Saturday, June 20, 2015

#92: Dark Souls: The Use of Estus

From Software is very skilled at what they do. Coming off of my Demon's Souls playthrough not too long ago, I continued on into its spiritual sequel: Dark Souls. While Demon's Souls allowed players to gather and grind for healing items, Dark Souls uses a new system to manage health. The first NPC that players interact with will give them an item called the Estus Flask. This flask has a finite number of charges, and consuming one of these charges heals the player. When resting at a bonfire, a safe haven where players can recover their health and manage their inventory, this flask will be recharged.

What I found was that this one change had a profound effect on the game's design. The most obvious of these changes is that the ability to mend wounds becomes limited. In Demon's Souls, there were several varieties of healing grass, and players could hold up to 99 tufts of each type. Personally, I recall constantly have at least 40 or 50 tufts of whatever grasses I was able to obtain at any given point during my playthrough. Towards the end, I had so much that I couldn’t pick up any more. In fact, grass was so plentiful that I had 99 tufts both on my person, and in the excess-item stash.This is definitely not the case in Dark Souls. Resting at a bonfire will only fill the Estus Flask up to 5 charges. It is possible to upgrade bonfires so that this limit is raised up to a maximum of 20. Doing so requires the use of “Humanity”, an uncommon resource that, like souls, is lost on death. The act of “kindling” a bonfire is rare for this reason. During my playthrough, I only upgraded most bonfires enough to hold 10 charges in the Estus Flask.
The difference in these limits strongly manifested itself in my playstyle. If a fight left me with even a small scratch during my adventures in Demon's Souls, I would immediately consume a tuft of healing grass (or several, depending on how wounded I was) before moving on. With 99 tufts in my back pocket, there was nothing stopping me from making use of one or two.
In Dark Souls, this same decision became a much more tactical choice. When I finished a battle with only minor damage, it would be smarter to keep going without using the Estus Flask to heal, because that healing will be more useful later on. Once I figured out where a stage's boss was and how to get to them, it was imperative to take as little damage as I could so I could save Estus Flask charges for the boss fight, where I would need them the most. Even without the looming threat of an impending boss, running out of healing while exploring a stage was a big enough threat that there is always a natural reluctance to avoid using it when I didn’t have to.
If a single run of a level in Dark Souls was going badly enough, me being badly injured surprisingly early on and heavily imbibing of the Estus Flask, a choice needed to be made. I would often seriously consider whether it was wise to keep going, or to just return to the bonfire and try again. While bonfires do recharge the Estus Flask and mend any lingering wounds, resting at them also respawns every single enemy at full strength. In other words, trekking back to the bonfire and restoring my lost Estus is also resigning myself to starting an area over again almost from scratch. Through the Estus Flask, Dark Souls moved away from the war of attrition that Demon's Souls sometimes wandered into. Instead, every area is a test of not just character build and player skill, but also of the ability to manage resources.

The Estus Flask also lessened Dark Souls’s need for grinding, especially in comparison to its predecessor. Despite having large quantities of healing grass in the original Demon's Souls, repeated attempts to clear areas and fight bosses could and would deplete reserves. This meant that it would eventually be necessary to revisit old areas and grind for additional grass to replenish the player's supplies. In the early game, I frequently found myself returning to the Boletarian Palace in between boss attempts, once my grass count had fallen below 20, to gather more. Consequently, this meant that the time between boss attempts would sometimes be a little too long.
The Estus Flask fixes this problem. Since one can no longer grind for restoratives, there exists no incentive nor need to do so. For this reason, the downtime between boss encounters is reduced only to the time it takes for one to get from the nearest bonfire to the boss chamber. Even though my overall playthrough of Dark Souls was longer than that of my Demon's Souls playthrough, this reduced time between boss attempts gave the illusion of an accelerated pace. I could fight a boss as many times as necessary to defeat it without having to stop and grind for healing items, which is a boon in the Souls franchise.

Including the Estus Flask could be seen as a minor, seemingly meaningless addition. In truth, it is one of the biggest, most vital changes that came with the transition from Demon’s Souls to Dark Souls. This one change transformed the dungeoneering from a gradual and methodical war of attrition between the enemy forces and the player’s healing reserves to a test of how well they can management resources. When it comes time to brave the stronger enemies and boss encounters, it also accelerates the pace of repeated attempts. This kind of attention to detail is why people love the Souls games more than anything else. Each new design decision is carefully considered before it is implemented and the final product is all the strong for it.  

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