Dark Souls I and II

We spent probably close to 200 hours obsessively playing the first two Dark Souls games this month, and now I feel like I should tell you about it.  Normally I try not to bother writing about mainstream games (unless there’s something to bitch about), but I misunderstood the Dark Souls games and now I feel like I should try to ensure no one else makes the same mistakes.

I bought Dark Souls I a looooong time ago, when it first came out on Steam.  I spent a fair amount of time fighting what I called ‘the first boss’, which was getting GFWL to fucking work.  Once I got past that ‘boss’, I spent a fair amount of time on ‘the second boss’, which was getting the actual game to work by installing player made patches to fix all the bits and pieces that the people who ported the game over from console didn’t bother to do.  (The second ‘boss’ was much easier than the first ‘boss’.  Fuck GFWL.)  Then I ultimately died to ‘the third boss’, which was getting the controls to work.  There were TOO MANY BUTTONS and I kept swapping shit when I didn’t need to and jumping backward when I didn’t want to and… it was hard :(.  I was so exhausted from fighting the first and second ‘bosses’ that I didn’t get very far with the third ‘boss’, and I didn’t get very far into the game before wandering off.

My second attempt at Dark Souls went much better.  I made it all the way to the actual second boss of the game and spent some time dicking around trying to farm up souls and get some items before trying to actually fight it.  Which is about when GFWL took a big steaming shit and the game stopped working entirely.  Frustrated, I uninstalled the game and put it in a Steam category labelled “Broken because of GFWL >:(“.  It remained there for years.

Then they talked about GFWL shutting down and removing it from games that were fucked by it and my ears perked up.  And then they decided not to do that and I sighed dramatically and closed the “Broken because of GFWL >:(” category again (which was starting to collect more and more titles…).

Then I discovered that they had FINALLY.  FINALLY. actually properly removed GFWL from the game and I reinstalled it.  My husband reinstalled it at the same time (he had gotten much further than I did, but didn’t actually finish it).  THIS time the game worked beautifully, all the online integration was smooth, I still had to install the fan patches to make the graphics pretty but that was all smooth sailing as well, and because I didn’t waste 20 hours getting the fucking thing working, I was able to finally commit the controls to muscle memory.

And then we binged.  We binged so much that my forearms got sore from holding my shield block button.  And then the Christmas sale happened and we bought Dark Souls II, which my husband had actually already bought, but now it had the Scholar of the First Sin version which was all updated and shit so he upgraded to that too.  We completed Dark Souls and jumped straight into Dark Souls II.  And we binged.  Like seriously, my wrists are probably fucked from holding this controller, now.  But we “finished” the game, in that we completed the main story but there’s probably another 30 hours of DLC for us to go through still.  We are now very much looking forward to Dark Souls III, and we’re super pissed that Bloodborne is not coming to PC.  We cannot co-op when it’s on a console (unless we buy two PS4’s, I guess, buuuuuuut…), and the co-op together is what launched the games from “really good” to “fucking amazing”, so there’s not even any real point for us to buy it.  Shitty.

We had a really good combo going, for both games.  I went super-knight, with high melee and armor, and my husband went super-caster.  I was all “fuck magic” (mostly because I didn’t want to have to swap another button around…) and he was all casty explody.  So we’d team up for bosses, I’d piss them off, and he’d blow them up.  It was very effective.  On bosses that were difficult to melee, I’d just dodge the entire fight and try to keep it distracted away from him.  On bosses that were resistant to magic, I’d beat the shit out of them while he mostly tried to stay alive.  Good times.  Without the co-op I’m not sure how far I would have made it into the game.  The boss fights were challenging, but knowing you could team up and make it easier made even a hopeless fight seem worth tackling.  We only really stalled out on a couple of the bosses, and mostly optional ones that we tackled before we were really ready (we abandoned one of the DLC bosses in Scholar, which we DEFINITELY were not ready for.  But at least now that we’re at the end of the game we can just port straight to it and give it another whirl).

Dark Souls has a reputation of being incredibly difficult and frustrating, and I think it’s been misconstrued.  It’s challenging for sure, and the co-op helped a lot with that, but I was MUCH more frustrated with Diablo 3 than I was with Dark Souls at any point.  In Diablo 3 I was continually getting fucked by randomness that I had absolutely no control over (wrong kind of rift that you have no chance of winning?  Welp lose that keystone I guess).  Nothing felt random in Dark Souls, and I was far less frustrated as a result.  I died a lot, but I could always see exactly why, and learn from it, and then come back and try again.  It was kind of interesting because I am far more patient than my husband, so I was willing to creep forward and scout, and wait out the enemies to attack them, and I ended up doing far better in combat than he did.  But he was far better at memorizing the layouts of the levels, so I’d focus on the monsters and traps and whatnot I was dealing with and then get turned around and be annoyed because I couldn’t figure out where to go next, and he’d zip through the level and forget that there’s a monster around that cor—oops you died.  In some of the particularly terrible twisty layouts (Sen’s fortress, or Blighttown with the god awful toxic shit) we’d just co-op to make the exploration smoother.  I’d deal with the monsters and he’d guide me through the place so I didn’t get lost.

At first it seems super punishing because you lose all your collected souls (which are used as experience and currency) when you die, but you only lose them if you cannot collect them again.  In reality, you really only truly lost the souls if you were reckless.  I found it very easy to position myself so that if something went wrong, retrieval would be easy.  And often I didn’t even care.  You quickly progress to a point where the majority of your souls will come from boss fights and victories, and any you manage to preserve on the route there are just a bonus.  My husband referred to it as “exploration mode” and “farming mode”.  When you first bust into a new area and you have no bonfires lit, you’re in exploration mode and don’t even bother worrying about the soul counter.  Once you have them all lit, you can clear it out a few times and build some levels if you want.

One of the things I was really hesitant about when I started the game was the PvP aspect.  Other players can invade you and kill you.  But they can only do that if you are human.  The only time this was an issue was in a certain area we were trying to co-op in (you must be human to summon your buddy, which leaves you open to attack).  Also, it’s not even such a big deal if you die in pvp.  You don’t lose anything except a few minutes of time to run back to retrieve your corpse, and once they hit you once you’re no longer human, so you can’t be hit repeatedly.  Unless you’re trying to summon your friend in a high pvp area… then it’s pretty irritating.

The summoning your friend aspect could really have been smoothed out, though.  We had a LOT of issues with it in Dark Souls I.  We’d sometimes have to reboot the game a few times to try to end up in the same invisible ‘lobby’ to be able to see each other’s summon signs, and sometimes it was frustrating to get it working at all (ok I was wrong, Dark Souls did frustrate me quite a bit… but it wasn’t the god damn gameplay that did it :P).  Also, once you kill a boss, you cannot summon each other anymore, which meant we screwed ourselves out of co-op on a couple of exploration areas by doing things out of order, which sucked.  I really wish they had made it smoother and let you summon your friends preferentially, especially now that it’s integrated into Steam.

Dark Souls II DID improve the summoning aspect.  I was worried at first because they tightened the summoning restrictions.  In the first game you must be within a certain percentage of each other level-wise (usually ~15 levels worth).  In the second, you must be within 10 levels and a certain ‘soul memory’, AND they added restrictions for how long another player can be in your game, solidifying the “I’m just here to help with the boss” aspect and making it less of a co-op exploration experience (although you can now summon each other at any time, even if the boss is dead… so they both tightened and loosened that restriction).  But then they added a nifty little ring that lets you choose a god, and then you can summon anyone nearby who has chosen that god regardless of requirements (and also prevent people who have not chosen them from picking you up randomly, which was far more of an issue in II than it was in I, due to much higher player counts I suppose).  The ring made coordination MUCH easier, and the lobby problem seemed to be resolved in II as well.  The only issue we ever had summoning each other in II was the day the servers crapped out, which we finally figured out when we realized we weren’t seeing messages anymore either.  It could still be done a lot nicer, but at least they made it less horrible to summon each other.

The other thing I really disliked when I first went into II was that it seemed to punish you for dying.  This is DARK SOULS dammit.  Why the fuck would you punish the player for DYING??  In II, when you die you lose a % of your health pool permanently, and on top of that, the monsters can be permanently killed.  In the first game you always had the option of just going back and farming an area to regain the souls you lost.  In II, you could kill monsters, take their souls, and then die and lose them with no way to get those souls back.  They would leave your game forever if you failed to retrieve them.  This was stressful to me.

BUT.  As before, it ended up being not nearly as bad as I imagined.  Just like in the first game, the majority of your souls come from bosses, not farming.  Being able to perma-clear an area actually ended up being a really NICE feature because you could spend 10 minutes clearing out that annoying asshole monster that fucks you every time, and then never have to deal with it again for the rest of your playthrough, which could be a strategy for clearing out a tough combo in an area.  And the health thing was a non-issue, because we were playing co-op.  Going human or helping another player restores your health pool completely.  It was less of a punishment for dying, and more of an encouragement to step out of a solo game and help other players.  Even if you hate playing with others, the humanity restoring items were everywhere, and you can burn them to prevent people from invading you if you were super worried about that.

The Dark Souls games are unique, which is a difficult thing to claim nowadays.  There have been a few attempts at copying it (all of which my husband has jumped upon, and then quickly abandoned), but they utterly fail at capturing the magic.  Also the games are GORGEOUS.  Even in the first game which has kind of shoddy graphics, there are plenty of places you just look around and go “Wow.”  The second is even better.  And what I’ve seen of Bloodborne is incredible (too bad I can’t play it >:(.  Fuckers.)  They really accomplish something with their graphics and I am impressed.

Very excited to require wrist surgery once Dark Souls III comes out.

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The Talos Principle

I’ve been holding off on writing about Talos Principle because I wanted to get further in it and reveal a bit more of the story, because it’s one of those super mysterious “something reaaaallllly interesting is here and if you just get a little bit further you might get to reveal some of it!” sorts of stories, and it seems like a disturbingly large percentage of the time the reveals turn out to be complete balls.  But I am just loving this game so much that I am going to talk about it anyway.

The Talos Principle is a puzzle game, but it is also a journey into philosophy.  It wins my “Best Game Ever” award for two simple reasons:
1: The options screen has a “Motion Sickness” section where you can adjust things like FoV and turn head bobbing off.  These developers get it and I love them for it.  Game of the Year for that alone.
2: In one of the story snippets there is a burn on Twilight.  Excellent.

The premise is that you are a robot who has been dropped into a series of tests, which is all very Portal-esque, but instead of a sarcastic murderous robot you have a somewhat self-righteous god-voice by the name of Elohim (definitely not an improvement over GlaDOS, I have to say.)  As you venture through your trials you also uncover snippets of story that hint at the goings on outside of your own little personal rat-maze, as well as philosophical musings for you to think about as you go along.  Things like “How does someone know they are a person” or “How do you know you really exist”, alongside things like “Could a robot solve these sorts of puzzles or would it take a human mind to do it?”, where it all becomes very meta because in the game you are a robot and you are solving those puzzles but REALLY you are a human solving those puzzles right?? right?? so if you solve that puzzle that only a human could solve it does that mean a robot solved it or does it mean a human was still needed to solve it??? Or is it even talking about you at all????? Don’t play it while high or you might feel entirely too clever for yourself.

But actually mostly it makes me feel dumb.  But then I solve something and feel like a genius.  And then the next one makes me feel dumb again.  I was incredibly disappointed with how easy the puzzles were at first.  I was just going from puzzle to puzzle feeling like “…is this it?  Really?”  Sometimes a puzzle would be SO easy that I’d pick up the prize and then run back and forth for a bit wondering if I had missed something.  A lot of them take the same sort of logic too, so they almost get repetitive at times. The most disappointing part is when you get stuck on something for ages and ages and then finally you come across the solution and it is so god damn fucking easy and then you hate yourself for not figuring it out right away.

But then I ran into some of the hidden puzzles and my brain broke and I lay awake at night thinking about them.  Most of the puzzles are self contained, but the hidden ones require “outside of the box” thinking, and a lot of “outside of the level” thinking.  Most of them span levels, requiring you to break the fourth wall and figure out how to get bits from here to there, or how to cheat the system to get what you need to the area you need it.  In some cases it almost seems unfair, like, you can’t take items through the barrier so who would guess that you can shoot the fucking laser through it?!?!? (but then again, fair enough to catch me out on assuming that something would not be possible without trying it.  Fuckers.) There was one where I sort of figured it would be something pretty skookum, and I had an idea of what I would need to do, but I decided that I would be a horrible person and be lazy and not do it and just look up the solution.  I was reaffirmed in that choice when the description said “Hardest star in the game” and I was like “yep going to ruin this one for myself”, and I am kind of sad that I cheated but also I don’t think I would have figured it out otherwise.  It’s pretty epic.

And as I advance into the later worlds, the “easy” puzzles are less and less easy.  Every now and then I’ll bumble around in a level for so long that Elohim comes along and gently suggests I go to a different level.  Fuck you, God.  What kind of God is all like “Well if you haven’t figured this out by NOW you may as well just give up.”

You should buy this game.  It is excellent mysterious storytelling that almost makes me nostalgic for Myst, with a mix of puzzles that will make your brain hurt, but are not so tough that you need a walkthrough to get anywhere.  And also some philosophy crap that you may or may not enjoy. The world is beautiful and fun to explore, especially since there could be hidden mysteries or easter eggs around any corner or under any bush.  It’s just good old fashioned “I’m going to try this and see what happens” exploration fun, and it is highly rewarding.

Tomb Raider

Tomb Raider consumed a few days of my life, and now I am going to tell you about it.  I’m not sure that it really needs any kind of promotion, but I still feel like talking about it.  I paid 13 dollars for it and I feel guilty for not paying more (although apparently they didn’t even bother to count digital distributions when they calculated whether the game was a success or not, so, welp).  It took me just over 20 hours to 100% the game, but that includes all the time I spent running around aimlessly and trying to jump on/off things just to see if I could, and obsessively reloading because I fucked up a stealth kill and wanted to try again.

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Miasmata

I’ve always been a big fan of the survival genre, and it’s always so disappointing to me when a game decides “survival” means “hack/shoot apart thousands of monsters and scrounge for health potions”.  I was quite intrigued when I saw Miasmata on Steam, but initial reports weren’t very favourable so I waited for a sale.  I really wanted to try it though, so it was awesome when it popped up as a gift on Christmas (yay thank you!).

The basic premise is that you are stranded on an island, and everyone else appears to be dead, possibly of a plague which you also have contracted.  You, fortunately, are a scientist, so you set about exploring the island and trying to synthesize a plague cure from the local plants.  The backstory of the game is revealed through tattered journals in abandoned huts.

Exploration consists of triangulating positions to fill in your map.  The vast majority of the game is this, actually, but fortunately the island is pretty interesting to explore.  There are statues and ruins and stuff so it’s not like “oh good, another rock.”  At least, not all the time.  Triangulation itself is pretty accurate, really.  You need to have two known landmarks (ones marked on your map), and then you figure out where you are standing from cross referencing them.  Once you do that, any landmarks near you become available to be used as reference points.  So if you dash off into the woods, your map will be blank, nothing known will be visible, and you’ll have to navigate by compass.  Oh yeah, and at night time you can’t see shit.  We are talking inky blackness of midnight, here.  Twilight does not seem to exist in this world (or maybe he needs to eat more beta carotene…), nor do full moons. You have a dinky lighter and can make a torch out of branches, but they really won’t help you, so keep an eye on your watch and stick near a known shelter when night comes around.

As you explore the island, you discover you are not exactly alone.  A large, green, horned cat beast is stalking you. And when it spots you, you discover that it also runs much faster than you do…

The game was not terribly well received for a few reasons.

First: It’s optimized like ass.  I reduced the resolution to make it run smoothly because it was not playing nicely.  If your computer already struggles with recent software, you might be unable to actually play it at a decent framerate.  The minimum specs really don’t seem adequate for anything other than sputtering around, and even a powerful machine will probably run into snags.

UPDATE: Since writing this, the game has been patched and I can now run around at full settings and pick flowers with glee.

Second: The gameplay consists almost entirely of wandering around the woods, triangulating positions to uncover the map, and collecting flowers to run back to the lab and analyze.  I, personally, really enjoy this gameplay, and I want more games to implement it.  But I can see how many people will get bored and find it tedious in a hurry.  The stalking cat adds some flavor, but interactions with it are kept fairly rare to ramp up the tension (thankfully!  It would get pretty annoying to have it on your ass every five minutes…) and there’s not a whole lot to do with those encounters except run the fuck away, since there’s no combat.  You have a few tricks to distract it (if you throw a torch at it, it will turn and look and give you a moment to haul ass), and you can use stealth to hide or lose it, but it’s not exactly a big part of the game other than adding to the atmosphere of exploration. (Here’s a big tip, and possibly a bit of a spoiler: The cat is modelled very realistically on real mountain lion behaviour. So if you want to deal with it effectively, go read up on what to do if you encounter a cougar who wants to chew on your skull. It’s actually an impressive feat of programming, I’d say.)  I haven’t uncovered a whole lot of the backstory as of yet, but I’m guessing it doesn’t do much to make up the gameplay gap.  So if you enjoy exploring and picking flowers, oh man do we ever have a game for you!  But if that sounds boring to you, eeehh…

Third: The graphics.  Despite running like ass, it’s not exactly the prettiest game sometimes.  I don’t usually let indie graphics bother me.  I played the shit out of a free game called Stranded II which was literally wandering around on an island and trying to build stuff, and it had some really terribly modelled creatures in it.  Compared to that, Miasmata is fucking beautiful.  I feel like the environments are pretty, and the sunrays at sunrise are wonderful to wander through, but if you glance down at your hands you kind of go “oh.”  Similarly there is a bit of jankiness when trying to pick stuff up off the ground sometimes which might pull you out of it.

But man when you watch a storm roll in over the ocean?  Look at this shit:

It is going to fucking RAIN, guys

It is going to fucking RAIN, guys

The rain itself is maybe not quite as impressive as the build-up to rain… but it messes with your visibility enough that it can make you either think twice about wandering off, or go “oh shit” and scramble for shelter if you’ve already wandered off the edge of your known map.

The game from that point is really what you make of it.  I am really enjoying losing myself in the atmosphere, trying to uncover my map, getting excited when I crest a hill and see some old ruins that look creepy, or finding a new flower I haven’t examined yet.  And then, just when you’re happily collecting some flowers a good 15 minutes from safety, you hear *Thump thump.  Thump thump.* The heartbeat indicates the creature has spotted you and is stalking nearby.

The movement in the game has been criticized too, but opinions are mixed.  The protagonist has a bit of a momentum based movement, so when you get going at a good clip, it takes him a moment to settle down.  So if you’re plowing through the forest and reach the edge of the cliff, letting go of the W key isn’t going to save your ass.  You’re going over, man.  Similarly, when he falls, he falls.  Ass over teakettle, camera flailing wildly, black out at the bottom depending on how hard and far you fell.  Some people have criticized it by saying the protagonist falls a bit too easily on every little dip in the terrain, but he is also dying of a plague! So that didn’t bother me. Falling hard also means whatever is in your hands will be let go and go flying, possibly being destroyed in the process.  I climbed a big ass mountain to reach some flowers and let me tell you, I’ve done a lot of hiking, and picking my way back down that slope felt just like picking my way down some loose scree.  I’d creep forward and the guy would slip a bit and pick up speed as he skidded, so I’d mash S with my heart in my throat, terrified of tumbling down and losing my hard won petals.

And then when I got to the bottom and was all “Whew, now I can book it back to the lab!”, I heard *thump thump.  thump thump.*

“Oh fuck, the cat.  If it attacks me I’ll have to climb that god damn mountain to get these flowers again!  Okay, the tent isn’t far in that direction so I’m just going to dash for it.”

So I started dashing, and THERE IT WAS.  Apparently I chose exactly the wrong direction to dash in…

A panicked about-face later (with the guy lurching and skidding all over, trying to turn at high speed… it’s really quite effective once you’re used to it) I dashed in the opposite direction.  The creature roared behind me and the heart beat sped up.  Up ahead, a tent I hadn’t uncovered yet!  Yes!  Safety!

*whack* it hit me from behind and he tumbled, ears ringing.  I didn’t drop the flowers!  KEEP DASHING GOD DAMMIT.

When you go uphill he slows down to make the climb too, so climbing the last slope to the tent was fairly intense.  But once inside the creature loses interest and wanders off, and I was able to take some medicine to calm the fever that being mauled by a giant horned green cat had made worse, then sleep until morning.

I found the above exchange very exciting, and I am looking forward to synthesizing medicine to make me stronger, and allow me to do things like swim and access more areas of the island.  If you find it appealing to get lost on an island that decidedly does not want you to pick its flowers, then you should definitely check this game out.  If exploration is boring to you, move along.