Demon’s Souls vs. Dark Souls

I’ve wanted to compare these two games for a long time, and with Bloodborne coming out, it seems like the perfect opportunity to look back on it’s heritage.

When I played Dark Souls for the first time, I couldn’t stop comparing it to Demon’s Souls (the apostrophe in “Demon’s” is so annoying when typing on your phone). This didn’t prevent me from enjoying Dark Souls, as it truly is a remarkable game. But I wanted to write this, and may continue to do so in greater depth in the future, because I often hear people talk about how transformative Dark Souls was. Edge Magazine (the reigning king of video game magazines, if there is one), rated Dark Souls the greatest game of the previous generation. This doesn’t surprise me, however throughout their article, it’s as if it’s immediate predecessor Demon’s Souls had been completely forgotten. Which is a shame, because regardless of Dark Souls, I would consider Demon’s Souls (and it’s stupid apostrophe) one of the greatest games of the previous generation.

Dark Souls is an amazing experience, an improvement in most ways on the original, but it was still only a natural incremental improvement. It was Demon’s Souls that revitalized my faith in gaming. At the time I first played it, it was the best game I had played in nearly a decade. In true genius form, From Software had given me what I was looking for, before I even knew what I wanted.

the bosses that started it all

Demon’s Souls had a simple premise, everything could kill you

Despite the overall improvement in Dark Souls, there were several things that have never reached the same heights. The difficulty curve had a finer balance to it in Demon’s Souls, and Dark Souls implements what is perhaps the biggest detriment in the later entries: the ability to call in outside players. Multiplayer could be done amazingly. Instead, a fight against Smoug goes from world class challenge to laughably easy. Like any good cheat though, this is limited by a player’s willingness to abuse the system.

Don't want to wait? Just bring in a couple friends and ruin the curve.

Don’t want to wait? Just bring in a couple friends and ruin the curve.

What’s perhaps even more glaring is the fact that Dark Souls has ignored some of the more obvious improvements that could have been made. There were only a few cinematic moments in Demon’s Souls, but they add a lot of flavor (think Scraps pushing you into a pit). At first, each Dark Souls game appears to recognize this, as they both pull you into their worlds’ through their opening scenes. Unfortunately, this is about the last until the end of the game. You never want to replace action with cinema, but there are times when it can push forward the story.

great intro

Every intro is beautiful, every intro is the last

The other missed opportunity has been the open world. That was the most glaring thing missing from Demon’s Souls. Yet the way Dark Souls handles the open world makes it feel like long winding paths, rather than a single connected ecosystem. Traveling between points is a chore, a fact that was recognized in Dark Souls 2 with the fast travel. But this is only part of the problem. Until it feels like a complete world, instead of grafted on individual levels, the design will be hardly improve upon the hub system from Demon’s Souls.

In reality though, these are mostly lateral complaints. Not degradation, but simply a missed opportunities for improvement. There is however one way in which Demon’s Souls clearly surpasses its successor: the story, and the characters that live in it. There’s little than can be said without spoilers, but both make you piece the world together through isolated dialogue, but it was only in demon’s souls that the lore carries weight. Both endings are anti-climatic, but Demon’s Souls is intentionally so and beautiful for it. That’s not to say I wasn’t interested in the lore of Dark Souls. It simply becomes an after thought, a little flavor text to flesh out the experience. I beat it twice, and I can’t even tell you how it ended. Demon’s Souls on the other hand was subtler and darker in its story. Each character a tragic figure, and you’re often asked to destroy those that are hardly different than yourself.

maiden in black

In terms of game-time, it’s probably a wash which one I actually played more. There are dramatic improvements in Dark Souls: the graphics are vastly better, it did away with a frustrating light/dark alignment system, and implemented a streamlined covenant attribute. The gameplay itself, which was the most transformative thing about Demon’s Souls, is somehow made tighter. And the level design… Demon’s Souls had two perfectly designed levels, two well designed levels, and one horribly designed level. In Dark Souls, all level design is a high note. It’s overall an improved experience, and as a result to the easier game to recommend.

Dark Souls is without a doubt an amazing experience. It might actually be the best of the previous generation (The Last of Us being a strong counter-argument). But to not recognize where it came from, and to fail to acknowledge that Demon’s Souls provided the most reinvigorated gaming experience of the past ten years, is to do a tremendous disservice to the apex that came after it.


The Wolf Among Us Review

Title:  The Wolf Among Us
Maker:   Telltale Games
Publisher: Telltale Games
Platform: PS Vita
Cost: $30

Much More than the Sum of Its Parts

Pop culture references the Walking Dead so incessantly, that I could never play the Telltale versions. They looked fine enough, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it, even though I have the series sitting in Steam from a Humble Bundle. The Wolf Among Us is so enjoyable that it makes me want to go back and give those early games a try.

The story and universe carry the most weight.  The game does a tremendous job of weaving actual fairy tales into scenarios. For example, in a rage, you’re given the option to rip off the arm of a character named “Gren”. Once you realize it’s Grendel, the homage becomes clear.  When TWAU is at its best, it forces your hand in split second decisions. The options provided are often true to the situation, yet uncomfortable. As many games as I’ve played I would assume I’m desensitized to violence, but it turns out I can’t tear someone’s head off when given the choice.
Grendel
The biggest problem is that it’s glitchy as hell. It’s not clear if this is all versions, or just the PS Vita one. As testament to this, it’s the first game that has actually crashed my Vita and forced a hard reset (the error screen that appears is terrifyingly similar to the blue screen of death). Even when it’s running normally there are long loading times, stuttering between scenes, and a few points that require closing and reopening the application.
Choices
However, it’s well worth the bugs and the minor character inconsistencies, to have an experience in Fabletown. No single episode (of the 5) is nearly as powerful as the story taken as a whole.  They’re made to be played together.  And it’s this consistency and patience that elevates the package to something special.

Review: 5 stars (out of 5)

Memory:  The End

Dragon’s Crown Review

Title:  Dragon’s Crown
Maker:   Vanillaware
Publisher: Atlus
Platform: PS Vita

Enjoyable Bursts of  Style Over Substance

There’s was a time half a decade ago when Vanillaware was killing it. It had developed Odin Sphere, which was gorgeous, had great reviews, and sold enough to warrant a “Greatest Hits” rerelease.  But the reality was that while Odin Sphere was gorgeous, there wasn’t much too it. It plays it’s hand early, which makes it a chore to see it through to the end.

Fast forward a few games, 6 years, and we have Dragon’s Crown. It’s graphics also received a tremendous amount of publicity, but more in the NSFW category. The graphical style itself hasn’t changed that much since Odin Sphere, only now every man and woman is hyper sexualized. It’s an odd choice that’s more awkward than sexual (see below for a few of the less cringe worthy examples):
gal Guy
 
So what kind of game is Dragon’s Crown? Here’s the run down:
-Is the story any good? What story?
-Is the battle system improved on Odin Sphere? Memory is fuzzy from that part of my life, but I would say negligible.
-Is the game world more engrossing? Less than their other titles.
-So what does it get right? Three things: On screen mayhem. A quest system that encourages quick play. And gameplay which grows in enjoyment as you learn the system and your character becomes a beast.

In the end, it’s a beautiful game of limited scope.  A single town, few NPC characters, limited differences between classes, and a shortage of levels, all betray that it’s a minor game. But it’s a minor game where you’re going to have more fun the final time you play it than the first.

Review: 3 stars (out of 5)

Forgotten Games

An old house is sold, and my articles are packaged and shipped to me from Minnesota out to Colorado. Boxes wallpaper most of my basement and my garage. Even a short lifetime of accumulation can easily overwhelm any storage space. I start with the kitchen supplies and linens, but soon have made my way to the boxes filled with video games. There are half a dozen of them, a few with incredibly rare Saturn and Neo Geo Pocket titles, while most is shovel ware for the PS2 and Dreamcast that I never got around to playing. The first box I open has perhaps the most pleasant surprises:

forgotten games

It’s mostly portable games (which has always been my favorite way to play games).  The PSP might be my favorite system of all time (so what if it’s all rereleases of Playstation games?  They’re still the definitive versions), and the first three games I find are some of the fondest memories I have with any system:

The 3 must play PSP games for any PSP owner

New PSP owner?  Play these 3 games first. Don’t own a PSP?  Buy one ASAP!  They cost like $5 dollars.

Most of the games that I find I have played at one time or another.  However there are a few that I meant to get to which I was never able:

photo 4 photo 3 photo 5

The last two are both unique handheld Ogre Battle battle games.  The first is Tactic Ogre for the GBA, a game that I did play when I was 14, but the memories of which are so intertwined with Final Fantasy Tactics that I can’t tell you a single thing that happened.  The second is an Ogre Battle game that only released on the Neo Geo Pocket Color.

The Tactics Ogre for the GBA intrigues me, and if I can find a GBA I’ll boot it up.  Given how fantastic Let Us Cling Together is, it will probably be my next Travel Log feature.


Non-Review: Mii Plaza Games

Mii Plaza Games
System: 3DS

Many people probably never realize there’s a set of built in games on their 3DS. I had it for long enough without knowing, that I had built up hundreds of tokens (which you gather from walking around with your 3DS) before ever realizing they existed.  These tokens, and passing people who also happen to be carrying a 3DS, are what powers the Mii Plaza games.

Over the next couple of weeks will be a series of Mii Plaza “Non-Reviews”. They’re not long enough to deserve a proper review, but they are addicting enough to have their own posts.  The best thing going for all of the games, is that very pleasing Nintendo aesthetic. Something that Sony or Microsoft, has never understood in their avatars: no one wants realism in the representation of themselves, just give me the amorphous cartoon version (the “Nintendo” version, ).

Find Mii Non-Review

A very simple fascination

Without spending any real money, this is as close to getting a free Mii game as it comes. The concept is incredibly simple, it’s RPG-lite-lite. Rescue the King (your Mii): Recruit some Heroes, enter a room with a monster, make some simple attack selections and advance to the next room. Damage to enemies is saved from round to round, so it’s really a war of attrition to find/purchase heroes and send them in waves until you’re through. There is some strategy as each Mii’s shirt color casts a specific type of magic, but a few complimentary combos is about the extent of it.
So it sounds like the simplest concept for a game imaginable, yet somehow I spent over a hundred tokens in a row recruiting heroes and sending them to their deaths. The simple mechanics betray and even simpler idea: people love progression. And as long as you keep at it, you receive items for your mii, and feedback in the form of progress on a map. Also, like most Nintendo games, the art style meshes well with the game.

First Impression: Dragon’s Crown

You realize almost immediately that Dragons Crown is a repetitive game. But so is Borderlands, and Diablo, and every other lootfest, so what?  So it becomes about the world, and the characters, that carry the rest of the game. Dragon’s Crown is better than most, but a step behind Borderlands 2. I would mention the story, but like any hack n’ slash, you’re moving from point A to point B, causing the story to take a back seat. It does scores some nostalgia points given the time I spent with Odin Sphere and Princess Crown (both the finest examples of 2-D graphics for their respective generations).

Oh, and the hyper sexualized imagery is somehow not as tacked-on as I expected.  But does remain odd, at-best (search “Dragon’s Crown Images” to see immediately what I’m talking about).

4-player is non-stop pandemonium

4-player is non-stop pandemonium


Why I’m sick of Mobile Games

The problem with Boredom

There is a tend in mobile game towards simplicity. There needs to be, as its made for picking up and playing in short bursts. It seems that games have gotten better at nailing this length aspect lately. But what they haven’t improved upon is the actual enjoyment. My tolerance for what constitutes a dull game is much higher on a mobile platform, but even still, so many lack the basic mechanics for enjoyment.

For every Punch Quest and Ridiculous Fishing, there’s dull affairs like Joe Danger Touch and Peggle. Technically proficient, good content depth, but a fucking bore to play. For a couple bucks you don’t ask for depth, you’re just asking for fun.


Gargoyle’s Quest Review

Title:  Gargoyle’s Quest
Maker:   Capcom
Publisher: Armor Games
Platform: Gameboy
Cost: $3.99 (on Nintendo eShop)

AKA, the “Nonexistent Difficulty Curve” 

I’ve wanted to play Gargoyle’s Quest ever since I found the Nintendo power card with Firebrand (Red Arremer if you’re a stickler) on the front of it. Described to me as mix between an RPG and an Adventure game, it seemed to straddle that “Zelda 2” spectrum of early Ninentdo games. And while you do walk around in an overview, and there’s a few command prompts, it’s really an action game through and through.

Not sure why he's Green in this one...

Not sure why he’s Green in this one…

I loved my first gameboy. It was my first videogame system, and I literally played it until it died. But even as a child I knew the controls weren’t the most responsive thing in the world.  There’s a button-input delay, but I didn’t care.  And usually it worked out alright, because most games worked around it. When making Gargoyle’s Quest, they either didn’t realize this or didn’t care.  It requires pin point precision in parts that can be absolutely infuriating.  This means that in classic Ghost & Goblins tradition, the first tower is ridiculously hard.  It wouldn’t surprise me if three quarters of the players dropped right there.
This fucking level

This fucking level

However, despite this early difficulty spike, the game becomes significantly more enjoyable as Red’s abilities start to increase. For example, the hover ability at the beginning is more a hindrance than a help.  However, later on you can float in place and pick off enemies one by one.  Play towards the end gives that same feeling as a powered up Mega Man X with a bunch of E-Tanks in reserve.  In fact, most of the abilities in the game: floating, clinging to walls, power-ups, are prescient of what would become staples in later Capcom classics.

So in the end, alls well that ends well.

Review: 3 stars (out of 5)

Memory:  It’s the only game I can remember that doesn’t provide development credits at the end


Infinity Blade 2 Review

Title:  Infinity Blade 2

Maker:   Chair Entertainment and Epic Games
Platform: iOS
Cost: Free from iOS Anniversary (Normally $6.99)

Faded in the Rinse and Repeat

I had fun playing the first Infinity Blade.  There were a lot of flaws but it wore them on its sleeve.  Repetition was necessary because you’re immortal… ah, clever.  And the controls for battles were simple yet effective, at a time when it seemed like only endless runners had made an effective use of the touch-screen.  Even the story, which was still needlessly complex, worked out ok because it was so understated.  A few lines here or there, odd reveals abound, and you’re left with something that your mind could fill in.

Infinity Blade 2 is none of those things.  Err I take that back, it’s all of those things, which is why it’s disappointing.  It’s the same graphics, the same mechanics, just more of it.  The first games graphics were impressive because of when it was released and the unique art design.  The second is a complete recycle of these.  The dialogue that was enjoyable in small doses becomes schlock in long monologues.  It’s only after people keep talking that you realize how little you care about any of the characters.  If they had kept their mouths shut maybe they could have fooled me.  What is perhaps the most unforgivable is that low-hanging fruit like rebalancing the magic system, and improving the grinding level system, remain bizarrely untouched.

One of the few new environments.  But it comes and goes quickly.

A few new environments. A brief detour as most takes place in the same enlarged castle.

The battles are still fun, if growing tired (again recycled), and the secrets that reveal themselves on multiple play-throughs remains an incredibly fresh mechanic that is executed on a high level.   Murdering giant secret bosses was literally the only thing that kept me coming back after the short story runs to completion.  In the end, it’s a incredibly safe game that’s unable to realize why the first was such a success.

Review: 2 stars (out of 5)

Memory:  Accidentally stumbling on a secret boss early and being decimated in seconds.


Dark Souls 2, Days 4-6

Day 4

The stat bonuses are completely revamped. Only just realized that. It still is probably the case that upgraded weapons outperform the “unique” ones, but now the stat bonuses from intellegence, and faith, boost specific elemental damage (ie, magic and lightining damage respectively) , and share on others (fire and dark). It’s an interesting concept, as it presents the possibility of doing something different than a intelligence stacking katana (my final weapons of choice in the first two).

The boss battles are decidedly less epic. They’re still a solid challenge, but many of the bosses lack the grand scale of the original games. The levels do a better job of providing enjoyment, so it’s hard to be mad. The regular enemy cannon fodder (which is a terrible word because they can still be deadly) seems to have shifted to groups. Survival is now a matter of crowd control, isolating members and picking them off slowly. You always had to worry about multiple enemies in the previous games, but now they aggro together, which means 6 small knights chasing after you isn’t an uncommon occurrence.

One of the easier bosses in the series..

One of the easier and less grand bosses of the series..

Day 5

A long break, and I’m concerned with how easy I can come back to the game. Enemies don’t continually respawn, and there’s an erie quiet as you travel through an area that was once full. In a way it’s a sense of progress, and a marker for the places you’ve traversed many times before. It serves as a useful flag after a break, making reentrance much easier.

Shortly after a boss fight my first phantom invasion occurs. I last awhile, but they know what they’re doing, and when I leave an opening they have enough stamina to end me. It mentions the word “Grey” spirit, that’s something new. He does what I think is a surfs up sign over my corpse. Weirdly it makes the costly murder easier to swallow.

The covenants are similar but better this time around.  I learn the “Bell Keepers” are the grey phantoms.  They invade when you enter a certain territory.  This existed in the Nottingham-esque forest of  DS1 as well.  The problem with the forest in DS1, was the area was too large, and you had to hunt them down before the action began.  Here it’s a simple goal, kill the player before they march up the small tower to the boss. Clever idea, probably my favorite covenant ever because of its simplicity.

One of the inferior things this time around are the actual worlds. DS1 had clearly delimitated worlds, each one unique. Sure, it was a bitch to get around, but you always knew where you were. It’s not the case this time, the aesthetics of each world bleeds into the other, the only thing providing clarity is the menu for fast travel at the bonfire.  I realize this after clearing the Bastille, as the Belfry and Sinner’s, are essentially the same thing.

You'll see a lot of this environment

You’ll see a lot of this environment

Day 6

There are a lot more secrets, hidden paths and treasure chests, in DS2. Where as I used to blow past player notes, I become accustomed to reading every player note I come across. I even end up leaving a few. I’m progressing relatively easily, which leads me to believe I’m about to run into a sharp difficulty spike.

Shortly after writing the last paragraph, I drain all of my humanity dying over and over on the same boss. Beginner’s luck the first time, I leave him with a sliver of life when I die. I’m so frustrated, I’m quickly destroyed the next 3 times due to a lack of patience.  I’m out of humanity, so I back track. Trying to find paths I overlooked before. 2000 souls open a path to a “copse”, which seems like they’re searching for nouns. The enemies are easy but I die 10 times on a jump before I realize I can press R1 to prevent myself from rolling off the landing. There must be a thousand people who have gone though the same thing. A quick google search and there’s huge threads of people bitching about the landing.