Sunday, August 2, 2015

#95: Dark Souls 2: Scholar of the First Missteps

As you may be aware, I have recently began exploring the Souls games, starting with Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls. My opinions on both games are largely positive. My playthrough of Dark Souls 2: Scholar of the First was informed by these experiences, which explained why I did not like the game as much. It was not a bad game. However, the game betrays a lack of understanding as to why many of the choices in the original Dark Souls were made. This manifests in design changes that cause a number of problems throughout the game.

The first of these changes is the resurrection of consumable healing items. As I said before in my article about the Estus Flasks in the first Dark Souls, removing the ability to grind for recovery items was a drastic improvement from Demon's Souls to Dark Souls. Rather than reiterate points than I spent an entirely separate article making, I just want to comment on how strange it is to go back to using these items when they already had such an elegant solution in place.To make this worse, the imbalance caused by these items is exacerbated by the fact that the Estus Flask also made its return. It is given to them right after the tutorial is completed. With the reusable Estus Flask ever present in the inventory, players are encouraged to amass large stockpiles of items which they will rarely, if ever, use. I, personally, only used these Lifegems myself when I was absolutely out of Estus and in the middle of a boss fight. Otherwise, I would just hoof it back to the bonfire and try again to maintain my stockpile.

Another alteration to the game is in the way enemies respawn after being killed. In the original Dark Souls, returning to a bonfire revived every enemy that had been defeated, barring a few special exceptions. This is no longer the case in Dark Souls 2, as each enemy will only respawn a finite number of times before they will no longer appear (until the next playthrough). Two major problems arise from this change. First, like the addition of consumable items, it throws off the balance between the urge to continue on and the need to rest and replenish your inventory that I wrote about previously. Making a series of suicide runs in order to eliminate opponents has now become a perfectly valid tactic for making it through areas. Rather than continue to encourage that agonizing decision-making its predecessor was so famous for, Dark Souls 2 transforms every stage into a battle of attrition, as each run slowly depletes the enemy forces. I myself did this a number of time in stages like the Iron Keep and Shulva, Sanctum City.
And second, because there are only a finite number of enemies in the game, souls are also a finite resource. Players receive souls from defeated enemies, which they can use to purchase items/weapon upgrades and strengthen their characters. However, should they die, any unspent souls will be lost. In order to reclaim them, they need to return to the where they died and touch their bloodstain. Failure to do so before the next death will result in the permanent loss of those souls. Since enemies in Dark Souls never stop spawning, there is always a way to acquire more souls even in the event of heavy losses. Once an enemy stops appearing in Dark Souls 2, it is impossible to claim their souls by defeating them. Though I never reached a point where I couldn't obtain the souls I needed, the knowledge that my deaths were depleting the world's supply made each one much harder to swallow.
In the original Dark Souls, I have a very clear memory of exploring the Tomb of the Giants and amassing over 70000 souls. Just as I was about to return to the bonfire, my game was invaded by another player, who killed me in an instant with her barrage of magic and lag. As I attempted to reach my bloodstain, I was ambushed by a horde of giant skeletons. I had made a mistake in fighting them, and that mistake meant that those 70000 souls were gone. My anger at the loss was assuaged by the knowledge that it would be quite possible to replace those lost Soul by grinding later on if I had the desire.
During my adventures in Dark Souls 2, I had similar tales of losses, yet none exceeding 35000 souls at any one time. But even if the losses were momentarily lower, the knowledge that my ineptitude caused a decrease in not just the number of souls I had, but also the net total of possible souls in the game, made those losses sting a lot more. Enemies provide far more than enough souls for a given playthrough, yet just knowing than there is only a finite supply makes even small losses feel wasteful.

The biggest negative change that Dark Souls 2 made was in the way that foes attack. When an enemy attacked the player in either Demon's Souls or Dark Souls, they had to commit to both the attack and the direction in which they were attacking. Since the player was also bound by these same rules, fights were often fair. The best way to fight would be to stay on the defensive and look for openings in enemy attack patterns that could be exploited. Though some of the strongest enemies did have tracking attacks, it was only up to the point where they began to strike, and only to compensate for how slow the windup was for those particular moves.
In the sequel, they made a bizarre decision that I still don't entirely understand. Almost every enemy has an uncanny ability to track the player while they are attacking. This has an adverse effect on the combat, making it easier for them to land blows and conversely more difficult for the player to do the same. When I was exploring the Iron Keep in Dark Souls 2, I encountered an enemy that best demonstrates the problem. The Ironclad Soldiers held therein are particularly vicious foes with powerful attacks and decent armor. One of the advantages they have over the player is that when they wind up to unleash their overhead smash, they can hold their club in position over their head until the player is in range. Then, the portion of the move the inflicts damage will kick in quickly. They are also able to turn and face a strafing player while actively swinging the club horizontally. No opponent from previous Souls games have these same advantages to these degrees, and there is a very good reason for that. When the enemies are bound to the same rules as the player is, there is a sense of fairness born from that. The presence of that fairness means that most failures and deaths in combat can be directly attributed to the player. Taking it away leaves a sense that game is cheating in order to win, like a cruel, obstinate dungeon master in a Dungeons and Dragons campaign.

Again, I do not want to give off the impression that Dark Souls 2 is a bad game. Rather, it is a poor continuation of an excellent franchise. Though I believe that the director of Dark Souls 2 was a fan of the franchise, the changes made from one project to the next belie a lack of understanding as to what made the first Dark Souls, and Demon's Souls, such gems. The guidance of Hidetaka Miyazaki, who directed the earlier Souls games, was not needed to gain this insight. Taking a moment to see what worked with those two games, what needed improvement, and the trade-offs of each change would have been a boon to the production. Such analysis would have prevented many of the mistakes made in Dark Souls 2.

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