Monday, April 11, 2016

Screenshot of the Week #79: A journey for the Souls!

                Finishing Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin was a much more underwhelming experience than I was expecting it to be. Under the coat of technical problems Dark Souls was quite good game. Dark Souls II carries the problems of its predecessor but without being able to retain its many qualities. There is a visible difference in design that took a turn for the worse in Dark Souls II taking down with it some of the feeling and the qualities that made Dark Souls so frustratingly enjoyable.
The graphics have changed, for the better (but not by much), rendering a sorrowful landscape through a more colorful pallet which isn’t too strong on contrasting. Better graphics could only mean one thing, a more immersive labyrinthine world. Sadly, the intricate level design which made Dark Souls exploration puzzling and fun it’s now gone. The curse of linearity strikes Dark Souls II worse than the character is struck by the curse of the undead and while the hub has been improved, everything else has changed for the worse. The world is mostly designed as several lines starting from the hub area and leading eventually to a dead end with no connection to the other lines that start from the same place. The level design is frustratingly predictable with little exceptions losing at times any grasp on logic as levels tie to one another in bizarre and unexplainable ways (I still try to figure how I got from Earthen Peak to Iron Keep). But the downgrade in level design isn’t such a scary impediment, the world still holds its secrets and discovering them is more rewarding than ever.
                The itemization has skipped a few steps in evolution and Dark Souls II provides a varied arsenal with many weapons behaving in unique ways unleashing a huge amount of potential builds. The armor sets are plenty and many of them look so badass that it’s hard to choose which to wear. But even these improvements come with a price and I’m not sure it was a fair bargain.
The combat is slower, much slower, and the bosses and mobs design favor shield play over dodging since the changes in pacing have taken a great deal of effectiveness out of the dodge mechanic. Both ways are still viable, but dodge is much slower and requires a considerable souls investment in a certain stat to increase the number of invincibility frames to a playable level. And speaking about combat, the boss fights have seen better days even in games that aren’t praised for their increased difficulty. Most of the bosses are so predictable and mind boggling boring that the small number of decent fights took me by surprise when I reached them. The DLCs add a little more challenge and frustration (that Fume Knight!) and showcase what the level design could have been if..., but it’s hardly a compensation for the cakewalk up to that point.
To make up for the bosses, the difficulty has been artificially enhanced to such degree that it pushed me close to the edge of quitting. The mobs are usually dumb, but they make up for that in sheer numbers and through other unfair advantages which sometimes are hard to overcome. Dark Souls approached this matter in a much more elegant manner leaving things to player’s skill and creativity rather than forcing them into finding exploits to beat the unfairness.  
                On my first playthrough in Dark Souls II I lost my motivation multiple times and I can be called many things but not a quitter. A week before, even after countless tries on Manus I still felt motivated to keep going because the challenge was fair and I just needed to step up my game. Now I had to put up with a lot of lazy design choices that were bad reflection on the gameplay and a motivation killer.
                I’ve always said that the Souls series is overrated (at least on PC) and I’ve never felt more entitled to say so then after I played Dark Souls II. A quick search on Google reminded me of the 91/100 critics score on Metacritic and reflecting over my experience, I’m not sure I’ve played the same game. Sure, the port is better with a grid inventory and (some) rebindable keys, but these are mild improvements that still don’t sum up into a good port, but rather ironically point at the state of the game.
Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of good elements in Dark Souls II, testimony to that is my NG+ playthrough, but these elements tend to be eclipsed by the number problems and pale in comparison with Dark Souls.
                I’ve been in a marathon through Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition and Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin and despite my complaints I don’t feel sorry for spending so much time with these games. While I’m patiently waiting for Tuesday’s release, I’m hoping that Dark Souls III found the balance between its two predecessors while focusing on fixing the problems of the past rather than adding new elements, because I think this is the best way to improve the series.
A quiet moment...

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