Love/Hate – Nioh

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…

Love

  • 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 bosses are also all consistently fun and 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.

Mixed

  • 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.

Hate

  • 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.
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Love/Hate – Dark Souls 3

Love

  • 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 WatchersDancer of the Boreal Valleythe Twin Princes of LothricThe Nameless KingThe 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.

Mixed

  • 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.

Hate

  • 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.
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Love/Hate – Bloodborne

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.

Love

  • 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.

Mixed

  • 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.

Hate

  • 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.
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Love/Hate – Dark Souls 2

Love

  • 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 SentrySmelter DemonVelstadtSinh, 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).

Mixed

  • 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.

Hate

  • 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.
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Love/Hate – Dark Souls

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!

Love

  • 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.
    • I also want to give some smaller shoutouts to Great Grey Wolf Sif, Chaos Witch Quelaag, the Bell Gargoyles and the Sanctuary Guardian.

Mixed

  • 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.

Hate

  • 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.
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