Monday, March 14, 2016

Top Ten X-Men Runs

Here are my top 10 X-Men runs from 60 years of comics, trying to represent everything from the Bronze Age on. Some are longer than others, and really I should separate these into more granular chunks, but 10 is a nice round number.
  1. The classic '70s and early '80s Claremont run, collected in UXM Omnibus #1-3. This is the period where anything was possible, and the artists were helping plot the series to attune with their strengths. (For instance, John Byrne is great with sci fi, Dave Cockrum is great with lighthearted adventure, and Paul Smith is great with character drama.) Almost all the key stories of the X-titles have their roots in this run.
  2. Claremont and Bill Sienkewicz's run on New Mutants in the mid-eighties. Again, this involves a writer who wanted to get weird and exploratory, and an artist who is best at dreamscapes, combining to get the best qualities of both.
  3. Inferno Prologue & Inferno from the late '80s. This is Claremont and Simonson acting in the kind of cross-title harmony that is way harder to pull off than it looks, with the plot coming to a head in all 3 titles without ever feeling tacked on or phoned in.
  4. Alan Davis' Excalibur in the late '80s and early '90s. First as artist, then as writer/artist, Davis adds whimsy and fun to a romp through increasingly elaborate alternate universes with the lighthearted X-Men that actually ends up going somewhere.
  5. The launch of adjectiveless X-Men in the early 90s, under Claremont/Lee and Nicieza/Kubert. Nicieza decides to double down not only on the purple prose of Claremont and the constant pinup poses of Jim Lee, but the byzantine subplots and deep cuts from X-history as well. He manages to make something that's enjoyably cheesy, not just eye-rolling.
  6. Grant Morrison's New X-Men. A reboot with a fresh take on the franchise, some genuinely new and cool ideas, and a sense of wonder. His Magneto is pretty bad, but Claremont wrote some terrible issues, too.
  7. Joss Whedon and John Cassaday's Astonishing X-Men. This story manages to synthesize Claremont, Morrison, and modern comics writing, while also delivering an engaging plot.
  8. The Messiah crossover series (Messiah Complex, X-Force, Messiah War, Necrosha, Second Coming). These are the rare example of crossovers done right, using a giant cast to up the stakes on a single driving idea and move the characters forward. Kyle and Yost get to use their talent for grimdark stories and shock value to full effect.
  9. Peter David's second run on X-Factor. David is at his best in the early issues, fusing his usual self-aware jokes with a noir procedural format to tell a series of fun and engaging stories that get a lot of mileage out of C-list X-characters.
  10. Rick Remender's Uncanny X-Force. Remender combines the character study amidst chaotic circumstances of Excalibur with the shoot-first, Deadpool-friendly ethos of New X-Men and X-Force to tell a moving story with real character development that somehow doesn't lose any of the shock value or lurid violence.
Anything I left out? Let me know!

Friday, April 24, 2015


Hey all, it's been a long time. Let's dive back in!

Bloodborne is the new horror action RPG from Japanese developers From Software, and the fourth game in the "Souls series" (because most of them have the word Souls in the title). Director Hidetaka Miyazaki brings his trademark blend of challenge, exploration, mystery, and a coherent overarching vision to the land of Gothic and Lovecraftian horror, and creates what may be the best game in the series.

Let's put it this way: I bought a PS4 primarily to play Bloodborne, and I'm satisfied with that decision. That's how good this game is. So, why is it such a success?

First, Bloodborne keeps most of the elements that made previous Souls games special. The core combat engine is excellent, relying on a slow pace to encourage tactical thinking and featuring strong but fragile enemies in small groups to encourage picking your battles and seizing the right moment to strike. The core loop of risk versus reward in a single currency is still the beating heart of an intoxicating, addictive system designed to stretch your limits. The passive multiplayer system, where you can leave notes and hints for other players, or watch the ghostly forms of others as they die, still gives you a sense of community and hope in an otherwise unrelentingly dreary and miserable setting, as well as alerting you to traps and secrets that would otherwise be well-hidden. The game has a clear and consistent vision and a great sense of pacing, like a well-directed movie, so that almost nothing pulls you out of the experience. The game is allergic to cutscenes, quick-time events and tutorials, and the plot is minimalist and unclear unless you read every scrap of text in the item descriptions. The community is still divided over which of the 3 possible endings is the "good ending", for instance.

Second, Bloodborne trims a lot of the mechanical fat from previous installments. Instead of a surfeit of slightly different weapons and armor to collect, there are barely a dozen, but each one has a far greater variety of possible moves. Instead of an upgrade tree with half a dozen different materials to collect, there is a single linear upgrade path, plus a bunch of freely configurable gems that encourage you to try new builds without having to restart the game. Instead of Dark Souls 2's nine stats, there are only six, and each one has a clear effect on your character. Vast swathes of the game are completely optional, and in a stroke of genius, there's a whole second campaign of increasingly difficult pseudo-random "chalice dungeons" which provide a source of end-game content beyond simply replaying the game on a higher difficulty level. You don't have to worry about how much your character can carry, the quality of your armor, how many spells you have left, or any of the other make-work that plagued previous games, although there are still half a dozen too many potions, elixirs and bombs in your inventory that I rarely used.

Third, Bloodborne brings a new setting and a new feel to the table to differentiate itself from the competition as well as its predecessors. The Victorian Gothic city of Yharnam is a relentless profusion of fog, closed doors, twisty alleyways, and gabled roofs, which starts out vaguely menacing and edges closer and closer to ruin and madness as the game progresses. If anything, the new game is too busy, full of boxes and coffins and railings that can make it difficult to figure out where you're supposed to go in these circuitous levels full of shortcuts and hidden side paths. From the mechanical end, you now carry a gun instead of a shield, you can dodge much faster and more often, and you can regain health by attacking immediately after you were hit. The gun is much weaker than your melee weapons, but it's great at interrupting or staggering enemies, leading you to use it more as a counterattack or parry than a long-range sniping tool. Similarly, the lack of a shield, the fast movement, and the health regain system encourage you to stay in close quarters with your enemy, darting in and out of their blows like a fencer or a boxer, rather than inching forward with your shield up like an armored knight. The move to Victorian quasi-steampunk from medieval fantasy allows the perfect opportunity to rename or reinvent staple elements. These aren't magic rings, they're magic runs you memorize while sitting at your desk! That's not a bonfire, it's a lantern! That's not a zombie, it's an angry villager with a pitchfork! Presented in new ways, and with a much greater focus on staying active and putting yourself in high-risk, high-reward situations, the game feels liberated.

The last element is the introduction of a stiff challenge, and here Bloodborne also succeeds, perhaps a bit too well. Souls games are not difficult in the "Nintendo Hard" sense of requiring perfect timing and coordination, although they're certainly geared towards people who have played a lot of video games before. Instead, they contradict a lot of standard "video game logic" assumptions, forcing you to re-train your mind to succeed. The game is tough but fair: almost every time you die, you feel like it's your fault, that you could have pulled through if you just dodged better, or if you didn't rush blindly into that ambush, or if you had traveled back to town and spent your money on better gear or more levels. Once you've cracked the code, learned the patterns of the enemies and become comfortable with your trusty weapon, the game becomes almost easy, and the thrill of mastery floods through you. (Then, usually, you go online to brag about how great you are and how dumb everyone is who's still stuck on the first boss. But that's just Internet macho culture at work.)

Souls games are special because they respect you as an adult. You reap rewards for being observant, thorough, cautious, and decisive. There is no voice-over explaining why you're doing what you're doing, but if you pay attention you will figure it out without being told. If you draw your sword on your allies, they will be hostile to you forever. If you forget to use your invitation to Cainhurst Castle, home of the vampires, before finishing the game, no one will remind you and you'll just have to try again next time. If you ask for help from other players online, you don't know whether the other person will help you, or try to kill you; you can only hope that your respectful bow will motivate him to deal honorably with you.

Bloodborne looks great, it sounds great, it plays great, and it's just a delightful game overall. I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Crusader Kings II Tutorial Part 3: People and Traits

Let's take a closer look at our character profile now. (Just click on your character portrait at any time in the top left menu bar.)
Character Browser - Duke Morcar
We've covered the system of lieges, heirs, titles, etc. on the left side last time, so let's turn our attention to the right side of this window. (I told you that this screen was going to start looking very familiar.) You can see we have:

  1. Our dynasty name and shield, "of Hwicce". More than a single character, in Crusader Kings II you are really playing a dynasty. Your goal is to guide the clan of Hwicce to glory - you earn points not only for your personal achievements, but for anyone in your dynasty, so it's very advantageous to marry your family into positions of power.
  2. 3 buttons, for a dynasty tree, family tree, and realm tree. These show our position in the Hwicce dynasty, our immediate family, and our position within the larger realm. Let's break them down individually: 
    1. Generally, you will never use the family tree, since that info is available below anyway.
    2. You'll only use the dynasty tree when you've conquered some land you don't want (say, you won a crusade for Jerusalem, but you don't actually want to fight the caliph for the rest of your life) and you'd like someone distantly related to have it.
    3. The realm tree is organized by number of troops, so it's super useful just to expand the first level below the king and read the tooltip on the king saying how many troops he has. This lets you figure out very quickly whether your army has a chance against his in the field, and the portraits one level below will show the most important people under him. For example, the king of France is usually less powerful than the duke of Aquitaine (because the duke controls a lot of good land in southern France, while the king basically just has his castle in Orleans), so with some careful intrigue, you might be able to break France apart in a bloody civil war.
  3. Our culture, religion, and current location. We're an Anglo-Saxon Catholic - not a Norman Catholic, like King William - and we're currently at home, not on a mission or a pilgrimage or fighting somewhere.
  4. Our five stats, with their attendant icons. These are very important, so let's break them down:
    1. Diplomacy: How much people like you
    2. Military: How many troops you can raise, and how good you are at commanding them
    3. Stewardship: How many holdings you can own personally, and how good you are at earning taxes from them
    4. Intrigue: How good you are at plotting, spying and counterspying
    5. Learning: How quickly you can research new technology
  5. Each stat has our own personal number, and our state number in parentheses (State = Personal + Councillor + 1/2 of Wife's score). Generally, your personal scores affect your own territory, while your state scores affect other realms. For instance, King William's opinion of you will be raised by your personal Diplomacy score, but the French king's opinion of you will be raised by your state Diplomacy score.
  6. To the right of the stats, you can see your current resources: gold, prestige, piety, and something else I can't remember. These are generally not as useful to remember, because they're repeated in the top menu bar. They're also pretty self-explanatory:
    1. Gold: Used for a variety of purposes: construction, mercenaries, wages for your troops, bribes, assassinations, crowning yourself something important, etc. You'll always want more gold, but there are also a lot of ways to earn gold.
    2. Prestige: General "impressiveness" rating. The first 2000 points of prestige act as an opinion boost, so you'll want to earn those as fast as possible. Past that, you can spend prestige to avoid certain bad events, or to forge a claim on someone else's land.
    3. Piety: General "holiness" rating. For Catholics, piety is mainly there to impress your bishops and the Pope; achieving higher titles also costs some piety. You can earn lots of piety by fighting holy wars, or by giving land to religious figures, but that's generally not necessary. It's way more important for Muslims, who spend piety to fight wars and also need it to improve others' opinion of them.
  7. Finally, at the bottom, you can see a list of your personal traits. There are a ton of these, each with their own informative tooltip. Generally, they're color-coded like this:
    1. Green: Virtues, or good genetic traits
    2. Red: Deadly Sins, or bad genetic traits, or diseases
    3. Purple: Education
    4. Brown: Neutral traits (trade-offs, like being Ambitious or Content)
    5. Blue: Life events (like going on a pilgrimage)
  8. Traits are important when you're looking for a wife or husband, or training your children. Depending on your traits, you may also see a lot of special events happen to you - for example, a Lustful character will be more likely to sleep around, while a Content character will be limited in the number of nasty plots they can concoct.
  9. Finally, below the traits, there are any combat modifiers or temporary modifiers affecting you. This helps you sort out the mass of traits into just "How good at fighting am I?" which is usually the question you need to answer the fastest.
These can seem overwhelming, but they really help give each person a unique character. For example, Duke Morcar is ambitious and proud and brave, but also rather arbitrary. He was trained as a soldier, but not particularly well; he is terrible with money and not particularly smart, but he's decent to good at everything else. Basically, he has a giant chip on his shoulder and won't take no for an answer. This may not endear him to his future wife, but it bodes well for our attempt to throw off the Norman yoke.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Crusader Kings II Tutorial Part 2: Titles, Realms and Map Views

Titles, Realms and the Feudal System

Crusader Kings II simulates the feudal system, where members of the nobility are divided into five distinct tiers. Regardless of culture, religion or nationality, everyone in the same tier is considered to be roughly equal in status. Anyone in a tier can have people of a lower tier underneath them as vassals, and people of a higher tier as lieges above them.

  1. Baron (copper border): These characters do not own any land on the map, just buildings inside a county. They generally have no power to do anything but complain and pay taxes. You, the player, can't be a baron, although you can own extra baronies if you have a higher-tier title.
  2. Count (silver border): These characters own counties, which are the individual areas of land on the map. They can hire advisers to help them rule the realm, and vote in elections held by a duke. Anyone of importance must be the count of somewhere, so if you lose your last county but you still have a higher-tier title, you'll automatically kick out one of your other counts.
  3. Duke (blue border): These characters own duchies, which are small collections of provinces. They can research technologies, vote in all elections, pass laws, and generally be productive rulers.
  4. King (gold border): These characters own kingdoms, which are collections of duchies. Kings can generally muster a formidable army and a sizable income, but constantly have to worry about the opinions of the dukes under them in order to keep the realm together.
  5. Emperor (purple border): This is the summit of power. An empire is a collection of kingdoms, and becoming emperor will require a multi-generational campaign of conquest, intrigue, and matchmaking. Diplomacy is the most important skill for any emperor, who must rely almost completely on dukes and kings to fight his battles and pay the soldiers' wages.

The Realm View

You can click on any shield in the game to see the title associated with it. Press F1 or click on the shield in the top left corner to bring up your primary title. It should look like this:
Realm View: Duchy of York
This window is a great way to investigate people outside your own realm, and to organize your kingdom or empire (should you acquire one of those). Let's look at it in detail:
  • The name of the title and its coat of arms are at the top, with a series of self-explanatory buttons.
  • At the top right is the Kingdom of England's coat of arms, indicating that the Duchy of York is currently part of the Kingdom of England.
  • The table lists the two counties in the Duchy of York, along with the larger realm they're part of (again, England).
  • The bottom of this view is a summary view of the owner of the duchy - that's us, Duke Morcar of Hwicce - with our titles plus our income and expenses. You can see we're making most of our money from our personal demesne (the counties we own directly), and from taxes on the cities in our realm.
  • On the map, the Duchy of York is highlighted in a golden border.
  • I've left the best for last. Above the table, there is a De Jure checkbox. Check the "De Jure" box to show the de jure Duchy of York: the territory that legally belongs to the Duke of York, regardless of what he actually owns.
De Jure Realm View: Duchy of York
This looks pretty different: the County of Westmoreland is not actually supposed to be part of York, and instead it's supposed to include the Counties of Lincoln and Leicester, which have their own coats of arms indicating that they belong to someone else. Not only that, but you'll notice that the Kingdom of England at the top right has the Empire of Britannia next to it, indicating that England could be part of a larger empire. But since no one has enough land to declare themselves the true emperor of all Britannia, the Kingdom of England is the highest authority right now.

One other really handy feature of the Realm View is that opening it will automatically scroll the map to that title. Since the game likes to offer you tooltips that assume you know where all these places are, this is an easy way to get there.

Map Views

As a final tool to get your hands on how titles work in Crusader Kings II, let's toggle some map views away from the default one. Use the keyboard shortcuts or the buttons on the bottom right map view to see different views of England and its environs:
  • Press W to see Independent Realms. This is the main political view, similar to how modern maps are drawn. You can see the Kingdom of England, with a coat of arms icon in London to indicate where the capital of the kingdom is, the Kingdom of Scotland to the north, and a bunch of assorted counts and dukes in Ireland and Wales.
  • Press F to see Direct Vassals. This shows you who actually owns land underneath the Kingdom of England. As Duke Morcar of York, you own everything labeled "York" there in the north of England, but it looks like William owns a sizable swath of English land himself (the parts labeled just "England"). Next to your lands in York, you can see you share a pretty long border with the Duke of Lothian in Scotland. I wonder if he could be provoked to rebel against his king so we could attack him without getting involved in politics?
  • Press P to see De Jure Empires. The entire place changes to Britannia, but there are still dashed lines to indicate the borders between the people who actually own the land that could become part of Britannia.
  • Press O to see De Jure Kingdoms. One step down, you can see the four kingdoms of the British Isles emerge. At the bottom left, note that the duchy of Cornwall is actually de jure part of Wales, although it's currently owned by the King of England.
  • Press I to see De Jure Duchies. Here, you can see the ancient borders that tie the land together. You can see that part of your rightful land in Northumberland is actually on the other side of the Scottish border. This gives you the right to declare war on Scotland to get that land back, although King William is not obligated to help you out.
Spend some time just scrolling around the map, learning about history through these map modes. In particular, note that a title remains yours even if you lose control of most of its rightful lands. The Byzantine Emperor pretty much controls just Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria these days, but his borders rightfully should extend to half a dozen other kingdoms from Venice to Syria.

Thanks for learning with me! Next time, let's check out the rest of the Character Browser, with stats and traits and all that good stuff. Maybe we'll get married!

Crusader Kings II Tutorial Part 1: Overview and Characters

Crusader Kings II is one of my all-time favorite games, and I've played a lot of games. It can be rather intimidating, since it's very different from your standard strategy game, so I thought I'd write a little tutorial to help new players get started.

Overall Concept

Crusader Kings II is a medieval simulation game, designed to recreate the experience of being a ruler in the Middle Ages. What makes it special is its character focus. You're not playing as a country like you are in Civilization, you're playing as a dynasty, a succession of people and their children who you will lead to glory. You can be anyone who holds some land, from count to emperor, anywhere from Iceland to India, at any time during the Middle Ages. When your character dies, you will continue playing as their heir, with whatever land they inherit, and so on. Just like a real medieval ruler, you can wear as many fancy titles as you have a rightful claim to: you can be James I of England and James VI of Scotland at the same time, if you can inherit or conquer your way to the throne of both kingdoms. Really, you'll spend most of the game worrying about your family, your rivals, your vassals, and your neighbors' opinion of you.

People are everything in this game; it doesn't matter that on paper you have a mighty army if none of the nobles like you enough to contribute their best troops, or your son is a complete imbecile and your wife is past childbearing age, or if your brother is hiring assassins, bribing your courtiers, and stockpiling mercenaries to take your place. Your personal skills and traits will make a huge difference in your realm, and the same thing applies to everyone else in the known world too. There's a reason the most popular mod for the game is a Game of Thrones simulator; the game lends itself very well to simulating conflicts between great houses.

Throughout this tutorial, I'll be putting directions for you to follow along in red text.

Starting the Game

Let's start as someone mid-level, just to get a feel for things. I'll be starting in the Norman Conquest bookmark in 1066 as Duke Morcar of York. So start up the game, click Single Player, then click on "William the Conqueror" in "Bookmarked dates" on the left, then click on King William the Conqueror under "Interesting Characters", then click on Duke Morcar of York on the right pane under "Vassals". Ignore the difficulty ranking, it's rather inaccurate. Click Play, wait for the game to boot up, and then click on your character portrait on the top left to bring up yourself in the character browser. (Keyboard shortcut: F2)

The game should look something like this:
Initial Screen with Character Browser
Don't be intimidated! This is not as crazy as it looks. Almost everything is explained in tooltips. The most important button on the screen is that little left arrow next to the Close button, which is the back button. If you find yourself in some weird screen, trying to figure out how much the Pope likes France or something, just keep pressing Back until you get back to familiar ground.

The second most important thing to remember about the interface, besides the back button, is that everything has an informative tooltip and virtually everything is a button. Click on anything to go to a screen about it, and hover over anything to see more details about it.

The Character Browser

Let's start just by looking at the top left quadrant of the character browser. This is where you'll be spending a lot of your time in the game.

  • At the top is our name - Duke Morcar of York - and our age, 20.
  • The large portrait in the center is you, Duke Morcar of York. On the top right is a star, indicating that this is you, the player. The portrait has a silver border with a blue wreath, indicating that we are a duke-tier character - we are pretty high up the feudal totem pole, but not as impressive as a king or emperor.
  • To the left is the coat of arms of the Duchy of York, which is our primary title. There's a shield with the flag of York on it, and our crown on top - a moderately impressive one. We should be proud!
  • To the right is a missing portrait of our wife (we're not married yet), and a little wedding ring icon that lets us find a wife.
  • To the bottom left is a portrait of our heir (the person who will inherit the Duchy of York when we die), and to the top right is a portrait of our liege (the person who we owe allegiance to) and our opinion of each other. (We really hate King William the Conqueror - that -100 is the worst possible opinion - but he is only mildly displeased with us.)
  • Note that next to our liege there is also a coat of arms for his primary title, the Kingdom of England. His crown is better than ours, obviously, since he is our liege lord.
  • On the left side there are two small buttons, the Ambitions button and the Diplomacy button. That Diplomacy button would be very important if we were looking at someone else, but you can't do much diplomacy with yourself, so we'll skip that for now.
  • Below the portraits is a two-line display of Titles and Claims. This is a more expanded list of everything we own, and everything we can rightfully claim as our own. You'll notice the duchy of York is the first one listed, since it's our primary title, but we also have a second duchy (the Duchy of Northumberland) and two smaller crowns (the Counties of Westmoreland and York).
So other people will call us Duke Morcar of York for short, but when we walk into our virtual throne room, they will announce us as His Highness Morcar Aelfgarsson of Hwicce, Duke of York and Northumberland, Count of Westmoreland and York. Now that's what I like to hear!

You seem pretty important, huh? OK, let's cut you down to size. Click on your liege, King William. Look at the top left quadrant of the character browser for him. Note that the very top left still shows you, Duke Morcar - this is the button that takes you back to yourself, regardless of who you're looking at.

The Character Browser, Take 2

Character Browser for King William

  • The name bar at the top now shows King William the Conqueror of England, age 39. "The Conqueror" is in quotes, indicating that he earned an honorific. You'll see other people with honorifics ranging from "the Great" or "the Pious" to "the Unready" or "the Ill-Ruler".
  • King William has a wife to the right of him, helpfully labeled "Wife". Queen Mathilde has no border, indicating she doesn't own any land, and a wedding-rings icon indicating she is in a regular marriage and her children will become part of her husband's dynasty. Female rulers are rare in the Middle Ages, but they are possible.
  • King William's portrait has a gold border, indicating that he is a king-tier ruler, and he has no portrait to the top right, indicating that he is independent - he owes no allegiance to any emperor.
  • King William's heir is just a boy. Twelve-year-old Prince Robert of England (which I found out from the tooltip) has a silver border, indicating that he is a count-tier ruler (one level below you, 2 levels below the king). Young Robert already has some land to his own name, but "Prince Robert of England" is a much more impressive title than "Count Robert of Maine".
  • Notice that to the left of William's heir, the Ambitions button has changed to a Plot button, allowing you to hatch a plot against this character. Plotting to kill your own king strikes me as exceedingly unwise, unless you are very sure you won't be discovered and left to rot in jail for the rest of your life. So let's not press that button right now.
  • William has just a few more titles than you do. He owns an awful lot of land, in addition to being King of England (the big crown) and Duke of Normandy (the medium-sized crown next to it). He even has a few baronies to his name (the tiny crowns all the way to the right), which are holdings so minor they don't appear on the world map.
  • Below his wife, William has a number, -4. This is his opinion of you, Duke Morcar. He's not happy with us, so let's hover over the number to see why. Apparently our ambitious natures conflict, and we're a foreigner - King William is Norman, while we're Anglo-Saxon. On the plus side, we can bond over both being brave, and our "State Diplomacy" stat score gives us a little opinion boost. 
  • Finally, next to the opinion, there's a button allowing you to mark the king as a character of Special Interest, which means you'll get popups and notifications about things that happen to him. This is handy when you're trying to keep track of people outside your own family - say, the scheming count who's always plotting against you, or the king of Scotland next door, or his beautiful daughter who you want to marry off to one of your children.
Phew! Let's take a break for now, shall we? Don't despair; this is the tough part, wrapping your head around having to actually care about people instead of pushing the blue and green pieces around.

Next up: Titles and the Feudal System

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Dark Souls 2, Part 1: Plot and Themes

Dark Souls II is a tough game to talk about. It's an incredibly entertaining game, it has a world-class core gameplay loop that rivals Halo and FIFA and Civilization, and it has a ton of content to discover with a lot of unique ways to experience it. It's an easy contender for game of the year. The only trouble is that it's a sequel to Dark Souls, easily one of the best games of the generation, and to Demon's Souls, one of the most influential games of the generation, and it doesn't match up to their standards. Even the reviewers who are disappointed with Dark Souls 2 (DS2 for short) struggle to explain how a game that is so consistently satisfying and engaging can be a missed opportunity. It's like listening to the lackluster sophomore album by your favorite band. I'm left being very thankful that I have a wonderful new game, but wishing that there won't be a Dark Souls 3, that this team can stretch their wings and invent something new and fresh.

Much has been made of the switch to a new leadership team for the sequel, and the sudden transformation of a niche development studio into a hyped AAA release with a big marketing campaign, and there is a pervasive sense in the game itself that DS2 is trying to prove that it's still a Souls game. There are entirely too many callbacks to the previous game, to the point where the game might actually have been better without them.

Let's take one example as a case study. Everyone loved Havel the Rock, an NPC from DS1 who has no actual dialogue, because he was intimidating, unique and expert players could challenge him almost immediately. You can get his stone armor for yourself in a spooky chapel's undercroft, after a harrowing fight with a Mimic. In the sequel, Havel's gear is placed behind a similar forbidding door, but it's inside a pot in a level with no thematic connection to Havel and enemies that largely ignore the armor's defenses. You get the sense in a lot of these circumstances that the designers made a memorable treasure room, then later someone else came in and evenly distributed high-level equipment among all the treasure rooms. This is the sort of thing I'd expect from any competently made video game. I hold Souls games to a higher standard: every single item is supposed to be placed with care, to have significance for the lore and usefulness for the gameplay in equal measure. Souls games are supposed to be works of art, where nothing is out of place, so a petty critique like this becomes magnified in importance. Over and over, people say that the moment they came to love Dark Souls was when they realized the world was subtly interconnected, that you could look out from a clifftop and see the other end of the world and the entire team was creating a giant jigsaw puzzle. When you're held to that standard, even a good experience will fall short.

The plot of DS2 is the chief element that suffers from holding too tightly to the initial version. After reading every item description and listening to all the dialogue, I was still unclear as to what the main villain's motivations were, what my chief ally's motivations were, and why I was going along with any of it, but I had almost a dozen items in my inventory whose main purpose was to say, "Remember how cool this was when you found it last time?" The main issue, I think, is that they created an expensive introductory cutscene and tutorial level based around an initial goal - curing the curse of the Undead, which causes people to revive after death but slowly go mad from the experience - and couldn't bear to throw it away when the plot of the actual game went in an entirely different direction. After twenty minutes of being conditioned to care about the curse, the second person you talk to will mention offhand that the curse cannot be cured, and for the rest of the game everyone is talking about tracking down and eventually replacing the missing King of the land, which is the same goal you had in DS1.

There is a heavy emphasis on the themes of cycles, futility, memory and forgetfulness, and basically going through the motions of accomplishing a quest "without really knowing why". This despair not only clashes tonally with a game whose combat, system and level design is more welcoming than it's ever been, but leaves the story with nowhere to really go. The ending cutscene tells you that you have a choice, but unlike the previous games, there is only one ending. You are not rewarded for questioning the stereotypical "good guy" characters, for recognizing the traitor in your ranks before they can wreak havoc, or for killing your allies in a frenzied lust for power - both of which were the most memorable parts of Demons' Souls and Dark Souls. Instead, you are rewarded for doing exactly what the Emerald Herald tells you at all times, because the plot explicitly tells you that your choices are irrelevant. By the end of the game, you have vanquished the most powerful beings in the realm in glorious fashion, but you have not changed anything for the better or worse, because the cycle cannot be broken. Tugging at my heart strings this time was not poor Anastacia who begged me "Link the fire, so I can finally die a human"; it was Lucatiel, who slowly lost her memory. I wish I could cleanse the curse for you, Lucatiel. I can build a kingdom atop the ruins of the old one, but it won't bring your brother back. So why bother?

So the overall storyline is unsatisfying, but the game encourages you to ignore it anyway. You can wander about finishing things up after "finishing" the game, and the New Game Plus mode is tons of fun with a lot of creative ways to make the experience harder, besides just making all the enemies hit harder. PvP has been wildly improved, the game systems have been tweaked for easy experimentation, and you can even respec or change your gender without having to spend 20 hours building an entirely new character. Basically, it's easier than ever to have fun, and the hub world fills up with people who are generally pretty nice to you and owe you a favor. Life is pretty good in Drangleic, considering all the murderous undead wandering about, so it's a shame that the story tries to contradict that at every turn.

Personal Experience: By now I've hunted down all the achievements in Dark Souls 2 on the Xbox, and I'm halfway done with doing the same on the recently released PC version, so I've played a good bit of the game. I have yet to do much serious PvP, and I fear that I may have to start an entirely new character to do so for the last achievements, but I've done a lot of exploration and plot speculation. Even after 3 complete play throughs, I'm still discovering new hidden areas, marveling at the gorgeous PC vistas, and basically having a great time. Challenging myself by doing a different style feels tough but fair, which is a good long-term sign; I only had to summon help for a couple fights with my shieldless double rapier build, mostly to protect Benhart and Lucatiel while I advanced their storylines.

Monday, March 17, 2014

First Impressions: Dark Souls 2

I'm maybe halfway done with Dark Souls 2 by now, and it has gripped me with its iron fist just like the previous entries in the series. This time the mail is wrapped in silk, but underneath it stays true to the spirit of the franchise, which is to say two of the best games of the generation. And it keeps getting better as it goes, so I'm excited to continue.

DS2 has not totally blown my socks off with every single new area or enemy like the previous games, but I suspect this is not the game's fault. The original Demon's Souls was such a ray of fresh air, and Dark Souls such a master class in environment design, that the enchantment cannot be repeated through the golden haze of nostalgia. The problems of the previous games are still there, shuffled around some, and the strengths have been slightly improved, but generally you are signing up for another 40+ hours of Dark Souls. There is a palpable homage to both Demon's Souls and Dark Souls (and probably King's Field, the more distant ancestors which I haven't played) throughout, to the point where I've started half-jokingly calling the game Demon's Souls 2. So I'll be comparing to previous entries in the series throughout, but not as a criticism; if you're going to copy a game, you should copy games so good that websites run features like, "How can you make an RPG after Dark Souls?"

The biggest move towards accessibility is in the storyline. Take this with a grain of salt, because the subversion of the basic narrative of the previous games was hidden away where only a walkthrough could take you, but I find a lot of the dialogue and character design to be too explicit, too "on the nose" about what's happening. For instance, most boss enemies in the series are based on emotions or primal desires gone wrong. Where previous games would present you with a Gaping Dragon whose mouth is so large it stretches down to its intestines, with no explanation of any kind, this one will give you an entire paragraph about the origins of the Covetous Demon before you step into the room to fight Jabba the Hutt.

Similarly, there is now an extensive tutorial that uses the restrictive architecture of the branches of the World Trees to introduce you slowly to all the game's mechanics. The tutorial exits onto a safe and welcoming central hub, with most of the high-level areas initially blocked off, where you can spend a pleasant hour chatting with everyone in town and learning the basic concepts of your life as an Undead. This is similar to the Nexus in Demon's Souls, but exchanging the bleak architecture and fearful travelers for enigmatic merchants under an eternal sunrise lifts one's spirits indescribably. Majula feels like home, to the point where I wish I could repair the shopkeeper's rotting roof to repay him for his kindness.

The order of the levels and boss enemies also creates a more gentle learning curve. The first few bosses in DS2 are just ramped-up versions of the same sword fights you've been having, as opposed to the outlandish and varied challenges of the initial encounters in Demon's and Dark Souls. The truly weird and inventive stuff is saved for later areas, after you've gotten the hang of the combat system and you've had a chance to level up and build a decent character. This means the opening hours lack the incredible punch they used to have, but new players won't be stopped by a huge difficulty spike. (I'd guess that most people stop playing Dark Souls 1 either at the tutorial boss or at the Capra Demon, who is capable of killing you within 3 seconds of opening the door.)

Technically, the game is a step backwards even from the early beta tests and trailers, with what I can only imagine were late-arriving performance issues caused by their brand-new engine. As a result, lighting and textures are muddy and flat, with all the "dark and spooky" areas but one being lightened up to a dull grey to avoid the crippling framerate problems of Blighttown. The online play is better explained and supported, but remains twitchy and full of people much better prepared than you are. I joined the Bell Keepers to defend the bell tower against all comers, but quickly found myself fighting mostly other Bell Keepers against their ostensible trespassing, which fit in well with the game's statements about the futility and avarice of Undead duels but made for a wearisome siege.

By contrast, the combat designers have made big strides in trimming the fat from the core game systems. The major "feel bad" moments of the previous games - accidentally killing a crucial merchant forever, spending all your precious upgrade materials on a subpar weapon, walking for ten minutes through enemy territory to make a shopping trip, leveling up badly to make the late game super tough - have been mitigated without compromising the feeling of hostility and indifference the series is so famous for creating. You can now fast travel to anywhere you've visited at any time, and after killing the same zombie a dozen times they will die permanently, so that you can always power through a rough spot instead of being either permanently stuck or invited to farm low-level enemies for pointless hours. Instead of making the game feel rushed and disconnected, it now feels more like a tournament of individual areas, like Demon's Souls with way more forgiving checkpoints instead of a 30-minute slog through a fetid swamp.

The more jaded corners of the Internet denounce these changes as removing part of the challenge that made victory so exhilarating in the first game in the series. This is absolutely not the case; defeat is still punishing and victory still gets your heart pumping wildly. You will still curse yourself as your own greed and carelessness loses you everything, like some demented fantasy stock market bubble. You will still grow to meet the challenge, then laugh in the face of formerly daunting foes. Dark Souls is back, and not a moment too soon.