lot more powerful, gain more (often unblockable) attacks , and fully restore their health. Fighting just one of these bosses on their own would be a challenge, fighting them at the same time is cheap.

The trial and error style would work if the penalty for death wasn't so irritating. You're pretty much expected to get curb-stomped the first few times you fight a boss until you work out its attack patterns and how to dodge its attacks. I can't complain about that; they did the same thing in Rayman Origins, another game I've been playing recently and I've greatly enjoyed. The difference between the two games is the penalty you suffer when you die. Rayman just throws you back to the start of the boss fight. Dark Souls sends you all the way back to the last bonfire, meaning you have to go back through an area you've already been through to get back to the boss fight and all of the enemies you have already beaten respawn. This gets really frustrating after the fifth or sixth time you die because the game begins getting really repetitive. If it wasn't for the massive amount of backtracking you have to do between each attempt, the bosses would still be frustratingly hard, but at least enjoyably so.

The issue here isn't that you die a lot playing this game, it's that it's not rewarding enough to justify the amount of time and effort you have to put in. When I finally beat Ornstein and Smough, my reaction wasn't "HA! Yes! That was so much fun and worth the hour or two I put into it!" It was "IT'S FINALLY OVER! I'm NEVER doing that again." This is mostly down to the cheapness behind the fight's difficulty; it's an issue I didn't experience with, say, the Great Grey Wolf Sif or even the final boss. But it's also because... Well, what's the point? Really?

You also lose any gained 'souls', basically experience, when you die. You can only use experience at bonfires, so it's not as if you can use it up as you go along. You can get back your experience if you pick it up as a blood stain, but if it's in the boss arena, you're going to die again. Then it's lost forever. So it's not even as if you're getting gradually stronger from slicing through the same corridors over and over again.

This leads me on to something about the game I absolutely hate, and that's the way it makes no effort at all to help the player. It's bad enough I'm fighting the clunky controls, but by throwing away my experience when I die, the game is actively trying to stop me from increasing my stats and improving my chances to succeed.

A side note: I don't think "clunky" describes the controls as well as I could. They're just not that fun. It's slow, repetitive and boring. Praise the variation in enemies all you like, but it almost always boils down to the same monotonous pattern: Wait for the enemy to attack, dodge or block, get in a shot or two, get back to a safe spot, rinse and repeat. This adds to my issue of the repetitiveness of having to backtrack so much when you die. Playing this game, you're quite literally doing the same thing over and over for hours. There's not much you can do to bring variety to proceedings; no special attacks, not much variety in the attacks you do have, and not many different ways of approaching the same enemy. Of course, if there were special attacks, the game would probably find some way of punishing you for even daring to have fun using them.

There's a very elitist culture which surrounds Dark Souls: "It's good because it's difficult." If the comments have proved anything, it's that you simply aren't allowed to dislike this game! People can enjoy the challenge of the game, that's fine; but Dark Souls seems to intentionally shut out anyone who isn't automatically good at the game and refuses to let them pass.  There's no difficulty adjustment setting; there isn't a reliable way to grind for experience because of the whole losing it when you die thing; there is nothing to help you. That's just unacceptable.

The environments are detailed and... I'm gonna go with interesting. The designers obviously went to a lot of effort to make things look good. What keeps me from saying the world of Dark Souls is beautiful or the scenery equivalent of porn - sentiments I'm admittedly quick to use normally - is because it isn't. Almost everything suffers from a terrible case of Real is Brown, presumably to make everything look dark and gritty. Unfortunately this means that regardless of how detailed the setting gets, it looks boring. Of course, you'll probably be getting your ass handed to you often enough to not notice that this game has any graphics at all other than a condescending "YOU DIED".

I will give a lot of praise to the actual level design, though. Probably my favourite thing about the game. Most of the levels are very intricately designed, with lots of shortcuts and hidden areas to find. If the gameplay was a bit more enjoyable, this could be one of my favourite games ever. With that said, some of the later levels in the game are a bit lacking compared to earlier ones in terms of layout. The Crystal Cave, Lost Izalith, and Tomb of the Giants are all less interesting and pretty linear. 

I will also criticize Blighttown, which is the worst designed level in the game in my opinion. The long and the short of it is that most of the level is spent on narrow, shaky walkways suspended high in the air. One wrong move - or one attack from an enemy with enough knockback - will send you straight down a very long fall to your death.

Maybe I'm just missing something really obvious, but Dark Souls is the most frustrating game I've played since the infamous Sonic 06. If you want something like it, I'd suggest slowly dragging a plastic fork up and down your arm. It's a similar experience, much cheaper, doesn't waste as much time and it's marginally less painful than playing the damn thing.

A very sensible thing to do if you own the game.
DISCLAIMER: I do not advocate self harm. That shit hurts.


  1. I hope you don't plan on making a career out of this you moronic little prick. The only thing worse than your writing is your taste.

    Oh and the sign in your picture? Take another look at it... an arrow pointing to Sonic with the words "Not as good" written above.

    1. Oh, I'm so sorry! My opinion on a game differs from you! How could I be so foolish! I'm genuinely sorry, and I'd like to thank you for telling me that my taste is bad. I'm going to ring my mum and tell her she did a lousy job raising me.

  2. Oh look a game that's actually challenging??? it's total shit i'm telling you guys!!

  3. so you purchase Dark Souls, the PREPARE TO DIE edition, and your main complaint, is that you died too much? pretty much the only major flaw in the game is that there is almost no guidance throughout the entire thing, but that is all part of the fun in a way.. once you sacrifice a bit, actually do some research on the game, learn all the mechanics, it does feel really rewarding. the whole game is a learning experience. if you couldn't get the grasp of it you simply are bad or did not put enough time into it..

    1. I didn't get the Prepare to Die edition, but that's neither here nor there.

      If you had read the post a little more closely, you'll notice it's not dying too much that I'm complaining about. I even praise using death as a way of teaching the player - though I still think Megaman does the best job of teaching. The problem I have is that - in a game where you're expected to die constantly - the punishment for death shouldn't be so severe. You lose your experience, you can be sent back a frustratingly long way, and the deaths can sometimes come out of nowhere.

      I was not bad at this game. I've been told I got about 1/3 of the way through and - while it was difficult - I ploughed through. I gave up because it wasn't rewarding, only annoying. By stopping me from saving manually (The curse status. That is all I need to say), making me repeat challenges I've already completed and punishing me for daring to have a bit of fun, this game was fighting me at every single turn.

    2. Well, friend of mine;

      Dark Souls is 100% role-play. The entire point of the game is to literally look at the game like you're a part of it. Otherwise, I promise that you will get nothing out if it. "I died again? This game sucks." and "I finally killed that boss! God, that took forever. This game sucks." is all you will get out of it.

      Gamer perspective: Crap, man. The character creation takes forever, I keep dying from these random enemies, and the story line is vague as hell! This game sucks.

      Role-player perspective: This is amazing! The character is fluid and realistic, I got interesting tidbits about the history every step I progress, and this game makes me really think logically! This game is really hard, but it feels fantastic whenever I kill a boss! And better yet, there is always a story behind each boss and enemy I face. This is freakin awesome.

      I don't mean to be rude at all; it's just a differing in perspective. However, there are a LOT of die-hard Dark Souls fans out there (including myself). Insulting Dark Souls is like telling the world that you hate Halo and think that Call of Duty is the best game ever. Seriously. This is the internet we're talking about here.

      A die-hard Dark Souls player

    3. The thing is, there are legitimate criticisms of the game. It's just that this guy hasn't actually touched on any of them.

  4. How far did you get, exactly?

    There's a tiny handful of areas where I think a "sucker punch" like you describe is applicable: The capra demon, the hellkite wyvern, Sen's fortress, and maybe the bed of chaos. Everywhere else, enemies are usually highly visible or in identical locations, allowing you to prepare. If they're not, you should still have had it drilled in your head to keep your shield up and ready to block.

    However, even in the examples I gave, you still receive plenty of warning. The Capra demon is behind a fog wall, which is usually a hint that something is coming up. The hellkite wyvern's flame breath is bullshit, but you usually won't die from it, which should give you time to run. Sen's fortress is well known for it's traps. If you're not looking for them, you're an idiot. The only thing I think has a valid complaint is the Bed of Chaos, but even the devs admit they didn't get that bossfight right (and I have a feeling you haven't even reached there yet).

    Your complaint about losing experience doesn't seem that valid. Most Dark Souls players learn early on not to hoard souls, or they're so experienced with the level that they won't die. Bonfires are spaced fairly well, especially considering the numerous shortcuts that exist in the game. Even if you lose the souls, so what? It's crazy easy to earn them back.

    My final complaint is about you calling the scenery brown and gritty. This might apply to the undead burg. But Anor Londo singlehandedly makes up for that remark. If you decide to keep playing, you're going to lose your breath at that area. And then you've also got the Darkroot forest, Crystal caves, and the Duke's archives, all of which are some incredibly beautiful areas.

  5. I loved your review of the game! I feel the same way about it. I think I'll try to beat it in bite size pieces, but so far, all I can say is that it's infuriating to die.