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12/24/2016

Dark Souls in a Nutshell

Upon playing this game and not liking it many years ago, I endured incessant heckling about how I just needed to "git gud" and how my disliking the game for being a monotonous and dull experience meant that I had no credibility as a gamer. So, after having given it another chance at their behest and still not finding anything remotely enjoyable about it, it's time for me to do what I do best - throw out more caustic language about their god anonymous14884206669's favorite game ever and watch them bitch about how I didn't give it a "fair chance" and how they're a "better gamer than me" because they spent 1637 hours grinding out every last cheevo for their Xbox Live profile in the most boring pile of dung ever shat out and then at least forty times that long waging war in its name on the Internet just to prove to their sixth-grader god how "manly" and "cool" they are.  Which is right up there on the pathetic scale with playing Grand Theft Auto constantly and watching Scarface twice a day to prove how "Gangsta" you are. Or beating up digital effigies of your enemies in Soul Calibur to prove that you're a "tough guy"...

I could do that.  Or I could just explain why I don't think it's a very good game and get a much more violent and hateful response when it becomes clear that I'm not just "being a contrarian troll". Because the society we live in apparently treats any kind of critique toward the shallow entertainment media one consumes as a grave affront to one's personal honor that must be avenged at all costs, up to and including abuse, harassment and physical violence.  Yep, you're sure to change peoples' minds that way, guys!  Bullying people into silence or brainwashed obedience to the will of your personal echo chamber means you're always rightDon't forget to heap on the character assassination while you're at it, too - by casually dropping buzzwords like "racist" or "casual" or "fanboy" or "hypocrite" or "biased" in reference to your opponent mortal enemy, you can magically derail any criticism toward your idol of worship and turn any pack of mouthy forum-dwelling losers looking for someone to talk down to into your personal footmen!  Better yet, they'll never even spare a thought for what they're going to war over, whether your terrible personality and reputation might possibly disqualify your call to arms from consideration, or even whether anything you're saying is remotely true, because they simply don't care; they've been trained raised by Youtube, 4Chan, Tumblr and Something Awful to instantly accept anything a vicious sociopathic braggart says as gospel, to bark out mindless praise and affirmation at their every action and to never question anything they say or do under threat of being marked as one of their future victims, so all you have to do is beat the war drum over any petty, meaningless shit you can (the pettier and more meaningless, the better) and keep finding new scapegoats for them to launch hate campaigns against for a few days/weeks/months/years at a time and they'll do anything you say!  Hell, you could tell them "X said the sky is blue" and they'd walk out of class right then and there, march straight home, log in to their mom's Compaq and go to war with just as much puerility and vitriol as if X had burned their house down and shot their dog; they're that deranged!  So quit your job, drop out of college, drown your conscience in the bathtub, and give up on living a productive life so you and your army of mindless yes-men can fight forever in the name of a video game!  It's the only chance at fame or recognition you'll ever get in the entirety of your shallow, miserable and talentless existence, so fight, goddammit!!  FIGHT!!!

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The game opens with a long, long, long cutscene explaining how a bunch of characters rose up against a dark dragon and that's causing the world to slowly end, or something.  It all ends up being pretty inconsequential anyway because there's virtually no plot in the game itself unless you feel like going well out of your way to find easily-missed NPCs who fill in the story one tiny clue at a time.  Not to mention the fact that by the time you've endured all the dozens of cheap deaths and gotten to a new area, you've most likely stopped caring that this game has a story anyways.

Spoony: This idea is apparently based on author's experiences as a child, where he'd only get to read partially translated passages of various books and have to guess at what led the story to that point.  Fair enough I guess, but it really doesn't make for an interesting or captivating narrative when you just get random, out-of-context story fragments and the rest is filled in with pure guesswork in between long stretches of the same repetitive, tedious gameplay.  I'm by no means opposed to stories having loose ends in order to leave the door open for expansions or sequels, or just leaving elements open to fan interpretation, but leaving 90% of the plot, lore and characterizations as a blank slate so fanboys can fill it all in themselves and spend the next 30+ years waging war over the fact that "the company never said that my fan fiction wasn't 100% correct so that means IT IS!" is a crutch for the hackiest of hack writers.

Also, here's a thought: instead of reliving someone else's childhood frustrations and then bragging about how "smart" you are when you fill in all the gaps in their narrative with a novel's worth of unsubstantiated fan fiction, why not just put the controller down for a while, break out a pen and paper and write your own story instead?  It'd certainly be a much more interesting experience, save you about $54 in materials and spare you from roughly 1,583 hours of arguing with pushy, self-righteous meatheads over "what it really means and why you're a stupid asshole for thinking otherwise"...

Next come the mechanics, which are seemingly made as cryptic as possible to push the illusion that this game is a lot "deeper" and more complex than it really is.  It's fairly simple to intuit what stats like Strength and Endurance and Intelligence are for if you're an RPG fan, but "Humanity" is given no satisfactory explanation in the game itself, nor is it even explained that it's a limited resource you can easily run out of your first time through. Also not immediately clear is what weapons/armor you find are better or worse than what you currently have, or what starting classes' advantages and disadvantages are so you can plan your strategies accordingly.  You can't even easily find out what the requirements for equipment are as the game flatly refuses to tell you; you just have to grind souls, raise your strength stat point by point and hope that's enough to finally equip it without penalties.

Spoony: This stuff was excusable in early 1980s RPGs where they had to cram all the code for a game onto a handful of floppy disks and thus most or all descriptive text for classes, weapons, armor, etc. was relegated to the manual, but there's two key differences here.  First, they actually bothered to put that stuff in the manual, and second, this game came out in 2011.  We live in the age of DVD and Blu-Ray; I shouldn't have to stop every two minutes and look shit up on a fan-made wiki just to figure out basic game mechanics.  And that's assuming you aren't one of the first people to buy it on launch day, which would just mean you have to figure it all out yourself though blind guesswork and trial-and-error (and guess what: that isn't very fun!).

Anyway, we wake up as a zombie in a jail cell and soon escape, using a broken sword to fight our way through the extremely inspired gray castle dungeon and the one type of enemy within it - more zombies!  Exciting stuff, I know.  But you'd best get used to it, because that's the extent of the combat experience for a huge stretch of the game - the same one enemy type over and over again, each of whom can drain more than half of your health with a single hit.  They usually die in only 2-3 hits themselves, but regardless, it really doesn't make the combat very interesting.  Or entertaining.

Spoony: Dark Souls' combat is monotonous, predictable, and yet harshly unforgiving of a single innocuous mistake.  Yep, A+ game design there.  Do you think the people who "love" this game also insist that Double Dragon III: The Sacred Stones is a worthwhile endeavor?  ...Probably not, but only because there's no hipster cred in pretending to like that game anymore...

Not aiding matters are the janky physics in the game, which, among other things, cause your attacks to stop dead if you swing your sword in narrow corridors and hit a wall mid-swing, as well as causing enemies' dead bodies to ragdoll and glitch everywhere upon the slightest contact. Your character moves like they're coated in Crisco as they slip off platforms and ledges at the slightest provocation.  Your dodge move is all but useless as it takes nearly a full second to respond after pressing the button, ensuring that anything you try to dodge will almost always just hit you instead.  The lock-on system is also incredibly unintuitive, always seeming to target the most distant enemy in the area and giving any nearby foes a free shot at you in the process.  Not to mention the fact that accurately aiming ranged weapons is all but impossible, to the point where you might as well just not bother with them at all...

Spoony: I'm not a big fan of Ocarina of Time by any stretch, but I can still tell you that that game had a much better lockon system, ranged aiming and melee combat, as well as more polished physics and a much more intuitive control scheme than Dark Souls does.  And given that OOT came out thirteen years before this game did, that should tell you something!

Enemies are not bound by these limitations, however, and can freely swing and hit you through walls, floors, bars and ladders that stop your own attacks dead.  They're also positioned in dozens of hidey-holes and hidden niches along the path where they lie in wait for you to pass by so they can hit you in the back, turning a good 70% of the experience into a tedious game of hide-and-seek.  Not to mention that you're punished for dying by being sent back to the last checkpoint and respawning all of the enemies, as well as the fact that one innocuous wrong turn can put you in a new area far above your current level where even the basic low-level monsters can easily one-shot you unless you've spent days and days grinding out levels to face them on equal terms...

Spoony: An element which was also present in early JRPGs like Phantasy Star 1 and Final Fantasy II, and people instantly write those games off as "bad" for it.  So why does it get a free pass here?  ...Oh, right, because we live in the age of "Cheevos", where slogging through tons of grinding and tedious trial-and-error just to progress a little bit and earn a few brownie points with forum-trolling scum is now a "bragging right" and not the mark of someone who is extremely bored and has nothing better to do with their time.  It honestly wouldn't surprise me if game companies came up with the achievement system as a cheap excuse to pad out games with dozens of junk missions and busywork, as well as leave in tons of asinine and outdated design elements and call them "features for hardcore gamers".  Again, if I wanted to spend hours upon hours doing something mindless and unrewarding, I'd work a second job; at least then I'd get something more useful for the effort than flipping an arbitrary flag on my "gamer card"  that nobody but me ever looks at anyways.

Further compounding this problem is the game's online multiplayer functionality, in which anonymous players can either ally with you to defeat a boss, or (far more likely) pop into your game uninvited when they're 60-70 levels above you and kill you in one hit for cheap lulz, thereby causing you to lose all of your progress yet again through no fault of your own.  Moreso because the game's terrible netcode ensures that they constantly land backstabs on you even while you're facing directly toward them on your screen.  And unless I missed an option somewhere, there is no way to disable this feature short of pulling your system's LAN connection.  Which, if you're playing on the XBox 360 and have a digital copy of the game, also prevents you from playing the game at all.  Truly wonderful.

Spoony: And people still write off the PC as a viable gaming platform for having DRM in spite of that boneheaded decision by Microsoft.  The very same Microsoft that wanted to ban all used games from the XBox One and only repented after countless retail stores told them it would cut into their profits and they'd refuse to stock XBox One games as a result.  Yet when their beloved console does it, they're always quick to come up with a convenient excuse about why it's okay on their platform of choice, but when it happens on yours, it's pure evil and corporate greed.  Ah the joys of cherry-picking and narcissistic platform bias...

Throughout the whole experience, you're accompanied by a dreary, washed-out landscape of gray bricks, decayed gray and brown buildings, a cloudy gray sky, a flat gray landscape, and plenty of pitch black caves and sewers.  This game is about as appealing to look at as goose shit...

Spoony:  The story tells us that the world is dying, but would it be too much to ask for something other than the usual "gritty" game color palette here?  I paid a lot of money for a high-definition television capable of displaying over 16 million colors, and yet every game developer seems to insist on putting nothing but the three most unappealing ones to the human eye in their games.  We have the technology and the talent to make beautiful games sporting captivating and imaginative world design, heartfelt and passionate storytelling on the level of a good novel and dazzling visuals that can give Steven Spielberg himself a run for his money, yet every AAA development team is so devoid of imagination or humanity that they ignore all of that and instead model their games on the most destitute stretches of North Korea...

Brutal and reclusive dictatorship devastated by famine and disease, or From Software's latest blockbuster hit?  Search the file name for the startling answer!

The franchise as a whole also features some truly inspired audio design by immersing the player in the dulcet tones of completely silent dead air!  Not even a speck of ambient noise anywhere most of the time.  Between this, the drab washed-out visuals and the monotonous combat, it doesn't take long before you start falling asleep from sheer sensory deprivation.  I also have to say that for all the praise this series gets for being "epic" and "amazing" and "the best games ever created" (yes, seriously), it's severely under-produced in some very key areas...

Spoony: I'm not saying every game has to have an amazing orchestral score by Jeremy Soule or Yasunori Mitsuda, but can we at least have, you know, something interesting to listen to while we play?  It might lend a little bit of an adventurous/foreboding feel to the proceedings instead of just compounding the dullness and monotony...

The worst part is that they actually could have used this design decision in an interesting way.  In games like Thief: The Dark Project and Metal Gear Solid 3, the lack of music lets you listen for subtle audio cues that you need to gauge enemies' positions, either to avoid them or plan a stealth attack that won't alert a mass of enemies to your presence.  Hell, since most of the enemies in the game are either undead or freakish aberrations of nature, it even could have added perfectly to the horror of the scenario; in a game where one enemy is a significant threat and trying to take on a whole group at a time will usually result in your death, adding a stealth element could have easily helped to convey a tense mood.  But since all of Dark Souls' enemies remain perfectly still and completely silent until you're close enough for them to attack you and opportunities to backstab unaware monsters are extremely rare, the lack of sound design here just feels like it was done out of laziness.  And I'm sorry, but if you're going to try and sell me on the idea that any game is the "best ever created", then it'd better be pretty damn amazing and well-polished in every respect, sound design included!

Anyway, it doesn't take long before you realize that there's really just not much to the game beyond what it delivers to you in the first ten minutes - generic, desolate environments with copy-pasted enemy battles every five steps, pure trial-and-error guesswork on what path will take you to your next goal and which one will take you to instant death by a cheap trap or enemies far above your current level, and the occasional boss you'll have to stop and grind out souls for several hours for just to stand a chance against.  And what's your reward for figuring out an easy loophole in their AI, outlasting their absurdly long health bars and damage output and eventually beating them?  ...You get to go to another equally desolate, uninteresting area full of the same two repeated enemies and do it all again!  Yeah.  After the first couple bosses I'd had quite enough and shut it off for good.

Spoony: Do you recall my earlier nutshells and reviews where I rambled about how mediocre games like Jade Empire, Mass Effect, Bioshock, Dishonored and Dragon Age got tons of acclaim for stuff that PC games had already done better years prior simply because they were released on consoles and their fans had never played anything like them before owing to platform bias?  Same idea here; Dark Souls may have some of the elements of a good nonlinear adventure, but it's lacking the most important one in that there is no hook to the game whatsoever.  An open-ended adventure tailored toward "hardcore gamers" is all well and good, but when the controls and physics in the game are such a chore to deal with, the aesthetics are so unappealing, there's no decent puzzles or narrative whatsoever and the whole combat experience the game builds itself on is so one-note, janky and unforgiving, you really have no desire to keep playing it after the first few hours, let alone see it through to the end.

...Unless, of course, you're motivated by factors almost entirely unrelated to the game itself and think you have something to prove by grinding out points and items for 538 hours to unlock a flag on your "Gamer Card" that nobody but you ever looks at anyway.  But if you're not swayed by the fleeting promise of "prestige" that arbitrary digital trophies at least 48,611 people have already earned will allegedly bring you, Dark Souls just comes off as a completely forgettable experience that only got as much attention as it did because its publisher bought tons of advertising and glowing press coverage for it.  And since we've already seen that most people will unquestioningly treat anything that their top-secret repository of ultimate wisdom, Google's "I'm Feeling Lucky" button, says as gospel... well, draw your own conclusions there.

Oh, and I just adore the fact that this game's fans go around claiming to be "old school" and "hardcore" while shunning actual old-school and hardcore games like Ultima and Wizardry and Bard's Tale and Nethack because "lol shit grafx fuck those games".  They also conveniently ignore the fact that the Souls franchise itself is a "dumbed down" reworking of an actual old-school game franchise they can't even name without checking Google or Wikipedia, let alone honestly claim to have played.   Hell, they can't even name a single reason why their favorite game is so great that isn't an empty platitude taken word-for-word from one of the top reviews on Metacritic.  So why is Souls the one and only franchise they ever need to play to qualify themselves as "hardcore" and "old school" gamers?   ...Oh right, because the publisher's brainwashed shills told them that it was the best franchise of all time and that as manly men they're obligated to replay it at least sixteen times a week and bray constantly on the GameFAQs forums about how it's the best thing since crystal meth and anyone who ever does otherwise is a "fake gamer" or a "content tourist" who needs to be bullied into silence so that they can hold on to their nonexistent prestige and make sure their toadies never dare to have an independent thought, let alone begin to question their authority and splendor.  Boy, being a thankless, unpaid rent-a-thug in the Namco Bandai Marketing Department's Personal Army is sure a great substitute for any actual ambition or fulfillment in your life, isn't it?


And no, you cannot convince me that there are people who play this game because they enjoy it, especially when every single "fan" of this game I've ever spoken with or listened to in passing makes a point of ensuring that every other word that leaves their mouths is a parroted line about how much they hate "filthy casuals" and that any remote mention of someone not liking the game is met with a snarky knee-jerk soundbite taken word-for-word from the IGN forums about how they're "not real gamers" or should "play some shitty Wii game for babies instead".  Every single one.  Acting like an elitist shitbag because you're good at the current flavor-of-the-month video game is the equivalent of buying a 15-ton truck so you can drive like an asshole constantly and triple-park everywhere you go - a desperate bid to distract from and compensate for your other, more embarrassing shortcomings.  Not to mention the fact that nobody, least of all you, is even going to give a rat's shit about Dark Souls anymore once your hipster clique latches onto the next big holier-than-thou trend and turns that into their new religion instead.  And yes, it will happen sooner or later.  Do you remember how huge Guitar Hero was a few years back?  Sure you do - it was THE game Activision said you had to invest every dime to your name in and devote every waking moment to becoming a perfect hardcore 100% expert at or else you were just another casual noob faggot loser!  Does anyone spare it a thought these days?  Judging from the hundreds of copies and plastic guitars I've seen collecting dust in bargain bins at used game shops and flea marts, not really.  Well, except maybe that guy who dropped out of high school to devote himself to playing it on a professional level;  I'm sure that's not a decision he regrets every day of his life!

Not to put too fine a point on this, but at the time of this writing I'm one of 416 people in the world with a platinum trophy on Disgaea D2 (100% completion being reliant on scammy DLC I refuse to buy) and one of 165 who has 100% on Mega Man Legacy Collection.  Do I put myself on a pedestal and go around bragging about how my achievements make me an "elite gamer" and how other people should "get gud or bow before my mighty skills"?  No, I don't.  Because I know that they're video games - electronic media created for the purpose of entertainment - and nobody of any worth anywhere is going to sing my praises over a video game, whether I'm good at it or not*.  Sorry to tread on your dream of putting your Gamer Card on a resume as "work experience" so you can leverage a job at some hack gaming publication where you get paid to pretend to have your own opinions about things, but that's not now it works; as corruptible as they are, those people got their jobs by earning degrees and having actual work experience in the field of journalism.  So you might as well quit trying to earn the respect of narcissistic nine-year-olds on the GameFAQs forums by sucking on their assholes constantly and doing everything they tell you to without question (because that's how respect works... right?) and refocus your efforts on getting a real job already.  Because if you put one-tenth as much effort into that as you did into being an arrogant, sociopathic kiss-ass on the Internet, you'd probably go a lot further in life.  Fuck, even earning minimum wage at Taco Bell is a much more dignified use of your time compared to signing it away to someone whose greatest only accomplishments in life are playing a video game and being a mouthy shithead on the IGN forums; if someone is that pathetic and useless, what do you possibly stand to gain by turning yourself into their doormat?  Ask yourself that question honestly.

*And before some wiseass decides to call me out on my "ignorance" of the professional gaming circuit: This statement applies to professional gamers as well.  Whether it's Justin Wong or James Rolfe or Sinister1 or even Markiplier or PewDiePie, any one of them will tell you that they're entertainers first and gamers second.  No matter how they do it - competing in tournaments to show off their skills, playing games blindfolded for charity, speeding through games using clever glitches, or just having an interesting personality to watch while they play games and react to the events therein - their livelihood is reliant on drawing in an audience and keeping them captivated.  If they're not drawing a crowd, they're not getting sponsors and donations.  If they're not getting sponsors and donations, they're not getting paid.  If they're not being paid, they're not professional gamers anymore.  It really is as simple as that.  Not to mention that the quickest way to fail at being an entertainer is to take one's audience for granted, throw them under the bus at every turn and generally behave like a disgusting, sociopathic cretin; I'm sure Phil Burnell and Noah Antwiler and Chris Bores can tell you all about that.  Or rather, they might if their self-destructive narcissism didn't constantly blind them to actual reality...

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to play another "hardcore" game that features a palette comprised of much more than muted greys and browns, far more inspired and varied audio, and an overall level of polish that ensures its gameplay is crisp, well-paced, intuitive and legitimately challenging, rather than simply being difficult because of the shortcomings of its design:

And rather than doing so to engage in meaningless dick-waving, I'll be acting in the interest of an "outdated" concept to today's gamer culture:  for my own entertainmentGASP!  Heresy!

Oh, and if I want a good game based around real-time combat, exploration, fragmented storytelling and battling the occasional enormous boss monster, I'll pick up one of these instead:




 



 


 
 


Thank you and good night.

PS: Tracking down my contact information so you can parrot glib talking points from the Gamespot forums about how I'm "not a real gamer" for not playing underwhelming junk solely because your hipster god said to, or that "you just hate the game because you suck you whiny bitch", or how "Whoeverthefuck Miyazaki is a genius on par with Shakespeare or Mozart or da Vinci or Stephenie Meyer and you're just too stupid to understand his brilliance" will only make me like "your" favorite game less, so kindly abstain from that.  Thanks in advance!