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.