Dark Souls (2011)

In a time in which numerous video games hold the players hand and are generally easy, one game challenged the idea that difficult games were too frustrating and that mainstream games should stray away from challenging the player. That game was Dark Souls. This action-RPG was an industry-changing title, other developers realized that there was a market for games that did not coddle the player. The difficulty is far from the only factor that makes Dark Souls what it is, although its reputation of being hard is what everyone knows about Dark Souls, even if they have never played it. Dark Souls is also a bastion of success in level design, atmosphere, and world building, and I have yet to come across a game as impressive as Dark Souls in those departments. I consider Dark Souls to be one of the greatest and most important games of all time, rivaling titles like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Metal Gear Solid, and Super Mario 64. It has had a profound effect on the industry and will shape video games for years to come. That being said, I consider Dark Souls to be a flawed masterpiece. It is no secret that the second half of the game was rushed to reach a deadline. It also dangerously teeters on the line of “difficult but fair” and “frustrating”. While I consider the game to be “difficult but fair” a majority of the time, there are still a few moments that cross the line and enter “frustrating” territory. Despite these shortcomings, Dark Souls has quickly become one of my favorite games and its importance cannot be denied.

What makes the difficulty of Dark Souls so compelling? Part of its success is that Dark Souls is tough, but it rarely ever feels cheap or gives you an unwarranted death. Every time you die, it’s your fault. Every time I died, I learned something valuable and I could avoid dying the same way in the future. It is evident that nothing is too difficult to execute because on my second play-through I died extremely infrequently due to my prior knowledge on how to defeat all the enemies. There is a certain beauty to the challenge of Dark Souls.  Many challenges seem insurmountable at first, but you keep trying and trying until eventually you figure it out. When you do finally overcome a tough area or boss, there is an overwhelming feeling of elation and pride at what you have just accomplished. There is something to be said in that Dark Souls mimics life in this regard. Dark Souls is not difficult for the sake of being difficult, rather it uses difficulty as a tool to make the player feel different emotions. The sense of accomplishment when you defeat a boss, the anxiety of not knowing what is on the other side of a fog door, the fear and tension of fighting a tough enemy, or the immense relief when you discover a new bonfire; these emotions are possible only because of the challenge provided by Dark Souls. Furthermore, I really appreciate when games are actually challenging, it is far more engaging and addicting.  That feeling of wanting to conquer a genuine challenge makes me want to keep playing, and when I did finally defeat whatever was in my way I really felt like I had made significant progress.

1

While the difficulty is probably the most well-known feature of Dark Souls, there are many other categories which make Dark Souls master class. The most impressive feature to me was the brilliant level design. Each area in Dark Souls often loops in on itself and reveals a shortcut from the nearest checkpoint. This is genius for a couple of reasons. First, it lets areas evolve in a sense, and as you progress through the game an area is going to have more paths and shortcuts available to access. Since many paths are closed to the player initially, it allows the player to become familiarized with the level’s layout before further complicating it. This sort of circular level design also surprises the player, and makes you stop and think how you ended up back where you started. From a player progression standpoint, the looping level design is massively important. As you return to areas you have been previously, you can test how strong you have become. As gear, level, and player skill increase you feel much more powerful visiting areas that you were in just a short time ago. Lastly, this type of design also reduces tedium by a massive amount. The player will only have to get through a particular chunk once and can skip that chunk once a shortcut has been opened. So, there is very little tedium when running from a checkpoint to where you died.

2

The atmosphere, setting, and world of Dark Souls is also hauntingly beautiful. Every area is completely unique and memorable. Often, I just stopped adventuring and had to take in my surroundings. The world of Dark Souls mirrors the level design in the sense that it utilizes vertical layers to have areas loop in on themselves to create a compact and believable world. There are many instances of Déjà vu as you open a door or descend an elevator as you realize that you have been here before. Atmospherically, Dark Souls is in a tier of its own. The world is littered with viewing points from high places where you can gaze upon the areas that you have just conquered, or even look ahead to see your next trial. I often felt insignificant when gazing upon the wondrous land or Lordran, and fighting enemies that were magnitudes larger than me reinforced that feeling. Despite this, as I traversed the world and surmounted these creatures, I felt powerful. The world of Dark Souls is vast but compact, it is interconnected, and it is breathtaking.

3

Another aspect of world-building is the lore and the story. While the story of Dark Souls is fairly simple, it becomes incredible as you learn the backstory to the world. I don’t want to delve too deep into the lore, as I feel like people should attempt to discover it on their own. There is a real feeling of living in a dying world, and you are putting this worlds creators and gods to rest in order to preserve life for a little while longer. Fighting many of the bosses of Dark Souls becomes far more emotional once you learn their backstory, and often times it is profoundly sad as you put these old gods to rest. Speaking to all of the characters in the game gives you a sense that they are on their own journeys through this world, and don’t solely exist for the benefit of the player. The other interesting thing about the lore is that it is never explicitly laid out for the player. You must discover it for yourself through contextual clues, item descriptions, and character dialogue. This gave me the feeling of piecing together a puzzle, and even if some of the pieces were missing, I could still make out the overall picture. I really felt like an adventurer in a fantasy setting, discovering the world for myself.

4

One of the most important features of an action-RPG is obviously the combat. At first glance, the combat of Dark Souls seems pretty rudimentary and slow, but looking deeper into the game one can see that this is not the case. Every action that the player takes has a significant wind-up at the beginning and some down-time at the end, this is to encourage the player to only make an action when it is safe to do so, otherwise you will get hit. Enemies hit hard in Dark Souls, even the weaker enemies in most areas can kill the player in a few hits, so you better be sure that you have a big enough window to attack, or you will pay heavily for it. The combat is actually surprisingly deep in a sense, as the player learns the ins and outs of all the combat systems. Learning how to use stamina, poise, staggering, shields, rolling, light attacks, heavy attacks, shield breaks, back stabs, parries, and efficient use of the estus flask are all essential as you get further into the game. The combat is heavily focused around risk and reward, for example: you can shield an incoming attack to guarantee your safety, but you’ll lose stamina, or you can parry the attack and riposte for massive damage, but if you mess it up you will get hit hard. That is just one example, and the player is encouraged to test out all of the combat options available to them. The other interesting thing is that all the enemies abide by the same rules that the player follows. Enemies also have stamina, poise, wind-up animations, and down-time after their attacks, and they also die from a few swings of your weapons. You can always expect the enemies to behave in a similar way to the player, which is immensely important. If enemies did not have to follow these rules, they would feel cheap and unfair. There is a feeling of weight and permanence in the combat of Dark Souls, every decision must be carefully calculated because the stakes of getting hit are so high.

6

Do you remember being a kid and huddling around the playground with you friends and telling each other about all the cool secrets you found in a game? Most of what was said in these discussions ended up being wrong, but it was still neat to imagine all of the hidden features in a game. Dark Souls does a great job of recreating this feeling. Players can leave messages for each other, telling of illusory walls or how a great item is waiting for you if you jump off this cliff! This harkens back to the playground discussions, as these messages are mostly jokes. But occasionally you will find a tip about a hidden item, or a how a trap is waiting for you up ahead. These messages can also be likened to adventurers swapping tips and stories around a bonfire. There are also bloodstains scattered across the world and you can view exactly how other players died in that spot, which can be pretty humorous. Not only can you communicate with other players, but you can also summon players to play alongside you and engage in jolly cooperation. Be careful though, some of the crueler players can invade your world and fight you one on one. I don’t consider the multiplayer aspect of Dark Souls to be one of the main features of the game, but I definitely did get a few chuckles out of the goofy messages and bloodstains.

It is clear that I adore Dark Souls, so why did I call it a “flawed masterpiece”, what is wrong with the game? One of the issues is that there are definitely some moments that are more frustrating than they are difficult. Luckily, these moments are not too common, but they still sour the experience a little. This was a risk the developers took when creating a challenging game, every encounter must be extensively tested to make sure that it is tough, but not so hard that it makes you want to smash your controller. While it is a shame that some of these types of moments made it into the full game, I think it is remarkable that these frustrating moments are so few and far between and it shows how much care what put into this game. Also, the game can often be a little too cryptic for its own good. While the DLC areas and bosses are some of the best in the game, accessing the DLC is so confusing that I doubt most people figured it out without looking it up. Unfortunately, these are not the sole issues of Dark Souls, the most important issue is that the game is just not finished. In order to meet a deadline, the final areas in the game were rushed and are nowhere near the quality previously demonstrated. The level design falls apart as it no longer loops in on itself, and the same can be said for the world design. There are a few separate paths that lead to dead ends, there are no grand revelations of “I know exactly where I am”. Furthermore, many of the enemies, bosses, and the areas themselves are clearly rushed. I think the other big issues with the final 4 areas in the game is that the developers attempted to let the player tackle them in any order they wanted.

5

While some fans claim that one of the biggest strengths of Dark Souls it its open format, I have to disagree. Sure, you can go to a variety of different areas at the start of the game, but you are clearly pushed into one path. To me, that is the beauty of the pseudo-open world of Dark Souls. The developers trust that the player is intelligent enough to avoid tougher areas early on and instead come back when they are better prepared. At the end of the game, there are 4 paths all laid out for the player to go in any order they want. The issue with this is that as the player progresses through these paths, they will become more powerful, so it is immensely difficult to balance these 4 paths. They all must be about roughly equal in difficulty so that the player can choose to go to whichever one they want first. What ends up happening is that the first area you go to is going to be the hardest, and then each area you visit gets progressively easier as you level up and get better equipment. I think the developers realized this issue, and since difficulty is such an important factor in the game they attempted to combat the problem that subsequent areas get easier and easier. In order to fix this, the developers made each area difficult by adding a gimmick. These gimmicks remain relevant regardless of the players level. The pitch blackness of the Tomb of the Giants, the lava of Lost Izalith, the invisible platforms of the Crystal Caves, and the ghost enemies in New Londo are all gimmicks. They are cheap tricks meant to make the game more difficult and I feel like they damage what could otherwise be decent areas. These gimmicks could actually be pretty interesting twists to these levels if they were implemented better, but as they stand now they are just annoying to deal with. Despite this, I still think that most of these areas are decent, they just don’t adhere to the brilliance that was the first half of Dark Souls.

Even though it is undeniable that Dark Souls is flawed, it is still an immensely important game. It has redefined level design, world building, and atmosphere in games. I have struggled for a while to write this piece. It is not easy for me to put into words my opinion about Dark Souls, and as such I believe that it is a game that everyone needs to at least try. Do not be intimidated by others boasting about how hard the game is, as I think it is entirely accessible to anybody decently experienced at video games. Dark Souls is a truly wonderous and unforgettable experience, and while it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, I highly recommend that everyone should at least give it a chance.

Advertisements

Civilization VI (2016)

It is no surprise that a Civilization game is underwhelming at launch. Civilization IV and Civilization V for example were extremely bare-bones at the time of their release, but they were significantly expanded on with patches, downloadable content (DLC), and expansion packs. In Civilization VI, all of those bonus features that were added onto its predecessors were present at launch. Unfortunately, most of these features are so fundamentally broken that I would much rather them be absent from the game. I figured I would give the developers some time to fix the major issues or at least acknowledge that these issues exist. It has been nearly a year now, and Firaxis has not done anything besides patching some glitches and adding new, paid DLC civilizations to play as. At this point, I am worried that the developers have no idea what is wrong with their game, let alone how to fix it. For me, there are 3 clear game-breaking issues that must be addressed. These 3 issues are the artificial intelligence (AI), user interface (UI), and the various tedium that plague Civilization VI.

Full disclosure, I feel like I have to mention that I am veteran of the Civilization series. I started with Civilization III when I was young, played a good amount of Civilization IV, and I have near 1000 hours of Civilization V and play on the highest difficulty setting. Many of my criticisms of Civilization VI may not be apparent to newer players, but I assure you if you play enough Civilization VI you will understand what I am talking about. That being said, I realize that I may be harsh on this game because of my experience, so a more casual player may not care about a lot of what I am going to mention.

1

By far the most apparent issue with Civilization VI is its artificial intelligence (AI). The Civilization series is definitely not known for its brilliant AI, but there has always been a basic level of competency that could make the AI competitive. Not only is that competency is absent from Civilization VI, but the AI is completely unpredictable and illogical. It is clear that the developers knew that the AI was awful, as they gave the AI massive bonuses on the highest difficulties that are unprecedented in the series. For example, only on the highest difficulty of previous Civilization games the AI receives a bonus settler. But in Civilization VI, the AI starts receiving that bonus settler on the third highest difficulty, and now it receives 2 settlers on the highest difficulty. The AI is also extremely aggressive in Civilization VI, as the only way they can hope to defeat the player is by sabotaging the player so much that they cannot catch up to the AI’s massive early game advantages. I say sabotage because the AI is also completely incapable of actually wiping out the player or at effectively sieging your cities.

2

One of my favorite things about playing Civilization V was studying the AI’s behavior and learning how each leader acted. I could then use this knowledge in future matches to predict what a certain leader was going to do and guess how the game was going to play out. This was essentially eliminated from Civilization VI because the AI is so unpredictable and varies heavily from game to game. The only consistent thing about the AI’s behavior is that their default state seems to be hatred. They hate the player and they hate each other, often leading to lackluster diplomacy as no matter what you do everybody is just going to denounce each other.

Another factor of the Civilization series that I also really enjoyed was the sort of role-playing aspect and watching as empires expanded and clashed over territory. Every time I generated a new game I felt as if I was witnessing an alternative history, and it is a factor that I considered insanely addictive.  Unfortunately, since the AI are so wholly incompetent this role-playing aspect is also destroyed. By the modern era half the world is unsettled because the AI unwilling to expand past a few cities. There are tiny, disjointed empires instead of sprawling empires where the civilizations border each other and make for a believable world. Also, since the AI is so horrible at waging offensive wars, they will almost never conquer their neighbors or take a capital city. In Civilization V, you could expect at least 1 or 2 of the AI to be wiped out by their neighbors, making for an evolving and interesting game world. But in Civilization VI, the AI are incapable of conquering each other, they may take a single city or destroy a city-state, but they almost never take capitals. This makes for a rather boring and uninteresting world to observe. The AI in Civilization VI is what I would consider a game-breaking issue, and I doubt that I will return to this game unless the AI is amended.

3

Other than the AI, there are a few other major flaws that Civilization VI has that also hamper the game’s entertainment value. The next thing I want to touch on is its confusing and overcomplicated user interface (UI). In a strategy game like Civilization VI all of the vital information should be readily available to the player and there should be no clutter of superfluous information. In Civilization VI it is the other way around. The game has no problem clogging up your screen with random stuff like “England has built a granary in London!” Who cares? But you have to dig deep in order to understand key game mechanics like amenities. On top of that, most of the menus and just general layout of information is rather clunky and cumbersome to navigate. Also, the mini-map is a complete disaster. It now shows water tiles as owned land by other civilizations, the colors of the fog of war and undiscovered territory are the same, and it just feels very boxy and unpolished. They have done a little bit to improve the UI since launch, but it is still abysmal. If you want an example of a good UI in a strategy game, Fire Emblem: Fates is phenomenal in that department. There is a ton of information on the screen, it is laid out in a sensible manner, and if you want any more information on anything, you just tap on it.

I’ve heard people say that Civilization VI is a good base for a game to build upon in future expansion packs, even if it needs significant work before it can compare to its predecessors. I don’t fully agree with that sentiment, as the AI and UI are possible to fix and would significantly improve the game, but many of the core game mechanics are fundamentally broken and need a massive overhaul. This is why I am not optimistic for Civilization VI, sure the developers could fix the AI and UI, but I doubt they will scrap so many of these new features that they added into the game. Many of these new features are meant to give the game strategic depth and add more choices into the game, but they end up just becoming tedious, frustrating, and tiresome. These mechanics are: Religion, agendas, housing, the civic tree, eurekas and inspirations, governments, the new movement system, city management, diplomacy, builders, espionage, barbarians, and spies. I am not going to delve deep into why I think these mechanics are busted, as I want to keep this review at least a somewhat reasonable length. I may later do a full analysis of Civilization VI where I go deeper into these mechanics, what is wrong with them, and how to fix them. All of these issues highlight the biggest flaw of the Civilization series as a whole, which is that the game becomes boring and tedious once you have essentially won.

4

There comes a point in every Civilization match when you realize that you are so far ahead that there is no feasible way for the opponents to make a comeback and defeat you. Some people quit when they reach this point, but many like to play the game out to its conclusion. You kind of turn on auto-pilot and hit the “next turn” button until you reach victory. Civilization VI exasperates this issue because you can no longer turn on auto-pilot, you still have to micromanage all of these features that I highlighted earlier. All of these features are unnecessarily tedious, and it feels like the developers just added more decisions and micromanagement just for the sake of having more decisions. All this does is reduce the weight from any decisions, and makes playing the game a chore because I now have to make a dozen meaningless decisions every turn. The importance of these decisions is drastically reduced because of the sheer number of them. Why should I care what government policy I choose when I can change it in 3 turns anyway? The lack of meaningful decisions and plethora of worthless decisions makes for a game that feels like a chore.

5

There are a few worthwhile things in Civilization VI. The most obvious is the district system. Instead of everything in a city being built in that 1-tile area, now you have to establish districts on other tiles. For example: you need a campus district to build libraries, universities, and other science related buildings. From a world-building perspective it makes for a much more believable empire than in past iterations. It also has some interesting strategic properties as districts receive bonuses depending on where you place them, so you can plan out cities and what their districts will be for maximum efficiency. Another positive factor of Civilization VI is just the visuals. I think the art-style borders on being a little too cartoony at times, but sometimes you have to just sit back and admire the landscapes populated by your cities, districts, and wonders.

6

It’s a shame really. It seems like Firaxis genuinely attempted to make this a complete game upon launch. But in their attempts to fill up the game with content, they neglected to check if all of that content was actually any good. As it stands you are much better off buying Civilization V and all its expansions and DLC, which as an entire package often goes on sale for less than $15. It is just a way more polished and complete game, and for a quarter of the price of Civilization VI. I am not sure if Civilization VI will ever be a good game, but the future looks grim for this title. For these reasons I give Civilization VI a 3/10. Maybe it will be good after some expansion packs, but right now the game is just a mess. If you ever feel an itch to play a grand strategy game, just play Civilization V instead.