Sunday, August 30, 2015

Game Review - Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin (Xbox One, 2015)

I only played Dark Souls for only a few hours when it was released before getting distracted, and I've only recently gotten back into the franchise.  I reviewed Dark Souls, calling it one of the best games I've ever played, and I stand by that claim.

After I'd gotten my fill of the first game, I decided to jump straight into the sequel.  While initially off-putting, some of the changes to the Dark Souls formula grew on me in time, leading me to thoroughly enjoy the sequel, too.  It's still a lesser game in most respects, but given the astronomically high bar set by its predecessor, that's not entirely surprising.  Here's what the second Dark Souls game has to offer:

(As a brief aside, a lot of my comments will compare this game to the original Dark Souls.  That's partly because I played them in quick succession, but partly also because it's natural to criticize a sequel for its divergences.  I know Dark Souls II has gotten some hate, but I think a lot of that hate is undeserved, so I'm inclined to address the bad reputation by drawing those comparisons explicitly.)

The Good
Dark Souls II (hereafter abbreviated "DS2") thrusts the player into a hostile, unknown world with very little explanation or setup.  There's a brief introductory cutscene that is cryptic and virtually useless for setting the stage, so you're left to your own devices right from the start.

You will find that the basic gameplay mechanics are the same as in Dark Souls.  There is heavy emphasis on learning the game, adapting to its challenges, and executing maneuvers precisely, with hefty penalties for mistakes.  You'll use bonfires as both small bastions of safety and respawn points.  Dying causes you to drop all your accumulated souls (which function as the game's experience points and currency), but you can retrieve them if you can get back to the place you died.  Most of the control scheme is even the same, too.

That's a big dude with a nasty hammer coming towards me...
From a broad perspective, it would seem that DS2 is more of what made the original so fantastic.  But as you play, you start to notice small differences that leave a rotten aftertaste.

I had gotten pretty proficient with combat in Dark Souls, after sinking around 80 hours into it, and from the start, DS2 felt wrong.  As I continued, I realized that some of the timings were a bit off - there was a slightly longer delay after an attack before you could dodge, and you have to dodge at slightly different times to avoid damage from incoming attacks.

Coming off the tail of Dark Souls, this situation was incredibly frustrating.  The combat in the original was damn near perfect, so tinkering with it had to result in a less ideal setup.

In retrospect, this subtle difference was actually a powerful feature because it forces Dark Souls veterans to relearn how to play.  That trial and error and slow accumulation of skill was one of the reasons Dark Souls was so engrossing, and the small variations in DS2 come close to emulating it.

I don't know if that was intended, but that's definitely the effect it had on me - I had to go through a similar (albeit quicker) process of trial and error to get comfortable with DS2.

Another great modification to the Dark Souls formula is the inclusion of interesting ways to interact with bosses.  In a handful of areas, you can do something outside of the boss fight that will change the dynamics of that fight.  For example, one of the early bosses resides in a dark chamber.  If you access a couple side rooms and ignite some flammable oil, you can light the arena and make the fight considerably easier.  This feature rewards thorough exploration of the game's areas, which I think is fantastic.

The Bad
There are, of course, some other changes that I don't see quite so favorably:  from the very beginning, you can warp from any bonfire to any other bonfire, making a return trip to, say, a blacksmith a much less dangerous affair than in Dark Souls.  You also have to return to the main town in order to level up.  Combined, these features are effectively the same as being able to level up at any bonfire, but in practice, it can get annoying as you have to pass through additional loading screens in DS2.

In fact, there are lots of loading screens across the game, which gets to feel tedious pretty quickly.  The Xbox One version in particular also has terrible servers for online play.  It takes a couple minutes to connect to the servers upon booting up the game, and even then, the connection failed a few of the times that I tried.

There are a bunch of nasty, nasty bugs in this game, too.
Then there's the baffling decision to stop spawning enemies eventually.  After defeating the same mob a dozen or so times, they will not appear again until New Game+.  As such, the game is a hell of a lot more forgiving than Dark Souls, because you can grind through areas by slowly exhausting all the enemy spawns.

On the bright side, there's also a way to increase the difficulty of an area without completing the game and starting New Game+.  It's a cool mechanic that will reset any depleted spawns and allow you to farm souls or items, if that's your thing, but I don't think it excuses the decreased difficulty overall.

And I do think that DS2 is quite a bit easier than the original.  Some of that is certainly because I didn't have to start from scratch in terms of how to play the game, and I knew exactly what I was getting myself into.  Still, most bosses were disappointingly simple to figure out, and very few areas required more than a couple attempts to pass.

Another big flaw is the overall structure of the game.  Dark Souls was beautiful in that it felt like a sprawling world to explore, with all of the areas connected to each other in complex ways.  DS2 feels much more like a series of levels - you run through a few areas and defeat the corresponding bosses, then you head back to the hub and pick a new branch.  I'm not quite sure how the sizes of the worlds compare, but as a result of this more linear nature, DS2 feels a lot smaller.

To be fair, I had a ton of fun playing DS2 despite these complaints.  Yeah, the game is far from perfect, but it's still an excellent Dark Souls-style adventure.

The Neutral
Dark Souls had another major strength: the story.  Unfortunately, DS2's world building isn't nearly as strong as its predecessor's.  To be honest, I can't quite tell if the underlying mythology in DS2 is just weaker than in Dark Souls or if the storytelling is a lot subtler.  I'm leaning towards the former, but either way, I picked up a lot less along the way.

Fortunately, a weak story doesn't detract from the experience, it just means that there one layer of depth is missing.

The one place where DS2 is a clear step up is in aesthetics.  Visually, the game is stunning, with some incredible vistas and beautiful reveals along the way.  There's nothing quite as dramatic as some of the best scenes in Dark Souls, but it looks damn good the whole way through.

And dragons!
The audio quality, on the other hand, is just decent.  The music is mostly forgettable (with one notable exception), though it generally fits the tone of the action pretty well.  The voice acting is less awkward than in Dark Souls, but that's surprisingly disappointing, as it means that the characters you encounter are significantly less unsettling than the NPCs in Dark Souls.  It's objectively better but much less immersive, as weird as that is.

As a final tally of entertainment value, it's worth noting that my in-game time was around 30 hours when I defeated the final boss.  I suspect that it would have taken longer if I hadn't played Dark Souls recently, but I feel like 30 hours is still a good amount of content, even excluding New Game+ shenanigans (which actually adds a ton of replay value, as New Game+ adds new enemy spawns and makes the game quite a bit harder).

Everything I've written up to this point applies to the base game, so it should be true for any version of DS2.  The Scholar of the First Sin edition is bundled with what were originally the DLC packages for the game.  Those sections are of an entirely different caliber, so they're worth discussing on their own.

The DLC areas are hard.  They're really, really hard.  Enemies hit a lot harder, bosses are absolute monsters, and the areas are much less linear, with more to explore and more chances to get lost.  In short, they're much closer to what fans of the first game likely expect.

And that's fantastic.

It's a shame that you can't get this level of challenge in the base game, but I'm glad that it's in there somewhere.  These sections are welcome end-game content because they can easily add 20+ hours to your DS2 experience.

And that's really it.  If you enjoyed Dark Souls, you'll probably enjoy this game, as long as you give it a shot.  Loading screens may get a bit tedious, and you probably won't find yourself intrigued by the story, but it's still a fun action RPG.

If you haven't played a Souls game, this isn't the one to start with.  It's good for a few dozen hours of entertainment, but Dark Souls is still the better game.

My Rating: 8/10 - great.

UPDATE: I've played the original version of DS2 now, and I think it's worth noting that there are some significant changes in the Scholar of the First Sin edition.  Those changes are mostly enemy spawns, and many areas have completely different enemy compositions in the two versions.  As a result, it may actually be worth playing this version even if you've already played the original release, because a lot of areas feel different.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Magic Monday - Zombie Tribal EDH

Yeah, it's Tuesday morning.  I know.  I just didn't get this done in time to make Monday, and I didn't want to wait nearly a full week to post it.  Hopefully future Magic posts will fall on Mondays so that the title doesn't lose all meaning...

Until recently, I hobbled all of my commander decks together with cards already in my collection.  Doing so is a fun, challenging exercise, and it keeps me from getting overwhelmed by the entire catalog of Magic's history, but it also limits my decks' overall power level.  For my first "built from scratch" EDH deck, I decided to expand a casual constructed deck I'd played off and on for years - zombie tribal.

The basic idea is simple: stuff the deck full of as many quality zombies and zombie-related cards as possible.  There are lots of zombie lords in Magic's history, so it is pretty easy (and fun!) to assemble a massive zombie horde to overwhelm your opponents.

Choosing a Leader for the Horde
Before getting to all those juicy zombie lords, we need to decide on a commander.  With the amount of zombie support in Magic, it's a little surprising that there are only 17 eligible zombie commanders.  Most of those creatures don't support a tribal theme very well (though many are obviously strong commanders), so I think we're really down to 6:

Balthor the Defiled - awesome if you can consistently fill your graveyard with zombies.
Geth, Lord of the Vault - fits nicely into a reanimation-themed zombie deck.
Grimgrin, Corpse-Born - a scary dude with nice synergy with both dying and reanimating zombies.
Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord - another dude with good synergy with dying zombies and filling your yard.
Mikaeus, the Unhallowed - makes the rest of your team really frightening.
Sedris, the Traitor King - yet more synergy with graveyard shenanigans and reanimation.

 A zombie tribal deck is undoubtedly going to be heavily black, so what can blue, red, and green get me?

Green is a pretty weak addition to the tribal theme.  Jarad gives us 13 more zombies, though only a couple of those are exciting (Ghoultree and Lotleth Troll are the only ones that really impress me).  It also gives access to enchantment and artifact hate that you can't get in black.  Is it really worth watering down the zombie theme to play Back to Nature?  Pssh, of course not.  Jarad's out.

Sedris brings a few more friends to the game (18, in fact), but I'm even less impressed with these, and his unearthing ability probably doesn't play terribly well with all the zombie lords.  He does fill one of the holes in black's gameplan with artifact destruction, but I'm not convinced that widening the mana base is really worth all that.

Blue comes with the normal suite of counterspells and bounce effects (Cyclonic Rift is an excellent board wipe), which is nice.  Plus there are 29 more zombies to accompany Grimgrin, and many of those fit the tribal theme well - Diregraf Captain is almost enough to make me want to run blue by itself.

However, there are two big features that push blue over the top - Rooftop Storm is just stupid in a zombie deck, and clones to copy your lords (or your opponents' scariest creatures) seem like excellent value in this sort of deck.

There are obviously good arguments for each of the other commander candidates, but Grimgrin is going to allow me to accomplish my goals (armies of huge zombies) more effectively than the others.

Looks like I've settled on Grimgrin, Corpse-Born.  Now to fill out the deck.

Flesh to Fuel the Apocalypse - Creature Selection
I keep ranting about zombie lords, so let's start with those.

Anything that buffs zombie power and toughness is an easy pick:

While not specifically zombie lords, Adaptive Automaton, Coat of Arms, and Mikaeus, the Unhallowed slot quite nicely into this deck as well.

(As a side note, Risen Executioner fills this role very well, too, I just don't have a copy of it yet).

There are some other cards that synergize with an army of the undead.  Things like:

We're already committed to blue, so why not add some clone effects to double some of those lords' effects?  There's always the potential upside of copying one of your opponents' problem creatures, so a handful of clones can give us some extra reach:

  • Clever Impersonator - copying a planeswalker or Coat of Arms gives this one even greater upside
  • Clone - the classic
  • Evil Twin - copy a lord or use it as removal against an opponent's problematic creature
  • Phantasmal Image - a cheap, albeit not very resilient, clone effect
  • Phyrexian Metamorph - like Clever Impersonator, cloning an artifact could be a serious gain
  • Rite of Replication - the big daddy of clone effects, target Undead Warchief to give your team 10 extra power, or hit a Vengeful Dead and start saccing zombies to your commander

Filling out the rest of the creature suite comes down to getting strong effects on decent bodies.  This goal is doubly important because we may have some trouble dealing with certain types of opposition if we stick to the theme, so getting removal along with our creatures is important.  Also remember that effects that hit all opponents are amplified in multiplayer commander games, so those may be worth a bit more than they otherwise would.

Here are the "filler" zombies I've chosen to include in my deck:

  • Coffin Queen - reanimation on a stick; it's slow, but it can be a big deal once it gets going
  • Eastern Paladin - the textbox is blank against some decks, but a 3/3 for 4 isn't the worst thing in the world (especially with some lords in play); repeatable removal is worth the downside, I think
  • Empty the Pits - not a creature exactly, but it makes them, and it can make a ton of them late in the game; great for sealing the deal or recovering from a wrath
  • Entrails Feaster - also a bit slow, but this little kitty can help purge troublesome creatures from your opponents' graveyards
  • Fleshbag Marauder - an edict effect that is occasionally a powerful creature and is a zombie for all your cards that care; yep, this goes right in the deck
  • Forlorn Pseudamma - one of the weaker choices, this one can (slowly) let you build up an army from nothing, so I think it's worth a card slot just as extra wrath insurance
  • Ghoulraiser - recur a zombie card from your graveyard; the fact that you don't choose it kind of stinks, but the upside is still there
  • Gloomdrifter - if you have Threshold, this guy could clear some nonsense off the board; it won't kill anything truly terrifying (unless you hit it with Rite of Replication), but it's a great answer to token decks
  • Gravecrawler - pure, aggressive value; the added bonus of an infinite combo with Grimgrin and Rooftop Storm can sometimes end games you had no business winning
  • Gravedigger - digging a lord out of the yard is easily worth the slot
  • Gray Merchant of Asphodel - did you know this guy's a zombie? An amazing win condition on his own, clone effects make him truly miserable for your opponents
  • Gurmag Angler - a 5/5 is worth almost any cost in this deck, and casting him on the cheap with Delve seems downright rude
  • Lifebane Zombie - a 3/1 ain't bad, but his ETB effect can strip a vital card from an opponent's hand
  • Liliana's Reaver - if you can connect, that effect can ravage your opponents' hands and build an army at the same time; pure value
  • Moan of the Unhallowed - making a couple zombies is already nice, but flashback makes it that much sweeter
  • Plaguebearer - it gets prohibitively expensive fast, but repeatable removal is always valuable in Commander
  • Possessed Skaab - it's Eternal Witness for zombies! a solid addition all around
  • Servant of Tymaret - this little guy's Inspired ability drains all opponents, and natural regeneration can hold the fort if needed; he's probably one of the weakest cards in the deck, but he certainly plays a role
  • Siren of the Silent Song - this Inspired ability also hits all opponents, and it's a lot easier to trigger this one; landing this siren on turn 3 can quickly leave everyone else at the table Hellbent
  • Skaab Ruinator - you can't always cast this monstrosity, but when you can, it's immediately a serious threat
  • Skinrender - another source of removal, and sometimes weakening a problematic creature can mean the difference between winning and losing
  • Vengeful Pharaoh - conditional removal, but when he's in your yard, other players are dissuaded from attacking you
  • Western Paladin - like his Eastern counterpart, a vanilla 3/3 in some matchups, but a serious threat in others

Growing a Healthy Horde - Support Cards and Manabase
Given our creatures, we're playing a pretty aggressive game, and we have a few ways to deal with roadblocks as they arise.  However, we could use some more ways of dealing with the most problematic threats our opponents could present.  Let's start with some removal:

  • Call to the Grave - a repeated edict for everyone not playing mono-zombies; definitely one of the most powerful cards in this deck
  • Cruel Revival - I'm not usually a fan of targeted once-off removal in EDH, but getting a key creature back to your hand seems worth the more limited effect
  • Cyclonic Rift - aside from clones, this is the only card that isn't death or zombie themed, but it's important to have another safety valve to keep other decks in check
  • Dictate of Erebos - Grimgin lets you sacrifice creatures at will, so paired with your commander, you can usually clean up a lot of the problems on the table
  • Life's Finale - the added upside of pulling scary creatures from someone's deck (and lower relative real-world cost) make this my preferred black wrath for EDH over Damnation
  • Necromantic Selection - kill everything but choose one creature to come back as a zombie on your side of the battlefield; stellar in this deck
  • Syphon Flesh - another edict effect, but this one grows the horde, so I like it here

At this point, one thing we're missing is card advantage.  We have a couple of useful effects between Gravedigger and Grave Defiler, but it could be easy to run out of gas in the face of repeated board wipes or otherwise powerful removal.  There aren't a whole lot of options on-theme, by trying my best to stick to the flavor of death and decay, here are my card advantage choices:
  • Grave Betrayal - come out way ahead in the face of traditional board wipes, and make any creature's death terrifying for your opponents
  • Necromancer's Stockpile - ditch a zombie that's not too useful for current circumstances (like one of the Paladins, for example), get a creature, and draw a card? Sign me up!
  • Reprocess - turn late-game lands or useless creatures into more cards, or use it as a sac outlet to ping opponents with Diregraf Captain or Vengeful Dead
Finally, we need to be able to cast all our spells.  This is a particularly rough task, as we are primarily black, but we want to be able to cast our commander consistently, and we have a few double-blue costing spells.  As such, I've gone pretty hard on the fixing (maybe too hard, so it's definitely worth tweaking).  Here's the manabase of my current iteration of this deck.

First, lands (and an artifact) that generate both colors:
Then, I looked into utility lands, but I only found three that were really compelling:
  • Bojuka Bog - emptying someone's graveyard can be important in many Commander games
  • Unholy Grotto - while this one doesn't tap for colored mana, the ability to recur creatures is a massive boon
  • Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth - making all lands tap for black isn't all that important, as we're black-heavy anyway; the real benefit of Urborg is the occasional upside of making your opponents' lands swamps, so Zombie Master makes all your dudes unblockable

Finally, we need to fill in the rest with basics:
  • 5 Islands
  • 20 Swamps
And there you have it, the most entertaining Commander deck I've ever built and/or played.  It often ends up playing like an aggro deck, looking to land early creatures and attack often.

Thoughts on Optimization
There were three important decision points in the process of building this deck that are worth briefly discussing.

First, I tried to keep the deck relatively cheap - that's why things like Damnation aren't included.  The manabase is easily the most costly part, but I built it mostly out of lands I already owned, so it didn't cost me anything extra.  If you're looking to build the deck, though, you can certainly skimp on some of the more expensive lands in favor of more basics; I've never had serious color issues with this deck, so I was probably too careful with it anyway.

Second, I opted to stay away from the Innistrad zombie theme of self-mill because there is a good deal of graveyard hate in my playgroup.  It scares me to go too heavily in the direction of using my yard as a resource because things like Rest in Peace completely shut that gameplan down.  If you're not worried about that sort of thing in your playgroup, you may be able to get a more powerful deck by throwing in a Skaab Goliath and an Armored Skaab or other things to stock your graveyard.

Third, I avoided tutor effects entirely.  Demonic Tutor and Sidisi, Undead Vizier would both be terrifying additions to this deck.  This decision is a result of my philosophy on EDH - one of the reasons I like the format is that each game feels totally different (as opposed to competitive formats, where decks are designed to be consistent).  Tutor effects make Commander games feel the same, as players often search for the same two or three cards each game.  As a result, I like to stay away from those kinds of things unless absolutely necessary, and I think this deck has enough punch to not need any tutor effects.  If you're looking to build the most powerful, consistent deck you can, you should definitely add some, though.

Take this list, customize it, and crush your friends under the rotting flesh of a zombie apocalypse.  I hope my thoughts can inspire someone out there to think about building a crazy tribal EDH deck!

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Game Review - Dark Souls (Xbox 360, 2011)

Dark Souls has the reputation of being soul-crushingly hard and deservedly so.  It is, however, one of the best games I have ever played.

An action RPG that punishes you for every mistake, it's brutal, but it's not impossible, even if it occasionally gets unreasonably frustrating (more on that a bit later).

Combat of Champions
At its core, Dark Souls boasts a surprisingly complex combat system, which is more reminiscent of quality hack and slash games than other RPGs.  It revolves around about a dozen broad weapon categories, each coming with a distinct move set, encompassing everything from the quick jabs of a dagger to the slow, crushing strikes of a greatsword that is as long as you are tall.

The real beauty of this system is that all of these weapon types are equally powerful, assuming you are sufficiently comfortable with their corresponding move sets.  Your choice of weapon is therefore almost always an issue of your preferred playstyle rather than a comparison of different weapons' stats.  Of course, occasionally stats will matter, especially when looking for specific elemental upgrades or the like, but for the most part, the weapon system allows a great deal of customization.

Once you've settled on a move set, you'll have to practice it to perfection.  Enemies hit really hard, so there's very little margin for error.  In a sense, just about every monster you encounter is a mini boss because they will murder you if you underestimate them.  To really stand apart, the bosses are epic.  They're huge fights with big demons and the like, and every one feels like the hardest thing you've ever done.

Fortunately, the game gives you some powerful tools to reward you for skillful mastery of the mechanics.

Here's an example of one aspect of combat: your defensive moves consist of dodging, blocking, and parrying.  Each has various strengths and weaknesses; blocking, for example, blunts a lot of the damage of an attack, but depletes your stamina, forcing you to wait a bit before executing an attack yourself.

While it's certainly possible in theory to make it through the entire game using only one of these defensive techniques, it would be damn hard.  Each is incredibly valuable in at least some situations, so mastery of the three, plus fluidly switching between them as needed, is almost necessary to progress.

There are some other subtle features that make combat a deep and satisfying experience (there are several brands of magic to explore, for example).  While I'd love to discuss my favorite aspects of all those details, it's not appropriate here.  Let's just leave it by saying that Dark Souls may have the most challenging and satisfying combat of any game I've ever played.  Seriously.

Role-Playing at its Finest
So the combat mechanics are great, what about everything else?

Dark Souls also does the role-playing thing incredibly well.  The basics are familiar: a variety of statistics govern your character by determining total HP and strength of attacks and all that jazz.

As you kill enemies, you'll automatically absorb their souls.  These souls can then be spent to increase your attributes, though only at the relative safety of a bonfire.  Seems pretty straightforward.

This system is complicated by two incredible factors:

First, resting at a bonfire revives (nearly) every enemy you've defeated.  All the random mobs you had to dispatch to make it to the bonfire are back, and any progress you made to your next objective is reset.  You can't inch your way to victory in Dark Souls, making the danger of every zone all the more devastating.

Second, any time you die, you drop all the souls you've accumulated.  You can recover those souls if you can reach the point where you bit it, but all the enemies are back, so it's just as perilous as the first time.  If you die again, you drop your souls as before, overwriting the previous recovery point - you just lost those souls for good.

Put all of it together, and you start to experience the sheer terror that your character must feel - with imminent death lurking in every new area, you're in a constant state of heightened awareness.  Every sound makes you jump; every corner makes you paranoid.  It's fantastically immersive.

There's also some complexity in terms of the way that your attributes influence gameplay.  There are obvious things, like your resistance stat increasing your character's resistance to poison, but the effectiveness of weapons and spells scale differently with different attributes.  This effect is amplified when you consider different weapon upgrades and enhancements, some of which alter the weapon's scaling.

None of this is explicitly explained, which is kind of cool.  You're left to your own devices to figure out how things work (much like your character would be, given his or her circumstances).

I hope by this point you're seeing how beautifully complex the gameplay is.  Not only are the enemies punishing, but you also have to learn a lot of details about the mechanics to do well.  It's an exciting game to explore.

That said, the gameplay certainly isn't flawless.  There are a couple sections of the game that are simply terrible because they rely on pseudo-platforming.  While the game is generally frustrating, these areas where you might frequently and accidentally roll off cliffs are miserable.  Thankfully it really only happens twice over the course of the game, but they are pretty bad.  The overall quality of the rest of the game more than makes up for those bits, though.

Honestly, I think I could end the review at this point.  It is an incredibly deep and satisfying RPG and is worth playing on those merits, even without mentioning the story or the world.

But it nails that, too.

An Intricate World to Explore
Dark Souls presents a story unlike any other game I've played.  You have to work for every bit of the lore because very little of it is fed to you.

The game starts with a cryptic cinematic describing old gods and their war against dragons.  When you take control, your character is nearly naked and decaying in a cell.  Someone throws you a key and you make your way into the tutorial area.

(As a side note, Dark Souls does something else I've never seen before - you will almost certainly die in the tutorial area, perhaps repeatedly.  It doesn't pull punches at any point, including at the very beginning when it's telling you how to move the camera. I think that's pretty sweet.)

You'll eventually find yourself in a vast world full of interconnected zones.  Your only hint at what to do is an NPC sitting nearby, and he doesn't give you much to go on.  What's more, it's an open world, but there aren't any obstacles to prevent you from going the "wrong" way (aside from foes that will absolutely crush you if you're not prepared).  You learn what to do and where you can survive through exploration and failure, again adding to the immersion.

If you want to know why all this is happening, you'll have to piece together fragments of story obtained by reading item descriptions and talking to NPCs repeatedly.  Even then, it's all very subtle, but at the same time it's fascinating.  There's detailed lore if you're willing to look for it, but it's never forced on you if you'd rather focus on the gameplay.

Even if you opt to excuse yourself from the lore, you're still in for a treat.  While the graphics aren't the best around, the world is surprisingly detailed.  Each area has a unique vibe, and it's genuinely fun to look at all the scenery and doodads scattered around.  Hell, the different zones are detailed enough that they tell stories themselves.  Dark Souls is a beautiful game, even if the graphics are dated from a technical perspective.

Though to be fair, the sound quality plays a big part.  The music is fantastic - haunting at some times, intense at others; every tune contributes to the overall experience quite nicely.  And the voice acting is similarly superb.  Every character you'll meet sounds just a little unsettling in unique ways, but it fits with the context so well that I feel it has to be intentional.

And overall there's a lot of content to explore.  My first playthrough took about 50 hours.  From there, I was genuinely excited to tackle a the "New Game+" mode, which added another 20-25 hours because unlike most games, it further ratchets up the difficulty.  Many bosses were significant challenges even with my high level and powerful gear.  Of course, you could also approach the game from scratch using a different playstyle, like focusing on magic instead of melee, so the game has oodles of replay value.

To sum up: Dark Souls is a satisfying game set in an amazing world.  It's very hard, but if you stick with it, you'll find one of the most amazing gaming experiences of all time.

My Rating: 10/10 - epic.