Divinity: Original Sin 2 (2017)

The genre of computer roleplaying games (CRPGs) is fairly unpopular and has not seen a lot of attention in recent years. While many classics such as Diablo, Baldur’s Gate, Fallout, and Planescape: Torment are seen as incredibly important titles there not much demand for these types of games anymore. As the medium of gaming as progressed, the slow, methodical, and classic style of RPGs has become niche as it was replaced by action-adventures. These types of games are inspired heavily by tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons, with heavy emphasis on character building, numerous progression options, dialogue, and stats. This tradition has been upheld by Divinity: Original Sin 2, which is a deep, creative, and addicting CRPG. As a disclaimer, Larian Studios recently announced that they are going to release an enhanced version of the game the fixes some of the things that I am going to write about, so some of this review may be obsolete in a few months from now.

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Divinity: Original Sin 2 is the newest entry in the longstanding Divinity series, but don’t fret, even as a story heavy RPG this game is not is not dependent on its predecessors. Even though I have not played any of the previous games, I completely understood and was drawn in by the story of Divinity: Original Sin 2. The central theme of the game is focused on an otherworldly magic called source. Few individuals can tap into this source and it allows them to cast powerful spells and abilities. By accessing source however, it allows monsters from the void to travel to the world and attack bystanders. The player is one of the few who can tap into source and is persecuted for it. You join up with companions who are in a similar situation and attempt to uncover the mystery of source and the void.

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The gameplay of Divinity: Original Sin 2 is an isometric turn-based RPG. The player can control their own avatar and up to 3 companions throughout the world. As a CRPG, the game has a very heavy emphasis on dialogue options and different paths. In the starting area alone, there are 7 or 8 different methods of progression to move forward. It is immensely satisfying to hunt down all the numerous paths and branches and make choices that reflect on your character’s personality. Of course, many paths and options are locked behind stat-checks, clever responses, and special abilities, so you have to find the path that suits you. Like its pen-and-paper predecessors, Divinity: Original Sin 2 lets you create and build your own character from the ground up. Even if you mess up and make a bad choice, the game lets you redo your stats so there is no need to worry about min/maxing. Aside from character building and decision making, Divinity: Original Sin 2 supplements its gameplay with turn-based and strategic combat.

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While the combat is usually not the focus of a CRPG, Divinity: Original Sin 2 does a fantastic job at making it addicting and gratifying in its own right. There are plenty of different classes, skills, builds, items, and strategies to play around with. The interesting thing about Divinity: Original Sin 2 is how many of the abilities interact with each other. You can use rain to put out fire which creates steam which you can strike with electricity to create a static storm. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Tons of different elemental abilities and status effects interact in unique manners to allow for some dynamic and creative strategies. Even more intriguing was the decision to allow players to partake in “cheese” strategies to effectively break the game. “Cheese” strategies include things like teleporting enemies into pits before the fight even starts, or littering the battlefield with explosive barrels preemptively, or having one of your characters leave combat to buy potions while the rest are locked in a turn-based affair, and much more. These creative solutions break the game and almost feel like cheating, but the developers intentionally left these things in the game to allow for player freedom and ingenuity, and I quite like that.

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With the combat that Divinity: Original Sin 2 offers, there are a slew of issues that can plague any instance of combat. The first being that the game is fairly confusing and daunting at first glance. With dozens of different stats, abilities, skills, items, environmental effects, status effects, and combat nuances there is a lot to soak in. Realistically, it does not take too long to understand the basics, but I can see how many people may be dissuaded by the depth of the game. The next issue is balance, as with any game, some abilities and classes are better than others. However, some abilities are so wildly powerful that I wonder how they are even on the same plane of existence as many of the weaker skills. What really busts the combat are the crowd control effects, things like stuns, knockdowns, taunts, slows, etc. These abilities generally deal solid levels of damage while also incapacitating the enemy. Sure, they have cooldowns, but with 4 characters and each with a dozen different ability slots you can easily chain crowd control together in a way that never lets the enemy perform an action. The only downside of these skills is that they require you to break the armor of the opponent before you can crowd control them. Battles become a race to destroy the opponents armor and indefinitely stun-lock them before they can do the same to you. As such the difficulty can be a little binary, you either break their armor before they break yours and the battle is a breeze or vice versa and the battle is nigh impossible.

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The one massive issue that I had with balance was the leveling system. Levels are massively impactful in this game and they take a long time to earn. A singular level increases your power exponentially, and this creates a plethora of problems. Battling enemies who are higher level than you is ridiculously difficult, and battling lower level enemies is incredibly easy. The slow gain of levels means that you can be level 9 with 99% experience, but you are still going to struggle against a level 10 enemy. And finding more experience is not easy, especially since it takes 2-4 hours to gain a single level. You can get roadblocked by higher level enemies and have to turn back and hunt down easier foes. This especially is frustrating when you are in the middle of a quest because you have to abandon your progress and come back later, and by that time you will have forgotten the details of what you were even doing. More frustrating still is how armor and gear scales just as quickly as the player. A level 10 common piece of armor is often better than a level 9 legendary piece of armor. Having your best equipment being made obsolete by common clothing in a single level is infuriating. Moreover, it means that you have to constantly keep track of all 10 pieces of armor on 4 separate characters to make sure that is always up to date. When you get a new breastplate for example, you have to check if its better than any one of the 4 that you currently are using. Constantly reequipping your characters is mind-numbingly boring and tedious, but it is absolutely necessary.

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Despite its issues, Divinity: Original Sin 2 has flashes of brilliance and is easily one of the best modern CRPGs on the market. I could get over the balance issues and leveling system, hell they could be easily patched and rectified, but there is something much more detrimental to the game. The biggest issue that I encountered was just how the game got worse in nearly every aspect as I got further in. Divinity: Original Sin 2 is a long game, but it wasn’t just fatigue or the desire to “be done” with the game that hampered my experience. The game is split into 4 distinct acts, each taking place in a new map. Act 1 was absolutely phenomenal, tons of side quests, a gripping main story, polished level design, and while it was fairly linear it still offered a ton of different branching paths. Act 2 was much larger, but to its own detriment. Too many directions to go with very little guidance, and the issue with the leveling system rears its ugly head. Much of the map is nearly impossible to tackle early on because you are not a high enough level. This means that you have to explore the entire area just scrounging for enemies that you can actually fight. Act 3 is a short and uninspired area that lacks any side content.

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Finally, Act 4 is an utter disaster. Most of the fights feel like nonsense that require you to use “cheese” tactics or overpowered abilities to even stand a chance. There are very few options or paths of progression for many of the quests, some literally only have 1 possible option which is a far cry from Act 1’s branching decisions. It’s a shame because after such a long playthrough you want to enjoy the end and the resolution to all the major quests and plotlines, but many of the late game fights just feel like the developer is throwing the kitchen sink at the player. Worse still, the game’s performance drops drastically as the game slogs on. Glitches become commonplace, framerates begin to suffer, and load/save times skyrocket. I feel like Act 1 was meticulously designed, tightly crafted and tested extensively, Act 2 was still solid but not nearly as carefully planned, and Act 3 and 4 were just rushed.

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Overall, Divinity: Original Sin 2 still may be one of the best CRPGs ever made, even if it is a dwindling genre this game manages to demonstrate why these types of games can be so fun. Divinity: Original Sin 2 showcases the best of the genre: branching paths, witty dialogue, fun character building, and creative solutions. And it also has the worst of the genre: rampant balance issues, frustrating inventory management, and broken enemy encounters. As a whole, I think the goods significantly outweigh the bad. Acts 1 and 2 make up the majority of the game, and the one good thing about Acts 3 and 4 being oversights is that they are fairly short. Moreover, the developers are working on an enhanced edition of the game said to fix much of the balance woes and completely rework Acts 3 and 4. If the game was Acts 1 and 2 alone, it would easily be a 9/10, but sadly it just falls apart too much in its final act. For these reasons, I give Divinity: Original Sin 2 an 8/10. I really hope the enhanced edition fixes the issues that I have with this game, as this game has tremendous potential. The first act alone is a masterpiece of RPGs and is worth experiencing but prepare to be let down later in the game.

The Witcher 2 : Assassins of Kings (2011)

It is always interesting to see how a developer progresses across games. Without a doubt the largest improvement I’ve seen is CD Projekt Red and The Witcher series. The first entry in the series certainly had a lot of heart and inspiration behind it, but it was an ultimately clunky and it underwhelmed me. That being said, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings has made great strides to improve nearly every aspect of the game. The visuals, story and most importantly, gameplay, were significantly upgraded. There were still a few bizarre design decisions that baffle me, but regardless I consider The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings to be a stellar RPG and a must play game if you are remotely interested in fantasy.

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The most obvious improvement is in the gameplay department. The original game’s combat was point and click, most of the gameplay was pure preparation and understanding your enemy’s weaknesses. Thankfully, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings built on the preparation-based concepts from its predecessor. Gathering ingredients and performing alchemy to create potions is invaluable. Instead of just choosing a predetermined “fighting style” like in the original, in this game you proactively choose between heavy and light attacks depending on the enemy and circumstance. Furthermore, in The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, you dodge, block, and parry by actually pressing buttons and responding to enemies’ actions, rather than being a static chance like in the original game. Item usage also got a massive overhaul, allowing the player to seamlessly integrate traps, bombs, and other related items into their combat repertoire. Still, I would not consider the combat in this game to be stellar, but it is beyond serviceable and was not a source of frustration like the original game. There is absolutely no doubt that the gameplay took gigantic leaps forward from its predecessor, and that is what is so remarkable about The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings.

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While the gameplay was undoubtably a massive improvement, The Witcher series is first and foremost an RPG, so story and roleplaying aspects should be the focus of the series. It is fortunate then that The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings has such an engaging and gripping narrative. The Witcher is often described as a gritty, realistic, and mature fantasy series, it is not a fairytale story, and this title certainly follows that standard. The player regularly has to choose between the lesser of two evils, and you will often regret and rethink your decisions after the fact. It is obvious that these games are grounded in reality, even with their fictional magic, creatures, and world. The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings tells the story of the monster hunter Geralt, who was framed for the murder of a king. As you hunt down the king’s assassin, you experience a wartorn land, humans fight nonhumans, and foreign invaders seek to seize the opportunity to claim power now that the king is dead. Geralt’s amnesia also begins to clear up throughout the story, which challenges previous knowledge and expectations that you have. The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings tells a riveting story and I cannot wait to play the next game to see what happens next.

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Obviously, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings made notable improvements over the first game, but there are still a few strange design choices that cause nothing but frustration. The first is that potions are unusable during combat. At first glance this makes sense as it prevents player from stocking up on potions and just chugging one whenever you take some damage. However, this is already prevented because potions heal you gradually rather than all at once, so you cannot just chug for instant regeneration in combat. This is annoying because it is not always obvious when the game is going to throw you into a big battle or boss fight, as there is usually a long cutscene or dialogue segment beforehand. What usually ends up happening is that the player talks to another character, gets tossed into a boss battle immediately afterwards, and then has to reload a save from 10 minutes prior just to drink a potion and sit through all the dialogue again. Another odd choice was to separate the world into 3 different acts. This was possibly because of engine limitations rather than an intentional choice, but it is a flaw nonetheless. Once you complete an act, you cannot visit that area again or do its quests, which makes the whole world feel smaller and more confined. There are also a few usability issues I had with the game. The user interface was messy and difficult to navigate and I frequently encountered glitches and bugs which forced me to restart my client numerous times. These issues were common enough that they significantly hampered the experience, they are not just small nitpicks.

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As a whole, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings managed to make great strides to improve upon its predecessor. More developed combat and a gripping story make the game worth experiencing. The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is a quintessential action RPG, and it is no where near as clunky as the original. It is evident that CD Projekt Red put forth a lot of effort to improve on their flagship series, and it shows. If the next game improves as much as this one did, it may very well be a masterpiece.

The Witcher (2007)

One of the most popular series of the past few years is The Witcher. With the release of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, this adaptation of a Polish novel series has skyrocketed in popularity. While it is possible to play the games non-sequentially, I decided to start from the beginning with The Witcher. It is evident that this was CD Projekt Red’s first title, as The Witcher is incredibly rough around the edges. Mechanically, The Witcher is clunky and lacks a level of polish. Narratively, The Witcher is fairly interesting, but it starts slow and seems to be setting up a story for the future.

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The Witcher is a medieval fantasy game in which you play a Geralt of Rivia, a professional monster hunter who suffers from amnesia and cannot recall any of his past experiences. The story told is based off of “The Witcher” novel series by Andrzej Sapkowski, a Polish author. It is one of mythical monsters, political intrigue, and general mystery. The game simply begins with a criminal organization stealing powerful potions from the witchers, and you must track them down. During this hunt, you unravel a web of secrets and learn the true motivations of the criminals that you have been pursuing. The adventure is filled with morally ambiguous choices, it often feels like you must choose between the lesser of two evils. I quite like the more gritty and difficult story choices that the game forces you into. In other RPGs like the Mass Effect series your options are plainly labeled as good and evil, but I prefer pondering about my actions and their consequences. The tale it tells is grim and gritty, it is filled with death, war, sex, politics, and monsters. As a whole, I felt as if The Witcher was more setting up a world and narrative layout for future titles. It starts off slow and lets the player absorb information about the world and it progressively gets more intriguing. Even the ending obviously is setting up the next title in the series. As a standalone story The Witcher is solid, but it evidently is more concerned for preparing to tell a much larger story.

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The major issue with The Witcher lie within its gameplay, and most notably, its combat. The Witcher feels antiquated even for a game that was released in 2007. The controls are slow and unwieldy and the interfaces are unintuitive. As an open world RPG, it felt like the developers wanted the player to take no shortcuts. There is very limited fast travel, walking from area to area is a slog, and you must grind through hordes of monsters that respawn every time you load into the area. The Witcher puts a lot of emphasis on preparation and the role-playing aspect of the game rather than the combat. You must collect herbs and create potions to give you an edge in combat, because your skill alone will not get you through any encounters. One of the biggest oversights is how you go about creating potions, leveling up, or just waiting. In order to perform these tasks, you must find a campfire to meditate at, which sounds fine on the surface but in reality, there are so few of these campfires scattered throughout the game. This is especially aggravating as many quests require the player to talk to another character at a specific time of day. Often, I found myself talking to a character, realize that I can’t talk to them at night, run to a campfire, rest until day, run back, talk to the character again who gives me a quest that can only be completed at nighttime, run to a campfire, rest until night, and then finally start the quest. All of those steps could have been avoided if you could just rest or wait in place rather than at a campfire. The Witcher is filled with irritants that just blatantly waste the players time, but nothing can compare to its abhorrent combat.

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Every game has its flaws, and I certainly commend CD Projekt Red for being so ambitious with its first title (which I’m sure they learned many lessons from to become the revered studio they are today), but the combat in The Witcher may be one of the single worst experiences I’ve had in a video game. Essentially, you must pick a combat “style” (fast, strong, or group), click on an enemy, and hope for the best. As Geralt goes through the animations, you can click again at a specific timing to increase your damage. It is remarkably simple, and honestly it could have worked in a game like this that focuses on preparation like your skills, potions, and selecting the right combat style. The issue is that there are a ridiculous number of instances where the combat just falls apart. The first issue is with large groups of enemies, you just pop some potions, select group style, and pray that you kill the enemies before they completely surround and annihilate you. The next issue is with enemies with any sort of immobilizing effects like blinds, stuns, or knockdowns. You are immobilized for a ridiculous amount of time, and enemies can even chain these effects together to keep the player permanently immobilized until they die. Moreover, some singular enemies that are just too strong, you can’t use skill to beat them, and I often used cheesy tactics like kiting them around the arena while my health regenerated before going in for a singular hit. On top of all that, the controls are just unwieldy, the game doesn’t always register your commands correctly as you are in the middle of a “combo”. Often, I would try to back off from enemies to regain some health, but Geralt just wouldn’t budge. Furthermore, there is just so much randomness in the combat with dodges, parries, stuns, and inconsistencies with the enemy AI. Some encounters took me 4-5 tries, but there is really no alternative tactics you can use other than to prepare better, so I felt like I was bashing my head against a wall at times. Like I said earlier, this simple, preparation based, point-and-click combat could work, but there were just so many frustrating instances. The developers should have known that their combat mechanics were weak and should have toned down the amount of action that was in the game and how grandiose the battles were. At times it felt like The Witcher was trying to be a hack-and-slash, but as a point-and-click RPG it was just painful.

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After slogging my way through The Witcher, I am excited to play the next game in the series. Partially because it is a universally lauded title, partially to see what this story has been building up to, and partially to see how much CD Projekt Red improved. The story was definitely interesting so I would like to see more, but the gameplay needs drastic improvements. Combat needs an overhaul and the rest of the game just needs a lot of polish. The foundations for a great series are certainly there, the developers just have to refine it. Unless you are a fan of The Witcher series or if you want to start from the beginning, I do not recommend The Witcher, it is just too janky and clunky, I recommend starting with a future title in the series and just reading a summary of the first game.

Dark Souls III (2016)

It is no surprise that while Dark Souls is heralded as one of the greatest games of all time, its successor, Dark Souls II, was a let down in numerous regards. Less focused combat, incoherent world building, and less interesting bosses were my biggest gripes with Dark Souls II. So, the big question when starting up Dark Souls III was if it would return to the series former glory, or follow in the footsteps of the disappointing sequel. Personally, I think that Dark Souls III does mostly return to the successful style of the original game, but there a few key differences between the games.

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Dark Souls III is more a direct sequel to the original than Dark Souls II was for a multitude of reasons. The first reason is that Dark Souls III is set in the same world as the original, granted that it is very far into the future. This highlights the cyclical nature of the Dark Souls lore, and watching how the world evolved and noticing the references to the past was something that I really enjoyed. That being said, I feel like there was almost too much reference to the past titles. A well placed and constructed reference is incredibly appreciated, but the game constantly saying “Hey remember this?” in essence can grow grating. In any case, Dark Souls III is the end of the series, and I felt like it did a phenomenal job ending this historic series. The final boss in the base game ties the games together brilliantly, and truly helped me understand the cycles of the Dark Souls universe. The DLC of Dark Souls III really finishes off the series by revealing what the “Dark Soul” even is and why it is important. Both of the final bosses (the base game and the DLC), are incredibly somber and profoundly sad, and are extraordinary ways to end this storied series.

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One of the most important aspects of Dark Souls was its atmosphere and world building. Dark Souls III also continues in this trend, by creating a quintessential dark fantasy world. Despite the fact that many of the areas of Dark Souls III are just future versions of areas from the original game, they are changed enough that you cannot entirely recognize them. Furthermore, there a plethora of completely new and visually interesting areas. However, there are a few complaints that I did have with the world of Dark Souls III. One minor complaint I have is that some of the areas were just kind of forgettable and uninteresting. The swamps and forests in particular are just kind of dull and we’ve seen enough of them in the series. This isn’t a huge deal because the majority of the game is made up of far more interesting areas. The major complaint I have is that the world just is not interconnected enough. The individual level design is great, as it bases itself off of the design of the original game. But there is not a sense of connection between these areas. There is no sense of verticality or a tight-woven world like the original game. Every area is just fine in and of itself, but there needs to be more connection between these areas. This may be due to the fact that teleportation between bonfires is available from the very start of the game. Similar to Dark Souls and Dark Souls II, once teleportation is available, the interconnectedness of the world is sacrificed. There is no need to carefully craft a world when a player can just teleport where ever they want.

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The final aspect of Dark Souls III is of course its gameplay. Combat Dark Souls III is decidedly faster than the original Dark Souls. It does not fall into the same traps of Dark Souls II (too many enemies and boring bosses), but it is very different than the original game. There are 3 reasons for this additional speed in combat: low poise, high stamina, and faster animations. Poise is the stat that controls when the player/enemy is hit, if they get briefly stunned. High poise means that you can eat an attack from an enemy and not have it stop you dead in your tracks. Both the enemies and the player in Dark Souls III have very low poise. When you hit an enemy, you can easily chain together hits until they are dead with no chance from recourse from the enemy because they are stunned. Of course, this means that the enemies can do the same to you, if you get hit once there is a good chance you are going to take a lot of damage. High stamina means that the player can spam rolls and attacks with little thought. In previous titles, if you rolled too much you wouldn’t have enough stamina to attack and vice versa. This is not something that the player has to worry too much about in Dark Souls III, which is a bit of shame considering that careful stamina usage was such a vital part of the combat in Dark Souls. This in essence reduces the risk and reward system that Dark Souls combat is centered around. Finally, the animations of all actions are reduced in Dark Souls III. The windups for attacks and rolls are shorter, and the delay at the end of these actions is also shorter. You are no longer locked into long animations, but on the flip side the enemies also move a lot faster.

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As a whole, these three factors combine to make combat a lot faster than its predecessors. This is not inherently a bad thing, it is just a different playstyle. However, in the context of the series I would argue that this is a downgrade in combat. Combat in the original game was more deliberate and stylistically made more sense. Dark Souls III feels more reaction time based, while the original Dark Souls required more careful decision making in combat. I will say that this faster combat does allow for some very memorable and creative boss fights. The vast majority of the bosses of Dark Souls III are incredibly engaging. The combination of the wild combat and creative visuals make for some remarkable bosses.

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Another factor of note is the change in how the healing item, the Estus Flask, works. As I mentioned in my piece on Dark Souls, the Estus Flask may be the single most important factor in why Dark Souls works so well. It keeps combat and exploration forgiving enough to give you room for some errors, but at the same time rewards the player for mastering a boss fight or entire area. The Estus Flask in Dark Souls III functions very similarly, but with two key differences. The first being that you can discover Estus Shards and Undead Bone Shards across the world through exploration. These items will increase the total amount of Estus Flask charges and how much those charges heal respectively. I like this as it rewards exploration and adds an extra layer of character power and progression. The only issue is that I feel like you almost get too many Estus Shards, so by the end of the game you can have around 10-15 charges of Estus, compared to the base 5 from the original game. This is almost too forgiving, I wish these Estus Shards were harder to come by. The second change is adding a second Estus Flask for focus points, which is essentially your “magic” bar. You must delegate your total Estus Flask charges between the original health based Estus Flask and the new magic Ashen Estus Flask. This may be why there are so many Estus Shards, so that players who want to use magic can have enough for both healing and magic usage. But players who don’t use magic will have an overabundance of healing Estus. Again, I liked exploring and upgrading my character, but I wish they toned it down a bit.

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Is Dark Souls III as magical as Dark Souls? I don’t think so. However, Dark Souls III is far more consistent in its execution than the original. Less careful world design and less deliberate combat are the biggest issues I have with Dark Souls III, but it is still an excellent game. It was a perfect way to finish off the series with its gloomy themes and atmosphere. Intense and memorable boss fights combined with visually stunning areas make Dark Souls III a game worth playing. For these reasons I give Dark Souls III 9/10. Dark Souls III is an essential title for any fan of the Soulsborne series, or just fans of role-playing-games and fantasy worlds alike.

Mass Effect 2 (2010)

Following my playthrough of Mass Effect, I noted that while the game told an intriguing story, its gameplay was clunky and needed to be streamlined and smoothed out for a sequel. Luckily, Mass Effect 2 achieves exactly that. The gameplay of Mass Effect 2 greatly improves upon its predecessor by cutting out filler and creating a more fulfilling experience. That being said, there were still a few minor issues in Mass Effect 2, some gameplay related, others story related.

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By far and away the largest improvement in Mass Effect 2 was the improvement of the side missions. In the original Mass Effect, most side missions consisted of dropping down to a desolate planet, driving the frustrating-to-control Mako around for a while, and then clearing out a copy-and-pasted base of enemies that must have been reused a dozen times for these side missions.  Luckily in Mass Effect 2, the Mako has been removed completely and each side mission is individually crafted for a more unique and engaging experience. Some other gameplay improvements include weapon upgrades, squad power usage, better level design, smoothing out the movement, and the switch to an ammo system. All of these functions serve to make combat far more entertaining than the original game when it comes to combat.

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The weapon and upgrade system in the original Mass Effect was clunky and required a lot of time just navigating the hundreds of upgrades that the player would acquire. There were a ton of different guns and upgrades that the player had to sift through to find what they would want, and a limited inventory meant that you had to frequently throw out many of these items just to keep clear space for new upgrades. In Mass Effect 2, this process has been streamlined so you no longer have to navigate menus for long intervals to pick out upgrades for you and your squad. Another big change was the switch from guns having a heat system to guns having ammo. I mostly enjoyed this change, as the heat system further increased how long you had to sit behind cover for weapons to cooldown. Ammo on the other hand lets you stay shooting for longer, and a reload is quick than waiting for your gun to cooldown.

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All those improvements in mind, one design choice is particularly baffling. In Mass Effect 2, the player must pilot their ship through space to land on the different planets. What is strange is the decision that the player must constantly purchase fuel. Fuel is remarkably cheap in this game so I really don’t understand the purpose of including it. It doesn’t gate the player using money or anything, all it serves to do is waste your time by making you visit a refueling station once in a while. The other bizarre addition was the method for collecting resources. In order to upgrade your weapons, armor, and ship, you must collect a few different types of resources. There are minute amounts bit of these resources lying around for you to collect when you’re on a planet and exploring on foot, but the vast majority of these elements are found by probing planets. Essentially, you must buy probes, fly to a planet, slowly move your scanner across the surface, and launch a probe whenever it detects an abundance of resources. Similarly, to the fuel, the probes are incredibly inexpensive, so this system only serves to waste time. If you need any resources to upgrade your equipment you essentially have an infinite amount, you just have to painstakingly probe planets to get those resources.

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These minor complaints aside, Mass Effect 2 massively improved upon Mass Effect in every way. The only exception to that was that I personally enjoyed the original’s story better. The bulk of the main missions in Mass Effect 2 were recruiting your squad and doing their loyalty missions. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed recruiting all the different characters and then doing another mission to make them loyal. There were all interesting from both a gameplay and a narrative perspective. However, I have two main issues with this system. The first issue is that it felt completely disconnected from the main plot. In the original game, most companions were recruited organically through the main plot. You would be doing a mission and meet these characters naturally. In Mass Effect 2, the game outright tells you “Go here and recruit this character”. This feels far more artificial than original, and to make it worse, most of the characters are disconnected from the main plot entirely. In the original game, characters often felt more invested in the plot and just felt more connected. In Mass Effect 2, I felt like only two or three of the characters impacted the plot in a significant manner. The rest just felt glued on and just served to help the player in combat. The second issue with making so much of the game reliant on the squad missions is that the actual main plot of the game is ridiculously short. There are only five main story missions (six if you count the introduction). I think the developers counted each of the self-contained squad missions as main missions, leaving the central plot very short. That being said, all of the subplots and even the main plots itself were strong, I just wish there was more if it.

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My final issue with Mass Effect 2 is coincidentally with the final mission in the game. Without spoiling anything, you essentially assign your squad mates to different tasks throughout the mission. For example, you have to pick a technological expert to do a certain task. I thought this was an intelligent design decision, as it rewards players who learned their partner’s strengths and did the additional mission to make them loyal. If you pick incorrectly or your squad is not loyal, there is a chance that one of your squad members will die. Again, I quite enjoyed figuring out who is best for what role, but the final “selection” does not sit well with me. Mostly because it is not communicated to be a selection at all. Instead, you pick your standard two squad mates to go and fight the final boss, and the rest of the squad is left behind to watch your back. If you bring two of your best fighters to take on the boss, one of your other squad mates who you left behind to watch your back will perish. To me this felt incredibly cheap, if it were properly communicated that you should leave behind strong members, this would have been completely fine. Furthermore, the game kills off an important squadmate rather unceremoniously and when it happened to me I was confused as to what had just happened. Overall, this final selection was just poorly implemented and need to be better communicated to the player.

All in all, Mass Effect 2 is a strong entry to the series, and a definite improvement over the original game. While the episodic short stories that were told throughout the squad missions were engaging, the main plot felt a bit lacking. However, massive improvements made to the gameplay elevated Mass Effect 2 above the original. As a whole, Mass Effect 2 has solidified itself as a classic sci-fi RPG, worthy of the praise that it has received.

 

Dark Souls (2011)

In a time in which numerous video games hold the players hand and are generally easy, one game challenged the idea that difficult games were too frustrating and that mainstream games should stray away from challenging the player. That game was Dark Souls. This action-RPG was an industry-changing title, other developers realized that there was a market for games that did not coddle the player. The difficulty is far from the only factor that makes Dark Souls what it is, although its reputation of being hard is what everyone knows about Dark Souls, even if they have never played it. Dark Souls is also a bastion of success in level design, atmosphere, and world building, and I have yet to come across a game as impressive as Dark Souls in those departments. I consider Dark Souls to be one of the greatest and most important games of all time, rivaling titles like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Metal Gear Solid, and Super Mario 64. It has had a profound effect on the industry and will shape video games for years to come. That being said, I consider Dark Souls to be a flawed masterpiece. It is no secret that the second half of the game was rushed to reach a deadline. It also dangerously teeters on the line of “difficult but fair” and “frustrating”. While I consider the game to be “difficult but fair” a majority of the time, there are still a few moments that cross the line and enter “frustrating” territory. Despite these shortcomings, Dark Souls has quickly become one of my favorite games and its importance cannot be denied.

What makes the difficulty of Dark Souls so compelling? Part of its success is that Dark Souls is tough, but it rarely ever feels cheap or gives you an unwarranted death. Every time you die, it’s your fault. Every time I died, I learned something valuable and I could avoid dying the same way in the future. It is evident that nothing is too difficult to execute because on my second play-through I died extremely infrequently due to my prior knowledge on how to defeat all the enemies. There is a certain beauty to the challenge of Dark Souls.  Many challenges seem insurmountable at first, but you keep trying and trying until eventually you figure it out. When you do finally overcome a tough area or boss, there is an overwhelming feeling of elation and pride at what you have just accomplished. There is something to be said in that Dark Souls mimics life in this regard. Dark Souls is not difficult for the sake of being difficult, rather it uses difficulty as a tool to make the player feel different emotions. The sense of accomplishment when you defeat a boss, the anxiety of not knowing what is on the other side of a fog door, the fear and tension of fighting a tough enemy, or the immense relief when you discover a new bonfire; these emotions are possible only because of the challenge provided by Dark Souls. Furthermore, I really appreciate when games are actually challenging, it is far more engaging and addicting.  That feeling of wanting to conquer a genuine challenge makes me want to keep playing, and when I did finally defeat whatever was in my way I really felt like I had made significant progress.

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While the difficulty is probably the most well-known feature of Dark Souls, there are many other categories which make Dark Souls master class. The most impressive feature to me was the brilliant level design. Each area in Dark Souls often loops in on itself and reveals a shortcut from the nearest checkpoint. This is genius for a couple of reasons. First, it lets areas evolve in a sense, and as you progress through the game an area is going to have more paths and shortcuts available to access. Since many paths are closed to the player initially, it allows the player to become familiarized with the level’s layout before further complicating it. This sort of circular level design also surprises the player, and makes you stop and think how you ended up back where you started. From a player progression standpoint, the looping level design is massively important. As you return to areas you have been previously, you can test how strong you have become. As gear, level, and player skill increase you feel much more powerful visiting areas that you were in just a short time ago. Lastly, this type of design also reduces tedium by a massive amount. The player will only have to get through a particular chunk once and can skip that chunk once a shortcut has been opened. So, there is very little tedium when running from a checkpoint to where you died.

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The atmosphere, setting, and world of Dark Souls is also hauntingly beautiful. Every area is completely unique and memorable. Often, I just stopped adventuring and had to take in my surroundings. The world of Dark Souls mirrors the level design in the sense that it utilizes vertical layers to have areas loop in on themselves to create a compact and believable world. There are many instances of Déjà vu as you open a door or descend an elevator as you realize that you have been here before. Atmospherically, Dark Souls is in a tier of its own. The world is littered with viewing points from high places where you can gaze upon the areas that you have just conquered, or even look ahead to see your next trial. I often felt insignificant when gazing upon the wondrous land or Lordran, and fighting enemies that were magnitudes larger than me reinforced that feeling. Despite this, as I traversed the world and surmounted these creatures, I felt powerful. The world of Dark Souls is vast but compact, it is interconnected, and it is breathtaking.

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Another aspect of world-building is the lore and the story. While the story of Dark Souls is fairly simple, it becomes incredible as you learn the backstory to the world. I don’t want to delve too deep into the lore, as I feel like people should attempt to discover it on their own. There is a real feeling of living in a dying world, and you are putting this worlds creators and gods to rest in order to preserve life for a little while longer. Fighting many of the bosses of Dark Souls becomes far more emotional once you learn their backstory, and often times it is profoundly sad as you put these old gods to rest. Speaking to all of the characters in the game gives you a sense that they are on their own journeys through this world, and don’t solely exist for the benefit of the player. The other interesting thing about the lore is that it is never explicitly laid out for the player. You must discover it for yourself through contextual clues, item descriptions, and character dialogue. This gave me the feeling of piecing together a puzzle, and even if some of the pieces were missing, I could still make out the overall picture. I really felt like an adventurer in a fantasy setting, discovering the world for myself.

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One of the most important features of an action-RPG is obviously the combat. At first glance, the combat of Dark Souls seems pretty rudimentary and slow, but looking deeper into the game one can see that this is not the case. Every action that the player takes has a significant wind-up at the beginning and some down-time at the end, this is to encourage the player to only make an action when it is safe to do so, otherwise you will get hit. Enemies hit hard in Dark Souls, even the weaker enemies in most areas can kill the player in a few hits, so you better be sure that you have a big enough window to attack, or you will pay heavily for it. The combat is actually surprisingly deep in a sense, as the player learns the ins and outs of all the combat systems. Learning how to use stamina, poise, staggering, shields, rolling, light attacks, heavy attacks, shield breaks, back stabs, parries, and efficient use of the estus flask are all essential as you get further into the game. The combat is heavily focused around risk and reward, for example: you can shield an incoming attack to guarantee your safety, but you’ll lose stamina, or you can parry the attack and riposte for massive damage, but if you mess it up you will get hit hard. That is just one example, and the player is encouraged to test out all of the combat options available to them. The other interesting thing is that all the enemies abide by the same rules that the player follows. Enemies also have stamina, poise, wind-up animations, and down-time after their attacks, and they also die from a few swings of your weapons. You can always expect the enemies to behave in a similar way to the player, which is immensely important. If enemies did not have to follow these rules, they would feel cheap and unfair. There is a feeling of weight and permanence in the combat of Dark Souls, every decision must be carefully calculated because the stakes of getting hit are so high.

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Do you remember being a kid and huddling around the playground with you friends and telling each other about all the cool secrets you found in a game? Most of what was said in these discussions ended up being wrong, but it was still neat to imagine all of the hidden features in a game. Dark Souls does a great job of recreating this feeling. Players can leave messages for each other, telling of illusory walls or how a great item is waiting for you if you jump off this cliff! This harkens back to the playground discussions, as these messages are mostly jokes. But occasionally you will find a tip about a hidden item, or a how a trap is waiting for you up ahead. These messages can also be likened to adventurers swapping tips and stories around a bonfire. There are also bloodstains scattered across the world and you can view exactly how other players died in that spot, which can be pretty humorous. Not only can you communicate with other players, but you can also summon players to play alongside you and engage in jolly cooperation. Be careful though, some of the crueler players can invade your world and fight you one on one. I don’t consider the multiplayer aspect of Dark Souls to be one of the main features of the game, but I definitely did get a few chuckles out of the goofy messages and bloodstains.

It is clear that I adore Dark Souls, so why did I call it a “flawed masterpiece”, what is wrong with the game? One of the issues is that there are definitely some moments that are more frustrating than they are difficult. Luckily, these moments are not too common, but they still sour the experience a little. This was a risk the developers took when creating a challenging game, every encounter must be extensively tested to make sure that it is tough, but not so hard that it makes you want to smash your controller. While it is a shame that some of these types of moments made it into the full game, I think it is remarkable that these frustrating moments are so few and far between and it shows how much care what put into this game. Also, the game can often be a little too cryptic for its own good. While the DLC areas and bosses are some of the best in the game, accessing the DLC is so confusing that I doubt most people figured it out without looking it up. Unfortunately, these are not the sole issues of Dark Souls, the most important issue is that the game is just not finished. In order to meet a deadline, the final areas in the game were rushed and are nowhere near the quality previously demonstrated. The level design falls apart as it no longer loops in on itself, and the same can be said for the world design. There are a few separate paths that lead to dead ends, there are no grand revelations of “I know exactly where I am”. Furthermore, many of the enemies, bosses, and the areas themselves are clearly rushed. I think the other big issues with the final 4 areas in the game is that the developers attempted to let the player tackle them in any order they wanted.

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While some fans claim that one of the biggest strengths of Dark Souls it its open format, I have to disagree. Sure, you can go to a variety of different areas at the start of the game, but you are clearly pushed into one path. To me, that is the beauty of the pseudo-open world of Dark Souls. The developers trust that the player is intelligent enough to avoid tougher areas early on and instead come back when they are better prepared. At the end of the game, there are 4 paths all laid out for the player to go in any order they want. The issue with this is that as the player progresses through these paths, they will become more powerful, so it is immensely difficult to balance these 4 paths. They all must be about roughly equal in difficulty so that the player can choose to go to whichever one they want first. What ends up happening is that the first area you go to is going to be the hardest, and then each area you visit gets progressively easier as you level up and get better equipment. I think the developers realized this issue, and since difficulty is such an important factor in the game they attempted to combat the problem that subsequent areas get easier and easier. In order to fix this, the developers made each area difficult by adding a gimmick. These gimmicks remain relevant regardless of the players level. The pitch blackness of the Tomb of the Giants, the lava of Lost Izalith, the invisible platforms of the Crystal Caves, and the ghost enemies in New Londo are all gimmicks. They are cheap tricks meant to make the game more difficult and I feel like they damage what could otherwise be decent areas. These gimmicks could actually be pretty interesting twists to these levels if they were implemented better, but as they stand now they are just annoying to deal with. Despite this, I still think that most of these areas are decent, they just don’t adhere to the brilliance that was the first half of Dark Souls.

Even though it is undeniable that Dark Souls is flawed, it is still an immensely important game. It has redefined level design, world building, and atmosphere in games. I have struggled for a while to write this piece. It is not easy for me to put into words my opinion about Dark Souls, and as such I believe that it is a game that everyone needs to at least try. Do not be intimidated by others boasting about how hard the game is, as I think it is entirely accessible to anybody decently experienced at video games. Dark Souls is a truly wonderous and unforgettable experience, and while it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, I highly recommend that everyone should at least give it a chance.

Mass Effect (2007)

While some believe Mass Effect to be outdated and clunky, it is the necessary starting point for a legendary series. While the original Mass Effect definitely has not aged well, I believe it would be an injustice to the series and yourself to skip over it to play the more refined sequels. Mass Effect is a space action-RPG (role-playing game), and while the “action” and gameplay is dated, the RPG aspects are still top-notch and make Mass Effect a game worth playing. Deep lore, emotional decisions, strong story-telling, and an intriguing plot are the factors that make Mass Effect successful.

One of the major elements of Mass Effect is the depth of its lore and its expansive universe. Codex and journal entries are available to the player if they ever want to learn more about the missions they are doing or the lore behind the universe. Various entries on the different alien species, including their physiology, galactic presence, and their history. Everything in this game has an explanation and background info if you are interested to learn more about something in particular. Knowing the backgrounds and the relationships between all the alien species definitely adds depth and a factor of validity to this game.

The characters and the story are the defining factors of Mass Effect for me. You play as Commander Shepard and are in charge of the space vessel Normandy and her crew. Most of the time you will be interacting with your “squad” as they are the ones that you can bring along with you to combat. It is definitely a rewarding and almost cozy feeling as you build up your squad and add new members to it at the beginning of the game. Throughout the course of the game you talk with them, get their input on certain situations, build friendship, help them complete certain personal quests, or even romance them. What sets Mass Effect apart from other shooters is the reliance on this squad both on and off of the battlefield. Other games suffer from the protagonist doing everything while other characters just sit around, but in Mass Effect your squad is a massive part of the game. It adds a sense of legitimacy and realness to the game. This is why certain decisions and choices that must be made are so emotional. You build up this squad, fight with them, train them, and interact with them, so when a squad mate gets killed off in the story, it is a devastating blow.

The story of Mass Effect is full of mystery, intrigue, and emotion. The basic premise is that you must figure out what happened to an advanced alien species that died off 50,000 years ago, and you must prevent the same fate from happening to humans and their allies. The game feeds you piecemeal clues as you progress through the story. Seemingly unconnected events and plot-lines all come together by the end to form a cohesive and alluring plot. The story was paced well, there is never any downtime and I was always wanting to see what happened next. There are plenty of individual decisions and choices that you must make in this game. Some choices are minor, while others play a huge role in whats to come. You get to decide the fate of many lives and species. My only issue with this was that it was a little too rewarding to be the “nice guy”. There is rarely any downside going with the games heroic “paragon” options. I wish there was more incentive to be neutral or even go with the “renegade” option. There were a few points in the game that did this right, but for the most part the paragon route is the most rewarding option by a long shot.

While the RPG aspects of Mass Effect are clearly masterclass, the gameplay is definitely clunky and unsatisfying. Enemies often times have tons of health and shields, and some take minutes to take down a single basic enemy. This is compounded by the fact that the guns that you are using do a pittance of damage and overheat frequently, so you are forced to stop shooting for long stretches of time. There is no jumping or hurdling objects, so you have to slowly navigate even the smallest of obstacles. Constantly re-equipping your squad of 7 members with 4 types of weapons, upgrades for those weapons, and armor just gets tedious. Your squad mate’s special abilities often feel underwhelming as there is no big audio or visual cue when they are being used. For some reason, you can only sprint in combat, but not out of combat, which is when you really want to be sprinting so you can get around faster. There is an excessive amount of loading screens and elevators, which just waste a ton of time. Travelling from planet to planet is also tedious. Realistically, getting around anywhere in this game is just slow and draining. Driving the Mako vehicle is easily one of the worst driving experiences in any game that I have played. It goes extremely slow, defies physics, is tough to handle, and it does not even shoot where you aim it. This is made even more frustrating by the fact that you often have to scale cliffs with this abomination of a vehicles. Some of the biggest gameplay problems stem from the sidequests. They often drop you off in barren worlds, leaving you to drive the Mako across a vast nothingness for a few minutes. Then when you finally reach the building where the quest is located, you realize that it is the same exact layout as every other sidequest in the game, so you essentially repeat the same firefight that you have done many times before.

While the gameplay of Mass Effect could be categorized as clunky, repetitive, and tedious, it is still a worthwhile game. Not only to set up the legendary sequels, but also because the characters and story can keep you playing despite the tedium. The biggest improvement that should be made from Mass Effect for its follow-up titles is that it definitely needs to be streamlined in places. Trim off the banal tasks and clean up the controls and overall movement to make the game less monotonous and burdensome at times. All in all, it is worth sticking through the mediocre gameplay just for the RPG elements. And if you avoid doing sidequests you will skip over a lot of problematic sections altogether. Mass Effect might not be perfect, but it is still worth a play through. I am very excited to see what Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3 have in store for me, and if they could solve the issues of Mass Effect.