Dark Souls II (2014)

Following the unexpected timeless classic that was Dark Souls, FromSoftware had high expectations upon the release of Dark Souls II.  Strangely, the mastermind behind Dark Souls, Hidetaka Miyazaki, was assigned to develop another title instead of being in charge of Dark Souls II. I did not know that Miyazaki was not at the helm of this project until I sensed that something was very off about Dark Souls II, so I was inclined to look deeper into its development and saw that the inspiration behind the original game was gone. This is not to say Dark Souls II was a disaster, as many aspects of the game are still fantastic, but it felt like the spirit of Dark Souls was gone. It was almost like the developers of Dark Souls II did not understand what made Dark Souls so good. Or they misunderstood the point of Dark Souls and focused on the wrong aspects all together. As such, I am going to reference and analyze the original Dark Souls frequently in this piece to highlight these crucial differences.


As a quick aside, after writing this piece I realize that this is almost more like a full analysis rather than a review. But I feel it was necessary as I have very strong opinions on Dark Souls II and I felt like I needed to justify why certain aspects bugged me. I didn’t think it was fair to say “X, Y, and Z are bad” without really digging down to explain why X, Y, and Z don’t work in the context of the series. Also, I reference the original Dark Souls a lot. Again, I feel like this was necessary to explain how Dark Souls II missed the mark in a few areas by comparing the systems implemented to the original game. Lastly, I played the Scholar of the First Sin edition of the game, which is slightly different than the first release of Dark Souls II. I think these two versions are similar enough that the overall factors that I will underline are the same.

The most obvious and critical misunderstanding was over the difficulty of Dark Souls. Miyazaki always emphasizes that the point of Dark Souls was not to be hard, but rather the difficulty is used as a tool to make the played feel different emotions. I was immediately worried during the starting cutscene of Dark Souls II in which the game explicitly tells you “You are going to die, over and over again” almost mocking the player, essentially focusing in on the difficulty. My fears were affirmed by the hub location in Dark Souls II, Majula. In Majula there is a pillar with a sign on it that lists global player deaths, almost as if the developers were bragging about how many times players had died playing their game. This focus on difficult is apparent throughout the game in most scenarios and encounters.


For the sake of brevity in my Dark Souls piece, I did not delve too deep into the idea of encounter design. Encounter design is essentially looking at every single scenario and encounter with enemies or bosses in the game and breaking it down. For example: enemy placements, types of enemies, the number of enemies, the environment, etc. are all crucial elements to making a successful encounter. In the case of Dark Souls the mechanics of the game lends itself towards one on one scenarios, and this is reflected in the encounter design. Most of the time you would fight one enemy at a time, sometimes there would be a few enemies, but you could split them apart with some easy maneuvering. Very rarely would you have to fight a horde of enemies, and when you did, they were so weak that you could plow through them with ease. This is not so in Dark Souls II, and there seems to be a much higher focus on fighting larger groups of enemies.

The biggest issue with fighting large groups of enemies in the Soulsborne (Demon Souls, the Dark Souls trilogy, and Bloodborne) series is the player’s reliance on lock-on. Since The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, action-adventure games have relied on locking on to single enemies as a way of simulating a duel. This is not nearly as functional once you introduce more enemies. Your camera is locked on to one enemy, so if there is more than one you can easily be blindsided. You constantly need to change your lock-on target to the enemy nearest to you.  Lock-on is just not conducive to fighting multiple enemies at once, and Dark Souls II is notorious for spamming enemies at the player. You essentially have to teach yourself how to not rely on lock-on so much, but the thing is that lock-on was invented for a reason. Combat in a third-person action game is fairly unintuitive as the controls and camera are just not well suited for it. Lock-on was created out of necessity, and now players must unlearn this mechanic to effectively play Dark Souls II. Unfortunately, lock-on is not the only issue with fighting groups of enemies.


There are a couple issues specific to Dark Souls II that make fighting hordes of enemies a pain other than just lock-on. First and foremost is stun-locking, which is when an enemy hits and staggers you, and then you get chained into more hits and you cannot escape the chain as each hit staggers you. This frequently leads to scenarios in which you drop from full health to zero health because you made a single mistake and got stun-locked to death. The next issue is overlapping attacks. In Dark Souls II, enemies can attack through each other to hit the player. Now this was also present in the first Dark Souls, but it was encountered far less frequently due to reduced enemy count. This is a necessary feature in my opinion, because if enemies’ attacks did not go through one another, then the game could easily be broken by keeping enemies in a straight line, bashing their attacks into each other. While it is necessary, it does not make it any less frustrating when an enemy you can barely see swings their weapon, passes through the enemy in front of you, and damages you. This also leads to a problem in which enemy’s attacks overlap in a certain way so that the player does not have a window to counterattack. Combat is straight forward, you wait for an enemy to swing at you, and then you dodge/avoid/block/counter the attack and then you have a window to counterattack. When the developers throw more into enemies into the mix that window becomes smaller, occasionally it becomes non-existent. The final issue with having so many enemies to fight is that damage is just unavoidable sometimes.

One of the defining features of the original Dark Souls was that every hit that the player took was avoidable in some way, and therefore was a mistake. This is not so in Dark Souls II, and the developers realized this and had to change the games mechanics as a result. I consider the Estus Flask, the healing item from Dark Souls, to be one of the most ingenious and important aspects of Dark Souls. While I could write an essay on the nuances of the Estus Flask, I’ll keep it short for this piece. Essentially, the Estus Flask is an item that stores 5 charges that heal the player, and these charges refill when you rest at a bonfire. The Estus Flask limited the player’s mistakes, if you made too many you would have to return to the last bonfire to refill it. As you got better at an area, you could avoid more damage, save more Estus Flask charges, and make it to the next bonfire or boss. This was a remarkable method of limiting the player’s exploration and progress. Essentially your ability to adventure was gated by your skill, and as you got better, you could press on further. This does not work in Dark Souls II because sometimes the player just cannot avoid getting hit, so the developers decided to supplement the Estus Flask with a new healing item called Lifegems. These Lifegems slowly restore health over time, as compared to the quick restoration provided by the Estus Flask. The issue with Lifegems is that they are essentially infinite, as the player can easily purchase them from a vendor at a very low price. This completely destroys the point of limiting the players healing in the first place, because even if you screw up and take some damage, you can easily heal it off with some Lifegems. There is no feeling of learning and mastering an area if you abuse Lifegems. On the flipside, the game is balanced around Lifegems, there is going to be plenty of instances where damage is near unavoidable, but Lifegems are meant to make up for this. So, if you entirely ignore Lifegems, you are in for a frustrating experience unless you are experienced with the game beforehand. So essentially the forces the player to set a Lifegem limit for themselves as to avoid infinitely abusing Lifegems to trivialize the game. If players have to impart their own rules to make the game fun, then maybe the game was poorly designed.


Furthermore, some majorly disappointing aspects of Dark Souls II were the boss fights. Maybe I remember the first Dark Souls bosses better because it was my first Soulsborne game, but I genuinely think many of the bosses of Dark Souls II are entirely forgettable. Both visually and mechanically, many of the bosses of Dark Souls II are wholly uninteresting. Most bosses can be described as “dudes in armor” and have similar and predictable move sets.  They lack that same sense of grandeur and wonder that the original Dark Souls would invoke. In Dark Souls it felt like you were fighting immortal and unconquerable beings, in Dark Souls II it feels like your fighting some random guy in a suit of armor. Most bosses also have similar and repetitive move-sets, resulting in some same-y and forgettable boss fights. Some bosses make me wonder what they did to even earn the title of being a boss. The Royal Rat Vanguard and the Prowling Magus and Congregation are just basic enemies with a boss health-bar slapped on them for whatever reason. On top of that, very few bosses are even remotely difficult when compared to the challenge of the normal areas in the game. The lackluster bosses are particularly egregious because the Soulsborne series places a heavy emphasis on bosses, yet in Dark Souls II there is only a handful of interesting and memorable bosses.

The world design of Dark Souls II is not as masterfully crafted as the original Dark Souls. In Dark Souls the world was a carefully intertwined web that looped in on itself. In Dark Souls II, it instead is a system of roots that sprawls outward in many different directions. While this is obviously easier to design and less immersive and intriguing as the original design philosophy, it is not without its benefits. It allows the designers to take more liberties and make areas however they want without worrying about how they were going to connect them back into the fold. Fast travel is available to the player from the very beginning of the game as a result of this, so you very infrequently revisit and traverse areas multiple times. This is a shame because Dark Souls II has some phenomenal atmospheric and visually impressive areas. The dizzying heights of the Dragon Aerie, the calm flow of the Shrine of Amana, and the peaceful aura of Heide’s Tower of Flame are fantastic and are some of my favorite areas atmospherically. Unfortunately, you never get to really familiarize yourself with these areas enough as to burn them into your memory as a result of the branching world design. Also, the world of Dark Souls II is at times completely nonsensical. I would think that the freedom that comes with the branching world design that the designers could make for a believable world, but that is not the case. The most egregious example is how you climb a tower into the sky, reach the top of it, take an elevator upward, and then end up in a volcano. You can see the tip of this tower from the ground, and there is no elevator or hint of anything above this castle, let alone an entire keep inside of a lake of lava. It is incredibly jarring and detached me from the world as it did not even make an attempt to make any logical sense.


The level design in Dark Souls II mirrors its world design in a sense. There is a lack of interconnectivity in individual levels. In Dark Souls, each level had numerous shortcuts to unlock as you progressed further into each level. In Dark Souls II, many levels opt to just put in more bonfires rather than looping the player back to a previous bonfire and having them use it again. It frankly just feels lazy, especially since there are an absolute load of locations where it would have been easy to just put in a ladder, or push down a tree to unlock a shortcut, but the developers opted to just add another bonfire instead. Also, like I mentioned earlier in the review, it feels like the developers also leaned heavily on just adding more enemies whenever they wanted to up the difficulty factor. There are some levels that take this concept to the point of absolute absurdity. The Iron Keep is probably my least favorite area in the game because of this. Another strange addition to this game was how roll speed is tied to the adaptability stat. Previously, roll speed was determined solely by your weight/carry ratio, but now adaptability plays a huge role in the effectiveness of your rolls. Before you get many points into adaptability rolls feel very off and clunky, so you either need to pump some points into adaptability early on or just deal with useless rolls. This isn’t a huge deal past the first few hours, but it definitely just feels wrong and I could see it turning off players who are used to fast rolls at the start of the game.


After all that ranting about Dark Souls II, there are plenty of redeeming qualities that I probably should highlight, as I don’t think Dark Souls II is a horrible game, I just think it missed the mark. First and foremost, the user interface is a massive improvement from the original game. It is much more clean and intuitive to use. Another notable improvement is the online play. It flat out just works better from a technical stand-point, and on top of that it is far better balanced for player-vs-player combat. Like I mentioned earlier, Dark Souls II is remains phenomenal atmospherically and visually. Most importantly, while Dark Souls II may have been a little off in many regards, and I harped on it a lot, it still keeps the basic structure of the Soulsborne series, which is just flat out enjoyable. A brutal and inhospitable fantasy world in which you battle against the odds against lumbering creatures and undead beings for the sake of humanity. There is just something wondrous about the concept. The combat and gameplay are not inherently bad, I just think the developers went a little bit overboard with how many enemies they added. Nothing proves this more than the DLC (downloadable content) of Dark Souls II.


I rarely talk about DLC as it usually just more of the same of the base game, but there is a strange dichotomy of the Dark Souls II DLC. It contains both the absolute best of the game, but it also brings out the utter worst in the game. There are 3 DLC packs, and each contains a new main area, a few bosses, and an optional side area. As far as I’m concerned, the main areas of the DLCs are the best parts of DLC beyond a shadow of a doubt. The areas are excellent visually, and they return to the looping level design of the original Dark Souls. You really get to know each area because there are far less bonfires, you have to master each area just progress. Each area also unique attributes that make them far more memorable rather than just “slaughter a couple dozen enemies and then take on a boss”. Speaking of bosses, the bosses in the DLC blow the bosses of the base game out of the water. Incredibly challenging, unique, and unforgettable. The Fume Knight in particular ranks up there with Knight Artorias as one of my favorite boss fights ever. All that being said, the optional side areas of the game feel like the developers just took every bad aspect from Dark Souls II and smooshed it together to make these awful areas. The Cave of the Dead, the Iron Passage, and the Frigid Outskirts are so terrible that I refused to believe that they were not intentionally designed to be dreadful. The contrast between the excellent main areas and the appalling side areas is so off-putting that its hard to believe that they were designed by the same people. Massive amounts of enemies, cheap tactics to kill the player, and copy-pasted bosses are just some of the frustrations that you will encounter here. As it turns out, these areas are meant to be played co-operatively, in other words you are not supposed to play them by yourself. This is pretty strange considering this is the only place in the series where the game explicitly encourages co-op. Luckily, these areas are optional and I really don’t recommend setting foot in them unless you are a masochist, a completionist, or you have someone else to play with.


As a whole, its difficult for me to judge Dark Souls II. It misses a lot of what took the original Dark Souls from “good” to “legendary”, but that still leaves Dark Souls II firmly in the “good” category. The masterful level and world design is wholly absent, but the strong basics of Dark Souls are mostly intact. The bosses could have been better, the healing system lacks a punch, and the developers are overly reliant on spamming enemies. But for the most part, Dark Souls II is still a solid game. I don’t think it is even remotely close to the original in terms of quality, but that does not intrinsically make it a bad game, especially considering Dark Souls is a generational title that has had an enormous influence on the industry. For these reasons, I give Dark Souls II a 6/10. Outside of the main DLC, Dark Souls II just kind of misses the point of what made the original so iconic, but its still a decent game.


Spec Ops: The Line (2011)

Can mediocre gameplay be forgiven if the narrative, story, and setting are all superb? This is a question that I’ve thought about a lot in the past, and it definitely applies to Spec Ops: The Line. While it is incontestable that the plot in Spec Ops: The Line is top-notch and may have sparked an enlightenment era for narrative driven games, I felt that the game was severely bogged down by the gameplay. This is unfortunate, as I do love it when a developer can effectively use video games as a medium to effectively tell a story. Spec Ops: The Line nails its setting, plot, and effectively uses narrative elements to make for some unforgettable moments, but even though I loved those features it is impossible to ignore the sluggish gameplay.


The setting and atmosphere established by Spec Ops: The Line is incredible. The player and his squad must descend into the depths of the buried city of Dubai. Constant sandstorms have covered the once prosperous city in a mountain of sand, leaving only small portions of the city exposed to sunlight, the rest is embedded in a sandy tomb. The player starts at what is essentially the top of the city, and slowly descends deeper into the depths of the derelict Dubai. As you make your way down through skyscrapers and across rooftop, it atmosphere changes drastically. The once sunny city dims as you dive deeper, bodies of the dead pile up, and chaos erupts at all corners. This effect of verticality is incredibly similar to the feelings invoked by games such as Dark Souls and Hollow Knight. You descend further and further down, the game gets darker and more foreboding. You reach a point in which you feel like you cannot possibly dig any deeper, but you just keep going. The use of verticality, ascending and descending, is a tactic that can be incredibly effective at invoking emotions into a player. Going up always feels rewarding, like you are climbing a ladder to victory. But going down, that is a prospect that is meant to instill terror into the player. The atmosphere achieved by Spec Ops: The Linethrough its use of vertical levels is meant to instill stress, panic, and unease in the player as you cascade further and further into hell. The setting of Spec Ops: The Line is phenomenal, and it truly makes for an unforgettable journey.


While the atmosphere established in Spec Ops: The Line is incredible, the game is mostly known for its story. The main character sets out with his 2 squad mates to investigate a distress signal sent from Dubai. The game’s story matches its setting sense of verticality, the main character is at his highest point when they game starts, at the top of Dubai. As you descend, the protagonist witnesses atrocities and horrible scenes of death and destruction. The main character’s mental state deteriorates and the entire squad begins to squabble with each other as time progresses. Spec Ops: The Line borders on being a psychological thriller as you unravel the happenings in Dubai, and you trust the main characters perspective less and less as time progresses. All of this time you are lead to a spectacular and mind-warping ending that just made me ask “What just happened?” What is really interesting to me is how effectively the developers used video games as a medium to tell a story. Many games tell a good story, but they leave you with the feeling that the story would have been better told in a movie. In Spec Ops: The Line however, it places you in the role of the protagonist, you are not just a bystander to the events that unfold. I felt sick to my stomach in many of the gruesome climactic scenes. There are a few different ways of effectively using video games as a story telling medium, and Spec Ops: The Line utilizes the personal nature of video games to tell an unforgettable story.


Unfortunately for Spec Ops: The Line, a key component for any game is its gameplay. Story, setting, and atmosphere all are incredibly important, but at the end of the day you still have to actually play the game to experience those attributes. It is a shame that the gameplay of Spec Ops: The Line is so disappointing, because otherwise I would consider it to be a must-play title. It brands itself as a tactical third-person-shooter, as you must tactically command your squad as you shoot your way through Dubai. This starts off okay as your squad mates are relatively useful early on, but as the game progresses a critical flaw is unearthed. As you progress, enemies get stronger, get better weapons, and number of enemies increase, but your squad mates are the same strength that they were at the very start of the game. So as the game gets harder, your teammates become increasingly useless, and by the end of the game they mainly serve as a distraction for enemies to shoot at. On top of that, the controls are just plain clunky. I’ve never been a huge fan of cover-based shooters. It always feels awkward to press a button and get “stuck” to cover, then press another button to “detach” from that piece of cover. It just feels sticky and restrictive; getting behind cover, peeking and shooting, and then detaching from the cover feels unnatural. I much prefer the fluid and open movement of games like Wolfenstein, DOOM, Call of Duty, or Battlefield. I started to get seriously frustrated once enemies began regularly tossing grenades at me because I would get stuck on the cover and couldn’t detach and get to safety quick enough. I can only describe the controls of Spec Ops: The Line as sticky, and it takes too much effort to get the character do to what you want.


The issues with the gameplay don’t end with the useless teammates and clunky cover-based mechanics. Spec Ops: The Line falls into the same traps that many other modern shooters, in which they blend into each other and feel stale. So many shooters fall into a pattern where the player gets behind cover, kills some enemies from relative safety, and then moves to the next piece of cover, and you repeat ad infinitum. There is a not a whole lot of excitement in this format, and I often feel like I’m playing whack-a-mole as enemies pop up from their cover and I pick them off one by one. Towards the end of the game bullet-sponges make their appearance and you have to pump loads of bullets into these enemies before they go down. This is doubly frustrating because not only is it boring to deal with enemies, but bullets are relatively scarce in this game, so unloading all of your resources to kill one enemy is a pain. Moreover, Spec Ops: The Line suffers from an overabundance over enemies in the latter parts of the game. Maybe the developers intended for your squad mates to dispose of a significant portion of these enemies, but as I mentioned before, your squad mates are functionally useless late in the game. What ends up happening is that you just have to sit behind cover and slowly pick off what feels like hundreds of enemies per encounter; it’s tedious, draining, and grows tiresome quite rapidly.


As an entire package, I think Spec Ops: The Line is decent. The story and environment is phenomenal, but this is a video game and the importance of gameplay cannot be understated. While the story had me hooked, actually playing the game was a frustrating slog towards the end. I’m not sure if I can recommend Spec Ops: The Line even though I thoroughly enjoyed its atmosphere and plot. All I can say is if you believe that “gameplay is king”, stay away from Spec Ops: The Line, otherwise definitely give it a shot.