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Game Review #1: Dark Souls (Xbox 360)

I've noticed Dark Souls, with the original game in particular (ignoring Demon's Souls), is one of those games/franchises you cannot criticize on the internet, for any reason, as the fan base is both rabid and unreasonable. Any fault or tweaking to the game's formula, setting, characters, or god forbid, the difficulty, immediately results in some people getting aggressively defensive for some reason, as if they somehow were directly involved in the creation or propagation of the Dark Souls franchise. That being said, this article may result in some readers getting a sore butt, so continue at your own risk.

If you've listened to any our previous episodes, you'll note that I have had a bit of a transformation regarding my opinion of the series. Moreover, I've gone from mild dislike to a largely favorable opinion, though said transformation took over 40 hours of gameplay experience, in addition to consulting numerous wikis regarding optimal play strategies, weapon scaling, loot locations, etc. My first experience with the series was both Dark Souls 1 and 2, at roughly the same time, several years after their initial releases. My opinion at that time was - meh - as in, I didn't hate them, but I wouldn't go so far as to say I liked them either. The difficulty and punishment related to dying being the biggest reasons as to my lack of interest in the games. Regarding specially Dark Souls 1, in my original playthrough, I managed to get to Sen's Fortress, but could not actually finish it due to a mixture of poor play, poor preparation, and let's be frank here, cheap-shot deaths. I admit it - I, like many gamers, rage quit the game and had no intention of going back for another round.

Fast forward 5 years later and I have since beaten Dark Souls 3. To quote the popular meme, 'I got gud', meaning I no longer suck at the game. Getting 'gud' is an interesting topic, and phenomenon, so humor me as I elaborate. Like any skill or activity, via practice and learning, you get better at that same skill/activity. At some point during Dark Souls 3, (and no, I don't remember the specific event in which this occurred) something changed inside me. It's tough to articulate to people that aren't 'gud' yet, but it's more than just increased confidence in your skills and button-execution. More or less, you begin to see patterns in the combat, understand what actions should be rolled away from vs. parried, recognize your 'I' (or invincible frames), master how to bait and draw NPCs into one-on-one duels vs. group free-for-all, etc. I guess it's similar to swimming or riding a bike in that once it clicks, you can't un-click it. At that point, the game changes, and fairly quickly, in your favor. After that epiphany, you start fighting better, getting more souls/currency, which in-turn can be re-invested in your avatar with improved stats, weapons, and gear. This in-turn leads you to tackle more difficult, and therefore profitable enemies and areas, which in-turn feeds back into further investment into your character, and so on. Honestly, the transformation from 'un-gud' to 'gud' is amazing, to the point that I can't even remember what it was like to be shit at the game and lose/die to chumps that I can now destroy without effort. As I listen back to old podcasts where I provide updates regarding my inability to beat early bosses and areas, it frankly sounds pathetic to my post-'gud' ears. Maybe this is why Dark Souls fans are so insufferable, as they can't remember or relate to what it was like to struggle?

So what does this have to do with Dark Souls 1? Well, unlike many fans to the series, I didn't achieve 'gud' status until the end of the series (discounting Bloodborne as I haven't played it), meaning my maturation as a series fan and veteran didn't occur with the original iteration. In fact, I would even dare to state that my training via Dark Souls 3 had over- prepared me to tackle Dark Souls 1, as I honestly tore through it, beating all bosses and visiting all areas in under 30 hours. How was I over-prepared? Basically, Dark Souls 3's difficulty, in my opinion, comes chiefly from frenetic duels with overly-aggressive enemies that love to whip around and throw multi-hit attacks at you. By contrast, Dark Souls 1 is a much slower-paced game, where few if any enemies behave like that. Moreover, it seems to me that Dark Souls 1 had a lot more ambushes, cheap-shots, and other similar 'gotcha' traps compared to Dark Souls 3. The vast majority of my deaths in Dark Souls 1 were platforming-related, camera-related, or one-hit deaths vs. outright dueling. To me, that's a flaw as you feel cheated by the game under those types of scenarios. I am assuming From Software agreed with that sentiment to a certain extent as the sequels don't seem to rely on these types of gimmicks as much either.

Design-wise, the internet is always abuzz with so much love and appreciation regarding how interwoven the game world is, where Firelink Shire links to 7 or so different areas. I'll admit it's neat how the world links up to itself, but after a while, at least for me, it got old and tedious. I would have gladly traded that interwoven world for immediate fast travel, like Dark Souls 2 and 3, rather than at the game's mid-point. I'll admit that none of the pre-Lord Vessel commutes are too long or difficult, but again, it just seems tedious and inconvenient. Don't lie - once you obtained the Lord Vessel, where you still choosing to not fast travel when possible? Didn't think so. Also, regarding fast travel itself, can someone please explain to me why not all of the bonfires can be warped to once discovered? For example, why couldn't I just warp directly to the 1st bonfire in the catacombs vs. walking there via Firelink Shine? Perplexingly, all active bonfires allow you to warp away though for some reason. I am not sure if that was a bug or intentional, but the overall impression it left me with is a sloppy, incomplete design. Also consider the game lets you purchase weapon and armor smithing boxes, thus further negating the inconvenience of having to trudge it back to the blacksmith, meaning the developers likely also felt the lack of fast travel was obnoxious.

Regarding my playthough, I rocked a quality-build knight with a focus on melee. My weapon of choice for the first third of the game was a claymore, but that was quickly dropped for a Black Knight sword once the opportunity presented itself. Wherever possible, my focus was on maximizing my weapons, even if that meant a few, multi-hour grinding sessions to collect shards, large shards, and twinkling titanite. So, for example, I was wielding a +10 claymore for the Quelaag fight (which is quite early to get such a powerful weapon), or a +5 Black Knight sword for the Ornstein and Smough fight onward. I wasn't keeping a count of my total deaths, but if pressed for an estimate, I'd say around 30. Compare that to Dark Souls 3, which was somewhere in the low 200's range. As you could imagine, my focus on maximum strength gear greatly decreased the game's difficulty. With scaling, my final strike strength with the +5 Black Knight sword was around 600 per swing while 2-handing, making me essentially a boss fighting other bosses. In fact, I was able to stagger numerous bosses, thus further piling on the damage to near ludicrous levels. I also wore the Ring of Favor and Protection (increased load capacity, stamina, and HP) and the Wolf Ring (increased poise, thus making me an immoveable tank).

Given Dark Souls 1 is the first canon entry in the series, I must admit the game is very creative in its presentation and varied levels. By that I mean, no two areas really look and feel like one another. From Darkroot Garden, to the Catacombs, to the Undead Burg, to Anor Londo, nothing feels re-used. The 'fire level', or 'castle ruins' level, or the 'poison level', and other related tropes became overplayed in the sequels. Given these all started in this first iteration though, the game clearly deserves an 'A' for effort.

That being said, I cannot escape the feeling that this game is either unfinished, or ran out of time, or something to that effect, as the latter half of the game definitely feels weak compared to the first half. What do I mean (as the buttholes are clenching)? Consider all of the care that went into the Undead Parish, or other similar early-game areas. This area for example has great detail, intricate enemy placement, traps/ambushes, and shortcuts to help keep the gaming experience immersive and engaging. When I played these early areas, I could clearly see the care and play testing that went into creating the final product. Compare this to latter game areas, like Lost Izalith, the Demon Ruins, drained New Londo Ruins, or Crystal Cave. All of these end game areas are frankly amateur, empty, and forgettable. Their design (or lack of one) reek of upcoming deadlines or apathy from the developer, to the point that I feel most of them could have been omitted altogether. I am not even kidding - this game feels like it was created by 2 teams/developers, and they never coordinated one another. Consider most of these latter areas don't even have bonfires, thus implying you have little to no reason to explore there beyond killing the boss and leaving. Take for example, Crystal Cave, and its bullshit invisible paths. Innovative? Maybe, but the execution is horrendous and needlessly complicated. Considering how short the area is, why can't I escape the feeling no time was spent creating it, or play testing it? Does anyone enjoy slipping all over the narrow catwalks, or tediously placing individual prism stones to mark invisible paths? Considering how well designed the Duke's Archives are, which immediately precedes the area, it only further shows how inconsistent this game's level design can be. I absolutely hate Sen's Fortress, but I still think the level works on numerous design and gameplay levels as that whole stage was specifically crafted and honed to trick (and annoy) players. Swing back to another example of poor/incomplete design, and let's talk about the infamous copy-and-pasting of Taurus and Capra Demons in the Demon Ruins. Who the hell approved that section where 8 Taurus Demons are just standing in the same area, just staring blankly at nothing in particular, waiting for you to attack. Are we sure 8 was enough? The message the developer is telling you is, 'I don't care', which is jarring considering how interesting (though annoying) Blighttown is in regards to its design and foreboding ambience, which again, immediately precedes this area.

Let's talk about the bosses now, as that is what people are really interested in when it comes to Dark Souls. Overall, I liked them, with none of them being outright too difficult for me and my fully powered weapons. For the most part, I defeated nearly all of the bosses on my 1st try, including Ornstein and Smough. Not to come off as a Dark Souls god or anything, but I was honestly not impressed with the fight, as it is regularly touted as the 'hardest' fight in video game history. I am not a fair judge in this matter though. For one, I was quite powerful at that point in the game, but more importantly, I was already 'gud' before I fought them, having already successfully beaten Dark Souls 3. Same as with the level design above, I also feel the quality of the bosses dip in the latter half of the game. For example, the 3 fights against the Asylum Demon clones just seem lazy, despite the increased difficulty with his 2 latter forms. I can also understand how the Four Kings fight could quickly get out of hand if you don't kill off the individual bosses before the next apparition appears, though that was never a problem in my playthough. I am not sure why this boss is considered so popular though, as I felt it was a little too gimmicky with their odd scaling and inconsistent boss shape/size. I would have preferred a more traditional fight, where the Four Kings were just giant corporeal knights or massive Dark Wraiths. Do I even have to bring up the horrendous Bed of Chaos 'fight', where you have to navigate a maze of cheap, one-hit falling deaths, or risk having to make another 4 minute run back to the boss' lair for a rematch? Again, I don't understood who or why someone greenlit that boss as acceptable vs. literally anything else. If you were interested, I've listed my boss scorecard below.

So, overall, what do I think of the game? I think it's a solid 7 out of 10. I do not agree that the game is a masterpiece, though for the most part, I had a great experience. It kept my attention and didn't feel bloated or full of pointless filler material. The combat is fierce, fun, and full of customization, thus inviting you to do subsequent replays under different builds. I'd like to try a pyromancy build at some point, but for now, I need a break from the series so that I can tackle other games in my backlog, to eventually include Dark Souls 2. Do I like 1 more than 3? No, I don't think so. 3 flushed out a lot of the mechanics and quirks that I felt were incomplete and/or unnecessary in 1. Plus, 3 is much, much faster. I do wish the game had a boss rush mode where you could practice fighting the various monsters though, as that would be a fun place to experiment with different builds and weapons. I have already been indoctrinated into the Dark Souls cult, so my opinion in the game is somewhat biased at this point. I felt 3 was harder than 1, but as I previously stated, I achieved 'gud' status in that game, so maybe that's not a fair assessment. Had the order been reversed, I may have said 1 was harder than 3. In any event, if you've never played any game in the series, I recommend the game. It is pretty cheap now, and even has a remaster, so you have ample options available. If possible, I also recommend trying this game before playing Dark Souls 3, as I feel I 'broke' the game, and possibly jaded myself from truly experiencing this iteration as it was originally intended. My final advice to players, for all of the game's faults, it is still well worth your time. Keep practicing and stay with the game as it will get easier and more enjoyable.

"If only I could be so grossly incandescent!"

-Knight Solaire of Astoria

"Don't you worry, the ground below me is my pillow."

- Siegmeyer of Catarina

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