Dark Souls II – Scholar of the First Sin

The challenge itself is the draw. For the most part, that’s enough. But you may reach a moment, as I did, when you start to wonder why you’re doing this. I made it about halfway through before this persistent question began to erode my enjoyment of the combat.

The original Dark Souls is a masterpiece of game design. A punishing action-adventure hack and slash game, it’s a title that stands in a worthy spot on many “greatest games of all time” lists. Though the story and lore of the game’s world is opaque, players are given glimpses of it in item descriptions and conversations with other characters. Over eighty hours, my initial frustration with the game gave way to adoration and excitement. Though frequently frustrating, the world of Dark Souls had a balance of trials and reward. When you spend hours fighting for every inch of new territory, the game rewards you for it accordingly. By the time I’d made it through the Abyss and on to the Kiln of the First Flame, I felt like I’d accomplished something. Victory over Gwyn, Lord of Cinder is a fist-pumping achievement and worthy of bragging about. The game’s design clearly led to this moment, building the world in such a way that you can recount nearly every step you took from start to finish.

Dark Souls II lacks a sense of continuity and purpose. That’s notable, because Dark Souls games are not known for having a clearly communicated story. Hints of lore and world building are hidden in item descriptions, loading screens, and in conversations with other characters. If you’re really interested in the story, you can go online and read detailed history lessons contained on the Dark Souls II wiki. I’ve not spent any time going through the lore. Personally, I figure that if the game doesn’t try very hard to make sure I know what the story is, it can’t be that important. Why should I care about something if the game itself obviously doesn’t? The original Dark Souls had a similarly hidden story, though the game’s world made up for it. By means of visual signposting and excellent level design, the player always knew where they were supposed to go next. Discovery of the world was motivation enough for me to want to keep playing. Dark Souls II lacks that key ingredient. Since the story might as well not exist, the world design alone carries the weight of motivating the player to keep moving forward. Though the game contains some compelling locations, the whole of the game’s world, Drangelic, lacks a sense of cohesion.

See the ruins, bridge, and tower in the distance? You don’t get to explore any of that in DSII.

Take Huntsman’s Copse, for example. Emerging from a cave, the player sees a large tower sitting atop a cliff. To get there, you must battle your way through a misty forest filled with bandits and poison moths. Eventually you arrive at an ominous passage. Dark walls tower over a narrow walkway lined with irregularly placed stone pedestals. Each pedestal serve as perch for a Purgatory Guardian. These are the toughest enemies I’d yet faced in the game. Armed with whips and giant staffs imbued with the power of dark magic, they are a challenge when fought singly. Advance down the corridor and they’ll drop down to engage you. Advance too much at one time and multiple guardians will engage you. Each fight was tense and stressful, followed by the release of defeat or elation of victory. This sequence is classic Dark Souls; challenge, risk, and reward. It’s a satisfying gameplay sequence. Eventually you’re allowed to walk through the passage and across a rope bridge to the ominous tower. A fog gate awaits you. There’s a boss inside.

Oooh. Foreboding!

The Executioner’s Chariot is a two-stage boss fight that’s pretty standard for Dark Souls games. The fight itself is merely the logical progression of your battle with the guardians outside. Dying here means you must face the entire gauntlet again. Victory means satisfaction, reward, and the incentive to keep progressing forward. Except not in the way I’d hoped. It took me at least ten attempts to figure out how to get through the passage with the guardians, and I died at the hands of the boss at least six times. After so much pain and time and effort to take out a boss, I expected to be rewarded. My hope was that I’d keep fighting up through the tower, discovering some cool new location above the misty woods I’d been trapped in for so long. But, no, that was not to be the case. On the fateful attempt when I did achieve victory over the Executioner’s Chariot, I was sorely disappointed. There’s nothing new to discover. The room that contained the boss was just a hallway; a circular hallway! One alcove contains a bonfire, but that’s it. The payoff for all my hard work is that I get to warp out of a dead end and start another journey somewhere else.

This is the Shrine of Amana. Everybody on the internet hated it (do a search, but beware salty language), but I loved it.

This scene repeats itself more times than I can count in Dark Souls II. The game introduces a new locale, only to cast it aside and shift someplace else after a scant hour or two of gameplay. There is quite a diverse range of locations to explore. Seaside towers, a haunted ship berthed in a cave, misty and foggy woods, stone caverns lit by poisonous green pools, an iron castle sinking into a pit of lava, another castle that seems to float above the world, frozen castles; Dark Souls II has it all! And that’s part of the problem. Instead of each area contributing to the feel of the world, it feels like someone made a list locations that sounded cool and tossed them in without any justification. While most of these places are beautiful, the game clearly values quantity over quality. There are thirty-four different locations, and almost all of them have their own boss. Thirteen of those locations have a single resting point. You’ll be in those locations only long enough to fight some enemies, beat the boss, and move on.

This section of Undead Crypt made me want to quit the game.

For the most part, that’s not a problem because Dark Souls II is still fun to play – to a point. The combat system imported all of the good things from the original Dark Souls. This is a game of skill. Recognizing the patterns, strengths, and weaknesses of your enemies is important. The single most important thing to learn about combat is not to panic. Panic leads to rash decisions, which lead to death. Patience and discipline are essential to living for more than a few minutes at a time. Depending on your preferences, you can opt to wield magic or fire, build a strength character to pummel enemies with big hammers, or use dexterity to become a slasher of supreme order. Most of the time, combat is fair. Sometimes, it is absolutely not. This game loves to toss swarms of multiple enemies at you, and sometimes it’s more than a bit unreasonable. But in the end, it’s still a Dark Souls game. The sense of achievement when you tackle a tough foe is real enough. So too is the despair when you encounter a baddie that you just can’t see a way around. The challenge itself is the draw. For the most part, that’s enough. But you may reach a moment, as I did, when you start to wonder why you’re doing this. I made it about halfway through before this persistent question began to erode my enjoyment of the combat. Forty-three hours after starting the game, I watched my character take a seat on a throne. The throne was inside of some hut, which itself was buried deep within a fortress. The doors of this hut closed slowly, drenching my warrior in inky blackness and the game ended. My character had fought long and hard to sit in the dark by himself. Surely his last thought about his experiences must have mirrored my own: Is this all there is?

What I Learned About Live Streaming

Streaming and creating video content is a lot of fun, but it isn’t for everyone. If you don’t possess the capability to create a technically sound stream, you’ll probably cause nothing but frustration for yourself and your viewers.

Have you ever made a commitment to something before you knew whether or not you could actually follow through on it? That was me a few weeks ago when I seized a friend’s invitation to join a gaming marathon to support Extra Life. My job was simple: Play video games during a certain time slot and live-stream it all, interacting with anyone who happens to be watching me. Record video. Broadcast it. Be entertaining. How difficult could it be?

Step One: Record video.

Contrary to what you might think, capturing gaming videos doesn’t have to cost you a cent. If you own a PC, you already own the required hardware. All you need in addition to your PC is a software program capable of capturing, recording, and encoding video. There are a handful of free, open-source options. The most widely used application I know of is Open Broadcaster Software. It’s a program that gives you a virtual canvas of sorts, where you can compose various elements together into one video output. Their newest release, OBS Studio, does have a slight learning curve but becomes more intuitive over time. There is a bit of trial and error involved in finding the best settings for recording, but you can save as many different configuration presets as you like.

Assuming you want to contribute some voice commentary, you’ll need a microphone. I use the mic from my gaming headset, a Sades 810S that cost me less than $20 on a Lightning deal at Amazon.com. It’s not the highest quality item but it is good enough for casual sessions. Any audio sources in addition to the game capture will need to be manually added to your setup in OBS. Helpful tip: use OBS’s built-in audio presets to help to minimize background noise and accidental transmissions.

obs1

If you’re the type who wants to superimpose a headshot video of yourself over one corner of the gameplay, you’ll need a webcam. Or do you? No webcam, no problem. Use the Kinoni EpocCam app on your smartphone along with the companion webcam viewer on PC and you’re good to go. In my experience it tends to be a bit picky about starting up – start the desktop application on your PC first, then the app on your phone. Be prepared to repeat this a few times until the two devices see each other. Once they’re connected, you’ll have a window on your PC that shows the live video feed from your phone. This window can be added into your composite layout in OBS Studio for your “talking head” feed. The feed freezes when task switching, so start your game, make sure the feed works, click record and then start playing – but do not task switch away from the game again.

It’s not a perfect solution; I had issues with the feed freezing when task switching between my game and the desktop. After a few cycles of this, I realized there’s a specific sequence needed to keep things functional. Start your game, then switch to the desktop. Make sure the EpocCam Viewer shows a live webcam feed, then click record / stream in OBS and play away. Do not task switch away from the game again, it’ll cause EpocCam to freeze up and the entire process will need to be restarted. It’s kind of a hassle, but it’s free. kinoni

Step Two: Broadcast video.

With your video output taken care of, you now need a place for that video feed to be broadcast to the masses. Twitch and YouTube are the major players here. Create an account at either website and you’ll be given a streaming key. This is a unique link that, when plugged into OBS, tells your video feed where to go. Before you rush out and try to share your content with the world, you have to find the answer to one question that will make or break your dreams of live-streaming video games: what’s your upload speed? Perform a speed test of either speedtest.net or speedof.me and take note of the results. Plug that number along with some other information about your computer into the handy OBS Stream Settings Estimator, and see what your recommended settings are. You might be tempted not to trust the results of the estimator. You may see your results and think, “surely my internet connection can do better than that!“. It can’t. Uploading a constant stream of video is very demanding of your internet connection. Respect it. In my case, the OBS estimator told me I might be able to stream at 30 frames-per-second at 480p. Even that was optimistic. What the estimator should have told me was, “Sorry, but streaming video isn’t for people with your kind of internet connection.”

speedtest

Low upload speed spawns two major issues: Quality of image and timeliness of image. While you will be viewing pristine and crisp gameplay, anyone watching your low-quality stream will be seeing a very different picture. They’ll see compression artifacts and loss of detail, as well as dropped frames or “skipping”. Another odd effect of streaming with a slow upload speed is a delay between the live pictures and what my viewers saw. Though I was connected to others live via voice-chat, the stream they were watching lagged as much as six or seven minutes behind real-time. The end result was disorienting as their comments only applied to gameplay decisions I’d made multiple minutes ago. Part of the appeal of live-streaming is that a host can interact with their audience in real-time. If your stream quality is so low that there’s a time delay, that opportunity is gone.

rct2
CLICK TO ENLARGE. This is a side-by-side comparison to display what my stream showed (left) to what I saw (right). Major difference. There are more comparisons posted at the end of this article.

Step Three: Be entertaining.

The thing that surprised me most about live-streaming gaming videos is just how fun it is! But, it’s also more work than you’d expect. While there’s a wide range out there in the types of gaming videos available, I prefer to watch a host make insightful comments about either the game or their thought-process while playing it. How much narration is required depends largely on what kind of game is being played. Action games lend themselves well to video format because it’s usually very apparent to the viewer what you, the game are doing. There’s enough happening on screen that it’s obvious what you’re reacting to and why you’re making decisions. Slower paced games like Rollercoaster Tycoon, SimGolf, or Company of Heroes, typically require more thinking on the part of the player. It’s not always apparent from gameplay what the host is thinking about a given situation, so it’s up to the host to communicate his thought process to the viewer. A good host can make up for lackluster gameplay, but some games are better watched with the help of editing and condensed length.

Streaming and creating video content is a lot of fun, but it isn’t for everyone. If you don’t possess the capability to create a technically sound stream, you’ll probably cause nothing but frustration for yourself and your viewers. Streaming may not be a good fit if you’re not comfortable talking about your gaming or laughing at yourself. Aside from the three points mentioned above, my only advice is to relax and have fun with it. In my case, I lack the upload speed to make streaming feasible, so I’m going to make videos offline and upload pre-recorded material to my YouTube channel. Stay tuned!

Bonus: Screenshot gallery comparing live stream to direct recordings:

coh

soma dark-souls darksoulsb

 

 

Dark Souls Journal #02 – Losing Battles but Controlling Myself

Dark Souls Journal is a running series chronicling my experience in a blind playthrough* of Dark Souls

*Blind playthough means I’m not consulting any external guides or tutorials for hints or tips about how to play the game. All I have is the game and its manual.

Read previous entries in this series: Part 1

DARKSOULS 2016-06-23 12-22-48-00

At first glance, Undead Burg doesn’t appear to be anywhere near as dreary as its name would suggest. First impressions can be deceiving. The bright and cheery skyline visible in the screenshot above quickly become obscured by dark stone walls, forcing me into conflict with the permanent residents of this particular burg. I can only assume that this is the path I’m supposed to take early in the game, seeing as every other avenue I tried saw me skewered in a matter of moments. If my assumptions are correct, then this twisted medieval version of suburbia is the player’s “real” initiation into the world of Dark Souls. If you can survive here, then you just might have what it takes to survive farther into the game.

20160623102846_1

I don’t know if I have what it takes to survive farther into the game.

After a half dozen enemy encounters with results ranging from limping victory to terrible bloodbath, I realize that I still have no clue what I’m doing. Let me give you an example: Undead Burg has a shopkeeper where you can trade items and buy supplies. I accidentally killed him. In the fifteen to twenty minutes it took me to battle from the burg’s entrance to his shop my mind was in a state of combat readiness. When I stumbled into his shop, hidden behind a mess of crates and barrels I was on edge and ready to respond to the slightest stimuli with a flurry of violence. That poor shopkeeper thought the best thing he could to do a well-armed traveler that bursts through the door is start talking. I had to respond somehow. I pressed a button that I thought was supposed to initiate interaction, but I pressed the wrong one and whipped a throwing knife at his face. He doesn’t want to sell me things anymore. In one enraged motion, he came crashing through his table and lunged towards me. I’m forced to defend myself against who I assume is the only one able to sell me supplies in this location. This shop is now closed permanently. No friends do I have in Undead Burg. All because I pressed the wrong button.

20160623103346_1

Controls, controls, I must learn the controls. If you ever want to play the PC version Dark Souls for yourself be forewarned that using the mouse and keyboard is horrible and clunky. That’s why I’m playing with a wireless Xbox 360 controller. For the most part, the default layout seems pretty intuitive. The left stick moves my character. the right rotates the camera. Clicking the right stick will snap the camera to face the same direction as my character. Clicking the right stick in close proximity to an enemy will “lock on” to that particular foe, making them easier to track in the heat of combat. The front bumpers and triggers correspond somewhat to the left and right sides of my character’s body. My character’s left arm holds a shield. The left bumper brings up the shield for a block, left trigger swipes the shield in an attack. My character’s right arm is used for offense. Press the right bumper for a light attack that you can recover from quickly, use the right trigger launches a heavy attack appropriate for the type of weapon currently wielded. The D-pad corresponds to four inventory slots. Pressing a given direction allows you to equip or unequip items in that slot.

Moving on to the face buttons: Y will switch between a one-handed or a two-handed combat stance. When using a two-handed stance pressing either the left trigger or left bumper will allow you to use your sword to block. Pressing B while motionless allows you to jump backward, or roll in whichever direction you happen to be moving. Holding B down allows me to sprint. While sprinting, press B again to jump. X uses whatever item is currently equipped. A. What does A do? Aside from using it to confirm selections in the menu I haven’t stumbled upon any use for the A button. I hope I haven’t missed anything important.

Select brings up the gesture menu, allowing me to trigger various poses that I can’t quite understand the use for:

20160623105350_1

Pressing Start brings up the standard in-game menu. Not so standard is the realization that bringing up the start menu does not pause the game. On more than one occasion I’ve brought up the menu to change a setting or check the options, only to have an enemy wander towards me from off camera and start pounding me. I vainly start mashing my attack and defend buttons only for my character to stand motionless and take his punishment. Lesson to be learned: Combat does not work with the menu is open. I can’t tell why the game was developed this way. Probably to punish poor saps like me who just have trouble figuring things out.

20160623105430_1

Hopefully, familiarizing myself more with the control scheme will make me ever so slightly more efficient in combat. I’ve been stuck in Undead Burg for a while now and have only managed to light one bonfire at what I presume to be the halfway point. By now I’ve tried to progress through the city about a dozen times, dying with alarming frequency. For a while I manage to hold my own against the undead masses. Each battle may be hard and furious, but I can usually take out a few groups of enemies and restore myself to nearly full health with a drink from my Estus Flask. My confidence starts to wane when I approach an unsettling trio of skeletons, each armed with a long pike and shields that look like they’ve been carved from solid granite. They’re different from the mindless drones I’ve had to plow through until now. Backing slowly away from the group, one follows me up a stairwell and paces side to side slowly. He’s taunting me, waiting for me to make the first move.

Patrol

I make the first move. I die.

Thinking that maybe I ought to try a weapon other than my light but fast curved scimitar, I try to equip a broadsword.

ThisSwordIsTooBig

Nope, can’t use that one with only one hand. My strength stats are too low so this is something I have to use with both arms. I’m going to have to step out of my comfort zone and forget about using a shield for a while. The first dozen or so enemies I run into die with a pleasing lack of resistance. Even the trio of spear-laden, granite shielded skeletons can’t hold me back. I make my way up a stairwell and down a few more corridors. I try passing through a doorway shrouded in white fog, “Traverse the white light”, it says. That can’t possibly lead to anything bad, could it?

Yes. Yes it could.

20160623112954_1

Taurus Demon? TAURUS DEMON? There’s a boss fight on a freaking parapet walk? And there are snipers firing at me from behind? And I don’t have any healing juice left in my Estus Flask?

YOU DIED

I need a break.

Dark Souls Journal #01 – What Have I Done?

Dark Souls – A Journal is a running series chronicling my experience in a blind playthrough of Dark Souls

Why did I sign up for this? No, really: What did I get into? Or the more accurate question would be: Who got me into this? […] “Try it”, they said. “You’ll love it”, they said. Of course I’d heard of Dark Souls before, I just never had a reason to care.

Dark Souls – A Journal is a running series chronicling my experience in a blind playthrough* of Dark Souls

*Blind playthough means I’m not consulting any external guides or tutorials for hints or tips about how to play the game. All I have is the game and its manual.

Why did I sign up for this? No, really: What did I get into? Or the more accurate question would be: Who got me into this? I blame Zachery and Brandon from the Facebook group I’m a part of, Theology Gaming University. “Try it”, they said. “You’ll love it”, they said. Of course I’d heard of Dark Souls before, I just never had a reason to care. Anyone who has been around gaming even a little but over the past few years has heard of Dark Souls. It’s a game made by a Japanese developer and released to consoles in 2011, and later made its way to the PC in 2012. So what exactly is it? Over the years I’d seen a lot of coverage of the game but never really paid it any mind because it just didn’t seem like it was my thing. Big guys in armor swinging swords. Torches and castles. No lasers or spaceships. No humor. Supposedly punishing difficulty. Story and background history told in an overt manner. The impression I got is that it was difficult hack ‘n’ slash game made to punish anyone brave enough to give it a try.

Turns out I may not have been too far off the mark on that assessment.

20160509203333_1I got the game for $5 during a recent sale at the Humble Store, donating my 5% Humble Tip to the Wounded Warrior Project. After doing a bit of research I found an excellent  guide to configuring the game at the Dark Souls subReddit. While you don’t have to do everything recommended there, DSfix is an absolute must to get the game running properly. I also went for an HD texture pack and font upgrades.

The first time I started the game I got some weird graphical glitches where the HUD was fullscreen, but the gameplay was only showing in the top left corner of the screen. Turns out that was a result of me not fully reading the instructions for DSfix. I didn’t disable Anti-Aliasing from the in-game menu like I was supposed to. Who knew it would make that much difference?

Starting a new game brings you to a character creation screen where you can choose your class, talents, gifts, and a few other attributes. Not having any idea what differences any of these would really make I went with the Wanderer. If I’m given the option I usually try to pick something that might approximately apply to me, and I certainly don’t have the traits of a soldier or a magician. Picking a “Large” physique character who walks around a lot and carries a cool-looking curved sword seemed to make the most sense to me.

20160510064341_1There is an impressive opening cinematic that lays out some interesting-looking history from the world of Dark Souls, but as far as I could tell there wasn’t any context for how my character fit into the grand scheme of things. When I took control of the game my character was locked in a cell, and someone tossed me a key to allow my escape. The only tool afforded me to help in my escape was the hilt of a sword. Not the sword’s blade, or a knife, or anything sharp, but a handle. Why do I get the impression this is a sign of things to come? For some reason I’m a prisoner in the Northern Undead Asylum and I look decidedly less than human. Am I dead? How did I get to the asylum? Why am I escaping? I didn’t grab any screenshots of this opening level because I was too busy mashing buttons on my controller and trying to stay alive. Things didn’t seem to difficult at first; I think I only died once in the tutorial level. After beating the tutorial’s boss a giant raven grabbed me and flew me to what I assume is the main game’s world.

20160507072737_1
Hints and other messages are littered throughout the game in the form of glowing scratch marks.

The raven dropped me in Firelink Shrine, an interesting-looking little place. There are ruins strewn about. There’s a guy loitering near the fire who tells me about two bells; one in a high place and the other someplace down below. The implication is that I’m supposed to go to one of or both of those places and ring some bells. So there’s death, darkness, undead, demons, and now bells are involved. Great. I hate bells.

20160509203604_1
You’ll see this screen an awful lot.


There may be multiple paths of progression from here, but nothing really stands out. The most obvious one to me involves some stairs that make a winding descent, eventually leading to an elevator that goes down even further. Eventually I wind up at a place called New Londo Ruins. Visually, it’s a pretty place as far as ruins go. Crumbled structres loom in front of a dark blue haze, backlight by a far-off light source. There are some apparently distracted and quite weak zombie dudes, and so far the ruins don’t seem too bad or too hard to go through. After slicing and dicing my way through a dozen or so brain-dead undead I notice that each enemy I kill makes a counter in the bottom-right of the screen go up. Each enemy has a value or something. Come to find out that somehow I’m collecting “souls” from my slain enemies and this is some kind of in-game currency. Morbid, but I guess that’s why the game is called Dark Souls, and not Happy Fun Souls.

Eventually I make my way to the edge of a giant subterranean pond with wood walkways sprawling out before me. Just before the first walkway is one of those helpful glowing hints that says something like: “Bravery: 1 Required”. I check my stats to see if I have any bravery. …no, it doesn’t look like it. Well, let’s go forward anyway; I’m sure it’s just a suggestion! A few steps down the path I encounter two ghosts. How hard can this be? Whoa! They can reach out like the creepy ghost that stole the baby in Ghostbusters 2! I wonder if I can try to mo-YOU DIED.

Well crud. Brutally throttled in the back by an undead vapor. I don’t think I even landed one hit on those guys. I respawn at the bonfire at the top of Firelink Shrine and do the same thing again. Once I hit the ground floor it quite literally hits me: enemies don’t stay dead. Every time I respawn, either from death or resuming a saved game, every enemy respawns back in the game world no matter how many times you’ve already mowed through them. That’s just rough.

Searching through my inventory I find a curse or something that says it allows me to engage in fights against ghosts, and I just so happened to be carrying two of them. Armed with this new knowledge I rush back to the depths only to find out they don’t help, I still died. Twice. Though those last two times I didn’t die quite so quickly. That’s progress, right? I think the game is trying to tell me that progressing through the New Londo Ruins is not what I’m supposed to be doing. Surely there must be some other avenue to take? We’ll find out.

DARKSOULS 2016-05-09 20-43-29-66
Those glowing orange marks contain helpful game wisdom and encouragement. It gives me the warm fuzzies inside.