By Galen Poulton
There are a few things the Dark Souls series is known for– punishing difficulty, bosses ranging in size from a fully loaded minivan to Godzilla, and a beautiful yet crumbling world to explore. And if you can see it without being axed, gutted, impaled and hoisted, or just plain smashed, you might find you’ve stopped banging your head against a wall and started sharpening your sword with ever increasing form.
While the dilapidated castles and hamlets are oozing storytelling-by-discovery, context and backstory etched into the stone of every wall, safe money says you’ll miss damn near all of it because you’ve spent the last forty seconds with your eyes glued to the table-sized machete that void-faced giant is swinging “oh God here it comes here it comes.MOVE.” It’s cunning, it’s cruel, and it will often feel as though the game is changing its own rules at just the wrong time.
God I hate it. I hate it so much I’ve put in over two hundred hours on the three games combined.
But there’s a feature in the first game that I’ve never heard talked about whenever Dark Souls comes up in conversation. In Dark Souls I, you begin the game (after the “tutorial”) in what at first feels like an enormous world, not because you can set off in any direction for miles of mountains or grasslands or desert etc., but because the path you take is so long and winding that it would take considerable time and effort to go back to where you started. The road feels so long, so arduous, that a significant portion of your gaming brain keeps a running tally of how long it’s going to take you to backtrack to the meeting ground or the blacksmith; whether it’s really a good idea to keep going down this path without getting all your ducks in a row first, all your potions perfectly arranged and your gear all fully repaired. After all, what if there’s a really, really nasty creature just around the corner, or another of those special creatures that can only be killed with that one resource you don’t have quite enough of yet?
But then you find it– the ladder that leads back to the checkpoint you haven’t seen in twenty minutes; the elevator that miraculously takes you from that distant castle right to your own doorstep; The Shortcut. The first time you found one, you spent longer than you’d like to admit staring at the screen in bewilderment. It doesn’t make sense; you haven’t seen this part of the map in hours. What manner of trickery is this?! When you found the shortcut back to the starting area, you thought it was new to you because you’d forgotten what it looked like. There was a real sense of shock mixed with accomplishment at having found the path that saddles this winding beast and finally makes it traversable. It wasn’t until late in the game when you got the ability to warp between a handful of significant bonfires (checkpoints), when you’d already become a fearsome warrior in your own right and were no longer looking to just survive this onerous trial, but conquer it.
By the time you get the ability to warp to within a reasonable walk of anywhere on the map, you know what’s what. You’ve worn strips along your favorite paths up, down and all around this rat cage. Adding a fast-travel system to the game at this particular point only hastens what starts to feel like the end of the line. It’s more of a reward for coming as far as you have, and the fact that getting back to the blacksmith now would take over ten minutes of pure trekking.
Dark Souls I is a maze first and a great world second. Its map’s primary focus is on the terrain that you interact with, not the scenery. And when the game does have enormous castles or cathedrals off in the distance, there is a near certainty that you are going to go there and interact with it, not just look at it because it’s just the kind of painted-on backdrop many triple-A games use in their backgrounds as a way of trying to artificially make the world seem large and epic. It turns what used to be a staple of games– pretty pictures and animations in lieu of playable content– into a world whose monuments you not only get to look at, but clamber over. And occasionally fight to the death.
And then Dark Souls II said, “BOR-ing! You should get to warp to any and every bonfire you’ve found in the whole game right from the get-go! You’ll never see half of this content more than once!”
It’s not that I don’t appreciate the idea of greater access to the entire map; I think the feature works quite well in Dark Souls III. I just wish it hadn’t come at the expense of the sense of connectedness the first game kept winding about itself with each new path back to base. In the beginning of the first game, you needed several shortcuts to get back to earlier areas because there’s no fast-travel yet. There’s no magic carpet function on these smoldering swords yet (a bonfire is a special sword ignited using the bones of a dead… never mind). If you found a weapon that could only be upgraded with a certain titanite (upgrade fodder) that’s only found in a swamp fifteen minutes away, you needed to strap on your journeying boots and fix your heart to the sticking post.
And if you were going to run three solid miles (you’re undead; you may run forever [right after your stamina recharges]) for some miserable green titanite, you’d better be damn sure you really want it. It forces you to make what turn out to be challenging choices about your equipment and the future of your character when the omnipresent supply station you’ve been weaned on by triple-A games now has either a very boring walk or a twelve-foot knight between you and it.
Now consider Dark Souls II. Before you even fight your first boss on his way to his job as a skyscraper support beam, you get your level-up gal, your smith, at least four merchants and a friend-summoning covenant. Combined with the “improved” fast-travel system, this means that instead of lugging yourself all over the map to get those crucial supplies you need because otherwise the next boss is fucking impossible, you can just pop back to camp whenever you need anything and then get right back to it.
Otherwise, you can just go ahead and spend your entire experience going one direction– forward. Now, if you’re playing the game just to beat it, this is a fine adjustment: you get back hours that you would have spent backtracking, anything you might need is all consolidated in one neat location, and you’ll never have to face the question of carrying on into the darkness with gear that’s falling apart, or returning to the nearest smith and coming back later with enough supplies to make it to the next bonfire in one piece.
But is that really better?
Yes, it’s easier this way. Yes, it’s faster this way. Yes, you can make bigger and grander environments this way. But that was all the point of the first game. It’s supposed to be bone-grindingly difficult. It’s supposed to be an exercise in frustration and patience. It’s supposed to be a handful of tightly packed locales that are grand from far away, but riddled with details and traversable environments.
Another problem raised by making the world a handful of linear paths rather than a twisting tunnel network is the sense of space the game has to work with. In the first game, the environment and scenery changed very gradually and naturally, going from a moss-covered ruin, to a small town beside the ruin, to a castle the town is built out of, to a dark and leafy road next to said castle, to a deep basin next to a different castle, to a secret entrance into the second castle which reveals itself to be the first castle from a different angle (insert Neo “Whoa” here), every step possessing a natural flow that changed with height, openness, and view of the sun and sky.
Every time you find familiar ground, you’ll definitely call shenanigans, but after looking at it from a different angle you’ll realize it all makes sense, and that everything is actually measured perfectly. Hell, you might have been able to see this latter part of the game earlier if you’d just looked in the right direction. In the second game, there’s a section that goes from base camp at late afternoon into a tunnel, then into a dark and spooky area with a full moon out, then into a tunnel, then into a hazy, barren landscape in the afternoon, then into a tunnel at the top of a windmill, which opens out not onto the empty sky you might expect at the top of a twenty-story spire, but onto the base of a lake of fire.
I was just two hundred feet in the air. How exactly am I now surrounded by molten iron surrounded by a castle?
I guess my biggest bone to pick with the new fast-travel system is how capable you seem right off the bat. The more powers and abilities you start with, the fewer you have to earn for yourself. The first game made you feel insignificant, like you were just another traveler on his way to getting killed and promptly forgotten. There was no map, no signs or markers (save those left by other players, but I played the first game entirely offline), nothing to help you get around but your own memory and intuition.
Compare that with the second game, which not only let you go anywhere you’ve been to once, but also indicated which areas had bonfires you hadn’t found yet. It’s letting you know there are things you missed, turning you around and saying, “Pst, you missed something. You should check that out.” The first game just didn’t do that, and there were times when I found that aspect beyond frustrating to the point of breaking the game, and there are a few items and locations I think you should look up online when you’re about halfway through Dark Souls I, otherwise you’ll miss huge swathes of content (Rusted Iron Ring, Peculiar Doll).
But those handful of irritants aside, I loved how I had to earn my recognition of my surroundings. I couldn’t know if I’d missed something because there was no map to tell me the precise boundaries of the game. There were no quest indicators or glowing arrows, nothing to light your path but the next bonfire you may or may not find. I was alone, with no one to talk to but the dregs of this world too mad to die. But on I fought, and learned to survive on my own in this lonely tomb of a kingdom. And when the warping ability came, it was not to prop a crutch under my arm, but to let me know that I had proven myself worthy of such game-changing power, and was now ready to bring fire to this dark world.
And then the second game gave me a home with a cozy hearth and plenty of friends to keep me company, and a pat on the head whenever I wanted one.
I miss my solitude.
Do you agree that games should put restrictions on warping? Share your thought in the comment section below.