Pretty much all my free time over the last couple weeks has gone to Dark Souls II but I didn’t want to just write about how that game is because pretty much everyone else already is. An interesting subject that’s come up though is its level of accessibility to new players, even compared to its predecessors.
Apparently GameSpot has been doing something on the order of second opinion reviews of games, and theirs for Dark Souls II came from a newcomer to the franchise who scolded the game, essentially criticizing it as too obtuse and tedious. I feel like a lot of this reviewer’s complaints came from expecting the wrong things of Dark Souls II, but I might be able to understand some of them.
Anybody who knows about Demon’s Souls and the Dark Souls games understands or should understand their difficulty and punitive nature by now. I feel like those things get overstated though, and they aren’t even the main reason I enjoy these games. The real reason is the deft touch with which they convey information to players and how they allow players to learn, which is a stark contrast from modern action games.
Where most modern big-budget games try to make sure you never get frustrated by always pointing out where to go and what button to press, the Souls games give you the freedom and tools to figure that out for yourself. I think it brings back a sense of mystery I haven’t seen in console games in a long time. The review accuses Dark Souls II of not properly teaching how its stats work, not offering a meaningful storyline, and disagrees with its choice of encouraging players to repeat challenges many times before winning.
Ironically I think the Souls games have some of the best tutorials in modern games. Since I’m coming into Dark Souls II with more experience than GameSpot’s secondary reviewer for the game, I should instead recall my first experience with Demon’s Souls. I was able to figure out the basic controls in Demon’s Souls in about 20 seconds without any drawn-out prompts or cut scenes. I enjoyed how the tutorial area is pretty much a miniature version of a normal level, with the tutorial messages on the ground teaching you to read online messages throughout the real game. Dark Souls did this even better, with secrets to be found in its first area.
I hear a lot of people get really far in the games however before becoming aware of the lock-on system. I actually don’t remember if any of the three tutorials tells you about it but if they don’t, they should. It’s pretty integral to combat. One major complaint in the GameSpot article is that the author didn’t understand that you can’t just hide behind your shield when you’re not attacking. Stamina recovers more slowly when your shield is drawn and your stamina takes a hit when you block attacks. Admittedly, at no point do any of the Souls games tell you this, but I was able to figure that out the first time I blocked an attack in Demon’s Souls by simply looking at my meter.
Does completing the Souls games rely on shared knowledge? “Rely” is a strong word in my opinion. That shared knowledge of reading messages on the ground and browsing the Wiki is mostly good for figuring out strategies to get past bosses and other challenges, and maybe discovering extra secrets. Without outside help you just learn by dying more often. You can learn the basic mechanics of play by simply playing the game.
Is dying a lot to learn a game fair? I guess that depends on how you view games in this day and age. The Souls games sort of adhere to the old way of thinking where you got better at a game through trial-and-error, which is one of the GameSpot reviewer’s main complaints. I get that people don’t like fail states and don’t like repeating things a lot, but I personally don’t think it’s a problem if the basic mechanics are good enough. People die a ton of times in Mario games but keep playing because their controls and level design are so well-crafted. Some games feel fair to a point where you know immediately what you did wrong each time you fail, and thus want to try again. The Souls games in particular allow for many strategies for each challenge, accommodating many character builds, so it’s not even about rote memorization here.
The stat system in these games is another of the review’s complaints and I’m not sure it holds water. Dark Souls II hands players a lot of data, even compared to its predecessors, throwing out numbers on dozens of different stats for your character and each piece of equipment. Even of the symbols for stats are confusing, a single press of the select button reveals a description of each one.
One thing that’s probably up to personal taste though is the rate of character progression. The GameSpot review complains that you don’t feel perceptively stronger with each individual level, and it’s right. This is even truer in Dark Souls II than in the other two games because it has more stats to raise. None of these games gives you tons of rewards or stat increases upon each level like Call of Duty or even Fallout 3. In all the games each level doesn’t cost a lot of points (they’re especially cheap in Dark Souls II), and you’ll often be leveling up multiple times at once. It’s a gradual rise, and I can understand if someone used to mainstream RPGs doesn’t like it. The Souls games are not about instant gratification. I’ll also admit they don’t really tell you how important gear is.
I think the narrative is the one area where the reviewer’s complaints are most sound, particularly in the case of Dark Souls II. All three games pride themselves on storylines efficiently-conveyed with minimal dialogue, environmental cues, and item descriptions. However, Demon’s Souls and the first Dark Souls still begin with elaborate cut scenes and tutorial levels that explain the setting and the player’s situation in detail (or enough to get them going). Dark Souls II doesn’t really do this. 20 hours into the game and I still only have a vague idea of what my actual objective is. You can definitely argue the newest game is a bit too light on story.
One nitpick I would understand (that the reviewer doesn’t make) is how dialogue works in these games. It’s pretty much the old school Japanese RPG system of walking to characters and pressing A to get canned phrases, except they’re all voiced now. The thing is, the Souls games expect you to continually talk to characters to hear everything everyone has to say. Not doing this may cause you to miss out on some crucial secrets. At least a Bethesda or BioWare-style dialogue tree might make all those phrases a bit more visible.
That’s just one example though of how the Souls games expect players to take the initiative to explore. That’s what really sets them apart in my opinion. Most modern console games strive to put all pertinent information right in your face. The Souls games want you to discover that information. I like this because it doesn’t insult my intelligence like too many big-budget games do.
I understand why that style isn’t for everyone though. People learn in different ways — some are active, some passive. Many games in the past were mainly built for hands-on learners whereas many of today’s popular games are different. This is also why the Souls games aren’t mainstream. It’s probably still a miracle they sell as much as they do.
- Kero Blaster is out. It’s the new game from the guy who made Cave Story. Look it up.
- Any tips on laptop shopping? I haven’t looked at notebooks in a solid decade.
- Nice article on the perception of games in the general media. http://t.co/1vrL0eotn1
- A new zine about Nintendo. http://t.co/nVEeDzsrBJ