Thursday, April 10, 2014

Thoughts on my second Dark Souls playthrough; also, I reviewed Infamous: Second Son (PS4)

If you've been following the transformative experience I've been having with Dark Souls over the past couple of months and think it's all very peculiar, well, just imagine how it must feel to be me. At the beginning of the year, I was on record naming Dark Souls the least amount of fun I've ever had playing a game, and now, just a couple of days ago, I told a colleague that it's well on its way to becoming one of my all-time favorites. And, really, that's just me being honest with myself.

In case anyone's wondering whether or not this'll inspire another rewrite, know that my newly-updated Dark Souls review stands. It's shoddy in some ways, downright broken in others, and full of design decisions that infuriate me. I think a 7/10 is more than reasonable, and I'm in no rush to recommend the game to anyone who isn't 100% committed to unearthing its many wonders. On the other hand, though, not only did I storm through the game in only four days, but as of this weekend, I've just beaten it again.

There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, Dark Souls II, which was mechanically superior but ultimately forgettable, left me with a thirst to revisit the entry that truly entranced me. Secondly, now that I'm fully familiar with Lordran's layout, I was eager to test out some shortcuts and see just how quickly I could clear this thing without the mega-skills of a YouTube speedrunner. Thirdly, and most importantly, I wanted to check out the Artorias of the Abyss DLC, which you can't access until you're more than halfway through the game, anyway, and if I get that far, I might as well see Dark Souls through to the end. Again.

Since I've already written a rather thorough and (to my mind) reasonably well-organized review of Dark Souls, I think I've earned the right to express further thoughts by medium of lazy bullet points. I'd like to say that the following will be the last you hear from me about Dark Souls, but then I said that last time, too.

• This time, I managed to complete the game in only 20 hours, compared to the 50 it took me on my first run. I killed all of the bosses (including Gwyndolin, which I missed the first time) and completed all of the DLC. It's amazing how much more quickly the game moves once you actually know the world and can actually anticipate what the game is going to throw at you.

• I played it on PC this time. I'd heard that it was an awful port, and my goodness was that the truth. The mouse and keyboard controls are utterly broken (though why anyone would want to play Dark Souls with anything other than a standard controller is beyond me), and even when you bump the resolution in the options menu up to 1920x1080... it just stays at its native 720p. Thankfully, there's a relatively famous mod that fixes the latter problem, and the game looks considerably crisper than its console counterparts when you use it. Still, ugh.

• I'm punching myself for missing Artorias of the Abyss the first time, because it's fantastic. The four new bosses (Sanctuary Guardian, Artorias, Kalameet and Manus) are all among the best of the series, and some of the new areas are unnervingly creepy. The fact that the DLC is set hundreds of years prior to the other events of Dark Souls had me thinking that it'd be, I don't know, a grander and more optimistic period for Lordran, but as it turns out, this world was always terrifying, lonely and miserable. The only thing I don't like about Artorias of the Abyss is that its first area is a repeat of Darkroot Garden, which is one of the base game's least memorable areas. Otherwise, terrific.

• Also, the means to actually access the DLC are annoyingly convoluted. You need to interact with a specific NPC who was already available in the base game, and then return to that area with an unremarkable item dropped by a seemingly random enemy found in the Duke's Archives, accessible only after you finish Anor Londo and obtain the Lordvessel. I realize that obtuse design choices are kind of From Software's thing, but this is content that people are paying extra for, guys.

• I was able to bypass large chunks of the game through some sequence-breaking shortcuts that I learned about in this video. Specifically, I was able to skip pretty much all of the Catacombs and the Duke's Archives, though in the latter case, I found myself a bit under-leveled when I actually had to fight the boss. Also, while this wasn't an unintended shortcut on the developers' part, I used the back door into Blighttown (the one in the Valley of Drakes) to effectively negate most of that level and essentially jump straight to Quelaag's Domain. This also would have allowed me to skip the Depths entirely, but I did that anyway because I wanted to fight the Gaping Dragon again.

• I didn't summon any NPCs for assistance on my first run, but I did so for the Bell Gargoyle and Quelaag fights this time, because screw it.

• My greatest accomplishment on this run was defeating Ornstein and Smough on my first attempt without summoning help. Like I said, it's amazing how much more smoothly this game flows when you already know its dirty tricks.

• My absolute least-favorite parts of the game are as follows: the long trek back to Seath's lair every time you want to fight him; having to wade through poisonous water in order to fight Quelaag; the Bed of Chaos battle, which isn't "difficult" so much as it's just poorly-constructed and completely out of place; important bonfires in Sen's Fortress and Lost Izalith being tucked away in places you'd basically never find without help; the camera flipouts during the Centipede Demon battle.

• Some random joys that were new to me on this playthrough: actually knowing where to get Havel's armor set before the endgame; jumping over and killing the giant at the top of Sen's Fortress who's dropping the boulders through the ceiling; provoking Gwydolin into casting night upon Anor Londo and removing all of the enemies from the area; figuring out that the shortcut out of Blighttown can be used to get into Blighttown; shooting the Hellkite's tail and getting the Drake Sword immediately; noticing that ceiling of Lost Izalith is the same structure that can be seen from the entrance to Demon Ruins; fighting Kalameet.

One more thing...

I reviewed Infamous: Second Son this week. I really, really thought that this would be PlayStation 4's killer app, but instead it's just the shadow of a once-mighty giant, a superhero sandbox game that feels underwhelmingly ordinary now that superhero sandbox games are kind of a regular thing. It's also not a very interesting game to talk about, so I'm going to stop now.

I've been playing two games recently. The first is Luftrausers, which has a unique control scheme and not much else going for it. It applies Asteroids-style pivot-and-propel movement physics to an environment with actual gravity, which gives the game a unique feel, but as an arena-based bullet hell frenzy, it's both bland and entirely too hectic for a control scheme that demands a great deal of effort from players. The other game is Strider, which I'm kind of loving. It's basically a Metroid clone that clones Metroid well, and I'd recommend it if that sort of thing is an easy sell for you (as it is for me). Review hopefully incoming.

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