Demon's over Dark
HIGH Being reunited with my old comrade, the Halberd.
LOW Anor Londo catwalks, Curse status, being lost, and THE ENDING.
WTF The frequent attack lag really passed QA?
While Sinan did an admirable job of explaining why Dark Souls is such an interesting experience (and I agree with much of what he said) I can't help but be disappointed with it. As someone who thought Demon's Souls was pure brilliance, there are simply too many issues in Dark Souls that keep it from surpassing, or even equaling it. Putting it bluntly, Dark Souls doesn't do anything that the original didn't—only now there are problems that weren't there before.
To begin with, the decision to take Dark Souls into open-world territory was an admirable one, yet what it offers is not appreciably better than the former system. I can understand the rationale behind it, but the developers have lost the incredible intensity and perfect scripting that the smaller environments in Demon's Souls had. Although the original was built around a central hub-world, it still felt as though there were plenty of nooks and crannies to explore, I rarely felt hemmed in or constrained in artificial ways, and the focus of each section kept the player moving forward. In my view, it wasn't broken and didn't need fixing.
Although I can't say for certain, I would estimate that Dark Souls is at least three times larger than Demon's Souls. In crafting a world that's so much bigger than what the developers turned out last time, it feels as though they've badly overreached.
Playing the game without any FAQs, I often found myself wondering where I should go. After I'd pick a zone to explore, I would then constantly question whether my time was being well-spent. The game does give vague clues as to the next objective, but it's still quite easy to get off track and spend hours in the wrong part of the world. It can be argued that "being lost" often leads to finding items or adding to the player's knowledge, but that doesn't negate the fact that it can be quite frustrating to kill a boss or find a nifty item and feel as though no progress was achieved.
It's also frustrating to see that some areas feel padded-out, or poorly-designed. The early hours of the game are solid, but the further I went, the less appealing the environments became. There were also instances when the world felt large just for the sake of being large, and times when I realized some sections were created just to hold a boss and a key, without adding much to the overall atmosphere of the world. Some of the late-game areas are particularly awful (Lost Izalith is an atrocity) and don't have even a shred of the complexity or nuances that I'd expect. Neither Demon's Souls nor Dark Souls tell traditional narratives, but I had a stronger sense of environmental purpose in the former. Each area had urgency, balance and drive from start to finish. Dark Souls can't say the same.
Design decisions aside, there is no doubt that Dark Souls is rougher in terms of production than it should be. For a game that lives and dies by its level of immersion, hitting several areas with stuttering slowdown was bitterly disappointing. The game does run at a smooth clip for the bulk of play, but when the framerate gets bad, it's bad. The Blighttown zone is the worst offender, but there were several other places when things chugged and wheezed painfully.
While the choppy framerate should have been ironed out, what's worse is the rage-inducing delay between pushing an attack button and when the strike actually starts. I've heard this problem is more prevalent on the PS3 version (which I played) but after getting deep into the adventure, I could frequently count one to three seconds between when I meant to attack and when I actually did. In a game with lethal enemies and a combat system that relies on precision, having a recurring attack delay is simply unacceptable. Thanks to this constant hiccup, I suffered several undeserved deaths and more mis-timed attacks leaving me open than I could count. (And before you send me an email, no, it wasn't a malfunctioning controller.)
Taking a more meta view, Bandai-Namco's server situation has severely cut into the quality of the online multiplayer features. For some reason, crucial hint messages shared by other players seem to come and go at random. More importantly, it's sometimes impossible to "summon" assistance with bosses. I sometimes had a healthy handful of players available to jump to my aid, but more often than not, there wasn't a single person to be found despite being in the required human form. Besides that, I seemed to have about a 50% success rate when I finally found someone to summon. Errors in getting players to join occurred just as often as they didn't.
Speaking of summons, it's also irritating that it's next to impossible to arrange a session with a friend. While I'm quite aware that the developers intended the system to discourage players from connecting, it wasn't too hard to do in Demon's Souls—and in my opinion, taking down a big monster with someone I knew didn't hurt the experience one bit. Now, with the option to call in a stranger being so unpredictable (and often impossible) the ability to ask for help directly from a pal is needed more than ever. Keeping friend connections forbidden may have some artistic value, but that gain is far overshadowed by what's lost.
After the litany of issues I've just listed, I can in no way say that Dark Souls is a better experience than its predecessor. It's certainly different and larger, but the developers bit off more than they could chew. The consistency and overall quality of the first game just aren't there. It doesn't feel quite done. It doesn't feel as lovingly constructed.
Dark Souls might be worth playing for those who've beaten Demon's Souls multiple times and can't get enough, but a blink-and-you're-dead game of this sort needs to have every aspect airtight in order to maintain player buy-in, and that's just not the case. Dark Souls simply can't match the bar set by FromSoft's previous work. With every additional hour spent, the rough edges and annoyances kept adding up, and I eventually reached a point at which the sizable investment of time and effort wasn't delivering enough of a return.
Oh, and the ending? Talk about adding insult to injury…
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS3. Approximately 82 hours of play were spent, and the game was completed. There are no dedicated multiplayer-only modes.
Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody's looking, and his favorite game of all time is a toss-up between the first Mass Effect and The Witcher 3. You can catch his written work here at GameCritics and you can hear him weekly on the @SoVideogames Podcast. Follow Brad on Twitter and Instagram at @BradGallaway, or contact him via email:
bradgallaway a t gmail dot com