Demon's Souls - title

With a new generation of consoles coming into their own, the lifespan of the PS3 and XBox360 is rapidly coming to an end. It's not quite as monumental as the end of the PS2's lifecycle, which is arguably the single best gaming console ever made! With the PS3 and XBox360, our console games started to have consistent online functionality, and with online functionality comes a sad side-effect: a game's life-span is finite. I can always go back and play my favorite PS2 games (like Silent Hill 2, Metal Gear Solid 3, Ace Combat 4, Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, Gran Turismo 3, and Devil May Cry) and have pretty much the same experience that I had the first time I played. But I won't be able to do that with some of my favorite PS3 games, because some of them have online features that won't remain active forever.

favorite PS2 games
As long as my PS2 is functional, I can always go back and re-play my favorite PS2 games.

PC gamers have been dealing with this problem since the dawn of the internet, but they have work-arounds. PC Games can be modded to support direct TCP / IP connections in order for their online communities to stay online. Hypothetically, you could keep your favorite MMO alive for yourself and your circle of friends in this fashion. But with console games, there are much more significant technical hurdles to overcome, and when the producer shuts down the servers, that is basically the end of that game.

And that is exactly what is going to happen some day with my favorite PS3-exclusive: Demon's Souls.

Every console has its defining games - those games that are reasons for owning the consoles. The original PlayStation had Final Fantasy VII and Metal Gear Solid, the Nintendo 64 had Goldeneye, the Dreamcast had Shenmue and Soul Calibur, the XBox had Halo, GameCube had Resident Evil 4 and Eternal Darkness, the PS2 had Shadow of the Colossus. For me, Demon's Souls is that game for the PS3: the game that makes owning a PS3 worthwhile.

Demon's Souls is a game that completely redefined the way that I think about gaming. My ideas about how a player can interact with a game world and with other players were completely turned on their head with this game. So I want to take a moment to pay tribute to this masterpiece of interactive art with a full review while its servers are still up and running. And maybe - just maybe - I can sell a copy or two to some new players.

Deep and addictive hack 'n' slash action

The gameplay is based on a simple control configuration in which weapons are mapped to the left and right hand and controlled with the left and right shoulder buttons (respectively). The design is reminiscent of a simplified version of FROM's other major game franchise: the mech-combat sim Armored Core. Weapons equipped in the right hand have a basic attack and a heavy attack, and weapons or shields in the left hand have a block and heavy attack (sorry, lefties, no left-handed characters for you!). These basic controls are very simple, and any player can start hacking and blocking away as soon as they pick up the controller. But more advanced controls and variations in weapon functionality make this seemingly-simple combat system very deep.

Each weapon class has different movesets, ranging from the slashing of a sword to the thrusting of a spear, to smashing of a giant hammer. And shields (and some off-hand weapons) have an advanced parry feature that allows you to stun and counter an attacking foe to land a critical hit. You can also attack while running or out of dodges in order to keep a foe guessing. Mastering these various features takes a little bit of time, but it is immensely rewarding when you finally have the skills to go toe to toe with a giant, butcher-knife wielding skeleton with confidence. But don't get overconfident, because this game will punish you for every mistake!

Demon's Souls - Vanguard rematch
With patience and practice, you'll soon stand confidently before the Vanguard that killed you in the tutorial.

If you die, you lose all your accumulated souls (i.e. "experience"), and must restart the level from the beginning! But there is a shining glimmer of hope: you have one chance to reach the spot where you died in order to recover your lost souls. If you get there...

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Dark Souls II - title

I recently posted my much-belated review of Dark Souls II. In it, I criticized the game for having lackluster online components, but didn't go into much detail other than to say that Soul Memory seems like a non-optimal matchmaking method and that invasions are rare and reserved for elite players. I wanted to take a moment to go over some of the other complaints that I have with the game's online mechanics, as well as to offer some suggestions for improving them. While it seems unlikely that From will make significant mechanical changes at the fundamental levels that I am about to propose, the fact that there is still at least one more DLC incoming means they have the opportunity to do so.

Dark Souls II - tutorial effigy
Human Effigies were too rare to be
the only means of revival.

When the game initially released, humanity could only be restored by consuming a Human Effigy. This mechanic was an interesting departure, since the previous games had both relied on defeating bosses as the primary way of reviving. The idea of requiring a consumable item to restore humanity wasn't exactly earth-shattering or fundamentally broken, but the specific implementation had one major flaw: Human Effigies were very rare, and there was no way to farm them!

This made deaths feel extremely punitive and proved unpopular with players and critics, and so From reversed their design and went back to granting revivals from boss kills.

After the 1.03 patch, maintaining your humanity has become almost trivial. This is mostly due to the fact that the White Soapstone can be placed anywhere in the level (including right outside a boss's fog gate), and that players can use the Small Soapstone to fully restore humanity by spending a couple minutes killing standard enemies. By using the Small Soapstone, you spend a few minutes in another player's world, and killing enemies shortens this duration. At the end, you are sent back to your own world with fully restored health, humanity, item condition, estus, and a small reward (usually a Smooth & Silky Stone).

Revival via the Small Soapstone makes it far too easy to keep your humanity. It requires only a minimal investment of time and effort, and you don't even have to beat a boss to fulfill it. This practically nullifies the cumulative loss of health from hollowing and makes it almost trivial to maintain humanity throughout most of the game.

Dark Souls II - small soapstone duty complete
The Small White Soapstone can be used to easily restore full humanity - sometimes without any effort by the player!
Instead of full restoration, it should provide a partial restoration.

Fixing this imbalance seems easy enough: completing the Small Soapstone task should only partially restore the player's humanity. Instead of a full restore, the player's max HP could be restored equivalent to a single death...

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Dark Souls II - title

Despite being very excited about this game and pre-ordering the collector's edition (contrary to my typical avoidance of pre-orders), it took a couple months before I was able to spend much time with it. My strategy guides for Civilization V: Brave New World was a lot of work and took up a lot of time. I was only able to play bits and pieces of Dark Souls II during that time and didn't make much progress. I was hoping to have a review out in time for the PC release, but that didn't happen. Then I was hoping to publish the review before the first DLC hit, but that didn't happen either. I'll probably review the DLC later, once all three have been released.

Full disclosure: I haven't actually finished the game yet, but I do feel that I've played enough of it to be able to write a review. If completing the game changes my opinion considerably, then I will revise this review as I've done with other games in the past (including the first Dark Souls). I've also considered getting the Steam version, since it may be better than the console versions. If I do play that version, I may revise this review to include opinions on that version.

But for now, I've only played the PS3 version,

Table of Contents

Dark Souls II - Victory!
Is Dark Souls II a victorious successor to a masterpiece of design and storytelling?
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Dark Souls: Artorias of the Abyss - title

I may have been a bit hard on Dark Souls in my original review (despite spending like six months playing it before I reviewed it). I guess - despite my best efforts - I just couldn't get over my love for Demon's Souls (which I still think was a better game for its time). But Dark Souls ended up eating up a lot of my time, and I have fallen as much in love with it as I had for Demon's Souls. As such, I have updated my original review with a new, retrospective score to go along with this DLC review. I bought and downloaded Artorias of the Abyss DLC on day one (PSN) when it was released last year, but didn't get around to playing it until earlier this year.

Instead of just unlocking a special quest as soon as the DLC is download (ala Skyrim), the DLC of Dark Souls can only be accessed by defeating an existing, but entirely optional boss in an existing, but entirely optional area of the world; then defeating an existing enemy that allows access to a specific NPC; then defeating another monster in one of the end-game areas (after acquiring the Lordvessel) in order to unlock the "key" to the DLC content. Phew. That's a lot of hoops to jump through! So it took me a while just to be able to access the new content - let alone play through it. Sure, you may have paid for this DLC, but FROMSOFTWARE is still gonna make you work for it; and kudos to them for not compromising on their principles!

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Dark Souls II - banner

Viewers of the 2012 Video Game Awards got a special treat in the form of an announcement teaser for Dark Souls II.

The teaser is a pre-rendered cinematic that gives only vague hints of the sequel's plot and provides absolutely nothing in terms of gameplay information. In any case, we have confirmation that a direct sequel (rather than a spiritual successor, ala Demon's Souls to Dark Souls) is in the works. Dark Souls was almost universally acclaimed by fans and critics, but a large portion of the loyal Demon's Souls fans held out that Dark Souls was actually a step backwards from its predecessor. Since a very large portion of Dark Souls players were Xbox and PC users who had never tasted the greatness of the PS3-exclusive Demon's Souls, many of them didn't know any better than to love the game without reservation. Being a big fan of Demon's Souls, I knew better and was one of the critics who argued that Dark Souls didn't quite hold up to Demon's Souls.

Don't get me wrong, I like Dark Souls! It's a really good game! I just felt that Demon's Souls was a more competent and cohesive overall package (especially factoring in the time it was released), in which all the features and mechanics worked fluidly with each other, and which was immensely better balanced (i.e. providing a challenge that was brutal, but fair).

I'm going to reserve my excitement for Dark Souls II until we start learning details of the gameplay. I fear that the marketing folks at the publisher might push FROM Software into making an even more mass-marketable game than Dark Souls was, which could lead to an even further simplification and dumbing-down of the game mechanics and concepts.

However, I'm not going to let that reservation stop me from expressing my desires for what I'd like to see in the game, just like I did prior to Dark Souls' release.

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