Dark Souls review
I'm sick of everyone praising Dark Souls. Almost everyone on the internet who talks about game design mentions Dark Souls as the greatest example of "hard but fair", and that's bullshit! Dark Souls is full of unfair anti-player mechanics. I'm going to focus on Dark Souls 1 for this review since it's the only one I finished.
If you're interested in a game with a similar combat system but less bullshit, play Jedi: Fallen Order.
Jedi: Fallen Order review
Dark Souls likes to waste your time. Most bosses don't have a bonfire (respawn point) near the entrance, so every time you die you have to run all the way back to the arena - usually through a mess of enemies you've already killed - before you're allowed to try again. Sometimes the bonfire is so far away that it takes *2 minutes* to run back even if you don't fight anyone!
How to save the player's progress correctly
On a similar note, the game doesn't return consumable items used when you die. You have a one-time use item that gives you increased damage and you've got a hard boss you need to go through? You only get one try with the item! This forces you to either have a very high chance of wasting the item and being forced to beat the boss without it, or else only use it once you're sure it'll be enough of an edge to guarantee your victory, meaning most likely you ended up beating the boss before you got to that point. Or the third option: just go grind to get another item. Grinding is fun gameplay, right?
Why you shouldn't have persistent consequences for failure
The game has a horrible case of trial and error:
trial and error
- There are a lot of enemy attacks that you can't reasonably intuit how to avoid; you just have to have already seen it. It's been too long since I played for me to name specific attacks, but even many of the Dark Souls fanboys I've talked to acknowledge this (they just think it's okay).
- As is typical for RPGs, the game doesn't make any effort to tell you how damage is calculated, which is important since you're choosing which stats to upgrade. I could upgrade Vitality and get 30 more HP or upgrade Resistance and get 2 more Physical Defense... but how am I supposed to make a meaningful decision when I don't know what a point of Physical Defense even does? This is *not* challenging gameplay. It's arbitrary guessing where you're punished for not reading the developers' minds and you can't re-spec.
Here's a post by a Dark Souls fan about how damage is calculated. It's extremely counter-intuitive and not explained anywhere in the game.
- There are many times even outside of combat where you can be instantly killed by a threat you couldn't reasonably have anticipated. The most obvious example is the first "mimic" chest. Like most RPGs, you find chests throughout the world that contain rewards, but starting with Sen's Fortress some of the chests you find will be "mimics" which, when opened, turn into a monster and bite your head off, killing you instantly. Granted, this isn't a huge problem once you know about it, because you can attack them, but the first time you find one you've been given no clue that they exist *and* you're a long way from a bonfire.
- Another is the ceiling slimes in The Depths. In this area you find yourself walking through a tunnel with no foreshadowing of danger and then suddenly a ball of slime falls onto your head from the ceiling and deals massive damage, likely enough to kill you if you weren't at full health. Dark Souls fans are like "Oh it's so fair! You could have looked at the ceiling and seen it!". But can you *really* be expected to keep an eye on the ceiling *everywhere* you go in Dark Souls? The game would take forever at that rate, not to mention it's the only time in the game where it would be rewarded.
- Another example is the elevator in Sen's Fortress. In this area you find an elevator stained with blood. It stops briefly at a middle floor, and if you don't get off quickly enough, it goes up farther and crushes you against a spike ceiling. Again, Dark Souls fans say "Oh it's so fair! You could have deduced that from seeing the blood stains!" Except that that's not even a valid deduction! Why couldn't it just be the stain of another adventurer who got cornered on that elevator by some enemies? In fact, doesn't that *better* explain why their body isn't there, since it explains how they were found?
- There's a boss in the game (Ornstein & Smough) that consists of two enemies at once, and when you kill one, surprise! The other is magically restored to full health! The game wastes a ton of your effort as punishment for not having looked up the fight on the wiki first.
- Finally, there's the parry mechanic. You're taught how to do this to enemies in the tutorial - basically an alternative block move that's hard to time but if successful leaves the enemy stunned and vulnerable to a highly damaging riposte. Since there's no counterplay to this, it's natural to assume enemies can't do it to you. But you'd be wrong. Some enemies *can* do this to you and it usually kills you from full health even if you level Vitality a lot (I did). The only solution is to look at the wiki and find out about "parry stances" - apparently the enemies that can do this can only do it while in a special, recognizable stance. But there is no way except wiki or extensive trial and error to learn this, especially since the stance is different for each enemy that can do it.
The bloodstain system is another thing worth noting for the way it damages the player experience. When you die, you leave your souls behind, and if you get back there without dying again, you can recover them; but if you die while they're still out there they're gone forever. This means if you get die in a boss arena, you can't go explore a different path (the game is very nonlinear), you have to keep trying at that boss until you win. While you can use a homeward bone from the arena to return to the bonfire after recovering your souls, homeward bones are a limited item and take time to use, making them hard to find a window for in many boss fights.
The game has fucking *illusory walls*. That's right, the game's display outright lies to you. The only way to be sure you haven't missed anything is to attack every wall. Doesn't that sound like so much *fun*?
Many of the bonfires in the game are hidden (eg. behind illusory walls), causing the experience of massively longer sections than the game is balanced for, or simply too far apart even if you know about them all. I'm thinking of the Depths, Darkroot Garden, and Sen's Fortress (god that area would be fucking miserable without the secret bonfire).
You can't fucking *pause* the game. That's how much this game doesn't respect you. Do you need to walk away to tend to something in real life? Oh well, I guess you're dead. Did someone else walk in the rooom to say something to you or turn on the lights to do something? Good luck fighting the boss while that's going on. I know someone who played Dark Souls while he had a 1 year old son, and so whenever his son started crying, the game forced him to choose between losing the boss fight or leaving his baby son crying.
Despite the Dark Souls fanbase being always on about how skill-based the game is and how you never take damage without making a mistake, there are multiple parts in the game where damage or even death is unavoidable even if you know what's coming. The Stray Demon and Gravelord Nito both require you to take fall damage to enter the arena, and the first encounter with Seath the Scaleless is an *unwinnable fight*. When he inevitably kills you you wake up in a jail cell (from which you can easily escape) and you fight him again later in a situation where he's not invincible. Nevermind the fact that you do lose your souls when you die in Seath's first arena, it's all fair because... because...
Some bosses have long periods of invulnerability during their move pattern, which just makes them boring and tedious to fight. I'm thinking of the Moonlight Butterfly, which you fight from a bridge while it shoots ranged attacks at you and only occasionally comes close enough for you to hit it, and the Centipede Demon, which you fight from a small piece of land in a room where the floor is lava, and it shoots ranged attacks at you for quite a while before it finally decides to come over where you can reach it.
The Bed of Chaos... even Dark Souls fans usually agree that this boss is bad. My main problem with it is that it has nothing to do with the combat system you've been taught. It's pure gimmick; you just run around an arena destroying stationary nodes that die in one hit and dodging sweeping arms with questionable hitboxes while the floor falls through. Combine these pinnacle-of-screw-our-actually-good-combat-system mechanics with that the fight is actually incredibly difficult - so difficult that even Dark Souls decided to make your progress persistent (the nodes stay destroyed when you die), and it's *still* incredibly difficult - *and* has the longest trek to the arena in the game (exacerbated by that your try at the fight usually doesn't last more than 30 seconds).
I experienced a lot of camera difficulties. In particular during the fight with Chaos Witch Quelaag, and just after entering the arena for Ornstein & Smough, my camera would often get stuck in the wall. Also when fighting multiple enemies at once, I found it hard to keep them all on screen, since you basically have to be locked on to fight in this game. And god help you if you press the lock on button when you aren't sufficiently in view of the enemy - your camera gets thrown in a random direction.
The weapon upgrading system is another thing I should criticize while I'm here. You can upgrade a weapon to make it deal more damage, but the problem is that there's no way to un-invest titanite you've spent on an old weapon once you find a new and better one. This creates a conflict of interest that harms the difficulty curve for all players.
Finally, the curse mechanic: some enemies inflict a status effect called curse, which fills a bar and when it fills you not only die instantly... but you come back to life with your max health halved... and to cure it, you must either use a purging stone (which there's no guarantee you have), or visit the healer in New Londo. Nevermind the fact that if you get cursed by the Basilisks in The Depths you probably don't even know where New Londo is yet. I didn't.
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