Dark Souls (From Software)
I first played Dark Souls in 2012, but I never got far. After much grinding, I reached the gargoyles on the church roof, decided I ‘got it’, and put it aside. But I continued to hear stories. Whispered rumours of forests and tombs and painted worlds and an ancient city and demonic ruins. I read “The Hollowed Killer of Lordran” and was captivated by the mention of these names and places that were uttered, like foreign countries on continents I had never heard of. My Twitter feed was still a crossfire of characters and spells and tactics and other words that I didn’t even know what they signified. Eventually, it felt like I had read the opening chapter of The Lord of the Rings but never left The Shire. I needed to know what everyone else was talking about. I needed to see what else was out there.
So I returned. This time, I was willing to use guides and walkthroughs all the way through. I was less concerned with ‘beating’ the game than ‘getting through it’ just to see what was there. I started a new character, a pyromancer on Twitter’s recommendation, and went on my way. What took me about twelve hours on my previous game took me about two. A few hours later and with a bit of help I beat the gargoyles and rang the first bell. I ventured into Blighttown and Queelag’s Lair by myself to ring the second bell. With a guide’s help, I defeated the Iron Golem of Sen’s Fortress and took photos of my television screen as I set foot in Anor Londo. With the help of human strangers I defeated both the painted world, and Dragon Slayer Ornstein and Executioner Smough. I didn’t finish the game—at least, not yet—but I got that bit further. There’s still more to see, but I feel like I understand and appreciate Dark Souls and its world that bit more.
Most satisfying of all was that feeling of camaraderie with other players past and present. Anyone who has played Dark Souls is more than happy to help a newcomer. I felt this bug myself when I saw people start the game after me; so eager I was to jump in and give them tips. It’s because people who have played the game understand the joy of Dark Souls is not in overcoming the game by yourself, as ostensibly single-player as the game might be, but in the sense of solidarity with other players. The joy of the game is in overcoming this cruel game together: in being helped by those that come before you, and helping those that come after you. It’s players versus game both inside the game and outside of it. The world feels so hostile to make friendship feel so warm.
So when I decided I would use guides and walkthroughs to see the world at any cost, I was accidentally approaching the game how the game should be approached: defeated at any cost. When I put aside my stubborn sense of ‘fair play’ and ‘doing it myself’, I realised that there is no ‘fair play’ where Dark Souls is concerned. It refused to treat the player fairly, so why should the player treat the game fairly? Swallowing my pride and using guides just to get through the game didn’t weaken my experience in the game, but made my antagonistic relationship with it all the more vivid.
Vagrant Story (Square)
I didn’t return to Dark Souls the moment I thought about doing so. I spent several months hesitating beforehand. I felt the desire to play it again, but not the confidence. So, instead, I returned to Square’s very odd and fascinating Playstation title Vagrant Story. It had been years since I last played Vagrant Story, but my memory of it gave it a kind of Dark Souls vibe. Not necessarily in mechanics, but in atmosphere: the solitary character in a quiet and dead city full of monsters. Just without the finger acrobatics demanded of Dark Souls.
So, on my Vita, I started a new game of Vagrant Story. I found Yasumi Matsuno’s game fascinating for the ways it mutated and mashed together both traditional JRPG and action RPG elements, combining command menus with semi-real-time combat.
I enjoyed its systems, as dense as they are deep. There is the peculiar mechanic that the more you use a weapon on a type of enemy, the stronger that weapon becomes against that type of enemy (and the weaker it becomes against an opposite enemy type). This requires both grinding and planning. Attacking every enemy with the same sword will get you nowhere. Instead, you must use this sword for beasts, that hammer for zombies, that crossbow for humans, etc. Where it breaks down, however, is when you come across a boss that is a type that you have rarely confronted before. So, to be sure, it is not a balanced game.
Having to constantly change weapons has the potential to be terrible, especially in a game that predates the normalisation of hotkeys on console games. Every time you want to change weapons, you must open your menu system, open the equipment menu, scroll to your weapon, open the menu of all your weapons, find the right weapon, equip it, and press cancel about five times to climb up out of the menu pit. This can get pretty infuriating, especially as you want to be changing weapons every third or fourth enemy. Indeed, I remember it infuriating me last time I played the game. What got me through this time, though, was a desire to play the game ‘slow’. I wasn’t rushing; I didn’t need to get anywhere quickly. I would play the game at its own pace, and Vagrant Story’s pace is slow. The minimal background music and the environmental stillness makes Vagrant Story’s world feels timeless much as Dark Souls’s world feels timeless. It wants you to take your time, so I took my time. When I did this, constant burrowing through menus felt a bit more tolerable.
Most of all, though, I enjoyed the game overarching aesthetic, both in the world and in the menus. In menus, the audio and visual design is satisfying. Every menu dongs like a grandfather clock as you enter it, and swipes away with a ‘swoosh’ as you go back up a level. There are vast swathes of information about every piece of equipment, but it is all relatively easy to parse. In the world itself, however, the game’s visual style really shines. Vagrant Story is one of the few games I have played that takes the graphical look imposed on so many Playstation-era games (chunky with low-res textures) and turns it into a style. Rooms, enemies, and characters are all modelled in very intentful and particular ways. These are not just low-polygon, chunky humans, but stylisied humans that fit the game’s technological constraints majestically. Often I would enter first-person (which would have the surreal effect of pausing game time, but not character animations, so enemy skeletons would just sway and breathe contently in front of you) to look around the wonderful buildings and at the phenomenally detailed character models. Indeed, so much detail is only visible from that first-person perspective. Make no mistake: Vagrant Story is a beautiful game.
Ultimately, it was the outdated save system that defeated me. I encountered a difficult boss a significant distance from the closest save point and felt my enthusiasm be sapped from my body. So I never finished Vagrant Story, but I’m incredibly glad I returned to it.
Earth Defense Force 2017 (Sandlot)
Earth Defense Force 2017 (EDF) is one of those Japanese games people like to point at and laugh about being “So bad it’s good” when, really, what they mean is “that game is incredibly good despite being made on a tight budget”. “So bad it’s good” claims, especially when applied to Japanese games, usually just refers to an imagined level of graphical fidelity not reached, of a certain sincerity to its ‘wackiness’, of a jangliness and a clunkiness. Binary Domain and Deadly Premonition are examples of sincerely good games that are sidelined under the “so bad it’s good” label when, really, they are only bad if you use the wrong measuring stick.
EDF places you in the role of a single soldier alongside many others, defending Tokyo from giant bugs and aliens. Though, I get less of a sense of the bugs as ‘giant’ and more of a sense that I, in fact, am really small. I feel like a toy soldier in a Tokyo diorama put too close to an anthill. Regardless, the sense of drama and scale are the same. The visuals are lo-fi and the animations are jangly, but none of this detracts from the breathtaking spectacle that is watching a wave of giant ants pour over skyscrapers towards you. The b-grade horror music looping in the background only adds to the atmosphere.
This is a game with no pretension, a game that does so well exactly what it is trying to do. Yes, it is ‘rough’ and low budget, but time and labour have clearly been dedicated to the places it needs to be dedicated for the game to achieve what it wants to achieve. The sense of scale, in both quantity and sheer size, in EDF is unmatched by any other game I can recall playing, with the possible exception of Shadow of the Colossus.
Doom 3 (Id Software)
Doom turned twenty years old this year. That feels like a big deal, and I’ve been enjoying the various retrospectives coming out that are trying to appreciate just why it was so special (none more than Liz Ryerson’s excellent video series). Doom 3, however, seems to be often dismissed for not reaching some ideal, nostalgia of the original games. For not ‘being Doom’. At the same time, though, it also seemed to fail at being what, on the surface, it looked like it wanted to be: namely, a survival horror game. It seemed torn between wanting to be a run’n’gun game and a survival horror game. Playing it directly after a replay of the first Doom, though, I found it incredibly enjoyable. I approached it like Doom, running and gunning through its corridors. This gave me, through the jump scares, a constant sense of paranoia. Playing it ‘like Doom’ drastically changed my experience of the game, for the better.
I’ve already written quite extensively about Doom 3 in a Notes posts so I won’t repeat myself here.
Spider (Vector Park)
Amazing animation and a simple idea incredibly executed.