A Not So Quick Thought About Dark Souls II and Game Reviews

I enjoy many games, but one of the few that I actually love is Dark Souls. Everything about it, from the gameplay to the visual design of the world to the lore hidden within that world, it all comes together to form a game on the road to perfection. It's a road littered with shoddy frame rates, less than stellar textures and an over-reliance on the esoteric, perhaps, but a road to perfection nonetheless. 

A lot of gamers, maybe even most, like to hate it for being "pointlessly difficult" or "unfair", but rarely are those complaints based in any sort of fact. The challenging yet ultimately rewarding yet completely unforgiving experience that is Dark Souls, when you take a step back and really look at it, may be one of the most beautifully balanced and fair experiences of its generation. Unfortunately, that same generation is filled with people who can't appreciate a game if it's any more complex than Skyrim or Call of Duty. There is no "bloody screen, so real" in Dark Souls, nor is there hand holding which delves into the intricacies of tapping the A button to interact with an object. It's a hardcore experience that treats you like the adult with a fully functioning cerebral cortex that you are, and I love it for that. 

You'd perhaps not expect it to be met with critical acclaim, what with it being so niche and rather infamous, but you'd be wrong. Reviewers and the community alike, right across the board, loved Dark Souls for achieving exactly what it set out to do: to hearken back to the good old days when games expected you to simply get better if you ever wanted to reach the end. It was a bit of a sleeper hit, to be fair, but it was met with such resounding praise that it's now even being mimicked, maybe even spawning its own genre. On top of all that you throw in the fact that the community which sprung up around Dark Souls is still thriving and you have yourself a prime example of a game attaining greatness based solely on the merits of its design; something which all games should strive for, yet rarely attain. It was inevitable that there would be a sequel since publishers rarely let a hit game (even a cult hit) die a graceful death, but it's here that From Software, the developers of the Souls series, made a misstep. 

While game development is by its very nature a collaborative process (unless you're an ubermensch who can also compose music and draw on top of coding) there's usually a single person who acts as a driving force for that team; and in the case of Demon's Souls and Dark Souls that man was Hidetaka Miyazaki. Perhaps this is just my inner fanboy trying to claw its way out of the vile husk which is my soul, but I'd go so far as to say that Miyazaki is a genius as far as game design is concerned. His ability to craft intricate worlds teeming with depth and his sheer understanding not only of his vision but of what it takes to make a great game is truly something to be admired. Unfortunately, since Miyazaki was busy working on the PS4 exclusive Bloodborne, that directorial prowess would not be applied to Dark Souls II. Instead, those duties would fall to Tomohiro Shibuya and Yui Tanimura, neither of whom had worked (least as far as I can tell) on any of the previous entries in the Souls series. 

I was so excited to get my hands on a new Souls game that I was almost able to look past the horrifying and disappointing results of this change in director. Almost. Now, I do exaggerate a bit when I say that the results were "horrifying". Dark Souls II might look worse than the first game, handle worse than the first game and do pretty much everything else worse than the first game, but I wouldn't say it's a terrible game. It's just profoundly mediocre in nearly every way. Why? 

     The Ogre: By far the laziest design in a Souls game

     The Ogre: By far the laziest design in a Souls game

To put it simply, Dark Souls II's gameplay is riddled with problems which mostly stem back to, at best, an apparent disregard and at worst an outright misunderstanding of the mechanics behind the first Dark Souls. Anyone who has played the first game for any reasonable length of time can tell you that the combat is clearly designed around one on one encounters; whether you're up against a giant, grotesque dragon or a normal sized human. It's a design choice that fit the first two games so beautifully that it was naturally brought over for the third. The problem with that is while Dark Souls II imports the combat mechanics and the accompanying intricacies associated with those mechanics, it completely ignores the element for which those mechanics were tuned: one on one battles. I think that the perfect example of what it is I'm trying to explain is summed up perfectly by looking at the Belfry Gargoyles encounter present in both titles. 

In Dark Souls I you walk out onto the roof of a church and are met with a giant, axe wielding gargoyle who, when brought down to half health, summons a second, fire breathing gargoyle who enters the arena with half of his health already gone. In Dark Souls II, however, you walk onto an identical, though slightly smaller roof and are immediately met with two gargoyles, both with individual health bars that count for 2/5 of the boss' health bar at the bottom of the screen. The other 3/5? That's for the three gargoyles who can enter the fray once the boss' health bar dives under 90%, 70%, and 50%, respectively. Mind you, the combat mechanics here might be designed around one on one encounters but even the first game often threw groups of enemies at you which were appropriately scaled (like a group of 5 or 6 Hollowed, all of which can be killed in a single hit). What the game never did was open up the possibility of fighting as many as five large gargoyles with spear type weapons at any one time. To do so would not only work against the combat mechanics in nearly every way, it would spit in the face of what they were trying to achieve: a game which is hard, but fair. Yet, that's exactly what Dark Souls II does. It throws you into a horribly designed boss battle which seeks to challenge the player, not through clever design but by simply overwhelming them.

Of course, this alone wouldn't be such a major issue if it was limited to just one boss battle. The Capra Demon encounter in the first Dark Souls is equally unfair due simply to the laughably small area in which you're given to fight him along with two hounds, though it's certainly not indicative of the entire experience. But that's where we run into a problem: the Belfry Gargoyles in Dark Souls II are not only indicative of the entire experience, they're not even necessarily the most galling example. Whereas in the first game you have Sif, a giant wolf clenching a massive sword in his teeth, in the second you have the Royal Rat Authority, a giant rat which serves the exact same function in terms of gameplay as Sif but is now surrounded by four poison inducing rats which are inexplicably more dangerous than the giant rat trying to bite your head off. In Dark Souls I you might run into a couple of giant, armored enemies but are able to easily lure them out one at a time so as not to be overwhelmed, while in Dark Souls II there are at least four instances in which you are forced into a relatively small area to fight as many as four giant, armored enemies at the same time. Some people erroneously defend these decisions by stating that the game is meant to be hard and that I should simply get better at the game, something I've told countless people concerning the first Dark Souls. The rather obvious flaw with that logic is that it is founded on the basis that Dark Souls II, like its predecessors, strives to be hard but fair rather than just being pointlessly difficult. In reality, I think anyone looking at the game with a proper, analytical eye will most likely come to the exact opposite conclusion. I actually find it rather shocking how many people defend Dark Souls II and hold it up as a competent title simply because they, apparently, completely forgot or never understood to begin with what made the first game so brilliant.

As a member of the Dark Souls community this is something which I find particularly worrisome. I'd very much like one of my favorites series to remain the standard by which similar games are judged, rather than becoming the bi-annual piece of dreck which most lengthy series have since become. I find it annoying whenever I see a fellow member of the community, esspecially someone who perhaps even makes a living by creating content based on the game, defends aspects of Dark Souls II which are objectively problematic. This annoyance turns into a sense of outright disappointment, however, whenever I go back and read reviews of the title published upon release. I can very easily, if not begrudgingly, get over the average fan of the Souls series legitimately enjoying Dark Souls II and defending it; after all, people like games for different reasons and personal taste transcends objective qualities (I, for example, legitimately enjoy the horrible film known as Battlefield Earth). What I cannot so easily get over is when men and women who are paid to look at games with an analytical eye, and to then inform consumers of their conclusions, completely gloss over the problems in a game (whether it be due to incompetence or sheer laziness) and chalk them all up to simply being a part of the experience.

When I see GameSpot's Kevin VanOrd say that "Dark Souls II is built around your repeated demise", I can't help but view that as failure to understand the basics of what the Souls series really is. It's almost as though he is simply spouting popular opinion rather than forming his own conclusions, and if he is coming to that conclusion on his own than I'd have to ask why he was chosen to review the game in the first place. The same can be said for IGN's Marty Silva who, rather hilariously, proclaims that Dark Souls II's bosses are "iconic" and lead to a sense of "triumph". I'd be very curious to know how anyone feels triumphant after defeating a boss in Dark Souls II since the majority of them seek only to overwhelm you with a number of enemies who aren't even well designed. It's also worth noting that he subscribes to the Ubisoft definition of "iconic", I suppose. I think these two examples, out of the dozens I could provide, are simply the tip of an iceberg crashing its way through games journalism at the moment. 

          The number of giant armored enemies with a seemingly unlimited supply of stamina is too damn high

          The number of giant armored enemies with a seemingly unlimited supply of stamina is too damn high

A number of reviewers (not necessarily the two mentioned here, I AM only criticizing their reviews of Dark Souls II) have a tendency to look at a game without delving into its intricacies. They simply play it, think about it for awhile, then write up a review which more often than not comes off as  either disinterested or lazy. That's not a wholly horrible thing, to be completely fair, given that most AAA releases these days are so insultingly simple and mechanically bare bones that taking a quick, general sort of look at them is ultimately warranted. But when that thinking is applied to a game which is infinitely more complex than something like Skyrim, the flaws in that process become blindingly obvious. Viewing a game on the same level of mechanical complexity as Dark Souls through the same goggles as one would view a game as complex as Call of Duty leads to a reviewer saying to themselves, "this is really hard, but I guess it's supposed to be that way", when they should be asking, "this is really hard, but does that actually mesh with these mechanics?" There's simply no attempt to really understand the mechanics of a game which your review could ultimately lead to success or utter failure, and to me, that's simply lazy. It comes off like TMZ writing a review for Eraserhead; not very well thought out, completely glosses over the point of the product and ignores complex ideas (or mechanics, in Dark Souls' case) in favor of looking at the basics seen at face value.

I think it's a shame whenever anything, regardless of the medium, receives undue praise or condemnation. It agitates me that a game which is riddled with objective problems had those very same issues ignored, whether due to incompetence, laziness or ignorance. I put precisely zero stock in review scores, but it gets to me even more that if Dark Souls I was a solid 9 across the board that Dark Souls II is probably a 9.2. I think it's a spectacular failing on the part of reviewers and their editors, at least in this case, that two games which are mechanically identical yet couldn't be further apart in their execution are put up on the same pedestal; indeed, that the one riddled with issues is placed even higher. I may personally find review scores pointless, and often times idiotic, but many people base whether they'll buy a game or not on those scores. When I put it that way I can't help but feel even more disappointed in those who rated a flawed game so highly.

So why is any of this relevant now, four years after the release of Dark Souls I and months after the height of Dark Souls II's popularity? Mediocrity has already won the day, so why should I bother to care? Well, this month we'll finally get our hands on the From Software developed PS4 exclusive Bloodborne. While I have few doubts that it will be a great game, there's always the chance that it could turn out to be another subpar experience. Should that happen, I'd certainly hope that the people reviewing the title for major outlets have the good sense to see it and point it out rather than once again glossing over problems under the (possible) assumption that it was meant to be that way.

Mediocrity should never be rewarded. It would truly be a shame if the creative, I'd even say innovative, people behind From Software were allowed to slip into the pits of pure averageness due to a lack of proper feedback. I want From to continue producing high quality, immersive experiences which not only challenge the player, but do so in a way that is fair and balanced; the hallmarks of virtually any quality gaming experience. The only way to keep that from happening, as far as I'm concerned, is for people to actually look at these games for what they are and judge them accordingly. AAA developers have a history of not listening to their communities but who they do listen to, at least a good chunk of the time, are the reviewers; the people who are ultimately going to make the decisions for many readers asking the question "Should I buy this game?" 

I don't think that's too insurmountable a task. Is it? Not all games are created equal. Some can be summed up within a couple of paragraphs, some maybe even in a few sentences, but there are always going to be those games which, in my opinion, require some real work to properly understand if you want to judge them fairly. I'm sure that some people might say, "these people are reviewing God knows how many games throughout a year, they can't spend too much time on any one game", to which I would respond that they make a perfectly valid point. In which case, hand the game off to someone who has a bit of extra time on their hands. I'm a firm believer in the idea that if you're going to do something than you should do it right, otherwise the results are just going to be lackluster. That's especially true whenever you're getting paid to do what you do and, regardless of the reason, are unable to do that job right. 

I hope that Bloodborne is a masterpiece, I really do, but I also hope that this go around the people being paid to review this title do their job and rightly point out any problems it might have. Not only for From's sake, but for ours.