What’s it like to review a game as hard and secretive as Dark Souls II?

What’s it like to review a game as hard and secretive as Dark Souls II?

We’re kicking off this weekend’s open thread with a chat between myself and Steve Heisler, who reviewed Dark Souls II last week and is still plugging away at the game. I wanted to hear from Steve, who is probably the biggest fan of the Souls games on the Gameological staff, what it was like to go in blind into such a dense and secretive game. As per usual, we’d love to hear your own weekend gaming plans down in the comments. PS: The Digest is happening next week, and you can find the lineup at the end of this Q&A.


Matt Gerardi: What are you playing this weekend?

Steve Heisler: Dark Souls II! I’ve been waiting for this game for at least two years.

MG: Yeah, you and everyone else.

SH: When it came in the mail, it was the greatest day of my entire life. When it showed up, I was about to leave for a shift at the store I work at, and it was a 9-hour shift, which turned into a 10-hour shift because they closed late. So I got home at 12:30 or 1 a.m., and I still fired up that game.

MG: For those who don’t know, Steve reviewing Dark Souls II is kind of the culmination of a 2-year long Gameological inside joke, where the only game Steve talks or cares about is Dark Souls.

SH: It’s true! Not only is it true that it’s an inside joke, but also that the first Dark Souls is the only game that I talk about or even know about.

MG: Any time we started working on an Inventory or a Q&A, you always picked something Dark Souls-related. So this is a momentous occasion.

SH: Now I’m just going to make Dark Souls II references. Look, when you make a game as perfect and rich and comprehensive and haunting as Dark Souls, people are going to bring it up every time. So yes, I’m going to be playing Dark Souls II. And I’m going to try to stay away from the Internet and its bounty of information about the game.

When I got the game, it was before anybody had seen it except for games writers, and the multiplayer servers weren’t up. A large part of Dark Souls is the ability to leave messages, and those messages disperse throughout everybody’s games. So if you find a secret item, you can leave a message that says “Item ahead.” Everybody’s helping each other out. I can’t necessarily turn that off. I like that feature, though, because it’s vague enough that it allows me to explore but helps stop the game from becoming too obtuse. The thing that I’m definitely not doing is looking at any wiki guides.

The game is all-consuming. Characters hardly ever speak. There’s barely any sound beyond the grunting of enemies or the sound of a giant sword hitting the floor. It’s a very quiet, pensive game, and I want to preserve that feeling before I can’t Google a single thing [about] it without finding millions of spoilers. That’s the way the original Dark Souls is now. This is the only time I’m going to be able to play it fresh. Everybody’s playing it at the same time, so I might as well go all the way and try. Obviously, I’m going to miss so much, but that’s why I’m going to play it again and again and again.

MG: You touched on it a bit, but what’s it like reviewing a game like this, a game that’s just so dense and obtuse and full of secrets, and going in completely blind?

SH: It’s more organic to the real experience of playing the game, so I kind of prefer it. If I were going into the game knowing exactly where to go and what to do, I wouldn’t spend a lot of time wandering around and exploring at my own pace. That’s essentially what most people are going to do when they start playing the game. They’re going to do it exactly the way that I was doing it. So it’s pretty fun. It’s very rare that there are games these days that even keep secrets, and Dark Souls keeps so many secrets. I enjoyed the experience of feeling like I was discovering things along with everybody else.

Having said that, I probably didn’t get as far into the game as I would have liked because I spent so much time fucking dying and revisiting the areas that I had already thought I had conquered to see if there were any other secrets I might have missed. There was a lot more obsessive combing. So what is it like? I’m in my head a lot more. It’s much easier, at least for me, to get into a zone of “I’m just playing this game,” not even for a review. This is sort of apropos of nothing, but when I was a kid, all I wanted to do was play video games for a living. The reality is, when an amazing game comes out, and you’re “forced” to play it for a review, there’s going to be a bit of the “fun” aspect of it that’s drained when you’re under the gun, but you need to put in those hours. But for something like this, because there are so many secrets and because I’m exploring it like everyone else, it felt like what I thought, as a kid, it would be like to review video games for a living. I wanted to play. I wanted to keep discovering. I didn’t feel this sense of critical obligation or anything. I was able to lose myself in the game.

So I think as a reviewer, that’s more accurate to what people are going to experience when they’re playing. It also doesn’t give me any sort of bonus or anything, which is good. I want to do it exactly the same way that other people are. It’s why I don’t like going to video game demos and stuff. When you sit down to play a game, you probably haven’t been to a demo of it, but some of the critics might have. So the critic might be coming to it from a different perspective.

MG: You mentioned that the original Dark Souls had become one the biggest examples of a “wiki game.” Every item, every enemy, every area has a wiki page on the two competing major Dark Souls encyclopedias. Dark Souls II, since it just came out, doesn’t really have that yet. There are communities talking about it and wikis being built now, but it’s not entirely there. You were playing before the game was even out, so there was even less. Was there ever a point where you missed that safety net?

SH: There is an aspect of Dark Souls where every action has instant ramifications because the game saves every few seconds. Everything gets saved. So one of the things Dark Souls can be really rough about is, if there’s a weapon and you decide to upgrade it all the way because you like using it, but then you find a better weapon—at that point, you’re kind of screwed because you already used your resources to upgrade that other weapon. Or if you find a spell that you really like that you want to use but you’ve built your character in a way that you’re just a huge brawler, you’re shit out of luck there, too, because you can’t really go back and rebuild yourself.

MG: At least for me, figuring out that weapon situation in the first Dark Souls is really important. Knowing how you want to build your character and even what weapon you’re going to use, possibly for the entire game, that’s how you get “good” at the game.

SH: I think the reason why I like these games so much is that they’re very gentle role-playing games. You can see yourself in these characters. If you really want to, you can go in and change every single eyebrow hair to look exactly how you want, but at the end of the day, you can play the game however you want to play. If you want to run around and stab people with a tiny knife, you can be tiny knife stabby guy. That’s fine. You see yourself in the game and the play style, and it’s a way to emphasize the kind of things you like to do in real life or in games. So there’s pressure for me to have this magical clairvoyance and [know] exactly what I want to do and what I need to do to get there. It’s just a myth, though. It’s not going to happen the first time.

Another thing that the game does very well, is that it’s really satisfying to make a decision and stick by it. But what the game keeps doing is introducing these weird and mysterious characters that seem awesome, and I want to get to know them, but they won’t talk to you unless your character has been built a certain way. For example, I was in this really dark cave, and I found this guy sitting in a chair facing a wall. He’s wearing a mask, and he just says, “You’re not dark enough.” So now I want to know, what makes me dark enough? I found out later—it takes manipulating certain stats, stats that I wouldn’t even use, but I just want to hear what he has to say.

MG: So it’s really hard to divorce yourself from your previous experience with the other two games in this series and say, “Dark Souls II is the one where someone who’s new should jump in.” I do think that this game is easier, but it’s so hard to say because those other Souls games have a tangible internal logic, a clear level design language, that you learn while playing. For example, if I walk into a room that I’ve never been in before and I see rafters above me, I probably think to myself, “Okay, someone’s going to fall from these rafters and come after me.”

SH: If you’re going to play the games now and you had never played a Dark Souls or Demon’s Souls game before, I think the best way is reverse chronological order—Dark Souls II, Dark Souls, Demon’s Souls. Dark Souls II has pretty much every possible conceivable scenario for guys coming at you to kill you. There’s a guy that runs at you from a bridge. There’s a butterfly that shoots poison at you from a tree. There’s lots of people that are around corners and skeletons that regenerate. It’s kind of like going through the police academy. You might never issue a speeding ticket in your entire life. If, say, you become a murder cop, you might never issue a speeding ticket. But knowing how to do it is valuable because you never know. The first Dark Souls is kind of like, “Okay, you have all this knowledge. Now see if you can use it when things are more obtuse and mysterious.” And Demon’s Souls is just like, “Oh you think you’re good? Now it’s time to prove it. You have so few lifelines. It’s time to run before you can even walk.”  

MG: Do you think your previous Souls experience made this one harder at any point?

SH: I think so, at times. It made it both easier and harder at times. The way that it made it harder is that there are tried and true strategies from other Souls games that just don’t work on certain enemies. It took me forever to beat The Pursuer because in other games I was so used to leveling up my endurance stat a ton and then just being a badass—blocking with my shield then rolling behind them to stab them in the back. That just didn’t work for that boss, and it never will. So it was harder because I was kind of hung up on older patterns. I had learned subconsciously how my character should move to beat guys.

MG: Any last thoughts on your Dark Souls II experience, Steve?

SH: Everybody, my handle on PlayStation is dblohsteev. I want to play with Gameological people! In Dark Souls II you can engrave a special ring so that you summon certain people much more than other people. So I’d love to get a Dark Souls game going where three of us take on the Ruin Sentinels for the good of the A.V. Club.

MG: Aw man, that sounds like fun. I’m playing on Xbox, though, so I can’t join you. What I will be playing this weekend, other than more Dark Souls II, is Thief, because John Teti and I will be discussing it during The Digest next week.

SH: Oh, what other games are you guys doing?

MG: I’ll be joining John for a remote Digest on Thief, and John and Samantha Nelson will be discussing Jazzpunk and The Yawhg from the Chicago studio. 


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