28 April 2014

The Continuing Adventures of the Chosen Undead

So over the past week or two I've been playing a lot of Dark Souls. I honestly don't remember when I was last this excited about, or addicted to, a video game. It fills my free time, and when I'm not playing, I'm checking up stuff on a wiki. (OK, I exaggerate slightly, perhaps—I've done other stuff too, like read the latest volume of Saga, which was brilliant, as always. But I have played a lot of Dark Souls.)

Last week I wrote about some first impressions of the game. Now I guess I'm getting relatively far into it. I've beaten a bunch of cool bosses. I've managed to find the Lordvessel. I've got my trusty katana upgraded to maximum level, and some fairly decent armour as well. All is going pretty well. Oh, and obviously I'm still dying a lot.

It's hard to really put my finger on what exactly makes this game so addicting. On the surface it can look like a fairly simple hack-and-slash game with not much plot—not exactly my usual cup of tea—but the world of Dark Souls is surprisingly rich. I love the way the levels are constructed, from the darkest depths to the loftiest castles. There's a surprising amount of variety, yet it's all connected (and interconnected). The NPCs are scarce and there's not much dialogue—and what there is is frequently kinda silly, even cheesy—but even those NPCs seem to fit well in the atmosphere of the game.

Of course that would all mean very little if the gameplay wasn't good. While the game is basically all about combat, you have options about how you go about that and how you build your character—heavy weapons, lighter weapons with more speed, magic etc. There's a ton of equipment to choose from to supplement your chosen style. The combat is fun and fast, but usually not too fast—you actually need to think about what you're doing, block attacks etc. Button mashing will get you nowhere. There's some advanced stuff too that I'm not really even trying, like parrying, which requires really precise timing and reading your opponents moves—things I'm pretty bad at.

A thing that is sometimes said about Dark Souls is that it's hard—but fair. It's tough and you'll die a lot, but very little is random or cheap. You get better. You learn to read enemies and adapt to their patterns. And it is an RPG, so you'll often have opportunities to grind and improve your character, or explore alternate routes. I have certainly been taking my time, not rushing into things.

The one catch that I already mentioned in my previous post—although it really isn't a catch at all as long as you're aware of it and act accordingly—is the frequent lack of information on some important topics. I've probably spent more time reading about this game online than I have for any other game in the past. Not actually a lot of actual 'walkthrough' stuff, as in what I'm supposed to do next, but mostly about strategies for bosses, what equipment best suits me and how to upgrade it, where to find certain helpful items, making sure I haven't missed any really important secrets in a particular location etc. I think that's all actually pretty cool and rather than being 'spoilers' might even add to the experience. Very rarely have I felt that I'm actually stuck in a place and had to check a walkthrough—although it has happened, sometimes the right exit or switch can be hard to spot.

The PvP part of the game is something that many people don't appreciate, and I'm inclined to agree. That sort of thing really should be something you can easily opt out of. It can be a source of annoyance for new players, since invaders are bound to be much more experienced players, and, I'm given to understand, sometimes actively trolling other players. That being said, I've actually had a fairly easy time with PvP thus far. I've only been invaded a small handful of times (you have to be in 'human' form to be invaded, and I tend to use my humanity only when absolutely necessary), and, somewhat to my surprise, I think I've actually won more than I've lost...

I'm a little concerned about how the difficulty will develop from here on, as, my gear already being pretty high level, I'm getting lower on ways to improve my character. I can keep levelling up for a long time, but it's a slow progress. No challenge so far has been insurmountable, though, and I've had fun encountering them. I expect I'll write more when I actually beat the game.

22 April 2014

How I Came to Darken My Soul

So I spent much of last weekend playing Dark Souls.

I remember watching 'let's play' videos of this game already, like, a couple years ago, but for a long time I was pretty sure it was a game I was never going to play. It looked hard. It looked, frankly, a little monotonous. It didn't seem to have much of a plot.

I have largely the LoadingReadyRun crew, and Alex Steacy in particular, to thank for changing my mind. I think I've mentioned in recent blog posts I've been watching a lot of their material lately. Well, some time ago Alex got into Dark Souls and streamed a session of it. I figured it would be fun enough to watch. He also wrote this helpful post on Tumblr for people interested in getting into the game. Enthusiasm can be infectious sometimes, and sure enough, I was infected, and eventually went out and actually bought the game (since it's a few years old already, and the sequel just came out, you can get it for a fairly affordable price these days). Since then I've also been watching LRR's Graham Stark play the game, with helpful advice from Alex.

'Helpful advice'—those are fairly important words.The thing about Dark Souls is that it has a pretty steep learning curve. The game tells you very little about what's going on and how you should be playing it. The manual is pretty slim, as they tend to be these days, and makes basically no mention of many important concepts and techniques, nor does the game have much of a tutorial section, beyond briefly mentioning some very basic controls. Unless you're a lot more hardcore than I am about such things, you'll really want to do research online, watch tutorial videos etc. before getting into the game. This'll make the first few hours a lot easier.

But when you do get into the swing of things, I think it can be an interesting, entertaining and rewarding experience. I'm still not very far into the game, so I can't really make any final judgements, but I've had fun thus far, and been pretty excited to play it. Sure, I've died a lot, but that's part of the game. Just exploring the different areas is pretty cool.

Uh, yeah, so what exactly is Dark Souls, someone might be asking? It's and action RPG title from Japanese developer From Software. Not a typical JRPG, though—actually more reminiscent of later Castlevania games (those in the Symphony of the Night vein), or perhaps even Zelda games, featuring an open world of connected levels that you can explore with some degree of freedom, but will need to beat certain bosses or find certain items to be able to progress. There's a robust stat and equipment system that affects many aspects of the game.

The tone is quite dark. You basically play as an undead character in a world filled with other undead and monsters, most of which are trying to kill you. There's not a whole lot of plot, and the cutscenes and dialogue that you get... are not perhaps the clearest, so I'm not going to bother going into a lot of detail at this point. While I'm a big fan of strong stories in video games, honestly, I don't think it really matters in this game. It's just not really the point. A lot of plot might even get in way of exploring the game's desolate world. What's important is that the atmosphere of the game is delightfully gloomy and, well, atmospheric... (There's also some atrociously bad pseudo-archaic English in some of the dialogue snippets that makes the linguist in me just want to punch somebody.)

I may write more about this game once I've played more. In the meanwhile, I'm still writing those Breakfast Battles updates on Tumblr I introduced a couple weeks ago. I still haven't finished my Mass Effect playthrough, but in the very near future I'll likely be focusing on Dark Souls...

10 April 2014

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

Been a while since I played an entirely new video game, largely because I've been working my way through the Mass Effect trilogy, which has turned out to be a fairly lengthy undertaking. I decided to to take a little break from it, though, and played Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.

This is quirky little indie adventure game from Swedish developer Starbreeze Studios. Two young brothers in a medieval fantasy world set out to find a cure for their ill father. Their journey takes them through a variety of strange places. Most of which seem to be in a fairly ramshackle state and difficult to navigate through...

The characters all speak in a made-up language, and the story's relatively simple. Starting out, it looks like a pretty light-hearted, non-violent adventure game. Be warned, though, towards the end the story gets pretty grim and emotional, as the brothers encounter their share of destruction and death along the way. Can't say much without spoilers, but some of the twists actually managed to surprise me.

For a fairly small indie game, Brothers looks really nice, with its grand landscapes and whatnot. Music's pretty cool and atmospheric, too. The gameplay is largely puzzle based, with a twist: you control both brothers simultaneously, one with each analogue stick, using the left and right trigger buttons to make the characters interact with the environment. And that's it. Controlling two characters at once can be a little disorienting at first, but you get the hang of it.

The puzzles honestly aren't very hard. Certain sequences require fairly precise timing, but once you get into the swing of things, the game progresses pretty smoothly. I found it pretty fun and relaxing, overall. It's not a long game, I played it through in just a couple sittings. Since the game is highly linear and puzzle based, and not particularly challenging, I'm not sure it really has a whole lot of replay value, though... Still a fun experience, though, for anyone who likes fantasy and adventure games. Nothing much more to say.

7 April 2014

New Things, New Games, New Experiences

Been very lazy with my bloggings lately. Nothing really major going on in my life, but several little titbits I probably should write about. Starting a new Tumblr, subscribing to PlayStation Plus, trying games I never thought I'd play...

1. First of all, I've been trying to rework my daily routines in an effort to be more productive (I'm not sure it's actually helped much yet, but it's a gradual progress). One thing I'm trying is starting my days with a little gaming, to relax and invigorate me for the day to come, and perhaps also in order to have a regular timeslot for gaming that wouldn't have to compete with other hobbies. Then I came upon the idea that perhaps I should write some kind of journal about my experiences. So I started a new Tumblr page for this purpose, which I'm calling Ben's Breakfast Battles. (Why Tumblr? I felt this should be separate from my other outlets, and Tumblr seemed like a relatively light weight system for writing and sharing these short posts.)

2. In today's post I received the Iron Sky Director's Cut Blu-ray. It's a 'limited edition steelbook' version, signed by director Timo Vuorensola, to boot. (This was part of a merchandise package I bought last year when they were crowdfunding the production of the Iron Sky sequel.) But perhaps the real blogworthy news here is that this is, believe it or not, my first ever Blu-ray movie. Even though I've had a PS3 and HD TV for many years already, I've still heavily favoured DVDs when buying movies and TV shows. There are some simple reasons for this. Firstly, DVDs have been, and I think still are, cheaper than Blu-rays. Secondly, not every location I regularly watch movies and shows at (namely some family members) still has a Blu-ray player, and I want to keep my options for when and where I watch open. Even when that changes, price will still be major factor, although I might be more willing to look at the alternatives.

3. I have been watching a lot of gaming streams lately, particularly by LoadingReadyRun and Day[9]. (Well, a lot of these I've watched on YouTube, because the time zone difference makes catching most streams live hard at best.) It's interesting to see games I haven't played and (often) am not likely to play. Sometimes watching stuff like this might even inspire me to try new games and genres. (See below. And as I mentioned in an earlier post, watching Hearthstone footage was partially to blame for my rediscovered interest in Magic: The Gathering.) And a good, engaging streamer can make it really entertaining, too.

4. Perhaps somewhat related to the previous, I've been thinking about my options for new games to play, once I'm through with my current playthrough of the Mass Effect trilogy. There's a bunch of games that I'd like to try out, but I have limited money to use and a lot of these games are still pretty pricey. So somehow I found myself once again looking at PlayStation Plus. I have scoffed at the idea before, and I am, generally speaking, not a big fan of subscription based services in most fields. I'd much rather just buy an item and be done with it. But here's the reasoning that finally made me cave in and buy a three month subscription, to try it out. The 'meat' of Plus membership, I think, is the selection of 'free' games you can download. Even if you'd only play a few games that way during, say, a year's membership, I guess you've pretty much got your money's worth. Still, I'd much rather have games on disc than download games I can use only as long as I'm a subscriber. What sold me was the idea that the games I'd be downloading, for the most part, probably aren't games I would normally buy. If I'm spending money on a specific game, I kinda want it to be something I know I'm likely to enjoy, like a new title in a favourite series. There'll be less experimentation, which I'm hoping these downloadable games will inspire more of. (The ability to back up save files in the cloud is an additional bonus. Wish I'd had that last autumn when my old PS3 broke down...)

5. The first PlayStation Plus member game I downloaded from the PSN store, once I'd signed up, just yesterday, was... dramatic drumroll... XCOM: Enemy Unknown. This was inspired by Cam Lauder playing the game (well, technically the expansion, Enemy Within, but that wasn't available to download) on the LoadingReadyRun channel. Now, I never played the original classic UFO: Enemy Unknown, nor do I have a lot of experience in general with tactical games, so this is entirely new territory for me. I'm sure I'll write more once I've had a chance to play more.