Dead Space is one of my favourite video game franchises. It’s like it’s made to appeal to me – horror, sci-fi and twisted monsters intent on tearing you apart. During the series’ hey-day, I enthusiastically consumed every bit of Dead Space media I could get my hands on. The franchise has had its ups and downs, which makes it ripe for a Love/Hate series! Naturally, we’ll start at the beginning with 2008’s Dead Space…
Solid Gameplay – Dead Space was conceptualized as a spiritual successor to Resident Evil 4 and builds on that game’s foundation in some fantastic ways. For a long time people said that the restrictive controls in early survival horror games were a key part of the experience. Dead Space showed that you could have free movement and enjoyable gameplay and still have a terrifying game experience. More specifically:
Strategic dismemberment makes combat far more interesting than just making enemies into bullet sponges. Blowing limbs off also dynamically changes necromorph attacks – cut out their legs and they’ll crawl after you, blow off their head and they’ll flail wildly, take off an arm and they’ll have one less way to kill you, etc. Some enemies are also only vulnerable to specific attacks so it keeps combat constantly engaging.
Stasis and kinesis are also great tools for combat, light puzzle-solving and environmental traversal. Stasis in particular is essential to survive the swarms of enemies you’ll face in the late game and kinesis can be the difference between life and death when ammo gets scarce.
Another thing that I really appreciate about Dead Space‘s design is that ammo and health pickups are wisely restricted to keep you desperate, especially in the late game. I can still remember getting into combat encounters where I had a handful of ammo and had to actively strategize how to get through the next encounter alive, it makes for intense, thrilling gameplay.
Immersive In-Universe HUD – One of the coolest design aspects of Dead Space is that it doesn’t have a traditional HUD showing health, ammo, etc. Instead, these are all built into Isaac’s outfit (RIG) and weapons. Unlike some other games at the time which tried to cut down on HUD elements (such as Splinter Cell: Double Agent, which removed the visibility meter for a binary red light/green light), the information visible to the player isn’t inadequate either, everything they would need to know is clearly communicated and visible at a glance.
Sound Design – One aspect in which the Dead Space series was universally commended on was its sound design. From the blasts of your weapons, to the screeches and roars of the necromorphs (I can still remember being freaked out the first time I heard a Divider), to the sounds of things scuttling around out of sight, it all helps to create a pervasive horror atmosphere for the game. The way that sound is almost entirely absent during sections that take place in space are particularly notable, featuring just dull thuds which makes these areas an eerie highlight.
The Horror – Dead Space‘s horror takes elements of the Resident Evil games and mixes them in with influences from The Thing, Alien, Event Horizon and zombie movies to give us an enticing cocktail. You’re just constantly on edge, unsure where or when danger is going to come at you. It even trains you over time – is something going to come out of that air vent? Is that slasher just playing dead (you quickly learn to stomp every corpse, even human ones, just to be safe)? When the door opens is there going to be something on the other side? The resource management I’ve previously mentioned also helps here, keeping every single encounter tense and ensuring that you can never let your guard down.
Enemy Variety – Dead Space features fifteen unique forms of necromorphs, enhanced forms of most of these, plus three boss monsters, all presenting unique threats and requiring different methods to dispatch them. This variety helps ensure that Dead Space‘s combat encounters never get old as the enemies and environments can be mixed and matched to present unique challenges. Particular highlights include the Pregnants, whose bloated chests will spew out several small enemies if shot, Leapers (who never fail to stress me out) and the shriek-inducing Twitchers. Also worth mentioning is The Hunter, a necromorph that rapidly regrows its limbs and stalks you as you try to complete your objectives during two parts of the game. The first time you encounter it, you have to use kinesis to create a path to escape as it’s bearing down on you – I can still remember being freaked out!
Organic World Building – Like many games of its time, Dead Space populates its environment with audio logs and diary entries, filling out its world without forcing the player to sit through mandatory exposition dumps. Some of these logs are quite affecting – as you travel through the game you’ll find snippets from Jacob Temple and Elizabeth Cross, another couple who are fighting to reunite with one another. When you finally catch up with them, it makes for a tragic moment because you’ve invested so much in their journey and serves to make the psychotic Dr. Mercer that much more of a villain. In addition, the game imparts details about fictional concepts like planet cracking, the state of the galaxy and the Church of Unitology organically, giving us a sense of what the Dead Space universe is like without having to show us directly.
The Ishimura Layout – The Ishimura makes for a claustrophobic and cramped locale to try to survive on. It feels appropriately old, grimy and lived-in and each deck has its own unique feel to it. It’s a fun, varied environment that helps drive most of the game’s terrors.
Brutal Death Sequences – No one wants to die in a video game, but if it’s gonna happen then at least you can revel in the morbid satisfaction that is Dead Space‘s BRUTAL death sequences. Isaac gets chopped to bits in various manners that really drive home how relentless and merciless the necromorphs are.
The Story is Functional But Unremarkable – The story in Dead Space is pretty simple – bad stuff happening in space, Isaac volunteers to man the rescue mission because his girlfriend is caught up in the middle of it all. From there you spend the next several hours surviving and uncovering exactly what happened, but a lot of it ultimately boils down to bitch work: something bad happens on the ship, so Isaac gets told to go fix it. It works and it helps drive the game forward, but it’s not super compelling on its own. There’s a twist towards the end that is also not particularly satisfying because the red herring is really obvious.
Oxygen Meter is Kind of Pointless – Isaac has a limited reserve of oxygen when entering the vacuum of space. Initially this creates some additional anxiety and you can even upgrade your RIG to have a greater reserve… however, this is a waste of a power node. You realize pretty quickly that oxygen is more of a threat than a real problem – after all, the developers had to design all vacuum sections to be completed without requiring upgrades. In addition, there are O2 refill stations and, if that wasn’t enough, portable air canisters. Seriously, I don’t think I’ve ever died from lack of O2, nor have I bothered to waste my valuable power nodes on upgrading my supply. Spend that shit on stasis or your guns.
Zero G Sections Are Clunky – While functional at the time, movement in the zero gravity segments of the game is pretty stiff. Basically, you have to aim at platforms and press a button, which will launch Isaac towards it automatically. Again, this works, but compared to later games in the series, it’s far less enjoyable to move around in zero G.
Situational Weapons – There are seven weapons in Dead Space, each with a primary and alternate fire mode… and some of these are just crap. The flamethrower in particular is almost universally acknowledged to be dogshit in nearly every situation, especially when its jobs could easily be done with a less situational weapon. To add insult to injury, it can’t even be used in a vacuum in this game and can’t even hit most of the bosses at all! The Pulse Rifle and Ripper are also quite weak without significant investment in upgrades. I also never liked the Force Gun, it’s is only really good for knocking back enemies, but I’d rather just kill them outright. Personally, I tend to stick with the Plasma Cutter as my mainstay, Line Gun for heavier targets, then maybe the Pulse Rifle, Ripper or Contact Beam for my last two slots, depending on what I need at the time.
Silent Isaac – The sequels made Isaac’s “silent protagonist” turn in Dead Space worse, but even at the time this was a dated element of the game. While Isaac does manage to show a bit of personality just through his actions, it really limits how engaging he can be, in favour of being a blank slate for the player to project on. Even then, it’s just plain weird that he’s not talking to people who are talking to him or reacting to all the horrors going on. Like, he’s not gonna say anything about the monsters or the people committing suicide in front of him…?
Final Boss is Disappointing – After hours of tense horror, the final boss fight suddenly turns Dead Space into an action spectacle. It goes against the whole point of the game and doesn’t provide much of a challenge for that matter. I feel like the regenerating Hunter provided a better template for how to make a horrifying boss, but the Hive Mind makes for a disappointing finale.
DLC – Being a PS3/Xbox 360 game, Dead Space comes with obligatory DLC in the form of reskinned costumes and weapon skin packs. The costumes that give you in-game effects that shake up the game slightly, but there really isn’t much to them and they don’t change the game enough to be worth it in my opinion. Effectively, it’s DLC for the sake of DLC.
Over a year ago I wrote the first of what would become my Love/Hate series, a retrospective of the pros and cons of each generation of Pokemon. Since then, we’ve obviously gotten the start of another whole generation of Pokemon with Sword and Shield and, having completed the main story and gotten some time to mull over my feelings on the game I feel like it’s time for a Love/Hate update. That said, this is of course only my opinion and there’s the potential for it to change over time (opinions on the Pokemon themselves in particular are likely to soften as more time passes). So, with that in mind, let’s get this started!
Raids – Easily my most-anticipated feature from the previews was raid battles, which pit four players against an extra-powerful Dynamax Pokemon. I’m happy to say that these are about as fun as I had hoped, requiring some additional strategies to get through successfully. That said, for four- or five-star raids you’re definitely going to need 2 or 3 human companions because the default NPC trainers are terrible.
Dynamax Makes Gym Battles Climactic – Restricting Dynamax to raid battles and gyms was a truly inspired move. By the time you get to a gym, you’re already pumped up by the music and the roar of the crowd as you march out onto the turf and then send out your first Pokemon. Then, when the battle is drawing to a close, you finally get your chance to bring out your Dynamax Pokemon and things get even bigger and more exciting. I have to admit, with these rare intervals, Dynamax is a really cool feature and the flashy moves make for a suitably epic climax to each challenge, almost like a reward in itself.
Some Great Characters – I was actually pretty surprised how well fleshed out many of the characters were in Sword and Shield. Hop starts out as your standard friendly rival, but he actually learns to not just define himself in the shadow of his superstar brother or feel like he’s hurting the family legacy. Meanwhile, Marnie is carrying the hope and dreams of her town on her shoulders as she battles through the Gym Challenge. Bede goes from arrogant prick, to desperate to prove himself worthy, to humble over the course of the story. It’s also pretty exciting to see Sonia earn the mantle of Pokemon Professor for her efforts in studying the Darkest Day. All-in-all, these characters are great and are going to be remembered for years to come.
Quality of Life Improvements – As always, Sword and Shield have brought some much-needed refinements to the formula which just make playing the game more enjoyable. These include Surprise Trades which go on in the background while you play, nature-changing mints, XP candies for quick and easy level-ups, access to PC boxes at any time, name raters and lotto-ID in every Pokemon Center (halle-freaking-lujah!) and the introduction of TRs to replace move tutors. It’s a lot of little things, but add them all up and it makes the experience of actually playing the game far more enjoyable.
Spoiled For Choice – While much has been made of the restricted Pokedex in these games, you are absolutely spoiled for choice at the start of the game. Most Pokemon games will very slowly dole out the available Pokemon, often repeating the same ones over and over from route to route. Sword and Shield say “screw that!” and give you two packed routes and then throw you into the Wild Area in the first couple hours, absolutely spoiling you with choices for a solid team. While I did eventually settle into a composed team by the second or third gym, the amount of choice you get off the bat was impressive and helps ease the sting of the restricted Pokedex in the first few hours.
Customization – Due to an increased emphasis on multiplayer options, Game Freak have really upped the number of customization options available to the player. Almost everyone I’ve encountered playing the game has customized their character beyond the default outfits (which is almost too bad because even the default outfits are really cool). Even better, the Card Maker allows you to design your own player trading card, which has no real purpose other than to be cool… and I love it. It’s such a small, pointless feature but probably my favourite thing in the whole game.
Some Really Cool Pokemon Designs – As always, there are some really great Pokemon introduced this generation. Corviknight, in particular, is probably the coolest “starter bird” Pokemon of all time, while Yamper and Wooloo make your heart melt as much as any Eevee could, and the Galarian forms are all quite interesting and distinct. There are some wildly different Pokemon in this game and several of these experiments pay off in interesting ways.
Graphics – Much has been made about the graphics in this game and, while I’m nowhere near as critical about them as some, I understand the criticism. Personally, I like the game’s aesthetic and think that it looks very pretty in places like Wedgehurst, Galar Mine, Slumbering Weald and Ballonlea. That said, the game has an embarrassing amount of pop-in, with characters just disappearing into thin air if you move more than a couple dozen meters away. Worse, the frame rate drops in the Wild Area are really bad a times, especially when playing online (and, considering that this is basically how you’re supposed to be playing in the Wild Area, this is a big problem). The game doesn’t even look particularly taxing for a Switch game so this lack of optimization is frustrating.
The Wild Area – A lot of people love the much-hyped Wild Area, but I’m pretty mixed on it personally. On the one hand, it’s certainly cool being able to explore the world, but the design is very limited. Each area is basically just three patches of grass spawning the same three or four Pokemon over and over again. The world would feel more lively if there were way more Pokemon in each area instead of just having to see the same three again and again – it’s pretty bad when traditional routes feel way more lively and diversified than your open world. World traversal is also a pain in the ass because you can’t climb over even tiny hills. Oh, and the dynamic weather sounds great, until you get stuck encountering Pokemon over and over again in snow or sandstorms, trying to figure out where you’re trying to go. Look, I think the Wild Area’s a decent trial run of this concept of an open world Pokemon game and I do think that this is where the series is going to be going in the future, but it’s going to need to feel way more open and lively if it’s going to be better than traditional routes.
Camping – Much was made of camping in this game, but there’s very little going on with it. I mean, it’s pretty cool seeing your Pokemon (or an online player’s) walking around the camp, but it gets boring pretty quickly. You can also play with your Pokemon, but there’s only two toys available and they also get very boring quickly. Then the only thing left to do is make a curry, of which there are a 151 different varieties! There are probably some players who are going to have fun filling out their “curry dex”, but it’s a pretty lengthy mini-game which involves a ton of resource gathering with little reward… basically, for all the effort you go through, your Pokemon just get some XP, happiness and get healed. It can be handy when you’re out in the Wild Area and need to heal, but just using a healing item is far faster and less of a pain in the ass.
In-Game Events – Holy crap, Game Freak are actually using online functionality to add things to their game and keep players engaged? So far they have been having special events which make certain Gigantamax Pokemon appear more frequently in raids and have even released new Gigantamax Pokemon into the game (apparently there are 30+ unavailable Pokemon in the game’s code which are going to be released in future). That said, there Pokemon are such a pain to obtain. First off, you have to find the Pokemon to begin with. Second, these tend to be five-star raids and therefore require at least a couple online partners to succeed, which can be enough of a pain in the ass to wrangle. Then you still have to win the raid and you only get one chance to catch the Pokemon. What if it breaks out? Too bad, you have to go through the whole process all over again of finding the Pokemon in a raid, wrangling your partners, winning the raid, etc… Just trying to get a Gigantamax Snorlax recently took me hours of unsuccessful attempts.
Weak Story – As good as some of the characters in Sword and Shield are, the story surrounding them might just be the weakest in the entire main series.
For the story itself, you get endorsed by the Champion and go complete all the gyms. Every once in a while something unusual happens, but for nearly the entire game the Champion tells you to forget about it while he goes to deal with it instead. The “evil team”, Team Yell, aren’t even all that much to talk about either, they temporarily block your path and fizzle out quickly. The villain is potentially interesting, but he gets very little development and makes maligned villains of games past like Lysandre look positively inspired by comparison. Eternatus is also very poorly explained as a villainous Pokemon.
Worst of all though is the post-game, which involves you running around Galar to each of the gyms and fighting a bunch of repetitive, weak raid battles… but you don’t even get a chance to catch the Pokemon you fight. Oh, and you also have to fight a pair of chodes, Sordward and Shielbert, who might be my least-favourite characters in the entire series. They suck and this whole post-game is just a pain in the ass that I only plowed through in order to catch the box art legendary.
It’s also worth noting that several characters are totally underserved by the story. Professor Magnolia, for example, shows up maybe twice in the entire game and ends up getting completely overshadowed by Sonia by the mid-point of the game.
Feature Removal – Look, I know much has been made of this already, but it’s really difficult to ignore the fact that over 500 Pokemon are missing from this game. On top of that, the removal of Megas and Z-moves sucks. I’m still exploring what the region has to offer, but the longer I play, the more this exclusion is going to sting because it cuts down on the variety Pokemon has always offered.
Dynamax and Gigantamax – Like I said earlier, I actually like Dynamaxing as a mechanic in gym battles, but allowing it by default in online battles isn’t very fun. It encourages stall in order to get through the three turns, while also being broken for certain Pokemon because of the additional effects of attacks (being able to set weather or terrain AND cause damage is so much more deadly than the more powerful base damage of one-use Z-moves). Gigantamax, on the other hand, is kind of a pointless addition considering the additional work it caused. The only difference is that the Pokemon gets a new look for three turns and can use a G-Max move if they have the right type of attack. Funnily enough, these G-Max moves tend to be less useful than the default Max Moves they replace… so can I just have my Megas and Z-moves back? Please?
Online Features – Online stability has never been a sure thing with Game Freak, but I had hoped that they’d be able to get with the times on Switch. Unfortunately, the online functionality in Sword and Shield is not great at all. Not only does being online in the Wild Area make your frame rate tank, but it also can cause connected players to float in the air or go into impossible places. Navigating the online menus is a waiting game, as you can wait for a minute or two for it to refresh and show you a bunch of useless notifications. Trying to connect to raids is also a total crapshoot, if any even show up in your feed (this is a particular sore point for me because raids have been my go-to entertainment thus far). Oh, and to make matters even worse, basic stuff like the VS Recorder and the freaking GTS have been removed! I know some people have said “oh, well just use Discord if you want to get a specific Pokemon”, but no, screw that. I should be able to just search the Pokemon I want or deposit to get what I want. Removing this key feature is just a kick in the nuts for a collecting game like this, especially when you have pointless shit like Gigantamax and camping which were clearly taking up a lot of resources to implement.
Catching/Level Cap – Game Freak put themselves into a weird situation by allowing you to encounter extremely-high level Pokemon in the early game if you wander around the Wild Area. Their solution to this potentially game breaking problem? Just outright forbid you from catching Pokemon of certain levels until you have a gym badge allowing you to do so. This is a baffling decision. For one thing, it discourages exploration – after all, why go off the beaten path to look for new Pokemon if the game isn’t going to even let you catch it? In the early to mid-game I was just blitzing through the Wild Area to get the gym badges so I could be allowed to catch Pokemon. Even stranger, your team’s level cap outpaces the catching level cap very early, so you can be rocking a team of Pokemon at level 40 and still not be allowed to catch Pokemon of a lower level than them. It’s such a dumb decision and I don’t think that this was the right way to handle it.
Game Just Feels Half-Baked – The sum of a lot of these issues is that the game just feels half-baked and incomplete, likely due to the strict annual release schedule of these games. Missing features and unsatisfying story might not even be an issue if Game Freak had some more time on their hands, or if they’d be willing to outsource some of their work. Game Freak and The Pokemon Company really need to take a 2-3 year break to give us a game with some serious, uncompromised passion behind it, although given the success they have regardless I can’t see this happening…
Some of the New Pokemon… – Good God. I was really liking every Pokemon that was officially revealed prior to release, but having played the game in full there are some seriously butt-ugly Pokemon hiding in this roster.
I feel like Eiscue deserves a special mention here. It’s a penguin with a gigantic ice block on its head and then when the ice block breaks, it’s got this stupid, derpy, sad face underneath… what the actual hell. It’s so stupid and derpy that I can actually see myself turning around and maybe liking it someday, but right now I’m deciding whether or not this Pokemon is worse than Barbaracle.
The four fossil Pokemon are also so bad looking. I find the idea of having two Pokemon fused together to be an interesting one, but then you remember that Kyurem Black and White exist and that these Pokemon look arguably worse. Having genetic abominations that look like they wish they were dead is funny in a Judge Dredd comic, not in Pokemon. These things are seriously the most casually unethical development in a series which has long lampshaded the fact that it’s all about cockfighting.
It’s also worth mentioning that the final evolutions of the starter Pokemon are pretty much universally acknowledged to be the worst ever. They’re all incredibly disappointing or off-putting, which is particularly unfortunate since their first evolutions are actually probably the best since at least Gen 2.
Best Pokemon of Gen 8: Corviknight, Wooloo, Eldegoss, Thievul, Yamper, Frosmoth, Flapple, Dragapult, Zacian, Zamazenta, Galarian Weezing
Shittiest Pokemon of Gen 8: Chewtle, Sandaconda, G-Max Copperajah, Impidimp’s entire evolution line, Pincurchin (guaranteed to be a future “most forgotten Pokemon”), Eiscue, Dracozolt, Arctovish
The Games – The PS4 has been a massive success and that mainly comes down to one thing: Sony have done an incredible job of cultivating high-profile exclusive games in a variety of genres. God of War, Detroit: Become Human, Gran Turismo, Until Dawn, Horizon: Zero Dawn, Ni No Kuni… I’m just barely scratching the surface, but that gives you an idea of the variety of games available to satisfy various tastes.
Social Features – The social features built into the PS4 are possibly my favourite PlayStation innovation of all time. Being able to automatically capture the last fifteen minutes of gameplay and then share videos and screenshots from it is a revelation and instantly made me regret buying an Elgato HD months before the PS4 came out (although I’ll finally be putting it to use with the Switch soon enough when Pokemon comes out).
Rest Mode – I already loved rest mode on the PSP and PS Vita, but when it came to the PS4 it was better than ever. Not only can you suspend your progress in games, but the system will download updates while in rest mode, meaning that you no longer have to wait for lengthy updates when you turn on the console!
Controller Innovation – Finally, after the questionable PS3 controller, Sony really nailed the changes to the PS4’s DualShock redesign. The sticks feel more precise, the touch pad is awesome, the triggers are great and the overall weight and feel is perfect. It’s easily the best PlayStation controller and I hope that the PS5 only improves upon it.
My Favourite PS4 Games – As usual, here’s my list of favourite games on the PS4: God of War, Bloodborne, Dark Souls III, Uncharted 4, Nioh, Metal Gear Solid V, Battlefield 4 and Rainbow Six Siege.
Remasters Out the Wazoo – Remasters were a thing late in the PS3 era, but they feel far more prevalent in the PS4 era. That said, the remasters we’re getting now are of a much higher quality, with straight-up remakes like Shadow of the Colossus and Resident Evil 2 in some cases, but it makes the industry feel creatively stifled. Hell, many of my favourite PS4 experiences are just remasters, such as Dark Souls and The Last of Us.
Mandatory Paid Online – PS+ was cool when it was an optional service, but having to pay for it every year sucks, especially since the price went up to $80 a year (in Canada). It’s at a point where I rarely play online now so I haven’t even bothered to renew my subscription – it’s just not worth it for me. This sucks though because it means I can’t just drop into a game of Rainbow Six Siege without dropping a big upfront cost to play with my friends.
Corporate Interests Have Sucked the Fun Out of Gaming – The PS3 era was just a taster for how bad gaming has gotten in the PS4 era. Major publishers have scaled down the number of games they release per year to a small handful, and seemingly every game we get is unfinished at launch, a multiplayer experience and filled with microtransactions in a transparent attempt to bleed you dry. For most publishers, “fun gameplay” isn’t even a consideration anymore, it’s all about getting you addicted and then extracting your cash. It’s hard to find story-driven, single-player experiences these days and it just makes gaming feel nowhere near as fun as it used to be.
Amazing Hardware – The hardware of the PS Vita is, simply put, fantastic. In fact, I’d argue that hardware-wise it’s probably the most perfect PlayStation product in terms of power, function and design. Power-wise, it’s pretty comparable to the PS3, the screen looks fantastic (especially on the older, OLED models), the battery life is pretty decent and the interface works very well. Many people say that the PS Vita was basically the original Nintendo Switch and they aren’t wrong. The system’s hardware is certainly comparable and could have found similar success with better support.
Great Indie Machine – People have written off the PS Vita for years now, but even to this day, the system still gets releases from indie developers who have helped keep the system afloat. Having a PS+ membership carry over from the PS4 also helped with this, since it basically meant that you were getting a free game every month to try out. I actually got Gravity Rush and freaking Hotline Miami through this system and am even hoping that Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night still comes to Vita because that’s where I’m planning on playing it.
PSP Backwards Compatibility – The PS Vita basically ended up aping the PSP Go’s functionality, because you can go back and play most of the PSP’s digital library on the go. I actually ended up selling my PSP to a friend because of this, although I do have some regrets now since games like Metal Gear Ac!d aren’t on the PSP online store. Some PS1 games are also available here, although the selection isn’t as good as it was on PSP.
My Favourite PS Vita Games – As usual, not a comprehensive list, but I loved: Gravity Rush, Hotline Miami 1 & 2, Dynasty Warriors 8: Xtreme Legends, Ninja Gaiden Sigma 1 and 2 and Guacamelee!
Sony’s Support – Sony’s lack of support for the PS Vita was pathetic and left a fantastic system to die. Some of this is on third party developers as well, as the games they put on the system were cheap and horrible (especially Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified), but Sony could have sold this system with a huge, high-profile success (similar to how The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild single-handedly launched the Switch).
Forced Gimmicks – This also relates to the previous point: potential system sellers, such as Uncharted: Golden Abyss, were plagued with forced gimmicks to show off the hardware’s capabilities, such as the front and back touch screens or gyroscope. Only Gravity Rush really got through this without feeling lesser for it, but it wasn’t really the system seller that the Vita needed. Can you imagine if Naughty Dog had made an authentic Uncharted experience on the Vita though? I would have snapped that up in a heartbeat.
Proprietary Memory Cards – Sony pulled an ultimate one-two bullshit move by making the PS Vita’s memory cards proprietary and then making them incredibly expensive for what you got (the largest cards were over $100!!!). They did eventually lower the price, but they were still much more expensive than their SD card counter-parts, meaning that not only was the PS Vita more expensive than its 3DS competition, but their memory cards were also more expensive. It’s no wonder that the system flopped when you consider this.
The Rear Touch Pad – The one major hardware flaw of the PS Vita was its rear touch-pad. I hated every time a game asked me to use it, because it suuuuuucked. It doesn’t even take up the entire back of the system, so I can never be sure exactly where I am when I use it, nor am I even sure if I’m even touching it when I have to. Yikes. Even worse, if you used your PS Vita for PS4 remote play, this touch pad became your L2 and R2 buttons, making tons of games basically unplayable if you wanted to do well at all.
PS1 Classics Support – The way PS1 classics are handled on the PS Vita makes no sense. Far less are available on the system than were on the PSP or PS3, but certain ones can be brought to the system if you download it onto a PS3 and then transfer them to the Vita… what? Metal Gear Solid, for example, is only playable this way, which makes no sense at all (I had to actually go through this in order to play it for my MGS retrospective).
PS TV – Adding to the pathetic support for the Vita by Sony was the PS TV, a cheaper Vita which essentially functioned as a mini home console. It didn’t even last a year before Sony stopped supporting it, and even the apps for it (such as the Netflix app) straight-up don’t even work. Basically the only reason it even exists still is that you can play PS Vita games on it for cheap and stream PS4 games to another TV through remote play.
Trophies – Probably my favourite innovation that the PS3 brought was the advent of trophies (which, to be fair, were modelled after the Xbox’s achievements system). These things are so addictive though. Basically, as soon as I start a game I head over to the Trophies section to see what trophies I could realistically go for and whether I actually want to bother going for the Platinum.
Blu-Ray Player – Like the PS2 and PS1 before it, the PS3 came with a new media format innovation, this time with a blu-ray player. Also similarly, the PS3 was cheaper and better than most blu-ray players at the time, which helped to tip the format war between blu-ray and HD-DVD into blu-ray’s favour. Like DVD’s, the PS3 was my first blu-ray player and was the reason I stopped buying DVDs and made the switch to HD media.
Free Online Play – While it was widely agreed that Xbox Live had the more robust and reliable online system, you did have to pay an annual subscription for it, whereas online play was free on PS3. There was an optional ability to get PS+ if players wanted additional perks, but leaving it free by default was honestly the better move, since there really isn’t a good excuse that online play is a paid-for service on modern consoles.
Strong Hardware – While the PS3 was thought to be difficult to develop for early in the console’s life-cycle, by the mid-to-late period of the PS3’s stronger hardware was allowing the system to run games much easier and smoother than the comparatively underpowered Xbox 360. In addition, the PS3 did away with region locked games, meaning that you could play games from other regions out of the box (this was good for gamers who wanted to play Japanese-exclusive games, for example). When you consider that the PS3 also had a built-in wi-fi adapter and the blu-ray drive, whereas the Xbox 360 had to get a wi-fi adapter as an add-on, had only a DVD drive, and you had to pay an annual subscription for Xbox Live, the higher cost of the system was actually quite comparable.
My Favourite PS3 Games – Not a definitive list of the best games on the system, but my favourite games include: Uncharted 1 and 2, Dead Space 1 and 2, Battlefield Bad Company and 3, Bioshock, The Walking Dead, The Last of Us, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Fallout 3 and Dark Souls.
PS3 Controller – I’m really mixed on the PS3 controller. On the plus side, they were all wireless by default (another leg up on the Xbox 360, which also required AA batteries on their wireless models) and you could finally connect up to 8 controllers at a time without requiring an add-on peripheral. Buuuuuut… the triggers were really strangely designed and unappealing, the SIXAXIS motion controls were badly utilized and the controllers originally lacked rumble functionality. I mean, at least the controller is better than the awful boomerang concept that we were initially shown, but the product we got is still a real mixed bag without any clearly-good innovations.
Backwards Compatibility Phased Out – The original PS3 release did include backwards compatibility and I did manage to snag one of these models back in the day (although the system eventually died and was unsalvageable, riiiip). However, in order to cut costs, backwards compatibility was cut out in subsequent models. This, in my opinion, was not worth it and has unfortunately weakened the PlayStation brand ever since as a result. Now I either have to track down a PS2 to play older games, or hope that they have been made available as remasters or digital downloads on PSN, which isn’t really reliable at all.
The Cost – I’ve already tried to justify the cost of the system a bit, but there’s no denying that the PS3’s initial asking price of $600 was a huge barrier to entry. I snagged mine after the first price drop, but even then it was around $500. This was probably the biggest factor in the PS3’s slow adoption rate and the Xbox 360’s dominance throughout this console era.
System Updates – Throughout its life, PS3 players would often sit down to get into a gaming session, only to have the system reveal that they have to perform a system update before they can get online. These would often take up to ten minutes to complete, leaving you frustrated and potentially not even wanting to play anymore by the time it was complete.
The Gaming Landscape Began to Get (More) Corporate – Gaming was changing by the time the PS3 era rolled around. Major publishers were starting to rake in serious cash and profit was starting to noticeably interfere with enjoyment. DLC began to become egregious (probably most offensively with the online pass), pre-order culture kicked off, games began seeing “feature bloat” (such as tacked-on co-op and multiplayer modes that no one wanted or played, which existed only to provide an excuse for cheap DLC), and we saw the start of microtransactions in games such as Dead Space 3. Publishers also began trend-hunting, with Activision riding the sudden success of Guitar Hero into the ground in a couple short years after saturating the market with crappy spin-offs and sequels. Everyone was also chasing after the success of Call of Duty with numerous FPSes which didn’t come close to replicating the same success. This also led to “niche” genres, such as survival horror, starting to become more scarce, while those that remained where “Call of Duty“-fied and stripped of their own identity (see: Resident Evil 6). Basically, gaming was no longer the domain of hobbyists looking to succeed by putting out good products, it was no becoming a calculated profit-making machine.
Great Hardware – The PSP was a really great little handheld. It was very well-designed, felt great in your hand and had some great features, even outside of gaming. Having played only Gameboys up until this point, having a wi-fi capable system with an internet browser made this thing basically my first cell phone in terms of its functionality. It was also quite powerful, able to put out near-PS2 graphical levels in the palm of your hand. Compared to its competition, the Nintendo DS, the PSP won the hardware comparison, easily. I also loved that you could suspend games by putting the system into sleep mode, it was such a good feature.
Strong Support – People don’t remember it very well, but the PSP had strong support from first and third party developers, and even outsold the Nintendo DS for years, until that system’s cheaper price and stronger support ended up winning over in the end (the presence of Pokemon games certainly helped as well). Still, this allowed the PSP to have a very strong stable of games that you can look back on fondly.
PS1 Classics – One of the genius moves for the PSP was to allow you to play PS1 games on the go. Sony ended up releasing quite a few major titles for the system, including Metal Gear Solid, Resident Evil and Final Fantasy VII (in fact, I had never played FF7 until I downloaded it on my PSP).
My Favourite PSP Games – The usual deal: this isn’t a comprehensive list, but here are some of my favourite PSP games. These include Resistance: Retribution, Soulcalibur: Broken Destiny, Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops, Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, Metal Gear Ac!d 1 and 2, God of War: Chains of Olympus, Patapon and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories (mainly because, holy shit, a GTA game running on PSP hardware!?!).
UMDs – UMDs were a cool, ambitious concept, attempting to be multi-media discs which would allow you to game and watch movies on the go. Sony tried to get film studios to release films on UMD discs and while there was some support, it wasn’t widely adopted (my PSP came with a copy of National Treasure 2, if I remember correctly). So yeah, they were ambitious, but man do they take up a lot of space for a portable cartridge, they load slowly and the just look so strange. I’ll give them points for trying something new, but I’m not entirely sure that it worked well.
No Second Analog Stick – Why, why, WHYYYYYYY did Sony not include a second analog nub on the PSP!?!?! It’s the system’s most glaring issue and it single-handedly screwed over so many games on this system. The second analog stick on the DualShock had, by this point, become the solution to the camera issues which had plagued early 3D games, but by not including a second analog nub, you immediately put developers back to the PS1 era. Predictably, camera controls became the #1 issue on PSP games, with half-baked solutions abounding (see: Splinter Cell: Essentials, which would force you to stand still and hold another button in order to move and fix the camera in place).
Power Button Placement Was Bad – The PSP was designed really well, but there was one glaring flaw (besides the lack of another analog nub, anyway…): the power slider was right were the palm of your hand would be, meaning that it was really easy to accidentally turn your system off. You kind of had to train yourself to not do this while playing, although there was more than one instance where I’d be playing Portable Ops online and accidentally turn the game off mid-match.
PSP Go – The PSP Go was a cool concept: basically, a smaller, redesigned PSP which could only play games downloaded to the system. However, it was way too expensive Sony gave this thing basically no support, meaning that it was dead on arrival. I feel sorry for anyone who paid $250 for this thing at launch, because Sony sure as hell didn’t earn your money.
Built-in DVD Player – Having a CD player in the PS1 was a nice convenience, but the DVD player in the PS2 was huge. For many people (my family included), the PS2 was our first DVD player and was the reason that we jumped ship from VHS tapes. At the time, the PS2 was a very affordable DVD player and it was a key factor in the success and wide adoption of the format. Hell, my younger brother has a PS2 and still uses it as a DVD player, which says a lot about the importance of this feature.
Backwards Compatibility – Another major factor of the PS2’s success is its backwards compatibility with both the hardware and software of the PS1. You could use PS1 controllers with no issues and PS1 memory cards could be used as well (although these memory cards only worked with PS1 games). The fact that you could carry over your collection to a new console generation made the transition more attractive and basically allowed the PS2 to immediately surpass its predecessor.
Huge Graphical Improvement – The graphical leap between the PS1 and PS2 era was one of the biggest improvements of any console generation. PS1 games were very blocky and low resolution, but PS2 games were able to smooth things out and start to approximate realistic graphics. Hell, stylized games like Okami and Sly Cooper still look quite good to this day.
3D Gameplay Improvements – By the mid-to-late point in the PS2 era, developers were finally starting to get 3D gameplay under control. Camera issues still plagued a fair few games at the time, but gameplay was finally getting refined and control schemes were starting to become standardized in a manner familiar to the games that we play today. This, of course, makes PS2 games much more playable and easier to go back to today.
High-Profile Exclusives and New IPs – Exclusives and new-IPs ruled the roost during the PS2 era, perhaps to a greater degree than in any other era since, making it a truly exciting time to be a PlayStation owner. Games like Metal Gear Solid2 and 3, Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, God of War and Final Fantasy could only be played on the PS2, many of which were high-profile third party exclusives.
My Favourite PS2 Games – Again, this isn’t a comprehensive list of the best PS2 games (not by a long shot), but my favourite games of the era include: Splinter Cell (especially Chaos Theory), Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, Freedom Fighters, Star Wars: Battlefront I and II, Twisted Metal: Black, Shadow of the Colossus, Sly Cooper 1-3, Bully and James Bond 007: Everything or Nothing.
Underpowered Hardware – I’m putting this under mixed because it didn’t really matter, but the PS2 was clearly underpowered and missing features compared to its competition. This becomes very clear when you compare the PS2 port of Resident Evil 4 to the Gamecube original, or the PS2 ports of any of the Splinter Cell games to the Xbox originals. Still, the games worked and the PS2’s impressive library basically made this a moot point, because the PS2’s popularity made it the most successful console in history regardless.
Legacy Hardware Issues – In many ways, the PS2 lives up to its name: it’s a follow-up to the PS1, but the system itself doesn’t make any major innovative leaps forward, a fact which really stands out when you look at its competition. For example, the Xbox was built around online gaming, whereas PS2 owners had to purchase a separate ethernet adapter which was expensive and under-utilized (although this did allow couch multiplayer to last for another generation at least). The Xbox also had a built-in HDD, making the necessary purchase of pitifully tiny, 8MB Memory Cards on the PS2 look embarrassing and archaic in comparison. A HDD was made available as an add-on, but it was once again an expensive, under-utilized peripheral which was only really used in Final Fantasy XI. The PS2 also had only two controller ports once again, making couch multiplayer games harder to manage.
Glut of Shovelware – The PS2 era might have been the height of cheap, crappy licensed games, as they were very prevalent at the time, as this was an era where the install base was huge and games cost just enough to make that it was worth the investment to make a quick turn-around. In subsequent generations the mobile gaming scene would kill off this market trend (although it carried on over to the Wii as well), but when you go back to the PS2 you’ll notice a plethora of awful games which were shovelled onto the system.
Genre-Defining Experiences – The original PlayStation was the most successful console of its era at a time when video games were literally entering a whole new dimension of possibilities. Considering the limitations of computing at the time and that 3D game design was basically uncharted territory, it’s amazing how well a number of developers were able to make the transition and provide experiences which helped to establish genres as we know them today. For example, the 3D action platformer was established during this time with titles such as Tomb Raider, Ape Escape, Spyro and Crash Bandicoot, and games in this genre have retained most of these foundational elements since. Racing games such as Gran Turismo also play nearly identically to racing games from the PS1 era, just with more glitz and polish. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater was also responsible for establishing the skating game genre, which would be hugely popular well into the PS3 era. Survival horror was really established on the PS1 with Resident Evil, Dino Crisis and Silent Hill, providing an experience which is almost entirely exclusive to the PS1. These are just a few examples, but it just goes to show that the PS1 was a key foundation for gaming as we know it today.
CD-based Format – In a time when cartridges were the go-to method for game storage and when CD players weren’t particularly common, the PS1 showed the value of multi-media storage formats. Having game’s played on CDs was a huge benefit for a number of reasons: they were less bulky, cheaper and could store far more data than the competition and they allowed PS1-owners the freedom to use the system as a CD player when they weren’t gaming.
The DualShock Controller is the Granddaddy of Modern Controllers – The title pretty much says it all. While the original, analogue-less PlayStation controller was basically just a refinement of controllers of its era, the DualShock set the new standard which has been replicated in all future controllers since (barring gimmicks like the Wii of course).
Easy to Pirate For – Sure, this wasn’t exactly an intended feature, but with the cheap proliferation of CDs, the PS1 was notoriously easy to pirate games onto, a “feature” which has only gotten more valuable in the years since support for the console has died. It was also fairly easy to modify the system, such as replacing parts in order to circumvent the system’s region locking features.
My Favourite PS1 Games – Obviously this isn’t a comprehensive list of good PS1 games, but the games that I love and grew up on include Ape Escape, Metal Gear Solid, Twisted Metal 2, Vigilante 2: Second Offense, Future Cop: LAPD and Driver.
Janky Gameplay – The jump to 3D gameplay was a new frontier back when the PS1 came out and while it’s impressive that there are some seriously good games in this era, nearly every game from this era feels incredibly dated and incredibly clunky. Between the low-res graphics, janky controls and (especially) the wretched camera controls that defined nearly every game from this era, it’s really hard to go back and play a significant number of games from this era.
Original Controller was Outclassed by DualShock – The original PlayStation controller was fine, but when the DualShock came out it controlled so much better and made the original controller completely obsolete. The fact that the PlayStation One Classic came packed with the original controller was a baffling decision on Sony’s part, because not only was it inferior, but it also meant that huge games like Ape Escape could not be included. The lack of analogue sticks on this original controller also did not help with the camera issues which plagued this era’s games and wouldn’t really be rectified until midway through the next console generation.
Hardware Limitations – The PS1 had some really annoying hardware limitations, even compared to its competition. Memory Cards were a particular annoyance, the official ones only had 15 blocks of memory if I remember correctly, but some games would take up multiple blocks so you would fill them up very quickly. You could also buy unofficial cards, but I had one knock-off which corrupted and actually managed to ruin one of my discs! The PS1 also required a multitap if you wanted more than two players at a time, whereas the N64 could have four players at once. This was unfortunate and really cut down on the potential for local multiplayer games such as Vigilante 8: Second Offense.
I’m going to do something slightly different here – normally I’d just be looking at the Dark Souls trilogy itself when doing a love/hate series, but I’m actually going to change it up slightly and include other games in this subgenre that I have played and which I feel could make for a strong comparison. As a result, I’m bringing you the Souls-like samurai game from Team Ninja, Nioh! Having gotten into Bloodborne and Dark Souls from my itching for a new Ninja Gaiden game, could Nioh live up to Team Ninja’s reputation for rich and satisfying combat? Read on to find my thoughts…
Amazing Combat System – I’ll just come out and say that Nioh has the best combat system in any Souls-like game. Team Ninja really hits it out of the park, nailing a really precise combat system while the game’s speed somewhere between Bloodborne and Ninja Gaiden. The result is a very fast-paced game that is deep, skillful and incredibly satisfying to master. There are also a couple of big innovations which help make Nioh‘s combat stand out so much:
Ki Pulse takes the stamina regeneration of Souls games and adds in an active-reload system which will allow you to replenish your stamina instantly if you do it correctly. This creates a balancing act where you can risk running out of stamina but get it back quickly in order to keep your attacks going longer. It takes a bit of practice, but once you get the timing down it becomes second-nature and allows you to be incredibly aggressive.
Weapon stances are also a huge addition in this game. All weapons can be held in high, mid, or low stance, which significantly changes the way the weapon performs. Each stance changes your combat and dodge speeds, and some enemies are best fought in different stances (for example, Yoki are susceptible to high stance sword strikes which will hit them in the head and stun them when they break their horns). While you might be tempted just to stick with one stance, learning to master stance chances makes a huge difference in combat and just further deepens the experience.
You can see your opponents’ ki meters, meaning that stunning them becomes a reliable strategy should you choose to go for it. I liked using a heavy axe as my secondary weapon for this very reason, with only a single strong high-stance attack I could destroy most enemies’ ki bars.
Addictive Loot System – Nioh features a Diablo-like loot system. Unlike Dark Souls where each piece of equipment has fixed properties (until you upgrade it anyway), all equipment in Nioh has randomized perks. You can spend ages in the blacksmith just reforging your armour and weapons to get the perfect perks which complement your build and playstyle. It can be addictive just collecting all the loot drops and looking for that one piece of armour or weapon that is better than the one you have already.
Spirit Guardians Are Cool – Even if it was just aesthetic, the idea of picking the spirit guardian that accompanies you on your journey is awesome (I went with the Paired Raiken, because having two lightning puppies with me is amazing). However, each guardian provides unique bonuses while they are with you which can further optimize your build, while also being able to help in a pinch. However, the trade-off is that when you die, your guardian spirit stays to protect your lost Amrita (this game’s souls-equivalent) and no longer provides you with any bonuses unless you choose to sacrifice your lost Amrita. It makes for a pretty interesting trade-off and makes death just that much more tense.
Fun Side Content – Nioh‘s mission-based structure allows for the inclusion of various side content for players to enjoy. These are all pretty fun and provide you with more loot, from bite-sized side missions, to challenging duels, to the challenging-but-rewarding twilight missions. This side content allows you to get your equipment and levels upgraded without having to do repetitive level grinding and farming like other Souls-like games tend to.
Meaty DLC – Team Ninja did a good job with the DLC packs for Nioh, providing players with three expansions with plenty of new missions, weapons and challenging bosses to sink your teeth into. This extends the length of the base game by several hours per pack while also providing an epilogue to the main game’s story. The bossesare also allconsistently funand challenging.
Builds on the Souls Formula – Nioh definitely cribs many elements from the formula of Dark Souls – stamina-based fighting system, clever level design emphasizing traps and exploration, shrines are this game’s bonfires, etc. However, Nioh also adds plenty of its own elements and twists to the formula, which allows it to stand out on its own and not feel like a ripoff (unlike, say, Lords of the Fallen). Even something simple like the bloodspots in Souls games have been given cool twists – in Nioh, blood spots can be used to spawn revenants, which have the equipment of the player who was killed and which can provide you with amazing loot drops if you risk spawning them into your game.
Living Weapon Feels Like a Crutch – As I mentioned earlier, your Guardian Spirit can provide you with help in a pinch. It does this by building up a “living weapon meter” over time as you attack enemies. When the meter is filled you can unleash your living weapon, which makes you invulnerable and allows you to dish out a ton of damage in a short time (similar to Spartan Rage in the newest God of War). Certain builds can also optimize living weapon build-up, meaning that you can potentially cheese your way through boss fights. I’d say that Nioh can to be more difficult than Dark Souls, but when you can just pull out your living weapon in a fight it makes battles feel much easier and more forgiving.
Onmyo and Ninjitsu Skills Feel Like an Afterthought – One of the other different elements of Nioh is that it features a skill tree. Usually this provides you with bonuses to your weapons, but players can also spend them on onmyo magic and ninjitsu skills. In practice, they function similarly to consumable items in Dark Souls where you equip them, select them on the d-pad and have a finite number of uses. The system could have been interesting, but as it is it just feels like an afterthought that you can’t reliably build around, unlike pretty much every other aspect of the combat system. On occasion I’ll bring out an elemental resistance pill for a boss battle or use magic missiles on foes, but that’s about it.
Loot Management is an Obligatory Chore – Basically every mission in Nioh ends with you spending 5+ minutes just going through your inventory and selling or breaking down all of the useless loot you acquired on your journey. As addictive as it is to find better loot out in the game world, most of it is crap and having to actually sift through it all and dispose of it quickly becomes annoying. The upcoming Nioh 2 needs to find some sort of way to streamline or automate this process because as it is right now it is a major pain in the ass.
Menu-based World Design – Perhaps the biggest difference between Nioh and Dark Souls is that Nioh is played out over a series of missions and that the world is navigated through menus. The missions themselves are quite good, but this structure makes the world itself feel considerably less interesting and cohesive in comparison. Your mileage may vary, but this makes the game just a bit less compelling and engaging than Dark Souls or Bloodborne for me, despite being by far the funnest in terms of its actual gameplay and mechanics.
Story Leaves Little Impact – Unlike Dark Souls, the story in Nioh is told in a much more straightforward manner, with cutscenes before and after each mission. Unfortunately, the story is not very well told, seemingly just jumping between scenes with little connective tissue to contextualize everything. I enjoyed some of the characters, such as Hanzo, Edward Kelley and Saoirse, but I quickly stopped caring about what was supposed to be happening around me because I couldn’t follow it. It’s unfortunate too, because a better-told story could have made for a much more engaging game and a more interesting world too for that matter.
Online Interaction is an Afterthought – Online play in Nioh isn’t nearly as accessible as it is in Dark Souls, requiring you to dig through some menus in order to use it. Without an equivalent to summoning signs, the odds of getting summoned to someone else’s game are pretty low. There’s also a global clan battle system somewhat similar to covenants, but this also feels like a total afterthought and only provides you with some bonus resources if you sacrifice specific resources every few days. I basically didn’t even bother exploring the online in Nioh because it felt so inessential.
Refined Game Engine – As groundbreaking as the Souls games are, they have always been incredibly janky and take some time to get used to how clunky they can be (not to mention the extremely poor performance that the first two games had across multiple platforms). Dark Souls 3 is built off of the Bloodborne engine and thankfully no longer has these issues. The game looks gorgeous and runs at a pretty stable 30fps on consoles. While 60fps would probably be ideal for a fast-paced action game, 30fps would have been a pipe dream for earlier games in the series, so I’ll take what I can get at least.
Increased Combat and Game Speed – Dark Souls 3 takes some pages from Bloodborne in its design, one of which is the noticeably increased speed of the combat and enemy aggression. Your reflexes are certainly put to the test more often and it also helps that the game’s animations have been made are far more fluid and responsive. As a result, simply playing Dark Souls 3 feels better than it has in previous entries in the series.
The Bosses Are Better Than Ever – I would go out on a limb and say that Dark Souls 3 has the best-designed bosses in the entire franchise. This is because basically every boss now has multiple stages when their health bars reach a certain point, meaning that you are no longer stuck repeating the same patterns to defeat a boss throughout the entire fight. Naturally, this makes the bosses harder, but I find them so much funner and satisfying, and it really makes the bosses in the previous games feel less challenging as a result. Particular highlights include The Abyss Watchers, Dancer of the Boreal Valley, the Twin Princes of Lothric, The Nameless King, The Demon in Pain and the Demon From Below (funnest gank fight since Ornstein & Smough in my opinion) and especially Slave Knight Gael (the funnest, most epic fight in all of Souls, hands-down).
The Game World is Hauntingly Gorgeous – Dark Souls 3‘s story is one of a world that is dying because the flame can no longer be sustained and the age of dark must finally come to pass. The game world really conveys this well, with some really well designed areas and imagery, such as the scores of dead pilgrims who collapsed from exhaustion outside the high wall of Lothric, the familiar characters you find long dead on our journey (the giant blacksmith was bad enough, but no, how could you kill The Fair Lady too?!), to the evocative image of the dark sun in the game’s final areas.
Weapon Arts – Other than the increased game speed, Dark Souls 3‘s biggest addition to the combat system is weapon arts, special abilities or attacks that each weapon can perform. It’s a pretty cool idea, but one which could have probably been implemented a little better as the arts are generally the same across each class of weapon, only really changing on some special weapons.
Nostalgia Reliance – I didn’t mind this too much myself, but it’s undeniable that Dark Souls 3 relies on nostalgia for the original Dark Souls throughout the game. From the numerous callbacks to characters and items, to the areas which are revisited (most notably Anor Londo). Some of this game’s “original” characters are also just straight rip-offs of previous characters, such as Siegward of Catarina, which just takes away from this game’s own identity and contribution to the franchise. Furthermore, Dark Souls 2 kind of gets the shaft, with only a few items and equipment sets carrying over, a handful of characters and one area is referenced (Earthen Peak, in the DLC). The story doesn’t even acknowledge Dark Souls 2 at all, which is somewhat surprising considering that that game was about overcoming the undead curse. It definitely would have been nice if the game had been a bit more equitable about calling back to both of its predecessors.
Disregards Dark Souls 2‘s Game Improvements – …and speaking of ignoring Dark Souls 2, while some elements from that game certainly didn’t need to carry over (eg, life gems, limited enemy spawns, etc), there were certainly some improvements which didn’t make their way to Dark Souls 3 for whatever reason. Dual wielding in power stance is probably the most obvious omission, and while you can dual wield some special weapons using weapon arts, it isn’t nearly as effective or viable. Bonfire aesthetics are also a very sorely missed feature, meaning that you have to replay the whole game once again if you want to replay a section. Even mixed-up NG+ enemy placements have been removed.
Linearity – Linearity is not a bad thing in itself, but in a Souls game it is incredibly disappointing to see, especially considering how interconnected the first game was. Dark Souls 3 is by far the most linear game in the series, offering only a few short, branching paths on the journey (the most significant of which is incredibly difficult to achieve, requiring the player to beat a mid-game boss who can easily one-shot them at the very start of the game). As a result, replays will almost always have more or less the same progression each time.
PVP Is Weak – I’m not really into the PVP scene in Souls games, but apparently Dark Souls 3‘s system is the worst in the series. This is, in part, due to more limited build variety (for example, spell casters are less viable because spells have been weakened overall and require multiple ring slots to make their damage output comparable to other builds). In addition, PVP in this game is a total gankfest. This is actually something I’ve witnessed even without being into the PVP, because invaders will often end up facing off against 1-4 defenders and be destroyed instantly.
Some of the Bosses Still Suck – For all of the boss improvements in Dark Souls 3, there are still quite a few bosses which are pretty bad. Deacons of the Deep is the lamest boss in the base game, only really being difficult if you don’t have a lot of magic defence investment to survive a cheap one-shot. Meanwhile, the Ancient Wyvern is basically an over-glorified set-piece that can be cheesed instantly if you know what you’re doing. Oddly enough, Dark Souls 3 also has the distinction of having the most inconsistent DLC bosses in the series. The Ashes of Ariandel DLC’s bosses are both amongst the worst bosses in the game. The Champion’s Gravetender and Gravetender Greatwolf don’t even feel like a boss fight and is just plain unfair if you can’t kill the Gravetender before the Greatwolf spawns. Meanwhile, Sister Friede is the dirtiest, most unfair boss fight in the entire franchise: her first phase is fun, but then in the second phase she gets a whole new health bar and you get ganked alongside a raging Father Ariandel. If you somehow manage to beat them in this phase, THEN Sister Friede gets resurrected with another full health bar and is even more deadly than in either previous phase. She’s also super fast, debatably too fast even for this game’s increased combat speed. This was by far the least-enjoyable boss in the entire game for me, and while I generally play these games without summoning, I had absolutely no illusions about completing this fight summon-free. Meanwhile, in The Ringed City DLC, Halflight, Spear of the Church is arguably the most boring boss in the entire game.
While it isn’t actually a part of the Souls series, Bloodborne is in a similar mold with some very key differences. In fact, FromSoftware would take inspiration from Bloodborne and carry it forward to the Souls-series proper. As a result, it’s clearly worth lumping this game into this love/hate series and see how it relates with the main franchise.
Fantastic Style and Aesthetic – Bloodborne‘s biggest asset is definitely its aesthetic. Whereas Dark Souls is somewhat stifled by its fairly generic western fantasy style, Bloodborne has a much more stylish aesthetic, mixing steampunk, Gothic architecture and eldritch horror elements together to create a stunning world which is just incredibly cool to inhabit. This also extends to the game’s fantastic soundtrack, which further helps to sell the setting. Werewolves, religious fanatics and Lovecraftian horror in one package? Sign me the hell up!
Combat System is Really Fun – Despite appearing very similar on the surface to Dark Souls, Bloodborne‘s combat system is one of the main things that sets it apart:
Whereas Dark Souls emphasizes patience and defence, Bloodborne encourages aggression and speed. The speed of combat has been increased significantly through increased character fluidity, more aggressive enemies and the game’s lack of viable shields, meaning that you have to dodge constantly if you want to be successful.
Contributing to the aggressiveness of this game is the Rally system, which allows you a couple seconds after taking a hit to regain lost health by damaging the foe. This can be the difference between life and death in a tight situation and can save you having to use a blood vial to heal if you’re quick enough. Whole playstyles can be built around this system and it really does make you want to be more aggressive and risky while playing because you’re rewarded for your efforts.
Also contributing to the fun combat system is that every weapon has a secondary function which changes their moveset in interesting ways. For example, the hunter’s axe is a short-ranged slashing weapon, but can be extended to a two-handed weapon to give it increased range and sweeping attacks, whereas Ludwig’s Holy Blade is a longsword that can be sheathed into a slow and heavy greatsword. These are just a couple examples, but it’s a really cool system that makes all of the weapons far more interesting and fun to use. Plus these trick weapons actually make a noticeable difference in combat, some being more viable in certain situations.
Exploration is Very Rewarding – Bloodborne is arguably the Soulsborne game closest to recapturing the sense of exploration and interconnectedness of the first Dark Souls. It is considerably more linear and flat in comparison, but the game’s world is more interconnected than Dark Souls‘ sequels. Also, perhaps most importantly, it rewards exploration with some fantastic and meaty hidden areas. Discovering the pathway to the haunted castle of Cainhurst was one of the moments that made me fall in love with this game in the first place.
Memorable Characters – I would argue that the cast of Bloodborne are at least as iconic and memorable, if not moreso, than the cast of Dark Souls. Eileen the Crow and Lady Maria in particular are unforgettable and have stuck with me to this day (to the point that I have posters of each of them). The game also has such interesting and complex characters as the Plain Doll, Gehrman or the imposter Iosefka, not to mention even the minor characters such as the Odeon Chapel Dweller and Arianna which are quite memorable in their own right.
Streamlined Mechanics – While Bloodborne uses a lot of the framework of Dark Souls, many of the more complex elements have been streamlined or removed. Some people feel like this makes Bloodborne a lesser experience, but I feel like it’s just trimming the fat and focusing on pure enjoyment rather than busy work. For example, equipment load has been eliminated entirely (halle-freaking-lujah), meaning that you can focus your stats entirely on your actual preferred weapon loadout, rather than struggling to wear any kind of armour. Also, weapon upgrades are significantly easier, requiring only larger chunks of blood shards to increase your weapon’s damage and slots that you can put various damage-altering runes into. Magic has also been streamlined to items that you can use which spend your blood bullet supply and are just based off of one stat.
Some Fantastic Bosses – Bloodborne has an array of fun bosses, nearly all of which are top notch. Father Gascoigne, the Bloodstarved Beast, Martyr Logarius, Vicar Amelia, and Rom the Vacuous Spider are all great fights in the main game. The DLC also knocks it out of the park with some unforgettable and difficult fights. Lady Maria of the Astral Clocktower in particular is the boss which made me fall in love with the sweet, sweet satisfaction of trying and retrying a boss until you have learned their patterns. Ludwig, Laurence and the Orphan of Kos are also extremely difficult bosses, providing some of the ultimate challenges for veterans and newbies of Souls games alike. Soloing all of these bosses recently on a NG+ playthrough was one of the most exhilarating experiences I’ve had playing a video game, especially Ludwig and the Orphan, both of whom felt impossible to beat when I first played.
Chalice Dungeons – The game’s chalice dungeons are an interesting and unique addition to Bloodborne which haven’t really appeared elsewhere in Souls games. They are procedurally-generated dungeons that offer players the opportunity to hunt for rare loot and face off against greater challenges and restrictions (such as defiled dungeons which halve your health bar). They also have some unique lore (providing the background to the game’s events), enemies and bosses that can’t be encountered elsewhere, giving them more prominence to the game experience. Unfortunately, chalice dungeons are also just kind of a slog in part due to the procedurally-generated nature of them which makes them all feel “samey”. Some people might be into them, but the only reason I forced myself through was that I had to in order to get the game’s Platinum trophy (and was by far the biggest obstacle to achieving that goal).
Invasions Are Rare – Due to removing hollowing from this game, FromSoftware had to change the way that invasions work. In Bloodborne you can be invaded if an enemy ringing an ominous bell appears in your world, which happens when you call for a co-op partner, or in certain areas where they spawn naturally. On the one hand, this allows players to control when they expose themselves to invaders rather than having it be constant, but it does make them very rare to come across.
Low Build and Equipment Diversity – Players who are used to Dark Souls‘ “play however you want” philosophy will probably be disappointed by Bloodborne‘s comparatively-limited selection of weapons and equipment. While each of these weapons play fairly differently due to the trick weapon system, the game just has less options across the board. With no encumbrance stat, players are forced into a light armour character. Magic isn’t really an option either – you can acquire items, such as the awesome Augur of Ebrietas, which serve a similar function, but are not something you can create an entire build around due to their very limited uses. Firearms are also rather limited, requiring excessive investment in Bloodtinge in order to do any real ranged damage, making them only useful for parries usually.
Blood Vial Farming – Bloodborne‘s healing system involves a consumable item called blood vials, which you can carry up to 20 of at a time. Unfortunately, they have to be acquired throughout the game world. You might easily have hundreds of blood vials in your inventory, but you can hit a difficulty spike that drains all your blood vials, forcing you to go back to earlier areas in order to farm more. I had this happen once or twice late in my first playthrough and it was incredibly annoying. This was even worse when the game launched, because your on-hand inventory wouldn’t automatically refill from your supply when you died.
A Couple Lame Bosses – Bloodborne‘s stable of bosses has less stinkers than most Souls games, but there are a few which stand out because of how much lower their pedigree is than the others in this game. The Witch of Hemwick in particular is not very challenging at all, and Micolash is embarrassingly weak for a late-game boss, and you spend more than half the fight just chasing his cowardly ass through the arena. In fact, the last 2 or 3 bosses before the final boss(es) are pushovers in comparison to the early-to-mid game bosses, suggesting a lack of proper playtesting to balance them out.
Some Memorable Characters – Somewhat surprisingly, Dark Souls 2 has a lot of characters which hold up as well (or maybe even better) than the colourful cast from the original Dark Souls. Nearly all of the characters in Majula have their own memorable personalities, particularly The Emerald Herald (best waifu in the Dark Souls series, in my opinion). The NPCs you meet in the world are also pretty memorable, especially the very tragic Lucatiel of Mirrah, who is desperately fighting to hold onto her sense of self as the curse of the undead gnaws away at her memories. Even the bosses and their stories can be pretty interesting, especially King Vendrick’s tragic fall from grace which forms the backbone of the game’s narrative (and that’s not even mentioning the very compelling stories told in each of the DLCs). While many of the characters aren’t as important to the story as, say, Solaire of Astora or Lautrec, even minor NPCs such as Rosabeth of Melfia, Gavlan or the freaking ladder salesman Gilligan have their own interesting quirks that help you remember them long afterwards.
Best DLCs in the Franchise – The Three Crowns saga is straight-up the best, most generous package of DLC in the entire franchise. These three DLCs are by far the best content in Dark Souls 2, with some really fun areas to fight through and great boss fights (few fights in this series match the cinematic splendour of jumping into hell to fight the Burnt Ivory King). That said, each of these DLCs have at least one boss which is incredibly underwhelming and areas which are amongst the worst in the game, but thankfully these parts are all totally optional and intended as challenge areas.
UI and Mechanics are Refined and/or Simplified – Dark Souls 2 features a number of gameplay changes from Dark Souls, some of which are better than others:
Having most of the blacksmiths and shops in one central hub area is a great improvement in my opinion, having to scour the world to find smiths would definitely have been a pain in the ass if I had to do it two games in a row (you do have to find the boss soul traders and infusing blacksmith in the world though). Plus weapon upgrades have been significantly streamlined, so it’s no longer such a pain in the ass to try to get your weapon to the maximum level.
Online PVP is much more viable than in Dark Souls because the servers have been significantly improved and there are more dedicated PVP/PVE areas. I don’t tend to play much PVP, but the general consensus seems to be that Dark Souls 2 has the best PVP in the franchise in part because of this.
Dual-wielding has been significantly improved. It was technically possible in Dark Souls, but Dark Souls 2 changes up the mechanics to make it a much more viable and unique playstyle for players looking for a bit more risk.
Lots of small, but amazing changes, such as equipment load percentages being viewable on the equipment screen, the level up UI being more informative, being able to move while using estus, more ring slots hell yes, being able to use consumables without having your menu close, being able to respec your stats, etc.
Humanity System Makes More Sense – I really hated the humanity system in Dark Souls 2 when I first played, but now that I can see what FromSoftware were going for it makes way more sense to me, especially compared to the first Dark Souls. In Dark Souls 2, each time you die your HP max drops until you reach a 50% decrease. This is reversed by using a Human Effigy to restore your character’s humanity (plus you can find a ring pretty early on which makes the maximum health drop cap at 75% rather than 50%). The result of this is that players are actually incentivized to stay human more often now, which encourages more co-op, invasions and other online interactions which you could just ignore in the first game because of how difficult it could be to remain human. Of course, you can still just play hollowed all the time (like me…), but the system does encourage interaction with the game’s online component far more effectively than you would expect.
Bonfire Aesthetics – One of the cool additions to this game is the bonfire aesthetic item, which respawns enemies and bosses in an area, but at a higher difficulty. Have an area or a boss which you liked but don’t want to replay the whole game to get back to it? Use a bonfire aesthetic! It’s a great change which (spoiler alert) I really wish had carried on into future games.
New Game+ Changes – NG+ has received some much-needed changes which make it more enticing. First of all, Dark Souls 2 doesn’t force you into NG+ as soon as the final boss is beaten, rather you get to choose when to go into it. In addition to tougher enemies and keeping your equipment, NG+ also features new enemy placements, making replays more interesting, surprising and challenging than simply replaying the exact same game. It doesn’t change the game substantially, but it’s a nice feature.
Some Truly Top-Tier Bosses – Dark Souls 2 features the most bosses in the entire franchise, and some of them are simply amazing (particularly the DLC bosses). The aforementioned Burnt Ivory King is one of the most visually spectacular bosses in the entire series, while Fume Knight is widely considered one of the best bosses in the entire series. Other really notable bosses in this game include Sir Alonne, Flexile Sentry, Smelter Demon, Velstadt, Sinh, the Slumbering Dragon and Aava, the King’s Pet. Considering how many of these bosses are from the DLC, it really shows you how high the quality was in those. In addition, even the worst bosses are still a fair bit more challenging than many of the bosses from the first Dark Souls, with far more attacks and animations (compare a relatively lame boss like the Dragonrider with the Asylum Demon and its very limited and exploitable animations – the Asylum Demon’s a more memorable fight, but I’d argue that the Dragonrider is at least mechanically more interesting).
Enemies Stop Respawning – After killing an enemy enough times (around fifteen kills), that enemy will stop respawning each time you die or rest at a bonfire. I’m really mixed on this. On the one hand, it cuts down on some of the frustration of trying to run through an area over and over again if you keep getting stomped. There’s also another purpose for this change though – to prevent you from farming for souls and items, unless you use a bonfire aesthetic and make the game harder for yourself. I appreciated it at times when I was getting to grips with the combat system of Dark Souls 2, and there are certain boss runs which are absolute bastards until you thin out the enemies this way, but I’m pretty mixed on the concept overall. It feels like a bit of a crutch, plus it encourages frustrating game design if you can just grind your way to the boss room by killing enough enemies over and over.
Unrestricted Fast Travel – Fast travel was a mid-game reward in Dark Souls, but in Dark Souls 2 you have it pretty much immediately. Considering how this game is laid out, it’s definitely a necessity for this to be the case, but it’s undeniable that it cuts down on the memorability of the game world compared to the original.
Graphics Are Noticeably Worse – In my opinion, Dark Souls 2 looks worse than the original Dark Souls, in part due to less atmospheric effects and because the game’s dynamic lighting engine was gutted before release. The only reason I put this under mixed is because this has given the game some performance increases compared to the notoriously badly-optimized Dark Souls. Unsurprisingly, the framerate on the Scholar of the First Sin port on PS4 hits a steady 60fps, while apparently the PS3 version of Dark Souls 2 runs better than the original as well.
World Isn’t as Interconnected – Considering that the world design is generally considered Dark Souls‘ greatest strength, it’s unfortunate that from Dark Souls 2-onwards, the series moved to a more linear and flat world layout. That’s not to say that the game is totally linear; from the hub area of Majula, you can head in a few different directions as you please. However, the way that these areas are laid out is much more linear, like each path out of Majula is a singular, long path outwards to the next major boss, with links to other areas being exceedingly rare. After the revelation that was Dark Souls‘ world design, it really is a shame that the world was designed this way.
Slower Combat System – Dark Souls 2 has arguably the slowest combat system in the whole series, even slower than the first game in some respects. This partially because the healing system has been changed to where estus recovery is significantly slower, filling your health bar over the course of a few seconds rather than practically instantly. The game has also introduced life gems, providing additional, even slower healing to top up this. Add in the slow enemies and attacks and you have a game which can just be sluggish at times, especially when compared with Bloodborne or Dark Souls 3.
Enemy Tracking – FromSoftware obviously realized that backstabs were too easy to pull off in Dark Souls, but they arguably went too far in the opposite direction here. In this game, enemies track you extremely quickly, even in the middle of attacks (meaning that they will wind up an attack and you think that you have dodged it, but then will be hit anyway because the enemy attack tracked you). Obviously, this just feels cheap when it happens, especially since Dark Souls 2 is also considered to have some of the most questionable hit boxes in the series.
GANK – Dark Souls 2 is notorious for just throwing scores of enemies at the player and saying “good luck!” Admittedly, Dark Souls did this at times as well, but Dark Souls 2 does it far more often and far more notably (nearly half of the boss battles in this game have multiple enemies to deal with). It just feels like they were focusing more on the difficulty rather than making it fair for the player. The level of gank also doesn’t help the combat speed much, as you’re forced to lure enemies in and play very cautiously to survive.
Some Awful and Uninspired Areas – Some of the areas in this game are just the absolute worst, for two reasons:
There are some areas which are just the absolute worst in Souls. I would probably rather play through Lost Izalith, the Demon Ruins and face all of the Anor Londo archers than have to traverse Black Gulch again (although I might take it over Tomb of the Giants…). Poisonous statues raining bullet-hell throughout the level every time you take a step while enemies charge at you? Ugh. Shrine of Amana is also often cited as one of the most bullshit areas in the game due to its hidden insta-death ledges and bastardly long-ranged spellcasters, although I don’t mind it quite as much as most people do. I think my least favourite area in the main game is the boss run to the Executioner’s Chariot, which is not only long and annoying, but features ganks from enemies that can easily two-shot you and ignore your shield and is capped off with a very strong, respawning phantom before the boss. The lead-up to the Smelter Demon is also ridiculously brutal as you get swarmed by absolutely swarmed by Alonne Knights. That said, everything pales in comparison to the DLC areas the Iron Passage and the Frigid Outskirts, two of the absolute worst, least enjoyable areas in any Souls game. This just shows that FromSoftware forgot that these games are supposed to be difficult, but fair. The only positives of these two areas are that at least they’re optional, but they were so stupid that I just stopped trying very quickly.
Even the decent areas are often just boring and uninspired, especially compared to Dark Souls. Most of the areas just feel like generic fantasy settings (particularly the Forest of Fallen Giants and Lost Bastille area), with only a few such as the Dragon Aerie or Earthen Peak standing out for being visually interesting.
Some Truly Awful Bosses – Dark Souls 2 has the most bosses of any Souls game by far, and it’s exceedingly obvious that FromSoftware were going for quantity over quality here because the boss selection is by far this game’s weakest aspect. There are a number of instances where the bosses just feel thrown in for no good reason, but here’s the absolute worst offenders:
First of all, there are the uninspired bosses, such as the Belfry Gargoyles (an infuriating gank rehash of the Bell Gargoyles), Scorpioness Najka (a really boring ripoff of Chaos Witch Quelaag), Old Dragonslayer (literally just Dragonslayer Ornstein, reused for basically no discernible reason) and the Twin Dragonriders (the early-game Dragonrider boss, but only with two this time!). The DLC also has similarly boring reskin bosses, the blue Smelter Demon and two giant tigers, both of which cap off the aforementioned worst areas in any Souls games, giving the player and even bigger middle finger for attempting them.
Then there are the bosses which are basically just mobs of regular enemies. The Royal Rat Vanguard is literally just a group of rats, with one mohawked rat that you need to kill to win. There’s the Skeleton Lords, which are just a random bunch of skeleton enemies that explode and turn into an even bigger mob of skeletons (ugh). There’s the Prowling Magus and Congregation, which is arguably the worst “boss” in the game because they’re no stronger or more challenging than any of the actual regular enemies you face and just feel thrown in pointlessly. Oh, and then there’s the extremely shitty gank squad optional “boss” from the DLC, which basically forces you to run around in circles kiting the enemies until you can cheese them to death. Fun!
Oh, and then there are the truly awful bosses, ones who are just ridiculously badly designed. The Covetous Demon is absolutely pathetic, giving pushovers like Pinwheel a run for their money as the easiest bosses in any Souls game. This giant Jabba the Hutt just lies there while you wail on it, occasionally flopping over to try to hit you, but often missing. It’s just sad to witness. It can do a lot of damage if you get hit and are being too greedy yourself, but it’s never going to feel like a real challenge. I also consider the Old Iron King to be a really poor boss fight unfitting for a Souls game. Basically, the boss has the most obvious and slow attacks, telegraphing exactly what he’s going to do and then leaving his fists down for no other reason than for you to hit him multiple times, because he’s a video game boss. The only challenge in this fight is that the boss can very easily get a cheap kill by knocking you out of his arena, which is just utter bullshit. Similarly, the Ancient Dragon is often considered one of the most bullshit bosses in Souls, due to its enormous health bar, its insanely huge area of attack fire breath and that its damage output is enough to one-shot most builds. It’s just straight-up not fun to fight.
I recently began replaying Dark Souls, this time on PS4 with the remastered edition. Having played a ton of Soulsborne and Souls-like games in the past few years, it’s fascinating going back to the game which really popularized the modern action game formula. I’m definitely enjoying myself, but that got me thinking about all the things I love and hate about this franchise and the subgenre it spawned… and wouldn’t you know it, I have a series on this blog which is about just that! So without further ado, here’s what I love and hate about the original Dark Souls!
Amazing World Design – This is arguably the best part of Dark Souls, where it really shines and is still unmatched, even by its successors. I’m going to split this into a couple parts to cover it more thoroughly:
Dark Souls‘ world is designed sort of like layer cake. Each new area is connected to the others in an organic way, and it isn’t uncommon to be exploring and to catch glimpses of other areas that you will soon be exploring or to discover a surprising shortcut to an area you previously visited (which is extra important because fast travel is unavailable for most of the game, and even then only in a limited capacity). Furthermore, the areas all stack on top of each other vertically, a very unique approach to an open world which is rarely attempted. The unique design with the shortcuts littered throughout give the entire world map a memorable interconnectedness that sticks with you long after your journey is complete.
The game is designed in a very non-linear fashion. There is an intended path for newer players which is evidenced by the difficulty of the enemies in each area, but there is technically nothing stopping players from risking going off this intended path into much more challenging areas for their level. In fact, the loot that you can acquire for doing so might make the challenge worthwhile, especially for veteran players. Furthermore, the game also has an optional starting item, the Master Key, for experienced players which makes the early game even more non-linear as it allows you to explore these higher-level challenges much sooner. To make this even better, the game actually has some special rewards for breaking the intended path, such as (SPOILER ALERT):
If you kill the sunlight maggots early enough, you will save Solaire of Astora from a tragic fate and allow him to be summoned for the final boss battle.
If you beat the Artorias of the Abyss DLC (end-game content in terms of difficulty, so that’s no light feat) before fighting Sif, she will actually remember the player but fight to defend her master’s honour anyway, giving the fight an even more melancholy air to it.
The vertical open world design even has thematic significance, as the homes of the (questionably moral) gods of light are found as you ascend the layer cake. In contrast, the darkest places are found as you descend, all the way down to the lowest point of the world in Ash Lake, where humanity itself and the Dark Soul was found. Considering that environmental storytelling is a crucial method in which the game’s narrative is conveyed, this thematic significance is particularly brilliant.
Unique Character Designs – In addition to the amazing world design, FromSoftware also really nailed the art designs for the different characters and bosses in this game. This includes the NPCs, such as the instantly iconic designs of Solaire of Astora and Siegmeyer of Catarina. The bosses are also incredibly creative and have elements meant to symbolize their characters. Rather than just having a dragon, instead we get the Gaping Dragon, which has turned itself into a huge maw in order to consume more. Or what about Gravelord Nito, a being made up of piles of bones and whispy darkness. Hell, even extremely underwhelming bosses, such as Pinwheel, have incredibly well-thought out designs – in his case, he wears three masks because he’s trying to resurrect his dead wife and child. FromSoftware just always puts this really creative spin on their creatures and it’s part of the fun of discovering what sort of twisted abomination they’re going to throw at you next.
Build Freedom is Insane – Perhaps the coolest thing about the Souls series in general is just how much freedom the player gets in determining their character build. You get two slots per hand, plus two magic rings and a handful of item slots to use however you see fit. You can run all manner of swords (short, long, greatswords, freaking ultra greatswords), axes, spears, bows, shields and various other exotic weapons, not to mention three varieties of magic with their own lengthy spell lists. Oh and did I mention that all of these weapons can be upgraded with elemental properties which wildly change their damage output? Hell, if you’re insane, you can even choose to run around punching everything to death. And that’s just the weapon options, you’ve also got tons of armour sets (from light, medium and heavy) and your stat distributions which can complement any playstyle, from clerics, to tanks, to melee fighters. Basically, if you can think it, it can be done and you can probably make it work. I like to play the melee glass cannon – minimal HP investment, but very high stamina and strength, running around with a claymore for heavy damage output. The way I see it, if I’m getting hit by more than a couple enemy attacks, I deserve to be killed.
Surprisingly Rich Story Told in an Unconventional Way – The Souls games are very unique for the manner in which they tell their stories. Rather than conveying narrative directly to the player, the story is told through the environment and item descriptions, which encourages the player to piece the story together themselves. While it is possible to entirely miss the point of everything that happens in the game because of this, it actually makes the game significantly more engaging and rewarding. Even then, the base mythology of the game is also very interesting and makes for a compellingly, strikingly bleak world.
Resource Management – I know that Demon’s Souls was the basis for this idea, but Dark Souls really popularized the notion of strategic stamina regeneration and healing in modern action games. FromSoftware struck a perfect balance between the game’s speed and the stamina regeneration, making it feel like an essential part of the game rather than a burden on the player.
Some Absolutely Amazing Bosses – The Souls games are renowned for their bosses, and Dark Souls has some of the biggest standouts in the whole series. So with that in mind, I’m going to shoutout some of the bosses which deserve special praise:
Artorias the Abysswalker is probably the funnest boss in the game. The funnest bosses in Souls games are often built off of Artorias’ foundation – a large, single warrior duelling you with relentless, heavy attacks, leaving just enough openings to sneak in a hit if you’re skilled. Every game in this franchise features at least one boss which is built in the mould of Artorias, and considering that they’re almost always top-tier bosses, it should really show you just how good Artorias is. The nice thing about these kinds of duels is that they don’t rely on gimmicks exclusive to the boss battle, rather you’re testing your skill with the game’s combat system.
Black Dragon Kalameet is one of the funnest dragon battles in the whole series, posing an exceptional challenge to the player while remaining totally fair. A lot of bosses this early into the Souls series feel less refined than later entries, but Kalameet is still a standout boss to this day.
Ornstein and Smough are probably the most iconic boss duo in the entire franchise; I was aware of their reputation years before I even faced them for the first time. The fight itself is exceptionally difficult, but manageable if you focus them down skilfully. They’re also probably the best gank fight in the series, with their differing speeds and attack patterns not feeling like utter bullshit to fight. That feeling when you finally defeat Ornstein and Smough is one of the most satisfying moments in the entire franchise.
Backstabs Are Too Good – I like backstabs in this game, especially for the weaker enemies when you’re a low level. However, they are a little too easy to pull off in this game due to the speed of the game and the way enemies attack. It becomes less of an issue later on in the game when there are less humanoid enemies, but if a player relies too much on backstabs then those later sections of the game are going to be way more painful. I feel like later games in the series handled backstabs a little better and made them harder to pull off, but they are a bit too easy here.
Really Obtuse Mechanics – It’s one thing to make the player intuit the game’s story themselves, but it’s entirely another thing to force them to understand a myriad of unexplained game mechanics. Some stuff, like equipment load percentages, are just not conveyed and make playing the game more of a chore, but there are other mechanics which are significantly worse:
Hollowing and kindling is a mechanic that I still don’t understand properly in Dark Souls. In this game, you use the Humanity item to gain humanity which apparently gives you some statistical bonuses (and scales with certain weapon types) the more you have. Humanity can be spent to reverse hollowing and to kindle bonfires in order to have more estus flask uses. None of this is explained to the player at all, particularly the stat-bonuses. Considering that humanity is a fairly rare resource, you become hollow upon death and can lose all of your “liquid” humanity if you don’t retrieve lost souls, it’s like the game penalizes you for using it. As a result, I usually play the Souls games in a hollowed state 99% of the time, because I hate using finite resources on the off-chance I’ll need them later. Hollowing is supposed to represent despair and growing apathy and I think that later games in the series conveyed that idea far clearer than Dark Souls.
Covenants can be really confusing and don’t have as many benefits or consequences as you would hope. They basically just encourage some roleplay and online interaction, but the feature isn’t very well fleshed out, nor is there much reason to feel devoted to your covenant.
Weapon upgrades are a HUGE pain in the ass, which is particularly unfortunate since I’d argue that it’s the most important aspect to keeping up with the game’s difficulty curve (try facing off against the Bell Gargoyles with a +1 or +2 weapon vs a +10 weapon, the difference is night and day). In order to upgrade your weapons, you need to collect titanite shards and require larger shards as the weapon is upgraded higher – okay, that’s fair enough. However, Dark Souls takes it to a stupid level from there. Let’s say you want to add elemental damage to your weapon. First, you need to find an smithing ember, which are hidden throughout the world. Then you have to find the blacksmith who can actually use that ember (did I mention that there are 4 different blacksmiths scattered throughout the world?), and then give it to them. AND THEN you need to have special types of coloured titanite which drop in specific areas to actually upgrade some of these weapons (but not all of them, because that would just be too complicated apparently). Even then, you have to take stat scaling into account, which is different for each weapon and changes when you add elemental damage, potentially making the weapon worse despite being “upgraded”. And that’s not even including special weapons, although at least these are pretty simple, requiring only twinkling titanite, dragon scales or demon titanite to upgrade (these are all very rare items though). Weapon upgrades are just a huge pain in the ass to manage in Dark Souls, and were in serious need of streamlining.
NPC Questlines Are Easy to Miss – Some of the most compelling stories told in Dark Souls are done through interactions with NPCs. Characters like Solaire of Astora and Siegmeyer of Catarina are unforgettably charming and compelling as you follow their journey through the world, and each questline ends in truly heartbreaking fashion if you can see them through. However, NPC questlines are incredibly easy to miss as you explore the world – do something at the wrong time and you could easily never see one of these colourful cast members again. It’s not like the characters give you clear hints where they’re headed next either, they’ll just show up unexpectedly and if you happen to pass their way then lucky you.
Janky Game Engine – Considering how successful Dark Souls was, it’s easy to forget that FromSoftware was a relatively small studio with a limited budget, and as a result the game has some pretty questionable design at times. Most notoriously, the game was really badly optimized in its initial launch on PS3, Xbox 360 and (especially) PC. The framerate in Blighttown and New Londo in particular was brutal, often dropping into the unacceptable neighbourhood of 10-15fps. The online performance was also very questionable and led to really frustrating moments with invaders lagging all of the place and backstabbing you out of nowhere. Most of these issues have been addressed in the remastered version of the game, but there are still some eccentricities that have been maintained, like the hilariously weightless ragdoll effect on dead enemies.
4 Way Dodge Rolling… But Only While Locked On? – Dodging is a key skill in Dark Souls‘ combat, more skillful and rewarding than hiding behind a shield. Normally you can dodge in any direction, but for some reason when you lock onto an enemy this gets restricted to only 4 directions (forward, backward, left, right). I don’t understand this design choice at all because it’s not like encounters play out in a grid-like fashion to make this make sense and I’ve had this system throw me into enemy attacks unintentionally because of how restricted it is. As a result, when you get more skilled at the game you basically have to lock on and off of enemies to get around this arbitrary limitation.
Bosses Have Limited Movepools and AI – Perhaps owing to the fact that it’s the first game in the series, Dark Souls has a lot of bosses which are very predictable and exploitable due to their limited amount of moves and reactions. For an example of this, check out my low-level takedown of the Stray Demon – if I get behind it, it has only two attacks it can use with limited ways to actually hit me, meaning that I can basically just repeat the same pattern to whittle it down with little danger to myself. There are other examples throughout the game such as the Gaping Dragon which constantly jumps in the air when you get behind it, rinse and repeat. That said, the bosses do improve as you progress, and the DLC bosses are all top-notch. Also, some of the mini-bosses are pathetically exploitable, especially the stationary ones such as the hydra and the zombie dragon (which will just puke poison in front of it uselessly while you wail on it with arrows from far away).
Some Incredibly Frustrating Moments… – Sometimes Dark Souls is just an utter bastard to the player, with moments you just plain dread in subsequent playthroughs. Trying to fight the Hellkyte Wyvern is one example, as that thing will stunlock you with fire if you even try to approach it. The notorious Anor Londo archers are particularly egregious and there’s basically nothing in the game up unto that point which will have prepared you to face enemies that will knock you off of thin platforms with their arrows. I got stupidly lucky in my original playthrough and got past them on my first try, but in my remastered run I died to them so many times before I figured out a strategy through significant trial and error (basically, run and let them fall to their deaths like idiots). Sen’s Fortress is also a nightmare gauntlet of difficult enemies and traps, while Blighttown’s poisoned lake is just ridiculous (again, I got extremely lucky in my original playthrough and got through all the rickety platforms to the bonfire on my first attempt, in spite of the crap framerate).
…and Areas That Are Just Not Fun – While the above areas are frustrating, there’s at least some fun and skill to be had in overcoming the challenge. There are other areas though which are just awful, particularly in the latter portion of the game:
The Tomb of the Giants is stupidly dark and absolutely no fun to navigate as a result. To make matters worse, you’ve got enemies you can’t see firing arrows at you and giant quadrupedal skeletons which will rip huge chunks off of your health bar, all while you’re trying to avoid falling off of a ledge when you can’t see more than a few feet ahead of you. It doesn’t help that there are only a couple items you can equip to slightly illuminate the darkness, which could potentially leave you without a shield to defend yourself. The only nice thing I can say about the Tomb of the Giants is that at least it’s a relatively small area and that the views of Lost Izalith and Ash Lake are gorgeous.
…speaking of Lost Izalith it, along with its predecessor area the Demon Ruins, is the nadir of this game without question. Perhaps the worst aspect is that the areas are really uninspired, with long stretches of nothing of note (hell, there’s a good 20-30 seconds of flat, featureless terrain to run through every time you want to enter the Demon Ruins). The enemies are copy and pasted all over the place at random and are totally motionless until you aggro them, making this area feel super amateur. Hell, the enemies in this area are often filled with previous bosses the Taurus Demon and Capra Demon, not to mention one notorious section with an enemy which is literally the ass-end of the zombie dragon hastily re-purposed into a new enemy type. Rather than providing a fair challenge, the Taurus Demons and dragon asses don’t even respawn, which transparently signals that the developers knew that they weren’t fun but needed to have some sort of challenge. Capping the whole area off is the hands-down worst boss in the entire franchise, the Bed of Chaos, which is more of an exercise in frustration than anything else and which you will spend more time running from your bonfire to the boss room rather than actually fighting. FromSoftware has stated that they ran out of time and budget with Lost Izalith, and it really shows, even to the point where they included a shortcut that lets you bypass about 80% of it.
Generation 7 (Sun, Moon, Ultra Sun, Ultra Moon) Love
Much-Needed Gameplay Refinements and Improved Accessibility – I’m going to break this down into two parts:
On the refinement end of things, HMs are finally dead!!! Thank freaking God, now whenever you would need to use an HM move, a Pokemon will appear which does it for you. This system is just so much better in every possible way. Gen 7 also brought in an improved battle screen which now gives you more information: the number of boosts or debuffs on a Pokemon, turns remaining for some special conditions and even whether your moves will be super effective or not. Some veterans might feel like that last refinement especially is “casualizing” the game, but I personally like it and feel like it doesn’t really hurt the game in any way – veterans already know the type matchups, so it’s good for teaching them to newer players. You can also remove status conditions after battle without having to use an item, which can be handy. On the other end of things, gyms have been replaced with island challenges and totem Pokemon, which I’m not so keen on, but the HM refinement was so good that it makes up for anything else.
On the accessibility end of things, getting into the competitive side of Pokemon has been made even easier than ever, to the point where Nintendo actively encourages it on the Pokemon website. Gen 7 sees the introduction of hyper training (which lets you max out your Pokemon’s IVs!), the ability to see your Pokemon’s IVs and EVs, passive EV training on Pokepelago, etc. The barrier to entry to get into the competitive scene has dropped significantly in the past 2 generations.
Z-Moves – Some people will complain that Z-Moves aren’t as “flashy” or “game-changing” as mega evolution was and I was initially unconvinced that they weren’t going to be more than another power creep gimmick. However, I feel like Z-Moves are a fantastic addition which has really improved battling. For one thing, they increase the viability and versatility of every Pokemon, not just a handful of special Pokemon like mega evolution did. Plus, every move gets some sort of special Z-Move effect, from increased attack power to special effects for some status moves which make them significantly more viable (eg, formerly useless moves such as Splash and Celebrate now give a +3 Attack boost and +1 to all stats, respectively, making many of outclassed moves actually worth using if you’re creative enough. You also have to strategize a lot more about who to give the Z-crystal to, which move to use it one, when to use it, etc.
Really Strong Story – Except for maybe Gen 5, Gen 7 has one of the best stories in the whole series, which is mainly down to some very memorable characters. I feel like Sun and Moon‘s story is a definitely more satisfying and coherent compared to the changes which were introduced in Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon, but they’re both definitely in a completely different league than nearly every other Pokemon game.
Alola Formes – These were such a fantastic idea which needs to be revisited in future releases. Basically, the Alola region has some Gen 1 Pokemon who have major type and design differences, similar to real-life animals which change in different habitats. These aren’t just small changes either, some have wildly different typings which fundamentally change how they are played. Plus the redesigns were (for the most part) great, especially the exquisite Alolan Ninetails. This feature has to be maintained going forward!
Alola Region Is Incredibly Distinct – There have been a number of interesting Pokemon regions throughout the years, but Alola has to take the cake for having the most personality to it. Clearly based heavily on Hawaii and its culture, the entire region, characters and its Pokemon revolve around this theme. Compared to, say, the Kalos region a generation prior, this really makes this generation stand out.
New Pokemon Are Design for Battling – Every single one of the new Pokemon have really unique gameplay design, which makes them all very interesting and worth trying out. Like, I’m not kidding when I say every single one, even this generation’s early-game Rattata, Caterpie and Pidgey equivalents, Yungoos, Grubbin and Pikipek respectively, have unique abilities, stats and evolutions which help them to stand out amongst an increasingly crowded roster of Pokemon.
SOS Calls – Having gotten through the main game of both Moon and Ultra Sun, I really appreciate the SOS Call feature, where a Pokemon can request another Pokemon to come to its aid when it’s on low health – it’s fantastic for EV training, shiny hunting and EXP grinding. However, during your story playthrough, these things seem to happen all the time and they just become a pain in the ass if you try to fight through them. Considering that a dedicated player is going to spend the bulk of their playtime in the post-game, this feature is more of a positive to me, but I can remember myself and my brother getting extremely frustrated at all the SOS calls during our initial playthroughs so it’s worth a mention.
Too Many Cutscenes – Holy bloody crap this game constantly interrupts you with cutscenes. It’s so bad that it took me months to actually get through Moon because I just could not get into the game with the incessant start-and-stop gameplay. Many of these are tutorials as well which are completely unskippable, no matter how basic they may be. The cutscenes themselves are also unskippable, including the ending video which must have been at least 15 bloody minutes long. Much like Mass Effect 2 and its mining minigame that you have to perform to get a good ending, this just shoots replayability down the tubes, because there’s no way in hell I’m going to sit through all of that again.
Festival Plaza – Compared to the PSS in Gen 6, Festival Plaza is a huge step down in efficiency and functionality as this generation’s online hub. The idea of having your own home circus where you can meet with others is cool, but the server stability isn’t the best and it takes way longer to do anything that it should. The idea of having booths to get in-game benefits, such as levelling up a Pokemon, buying items or acquiring bottle caps, is also cool, but in execution they’re a pain in the ass because getting Festival Coins to pay for these is such an unenjoyable grind. In order to get FCs, you have to complete awful mini-game missions, limited global challenges, or talk to random people in your plaza. Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon attempted to sort of fix this by tripling the FC yields and by introducing the mediocre and frustrating Battle Agency, but even then, getting FCs has always been more of a necessary chore rather than something I look forward to.
Why Not DLC? – Gen 7 has some weird issues. On the one hand, there’s basically nothing to do in Sun and Moon after the main quest, other than train competitively or shiny hunt. On the other hand, Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon introduce a ton of new side content, but are arguably barely worth getting if you own the original releases, only really making them a begrudging purchase because they introduce some new Pokemon for completionists. So this begs the question of why Game Freak hasn’t gotten with the times and just incorporated DLC? I mean, the answer is because they’ll get more out of you if you rebuy the game, but that is obviously utter bullshit on their part.
Ultra Beasts – I’m a bit mixed on Ultra Beasts, leaning towards negative. I get that they’re supposed to be not technically Pokemon, so the fact that they all have very odd designs which clash with typical Pokemon design philosophy gets a bit of a pass for me. However, some of them are just plain ugly, particularly Buzzwole and Blacephalon, and they don’t do much to allay some fans’ fears that the series was “better in the old days”.
Again, Too Many Legendaries – Officially, Gen 7 has the most legendaries of any game to date. This is in part because some of them actually evolve, such as Cosmog and Type: Null, but we still have the four guardians, Necrozma, the 3 mythicals and then the Ultra Beasts (I’m not sure if they technically count as legendaries, but they feel very similar in status to me and I have always seen them as such). It’s just too much for me and that means that, of the new Pokemon introduced in this generation (not including Alola formes), a whopping 29% of them are legendaries or Ultra Beasts!
Best Pokemon of Gen 7: Primarina, Rowlet, Trumbeak, Rockruff, Bewear, Tsareena, Minior, Poipole, Stakataka Shittiest Pokemon of Gen 7: Incineroar, Crabominable, Araquanid, Comfey, Turtonator, Bruxish
Thanks for reading this series, it was really fun to write! I think I’ll make Love/Hate into a new series here akin to the Retrospectives. I don’t have any other ones in mind yet, but I’ll keep this series concept in mind going forward.