From Software's most recent masterpiece, Dark Souls, is a solid improvement on everything that made Demon's Souls great... except when it comes to online potential.
Ever since I picked up my first copy of Armored Core 2 on the Playstation 2, I've been a huge fan of the Japanese developer responsible for this series: From Software. With its reputation for creating complicated games with deep character customization options, you probably know From Software better as the creators of Demon's Souls and, more recently, Dark Souls. Last week, Mike B. aka Fony hosted a BFF Report on Dark Souls and, while I highly suggest you watch it if you're unfamiliar with the game, I realized that it would be negligent of me if I didn't explain, in finer detail, why this game is unique and why it desperately needs a fix for its online component (I'll get back to this later).
In an industry where player accessibility has become the new buzz word for triple-A titles, From Software is a bit of an uncompromising anomaly. Demon's Souls was a unique action RPG for its time, but even then it was easy to see From's development philosophy shining through. Critics of Armored Core 2 and 3 noted that those games were simply too complex and too difficult for casual gamers to get into, but both of those titles spawned numerous community garage forums, where fans of these niche games got together to share their optimal creations. When Armored Core 4 was set to be released on the Playstation 3, players were worried that the critics would have their way, but AC4 was, if anything, even more complex than its predecessors. It's nice to know that there is a company still stubbornly creating deeply intricate games like Armored Core 4 and Dark Souls, especially when most are looking to ride the casual gaming demographic to the top of the profit charts.
Why Dark Souls Shines
The big problem with making a complex game lies in figuring out just how much depth can be added without obliterating the gamers who make bad decisions. Most developers consider it a mark of shame if the average player cannot beat their game, so they either simplify the character customization so that everything is good, or they tone down the game in such a way that most players can advance, regardless of the choices they make. While this approach has done a great job of boosting the accessibility of games, it has the unfortunate side effect of diminishing the weight of your decisions. Don't get me wrong, there is a frivolous joy to be found in knowing that any choice you make is a great one, but sometimes there's a deeper satisfaction when you know that the decisions you make have deep repercussions moving forward.
To most, the sheer difficulty of Dark Souls is commonly cited as its strongest feature, but this is simply a byproduct of its desire to make your decisions important. Investing too many points in offensive stats results in your character getting one-shotted by a boss's strongest attack and, with soul levels increasing exponentially in cost per point, some players may find themselves forced to adapt to some very difficult situations throughout the game. Choosing to upgrade one weapon over another means you will fare much better in some areas, and even the armor you equip is a choice between increased mobility versus stability (heavier armors offer a new stat, Poise, which reduces the chance that your character will flinch or be interrupted when hit). In all of the above scenarios, From Software has shown that it's not afraid to challenge players on their decisions and this is what makes Dark Souls so endearing: when it is possible to outright fail through your decisions, achieving success becomes all the more important.
Consequences, however, aren't the only highlight of Dark Souls; its intuitive underlying system is what really makes it work. Dark Souls runs its players through the basic combat controls, but after the tutorial dungeon, it is up to the player to use those mechanics to beat the entire game. It's always impressive to know that all of the bosses and levels in Dark Souls can be beaten with whatever equipment and levels you start with, so once you understand the principles of the game, it becomes easier to see what tactical advantages you can gain in each fight. In other words, Dark Souls is a rare game where player progression is as equally important as player skill and experience. This also has the adverse effect of punishing the stubborn players, like me, who refuse to adapt, believing that every boss should be fought in face-to-face combat, two-handing a Lucerne Hammer and rolling away from every attack (because getting hit once means losing 70% of your life).