Monday 18 June 2018

Dark Souls: Remastered Review

Platform played on: PC
Hours played: 80
Genre: Action-RPG
Completion: 100%

Praise the Sun

Years on from its birth, Dark Souls’ influence can still be felt at every level of gaming even today. The obscure and fiendish RPG that could has become a phenomenon, with multiple sequels and copycats hoping to tap into the formula. Though the series as we know it originated with Demon’s Souls, it was the sophomoric effort that achieved cult status. 

The Remaster of the game, released on 25/05/18, promised to refresh gamers’ memories of the cult hit, complete with modern resolution options and smooth 60fps gameplay. However, Dark Souls Remastered has proven to be controversial among consumers in the PC space, who argue that the remaster did nothing that wasn’t already done by the original game combined with the DSFix mod. Indeed, the gameplay additions in this remaster are few and far between, with the developers aiming to keep the gameplay entirely intact.

However, criticisms of the porting job specifically are just one part of the story; the central question to this review is if the game itself is good. With that in mind, specific critique on the remaster itself will come in another article. The game itself, however, should be reviewed first and foremost. With that in mind, prepare to read as we dive into the hardcore world of Dark Souls: Remastered.

Critique of the remastering job will come another time... Source: in-game screenshot

Punishing, but masterful

The most important thing that stands out about Dark Souls is the reputation of its difficulty. Souls is infamous for being a brutally-hard game that will test the resolve of even the most hardcore gamers out there. The truth is that Dark Souls has some frustrating and upsetting aspects; the game often punishes the tiniest of mistakes with swift and brutal retribution. As a result, it’s possible to lose hours of progress with just a few mistakes. 

However, it is also important to note that the player will never truly go backwards in their own development. The loss of accumulated souls (the in-game equivalent of XP and currency) makes for a painful punishment, but the player won’t lose upgrades that they’ve already made. Meanwhile, skill level will constantly improve as the mechanics of the game reveal themselves to the player. Success in Dark Souls is simply a matter of patience and perseverance.

Dark Souls may be punishing, but perseverance will be rewarded. Source: in-game screenshot

What is another important thing to note about Dark Souls is its commitment to theming and the oppressive nature of its plot. Players are tasked with journeying through the kingdom of Lordran amid an apocalypse, with the vague guidance of a grand prophecy for their motivation. Storytelling after the initial cutscene is sparse, and is primarily related to the player through NPC dialogues and item descriptions. Piecing together the lore of the world and exactly what is going on is its own rewarding meta-game in Dark Souls, and players are left to fill in the many gaps of the plot by pure speculation. 

The choice of using implication and unreliable narration to expose the plot is pure genius on the part of the developers. Dark Souls is designed through and through to be a game that players actively engage with right down to the smallest detail. The fact that the storyline is obscure lends itself to the design philosophy; that players are left to puzzle out and tease together loose plot threads by themselves creates an active atmosphere that implies a complex and convoluted world without needing the grandiose storytelling of bigger-budget games. Multiple interpretations can be made of the plot, and this only lends itself to the artistic flourish of Souls. This creates a sense of player agency and immersion; the player exists in this world and is bound by its rules as is everyone else. Their experience of the world is their own, and limited by their scope. 

On the other hand, however, the plot could have done with some polish; the voice acting of the NPCs can be laughably bad, and while the game tries to handwave some of the poorer storytelling aspects as indicative of characters’ growing insanity, the truth is that some tackiness shows through, particularly in the tendency of every NPC to trail off into semi-sarcastic laughter at the end of their conversations.

NPC dialogue is sparse, and could do with more polish. Source: in-game screenshot
The design of the plot, however, is perfectly in tandem with other elements of the game. Dark Souls was created as a cohesive whole, and this shows through; just as Lordran reveals itself to the player in a matter akin to the puzzle-box ethos of the Spencer Mansion from Resident Evil, so does the plot. The result is that the storyline is effective and involving. Once revealed to the player, it is clear to see that Dark Souls boasts a tragic, apocalyptic plot of hubris, sadness and power struggle. The storytelling in this game is indeed fundamental, masterful, and rewarding; to an extent seldom seen in the industry.

Fates intertwined

As stated before, the way players run through Lordran is its own kind of exposition; much like how the Spencer Mansion in Resident Evil slowly revealed itself to players as rooms became unlockable, so does the location of Dark Souls. The kingdom is a twisting labyrinth in its design, and shortcuts criss-cross all through the world. One area leads into another with an artful flair, and in a logical way that serves to surprise players at every turn. There is something beautiful about the way later areas cross over into earlier ones, and the unlocking of a shortcut is a joyful and rewarding experience that never gets old. The level design in Souls is among the best seen in gaming, no doubt; seldom surpassed even in the sequels.
The journey of Solaire is a perfect example of Dark Souls' storytelling. Source: in game screenshot

As players level up and start to unwrap the game, the intertwining of its mechanics become clear. That Dark Souls so neatly ties in the growth of player skill with the growth of its world is no small feat, and at every point of the game players are reminded of the increasing scope and power of their gameplay. Progression is gated skilfully, and the lack of level scaling only helps further; areas previously inaccessible due to being underpowered then open themselves up to the player in rewarding ways, showcasing to the player their own increasing skill and power in the world. It also helps that at any point players can return to earlier areas in the game. It is beautifully rewarding running through an earlier part of the game and seeing how one can destroy enemies that caused so much trouble the first time around. 

The way that progression is designed in Dark Souls is masterful. Players are not prevented from going into areas far beyond their own abilities, and may be swiftly punished for their hubris. But for those skilled enough such areas provide a refreshing, hardcore challenge with great reward. For the first-time players, however, they are instead hinted along a clearer path as a result; at the same time, the use of power and skill as a gating mechanism creates an organic and natural guideline rather than artificial designs used in other modern games. This creates a sense of exploration and logical world building that feeds back into the central design philosophy of Dark Souls seldom seen since the days of Zelda on the NES. 
Dark Souls' best feature is its sense of location and discovery. Source: in-game screenshot

Prepare to fight

Combat in Souls is deliberately paced and extremely tight. Players have created whole YouTube series highlighting frame-by-frame analysis of Dark Souls combat, and as such it has created a system that may be difficult to learn, but mastery creates a sense of power and achievement that is difficult to equal. Indeed, Dark Souls presents itself as a game that can be truly ‘mastered’, which is something that can be appreciated as contemporaries like Skyrim create a sense of randomness with floaty and awkward combat systems. It is indeed possible to play the game in a variety of ways with many different builds all suited to their own styles of combat, and this level of customisation is laudable as the player traverses Lordran. Initially, though, the temptation is to play as a tank; as players uncover the secrets of combat timing lighter builds then come into play, taking advantage of the rolling and dodging mechanics to face off against tough, but deliberately-timed bosses. If the player so chooses, however, levelling up is an option that (if done correctly) can bring great rewards and tune the difficulty right to their skill level.

Defeating a challenging boss in Souls is one of the greatest feelings in gaming. Source: in-game screenshot

It's a shame, then, that there are some immersion-breaking bugs that can destroy this sense of pacing. While for the most part, combat is a tense and highly-accurate affair, there are wonky hitboxes with some enemies and weapons that can break the game’s sense of fun entirely. Boss weapons often clip through walls, and the hitboxes, while tight, can sometimes seem unfairly strange in places. A sense of high-budget polish is desperately needed in Dark Souls, something that the remaster has sadly not offered. For the most part, however, the combat is indeed extremely tight and can take years to master fully. Even today players are still optimising and re-optimising strategies on how to play, which goes to show just how deep the rabbit hole of combat goes in this game. 

Ultimately, Dark Souls is easily painted as a flawed masterpiece. This is a game that for the most part is so artfully and masterfully designed that gamers can play for hundreds of hours and still have only scratched the surface, but on the other hand there are many areas where the inherent jankiness of its obscure nature come into play. Its obtuse design can sometimes be frustratingly opaque, to the point that glancing at a walkthrough is almost a necessity, but the sense of discovery is second-to-none as a result. It seems that Dark Souls is a story of pros and cons in its design choices.

Important to note, however, is that this is a huge game. Every minute detail in Dark Souls is worthy of analysis, such that this review is only really scratching the surface. An initial playthrough will take an average player over 50 hours, probably closer to 70 on the first try. Then there is the replay value; there is a scaling New Game Plus system, that rewards dedicated players with increasing difficulty right up to the seventh playthrough. There are a vast number of different ways to play the game and experimentation is encouraged; experiencing everything the game offers will undoubtedly take hundreds of hours. The game as a value proposition is simply a gift that keeps on giving, especially where multiplayer is involved.

Crossing paths

Multiplayer in Dark Souls is a fascinating and adrenaline-pumping experience, to be sure; like the rest of the game, access to its systems are somewhat different from its contemporaries and is its own mechanic. Players can take the role of invader phantoms, jumping into other people’s playthroughs and engaging in duels, helped along by the tight combat design. There is a whole other game in the Dark Souls multiplayer, and the use of Covenants, in-game factions that offer multiplayer rewards, is a stroke of flawed genius. There are multiple ways to play with others in Dark Souls, even down to a co-op mode that is perhaps its most memorable aspect, giving birth to the Sunbro fanbase. 

Unfortunately, as with any multiplayer game, the experience is soiled by a minority of toxic players, who take every joy in using hacks and exploits to ruin others’ days. It’s a shame, as the design of Dark Souls’ multiplayer would lend itself to memorable and enjoyable experience. But the truth is, it is a solid recommendation to play offline, even though the player is forgoing one of the best parts of the game. The implementation of anti-cheat in Dark Souls is almost non-existent, sadly leading to a ‘your mileage may vary’ recommendation of experiencing what could have been one of the most exciting multiplayer modes in recent history. 

Dark Souls is a veritable triumph of hardcore gaming; for the dedicated players, it can offer one of the most rewarding experiences ever made. That it’s gained a reputation for brutal difficulty is not even half of the story of the game, and truthfully, it is an undeserved reputation. Yes, it’s a punishing game, but Dark Souls is so much more than that. It is a flawed masterpiece of tight design and artistic vision. While Bioshock made the first mainstream case for videogames as art, Dark Souls perfected the ideal. However, due to some of the inherent issues of its choices in design and the dark spectre of a poorly-implemented multiplayer mode, Souls proves a difficult game to wholeheartedly recommend to everyone. For those who are willing to deal with frustration, and those who are patient, Dark Souls can be one of the most rewarding experiences ever made. For everyone else, it would probably be better to try to borrow the game from a friend before spending money on it, as enjoyment of this, as with any art, is ultimately subjective.
Dark Souls burns brightly, but the heat may be too intense for some. Source: in-game screenshot

The overall experience of Dark Souls, however, is one that I can’t not reward a Gold Standard medal. Quite simply, it is too impactful, too powerful, too masterful to ignore when considering the award. Dark Souls is a shoe-in for the Gold Standard, and will be talked about for years to come when considering the most impactful games in the industry.

-Gold Standard

Dark Souls may have many flaws, but it is hands-down one of the greatest games I've ever played. It's fundamental in its design and influence, and a deeply rewarding experience for those who persevere. The level of detail and artfulness in Dark Souls is simply astounding, and I cannot recommend it enough if you are brave enough to try the game. 

The Remaster indeed has many flaws and suffers from its status as a controversial cash-grab move, but the central game is still present, and just as deep and engaging as before. I've never played a game that immersed me quite like Dark Souls, and its progression in particular compels me to consider this a true great title of its time.

Dark Souls is, simply put, a masterpiece, and deserving of its status as a Gold Standard game. 

Thursday 7 June 2018

The importance of mid-tier gaming

One of the biggest reasons for stagnation in the mainstream gaming market is the tendency of big publishers to focus on the large, blockbuster titles. With the current model of huge, multi-million dollar releases every year, there are clearly signs of fatigue in the gaming market. As such big titles compete for the tightening consumer wallet, the question should be asked whether such a model is sustainable and what could be done to fix the situation. 

This is where mid-tier games could fit comfortably in the niche; Jim Sterling has recently championed the use of such titles, citing the practice as a boost to creativity in the industry, especially during the peak times of the PS2 era. Jim is indeed correct that mid-tier games could produce a more sustainable niche for big publishers. 

With the costs of development skyrocketing, many game publishers have engaged in shady practices to boost their profits. Imagine how much better games would be if hundreds of millions of dollars and the fate of the developers themselves didn’t hinge on their profitability; there would certainly be more creative risks taken, as well as fewer implementations of anti-consumer ‘features’ such as loot boxes.
There is a need for more ‘useful’ games; ones that may not make all the money all the time but don’t need to be so big to be profitable. Given the tightness of customer wallets, this model would arguably be more sustainable; there’s a lot more room for someone to buy a couple of £20-to-£30 games on top of a big budget £60 blockbuster, rather than expecting them to pay for three or four such ‘must-have’ titles (representing nearly a £240 outlay – almost as much investment as buying a whole new console!). In this way, mid-tier games could be the bread and butter of a mainstream gaming industry that currently stands on unstable footing.

While some may argue that game dev costs are spiralling out of control as technology is pushed further and further with each yearly release, the question should be asked as to whether such costly development is always the way to go. Surely for a risk-averse big company, smaller and less costly games could represent a salvation for creativity. Instead of risking hundreds of millions on a single title, and the jobs that come with those big bucks, surely it would be more sustainable to have a varied portfolio where games can make profit at all levels of the market. This practice also represents an insurance policy against disaster; if your big, AAA blockbuster falls by the wayside one year and suffers from terrible sales, then you can fall back on a portfolio of smaller, profitable titles to shore up the earnings before the next instalment.

As mainstream gaming continues into the next generation, big companies will undoubtedly need to review their strategies and cost-efficiency. If a game doesn’t need to have the best graphics, why bother spending so much and then push that cost onto the consumers? Many such players will be content with paying a little less while getting a slightly less graphically-intense game, and in fact will probably be more likely to buy the game ‘on-top-of’ a AAA £60 purchase. Mid-tier games represent an interesting avenue for a more sustainable, more creative gaming future, so hopefully these will be utilized correctly and more often in the coming years.

Thursday 24 May 2018

Dark Souls Remastered out early on Steam

Prepare to Die again. Dark Souls Remastered is out now on Steam, releasing one day earlier than the expected 25th May date. Players can now download the game, which is 6.4GB in download size. It is unknown at this time if this was a mistake in the localisation of Dark Souls or something to do with timezones, but it's certainly a treat to pick up such an anticipated game a day early; fans of the series will certainly be excited.

Dark Souls has already made it onto the Steam store page. But the mixed reviews are a concern. Source: Steam screenshot.

As it stands on Steam, the game is experiencing mixed reviews; many of these are due to the context of the game itself being a remaster that a lot of gamers feel they shouldn't be paying to get. A few more cite issues in performance, which is indeed worrying given the game's chequered history on its PC ports. Other reviews cite a high number of hackers are already in the game and ruining the multiplayer element. Time will tell as to whether these mixed reviews on the PC edition are indeed justified, but for now, it's certainly exciting that the game is available before its supposed release.