Because seemingly nobody else can, I’m going to give my opinion on Dark Souls without mentioning the fact that it’s really hard. Apart from that time. And to say that it’s not as hard as some drama queens have made out.
Putting aside this fact-that-must-not-be-named, when this generation is over I’m confident that Dark Souls will be remembered as both one of a handful of Japanese games that didn’t disappoint – along with its spiritual predecessor there – and a truly great sequel that was an improvement on the original game in almost all areas. In fact, the only area where I definitively prefer Demon’s Souls to Dark Souls is in the first game’s setting and atmosphere, but the follow-up is no slouch there either.
I admired Dark Souls’ approach to an open world. Although it lacks the sense of unrestricted freedom of a game like Skyrim, putting barriers between the player and the highest peaks and deepest dungeons in favour of a few branching routes, it walks a nice middle ground of being open-ended and at the same time somewhat directed. Different but not worse. A very Western genre through the prism of Japanese design sensibilities. Rather than mediocre attempts at cover shooters, this is the blueprint for Japanese studios struggling to find the best of both worlds.
Having finally received a European release in 2010, we poor peasants on this side of the Atlantic finally got to experience what our American cousins had been telling us was the best thing since sliced bread at around this time last year. Those who dared to try it would find what will surely go down as one of this generation’s most challenging, most atmospheric and most original games. And in a gen that has so far severely disappointed with the quality of its RPGs, this one can largely stand alone.
While Demon’s Souls is famous for its difficulty above anything else, I don’t think that should be its defining feature. It’s got an amazing dark fantasy world that’s absolutely enthralling to explore, and the unrelenting bleakness of the tone is unusual in modern games.
And in its gameplay, From Software made huge numbers of innovations. The way that it makes death a part of your tactics has already started influencing other RPGs like Infinity Blade, and the unusual online functionality, which really disregards every convention – no server lists, no playing with your friends, no trading of loot, or anything that you might expect to find in an online RPG – yet still fosters a sense of community. The way that every trap can be foreseen because of the apparitions of dying players, or the notes that can be left to guide later players around traps – or into them. It’s brilliantly done, and I’d love to see even a modicum of this creativity in the designs of any games, let alone a genre as conservative as the JRPG.
Maybe I’m cheating with this one given that I originally played the US version, which was released in 2009, but with the subsequent European release and the fact that I didn’t play it until 2010, I’m happy to bend the rules a little to give games of this quality the recognition they deserve.
After a year dominated by good games, but games that didn’t really push the envelope any further than the number of guns featured in that particular first-person shooter, I’ve changed things up by having a good time with a couple of recent releases that have really taken me back.
Bayonetta was first, and I loved it from the moment it accompanied a drive in a red sports car with Magical Sound Shower on the radio. It’s loaded with references to classic Sega games and revels in the Capcom connection as well – many of the developers worked on Devil May Cry, most notably director Hideki Kamiya – with nods to everything from the obvious Devil May Cry through to Viewtiful Joe and Resident Evil 4. It’s far more entertaining in its homages than something like Matt Hazard, which uses them as an excuse for uninspired design – ironically bad.
It’s also mind-bendingly gorgeous, outrageously silly on occasions, and unashamedly hardcore in its design. Lower difficulty levels make cool-looking combos easy and accessible through button-mashing, but play it on normal or higher and it takes skill without requiring the third hand that certain similar games can do. The combo system in particular is superb, letting you flick between two different weapon loadouts mid-combo and cancel in and out of them as you go, dodging with a tap of the right trigger. It’s less prescriptive and more spectacular than Ninja Gaiden, while also less daunting than Devil May Cry 4.
Essentially, it’s just a lot of fun to play, whether you’re out for a challenge or some classic gameplay of a sort that seems to be in decline. Just don’t play it for the story, because that’s utter bollocks.
I’m not convinced that it’s a 10/10, though. Although there’s nothing that I’d pick out as a glaring flaw, it’s very much standing on the shoulders of giants rather than forging its own path, and I like to think of perfect scores as being reserved for the few games that do the latter.
Demon’s Souls is the other game, and although it’s been out in the US for a few months, I only recently took the opportunity to import it. Its buzz has been hard to ignore and it’s even picked up a few awards along the way, and I’m surprised by how easily it seems to have found an audience considering its difficulty and plain old-fashioned bloody-mindedness. Ganged up on by a couple of basic zombies? Dead. Killed again before you manage to resurrect yourself? Dead. Oh, and you’ve lost all your collected souls as well. Brilliant…
Both games are different sides of the same coin. Bayonetta is brash, loud, and intent on having fun with its audience but also accessible, whereas Demon’s Souls wants to trip you up and is only playable by someone who can play through the frustration. It’s not fun, per se, but it’s a very compelling challenge, and the enjoyment is in getting through it and finally beating that boss who reduced you to a broken pile of bones within seconds of your first meeting.
But regardless of their wildly divergent approaches, I’m just happy to see that games like this – ‘proper’ games, as I’ll hesitantly call them – can still succeed. As much as I love Modern Warfare 2, I like to see games hewn of the bedrock of gaming history still getting out there and doing good business. Hack-and-slash action games and roguelikes – admittedly, Demon’s Souls isn’t quite that bad – were once staples of gaming, and Bayonetta and Demon’s Souls represent their modern equivalents, doing a great job of keeping the old-school flag flying. We should appreciate them for that.
But now, Atlus, how about pulling your finger out and giving Demon’s Souls a European release? This is 2010, not 1995.