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The DNA of Dark Souls: What made the games great

by David Craddock, shacknews.com, Apr 12, 2013 9:30AM PDT

Editor's Note: With the recent release of more Dark Soul's 2 details, David Craddock dissects From Software's Souls series to find what made the first two games great, and what the upcoming sequel needs to do to follow in the lofty footsteps of its predecessors. Part one of the two-part series looks at game mechanics of the series.


In 2010, From Software announced Dark Souls, a spiritual sequel to 2009's Demon's Souls. Tension was high. As rewarding as it was punishing, Demon's Souls was heralded as the savior of hardcore gaming among legions of dedicated players who had grown tired of casual game tropes such as heavy-handed tutorials and adventures more linear and directed than a moving sidewalk. Our fears were unfounded. Dark Souls left fans broken, bleeding, but grinning as they gasped out, "Thank you, ma'am, may I have another?"

Late last year, From Software responded with the announcement of Dark Souls 2, due out not nearly soon enough. Excitement for the game is high, but once again, uncertainty dogs it. Series director Hidetaka Miyazaki is trading his director's chair for a supervisor role, turning the reins over to newcomers Tomohiro Shibuya and Yui Tanimura. The dual directors have stated their preference for directness over subtlety, which has some fans apprehensive. Do these guys have any idea what made Demon's and Dark Souls so great? We do, so let's help them out.

Through Dark Souls DNA, I and various helpful members of the Shack citizenry will dissect Demon's and Dark Souls to determine which elements shared between the two existing entries was stronger, and how Dark Souls 2 will handle that element. This entry puts each game's world structure under the microscope to determine which implementation served the series best.

In Demon's Souls, the Nexus acted as a hub that granted players access to five worlds. Each world was broken up into multiple levels. Defeating the boss at the end of a level opened up a new level as well as an Archstone, a sort of spoke on a wheel that players could use to travel back to or return from the Nexus.

Dark Souls eschewed the hub system in favor of a seamlessly connected world. Each new area opened into yet more new areas: moonlit forests, crystal caves, cities caught in perpetual twilight, caverns boiling over with lava, and trap-infested fortresses. To reach these and other zones, players had to travel on foot. Approximately halfway through the game, players earned the ability to warp between bonfires, rest stations where players could recharge spells and healing flasks.

Which world structure worked better? Shacker Begawkiness sided with the hub. "I felt like Demon's Souls was more rewarding, probably due to its more linear nature with the stones instead of the open world. When you killed a demon you were transported back to the nexus with a big pile of souls and returned to human form. You could then warp right back to where you had left off. It was all kind of relieving/rewarding after a really tough boss fight."

The Nexus hub offered other advantages. To mollify players who suffered tragic demises after making significant progress, From Software's designers added shortcuts in each level such as bridges and gates that players could activate to cut right into the heart of the region the next time they passed through. Unlike enemies, shortcuts did not reset when players died. Activating a shortcut was like planting a flag in enemy soil: They had conquered, so they could return at will.

Other Shackers sided with Dark Souls, preferring its vastness and interwoven lands. "I like the open world of Dark Souls as it felt like everything was connected and you explore the world at your own pace," said Shacker DHAvatar. "Demon's Souls felt more like playing stages of a game with how the worlds are split, even though they're technically related to each other." Shacker EvilDolemite agreed, saying, "Demon's Souls is more punishing and bleaker. However, the levels feel 'gamey' like they were designed. Dark Souls has a cohesive world that is fantastic with no loading [when traveling between areas]."

Like its predecessor, Dark Souls populated most regions with at least one shortcut to cut down on travel time. But realistically, an open world can only feed into itself so far. Some areas simply could not offer passage into others. The bonfire system served as a compromise, a more versatile way to warp from region to region. Unfortunately, not every bonfire was a warp point. Players could warp from any bonfire, but only to a select few, most of which were set far away from oft-visited NPCs such as blacksmiths.

I get the logic behind the decision to limit warp points. Survival in Dark Souls meant staying never letting your mind wander further than what's around the next bend. The trouble is, fighting my way to the blacksmith in Undead Parish, or to the other smiths scattered here and there, is only difficult when I'm unfamiliar with the lay of the land. The third, fourth, and twenty-fourth hike through an area isn't difficult or nerve-wracking. It's a chore.

The Artorias of the Abyss expansion more than doubled the list of warp points, making travel to critical NPCs and areas much simpler. But I should have been able to warp to any bonfire, not just the ones the designers deemed appropriate. In Demon's Souls, beating a boss allowed me to jump right to its Archstone from the Nexus. That logic should have carried over to Dark Souls. I should have to earn the ability to warp by passing a grueling challenge; such a powerful tool shouldn't be at my disposal by default. But once earned, warping should let me go to any marshmallow-roast site I have activated.

Flaws aside, I and many other Shackers preferred the open world structure of Dark Souls due to an interest in how the game's many areas relate to one another. "Another reason the single world is good is because the designers were able to weave a certain degree of story into their game simply by having certain monsters appear in different areas," Shacker Grumbeld said. "Think of the Golems and Moonlight Butterflies. Where are they? They're in the Crystal Caves. However, there are just a few also in Darkroot Forest. Does this mean that Seath was doing some experiments in the Forest? I'm sure there's a reason for them being there."

Dark Souls 2 director Tomohiro Shibuya has already confirmed that the sequel will play out across a contiguous world similar to Dark Souls, and that's as it should be. For as much as I enjoyed Demon's Souls' levels, Dark Souls' structure was organic and finely crafted. It felt like a world, and that's what I want from games like these: worlds, not video game levels.

One thing, though. We saw in the gameplay reveal this past Wednesday that Dark Souls 2 will use bonfires again. The game world will be larger than its predecessor's, so we can assume warping will return in some fashion. Please, From Software: once I am able to warp, let me jump to every node I've activated, not just a chosen few.


In part 2 of Dark Souls DNA on Monday, we discuss the difficulty level of Demon's Souls and Dark Souls, and discuss why overcoming adversity is just as important to a Souls game as adversity itself.

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