Posts by DeiSophia

The first game I ever played was a shareware version of Jazz Jackrabbit, however I truly cut my teeth on RPG and strategy games from the early days of Age of Empires, to The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. I had a brief flirtation with Sony's Playstation as teenager owning a PS1, PS2, PS3 and PSP before returning to PC.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons (Video Game Literary Classics 101)

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons was originally published in 2013 and was developed by Starbreeze Studies, published by 505 Games and released to widespread critical acclaim. Brothers garnered a number of indie and professional awards not least amongst them a 2014 BAFTA for Best Game Innovation Award.

Brothers originally launched on the Xbox 360 with PC Windows, and PS3 versions following the same year.  Later platforms included the PS4 and Xbox One with the latest port being announced for the Switch in May 2019. It was heralded for its empathetic characters, innovative controls, as well as its heavy focus on visual storytelling without any spoken dialogue or written exposition. This wordless storytelling was intentional on the part of the games director Josef Fares, a Swedish film director and his desire to experiment with the medium.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons has a fairly simplistic narrative. It relies on the traditional quest arc, with two young boys setting out to find a magical elixir to cure their father. It’s the simplicity of this narrative arc that allows the game to get away with its lack of dialogue, or exposition. Language is heard in the game, but it isn’t comprehensible, though it does borrow heavily from proto-indo-European sounds. Rather the focus is on the visual language with cuts, angles and scenes carrying the weight of the burden to deliver important moments and highlight the characters.

This shift becomes immensely important when establishing the games themes, because Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is of course about relationships.

In terms of delivery the game shifts seamlessly between cut scenes and gameplay. Unlike games like Dead Space which was famed for introducing this seamlessness, Brothers will shift the camera to indicate the player has lost control, before shifting back to its default position. The cut scenes use standard film shots such as close-ups or medium shots to draw the player in and focus on the characters animations revealing their emotions whilst general gameplay consists of high angle shots, positioned at a near 60 degree angle that mirrors an isometric game perspective. This is largely due to the need to focus on both of the brothers at the same time.

This creates something of a problem. In most early 3D games the camera was not controlled, which made for some rather awkward gameplay sections, slowly overtime 3D camera’s improved their angles and directions and eventually allowed players positional control over the camera themselves. Brothers came up against this issue, due to its control scheme (more on this later) that meant they were only able to offer the player partial control over the camera. Keeping both boys on the screen simultaneously became a problem, and this was resolved by allowing the character to zoom in when the brothers were close, and zoom out as the brothers move apart. As the boys separate so the player too, is distanced from them, creating an inadvertent triangular relationship between the player and the boys. This shift becomes immensely important when establishing the games themes, because Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is of course about relationships.

The title, of course, is the first giveaway, establishing the sibling relationship that takes centre stage throughout the rest of the story. Narratively though the game explores further dimensions and relationship in more depth. The starting cut scene indicates that their mother is already passed on, with the Younger Brother having a silent moment of grief beside her grave. This is quickly transitions when the older brother arrives lifting a heavier man (their father) onto a cart. Through animations and sound the story quickly establishes that he is ill, and unable to move. The stakes are set; if he cannot improve it is clear the two boys will be entirely orphaned. Narratively this works as often it is only when we are going to lose something (or have lost something) that we can establish its true importance to us and how much it is (or was) valued. The following segment serves as a short tutorial to the games mechanics. The boys are united, not only through their quest to get their father to a doctor but also through the controller.

Unlike most games Brothers requires the use of a controller. The reason is primarily due to its use of both analogue sticks and additional haptic feedback if the player’s controller supports it. The analogue sticks independently control each of the boys. It’s this that makes the player lose control of the camera, and it’s this that gives both of the boys the agency so necessary to the execution of its themes and transcendence from what would be simply a escort mission into a fully fledged single player co-op game. This is immensely important to some of the critical appraisal of the game, since this is the primary area of innovation, since there is nothing particularly original in other areas such as graphics or narrative. It also rests upon the idea that escort missions in games are usually singularly frustrating experiences, as evinced in critical reactions to games like Shadwen where inconsistent AI makes the experience rather frustrating. This can be largely overcome through good characterisation and storytelling such as in the recently released A Plague Tale Innocence, but Brothers overcame those issues by allowing the boys to have agency by having the player simultaneously control both. It does feel awkward at first, much like playing a musical instrument for the first time having to co-ordinate both hands, yet practise makes perfect, and the game doesn’t push the players reflexes to hard, instead creating its difficulty through the environmental puzzles you face. The tutorial has you carrying your father on his cart with one brother pushing and one pulling it to reach the Doctor’s. The game offers a few prompts for contextual interactions here, but quickly shifts to allowing the characters to prompt themselves when there is something to interact with, by shifting their animations and having them respond to elements of their environment. After reaching a lift the boys realise they need to work together to get to the lift controls. Big brother boosts little brother up a cliff face and he in turn can drop a rope down for his brother to climb up so that together they can turn the winch to raise up their Dad on the cart. These sorts of character skill based puzzles are well established in gaming, most notably in games like the Trine series, where character skill sets and shifting between them play an important role in overcoming obstacles.

A pastoral haven

Throughout this sequence and the beginning of the first act we see quite clearly the differences in the two brothers’ characters. Their animations the way they respond to the environment and the contextual clues give away little details about them. There isn’t much to subvert notions here, Big Brother is the more responsible of the two, the one driving them forward and acting as support, whereas little Brother is inclined to scamper off and play, performing both good and bad natured tricks, such as splashing a bucket over the sleeping Bridge guard to wake him up before Big Brother apologises and asks him to lower it so they can cross, or in side interactions such as Little Brother balancing a broom in his hand whilst Big Brother uses it to sweep away some dirt. This shift of responsibility and light heartedness shapes the two’s interactions, and it’s clear the Older Brother is far more aware of the gravity of their circumstance than Little Bro. Their co-dependency is also established at this stage. Whilst navigating the town, Little Brother can slip through fences whilst Big Brother can carry him over the water since Little Brother has not yet learnt to swim. These early scenes quickly establish them as individuals whilst allowing the player to see them interacting harmoniously to overcome the minor obstacles they face. Much of the early humour and engagement comes from Little Brother, acting much as the comic relief, whether he’s gob spitting into wells or laughing maliciously at his Bully who tormented him earlier. These interactions entice the player into checking what will happen in each location, testing to see what amusing event will follow with each brother when they interact.

This shift of responsibility and light heartedness shapes the two’s interactions, and it’s clear the Older Brother is far more aware of the gravity of their circumstance

However it does create some narrative dissonance, though coherency is well sacrificed at this point. Because the start of the game is so serious in tone, the shift to light hearted exploration here seems out of place, yet it creates a suitable slow-paced environment to allow the player to become comfortable with the controls as well as encourage them to explore interactions not only because it reveals more of the boys characters (important to a non-text narrative) and familiarises the player with the abnormal control. This bears fruit as well since the game does repeat various puzzles and interactions making them slightly different each time, encouraging the player to constantly test the limits of the controls. This is most apparent with the wall climbing puzzles in the early game. With the first wall allowing you to move straight up and the second one encouraging not only vertical movement but diagonal as well. This however brings into the questions of the environment against which the boys (and the player) test their ingenuity.

Mountain vistas

The environments themselves are based upon a medieval European environment, and in particular a mountainous one. The inspiration for this becomes clear when one is aware that the studio is of course Swedish and are drawing from the Alpine environment they call home. From the high crags and cliffs the boys scale to mining operations and castles it is a testament to the love of their home. Possibly much of the verisimilitude felt when playing the game comes from the authenticity of the design itself since it draws upon the real world inspiration of the artists. The villages are less authentic and slightly more generic medieval however it lends credence to the choice of the fantasy setting. This is only briefly apparent at the beginning when the mother’s ghost is seen but quickly becomes apparent as the two young boys encounter a troll. The hesitant approach and fear of the player upon encountering it is of course deeply rooted in European folklore and the game takes a rare chance at subverting this expectation by soon indicating that he is a friendly albeit sad troll. Later on in the narrative there are more severe consequences of this that ties into the young boys own narrative.

This encounter though does prompt a shift in the games tone. Where the village life depicted so far has been simplistic and innocent, painted with bold sunlight, and muted pastel browns that seem to reflect similar colours to those chosen by Swedish artists like John Bauer. The game begins to shift, to a rather more sombre tone and palette of dull greys, later on colours will again add emotional value and weight such as red rivers of blood during one particularly harrowing scene that portrays the culmination of a battle.

Asssistance arrive from an unexpected quarter
Look at them, mother Troll said. Look at my sons! You won’t find more beautiful trolls on this side of the moon, 1915, watercolor by John Bauer (wikimedia)

It’s these elements that add to the games figurative storytelling, the building up of the environments and world showcase the transition of the two boys from innocence and naiveté in the beginning, with the pastoral scenes to experience as they encounter the horrors of the environments they venture through. As such the game is as much a coming of age story as it is about the boys’ relationship, and how it is impacted over time. The constant dependency of each boy upon the other becomes integral to this, and particularly in the case of the younger brother as his light-hearted approach in earlier scenes becomes juxtaposed with the greater responsibility he bears in later scenes after his older brother is injured.

The environments also become more hazardous as you progress; the mine sequence which occurs directly after the Village quickly showcases dangerous environments with platforming segments that could lead to the boys plummeting to their deaths.  Again the safety of the beginning area representative of their sheltered innocence is challenged just as the player begins to find controlling the two to be more onerous. The ambidexterity required to control both boys whilst avoiding a sequence of falling rocks or clinging to chains above a yawning chasm requires more intense concentration than one would think. These new environmental dangers only increase as the game continues and the player becomes more familiar with controlling both boys.

the environments and world showcase the transition of the two boys from innocence and naiveté

After the mines and a brush with death, the two boys are confronted by a graveyard, it’s a potent reminder of the stakes at play, and this is followed by a reminder of their own mortality through a near drowning experience which leads to one of the most important scenes of the game. As the unconscious younger brother enters a dream state, and confronts the harshness of his situation and fears in his dream. The symbolic weight of this scene is arguably overdone with his mother looming largely across the scene and her hand covering his father. This stands in immense juxtaposition against his normal cheerful nature when playing and hints at the fact that he is aware of his circumstances. It also marks a position roughly half-way through the game, serving to introduce the more serious second half.

A brief moment of rest

This sequence is literally followed by a dark night, (navigating it with only a torch despite the howling of wolves around them that will devour them if they aren’t within the lights circumferences (a mechanic that the more recent A Plague Tale: Innocence uses but with rats) before shifting to a larger mythical setting. The grandiose expansion conveys the young boys’ broader confrontation with the world and hints at their expanding horizons as they advance. This is mirrored for the player visually by allowing the camera to draw back further and see the vast mountain landscape that unfolds before your visions. It’s another abrupt shift from the simplicity of the village and enclosed caverns of the mines.

Yet the game is not without moments of levity. The goat riding sequence through the mountains and the enhanced folk music that rises to a crescendo during this sequence complements the young boys’ cries of excitement and joy and is swiftly followed by another transportation sequence by glider, where they boys control its direction by shifting their weight back and forth across the bars. But again these moments are brief and quickly transition back to the two youth’s confrontation with mortality. This time by entering one of the most visceral and disturbing environments of the game.

The Giant’s Valley depicts the aftermath of war. And whilst the two boys have had violent confrontations before, such as with the ogre in the mines, there is no actual violence in this scene, only the depictions of the aftermath of violence. Manipulating and moving across the corpses, including dismembering them bring a totally different level of shock value than outright violence. The boys’ characters of course have already shown that they do understand death and mourn the loss of life, whether it’s their mother, the churchyard visitation just before the night sequence or the ability to mourn their griffin friend after his assistance that results in his death through exertion. So having them mutilate corpses to advance as well as accompanying animations that shows their surprise and dismay help assist this scene. It continues with the establishment of their characters due to their capacity to both witness and commit violence when necessary to achieve their ultimate goal which is of course to save their father. The morality here is not explored in any deep measure, taking a backseat to the player’s emotional reaction to such scenes rather it’s one of those moments where players are able to decide for themselves the morality and ethics of what they are doing. The mutability of interpretations in such scenarios is of course amongst the greatest strengths of the medium.

The aftermath

However the mythical underpinnings are still there, with the next segment featuring tribal goblinoids engaging in a sacrifice, incredibly reminiscent of Andromeda. Disguising themselves in blood the two boys rescue “Andromeda” and escape with her to safety. And subsequently an encounter with the abominable snowman and what appears to be a burgeoning romance that interferes with the relationship between the two brothers.

The old saying of two’s company and three’s a crowd becomes quickly apparent. The outsider becomes a disruptive force between the previous harmonious unity between the two. And ultimately her reveal as a spider, the weaver of webs of manipulation leads to the demise of the family unit. The quick breakaway at the culmination of this climactic fight to focus on the father however ‘weaves’ back the concept of family connection as he senses his sons injury. The emphasis here is laid upon the concept of the integrity of the family unit and its destruction at the face of malevolent external forces. That this injury comes so close the final conclusion and success of the quest underpins the tragedy of the tale as they do finally reach the tree, the ancient symbol of life.

Yet as you finish off the journey the final signifier comes into play. It is not visual, or auditory but rather the controls themselves. For now with only one Brother too move… the second control still allows him to proceed. The controls themselves signify the lingering ghost of his brothers abilities now invested in him. Facing the original tutorial puzzles one went through in the beginning are a sharp reminder of loss as you complete them solo.

Much like many of the tales of the past, that focus on quests and their failure, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is unafraid to establish the tragedy of the human condition, in hindsight the game seems Quixotic and yet during the playthrough the hope and determination of the two boys seems as grand as any chivalric tale. As the tale moves into its diminuendo, the flashback of the younger brothers memory of his father and his love for him creates a stirring moment of quiet empathy before the game has you complete the tale by burying his brother. These acts of veneration, both with the small Griffin and now with your own brother are what ground the player deeply into the world.

These relationship links are deeply tied into various conceptions of brotherly love and friendship. Plutarch describes Brotherly love as “natural” in his essay De fraterno Amore a smaller section of his Moralia. In it he states that “Brothers should not be like the scales of a balance, the one rising upon the other’s sinking; but rather like numbers in arithmetic, the lesser and greater mutually helping and improving each other”.–Chapter 15 This is clearly a large influence behind the mechanics of the game which has the young boys mutually helping. This is all the more poignant in the final moment where the younger brother begins to perform the acts his older brother once did. The game took great care to establish the Brothers different skills in the early game, only to subvert this at the end, allowing the younger Brother to swim and pull levers on his own. It is at once uplifting to see him become so capable, something other stories often celebrate in their protagonists but here it feels like a loss. Not only is the control partially simplified and diminished by the loss of one character to control but also a testament to what his brother had taught him.

The brothers death is not just a narrative act but the death of your own investment in controlling him. Characters in games may simply be objects, at the whim of the players own agency yet withing the narrative and the world they become invested with autonomy that makes gaming as a medium so compelling.

Questions for review

  1. What interactions allowed you to develop a feeling of intimacy with the characters through the controls?
  2. How are the characters animated to allow you to quickly identify with them, based on characteristics and expectations from the real world.
  3. What is the importance of establishing mythical elements in fairytales and how does this cultural framework of symbolism add to effective and clear storytelling.

This article is produced in collaboration with BacklogCrusader and their Community Collab: Video Game Literary Classics 101

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SOMA (PC)

SOMA takes a horrifying precedent and blends it with an extremely plausible future, to delve deeply into musings on what it means to be alive. This isn’t the eldritch Lovecraftian horror that Frictional Games are famous for, though those elements are clear in its visual design, rather SOMA is horrifying because it is so intimate, a revelation of our own identities.

SOMA starts of as a normal day, grounding itself in daily routines and the comfort of the familiar. Before quickly juxtaposing this with the new horror that the protagonist, Simon finds himself in. The game makes fairly large leaps at times, sometimes bewilderingly so, leaving the characters emotional reactions to disappear into an Atlantic trench. For a story that relies deeply upon its characters reflections on their nature and circumstances, these visceral reactions are too often delayed. Simon’s moments of epiphany, which occur three times throughout the game, allowing you the player to follow the story, often occur long after the events have resolved. Whether this is because Simon is not the brightest person, or that some malfunction from his brain damage causes a delay is not clear. In these moments when he does realise his state, and actually contemplates the horror of his situation, his response is to quickly pursue his tasks with renewed vigor. At times Simon’s disengagement from his predicament left me feeling estranged from him in turn, though his later grasping at the tenuous hope that Catherine offers is believable, and the ending a natural consequence of his nebulous emotions. His frail grasp on his newfound reality makes his ultimate fate(s) tragic yet clear when viewed in the wake of Catherine’s insights. It isn’t a satisfying ending yet it is the most plausible one. The writers deliberately left such things ambiguous, which sadly doesn’t make for a compelling character study though it does leave players with the ability to decide some of the issues themselves.

Sadly, this does also extend to the other characters you encounter who are divested of essential things that make them human, they lack the emotional responses so necessary to elucidate the horror of the situation they find themselves in. Instead, there is a calm, resigned acceptance of their fate, which makes sense for a few but not for all the individuals you encounter.

Only the monsters ‘seem’ to acknowledge the horrifying position they are in, their thoughts delivered in muttered and distorted speech, with their rationality as decayed as their appearance. Which leaves one with an interesting question: if they are insane, can they be truly terrified?

“The privilege of being makes a strong case.” ~Catherine, in game dialogue

At approximately 10-12 hours of play, SOMA doesn’t have much time to work with. Since most of that is spent creeping as stealthily as one can about the environments. The pacing is slow, and with most of the story delivered through objects, diaries, and terminals scattered about the Pathos-II hubs it unfolds in dribs and drabs. This also means that those playing purely for horror and scares won’t find much to appeal. The horror is only apparent once one has truly explored the world, something the game actively hinders when attempting to escape from monsters that disrupt your search.

Hiding and avoiding monsters is the primary aspect of play. It’s something established in previous games by Frictional, such as the Amnesia series. Addressing the issue of exploration which is so essential to SOMA, a non-death mode was introduced, allowing you to explore freely, its implementation was widely debated, yet it did solve much of the issues around exploration and story.

Lurking in the depths are mankinds vast creations

Exploration is done via the first person perspective, which limits your awareness of surroundings that a 3rd person would have created. It works brilliantly, not only do you feel embodied when playing from this perspective which of course is important to the ontological themes of the game itself, but also allows the game to blur your vision at times, dependant on the stress that Simon himself is experiencing. The perspective is also in a way disorienting, keeping you guessing about Simon’s state. It’s not that other games haven’t used this perspective for good effect before but here the developer’s choice is clear and impactful upon the story itself, leading up to an awareness of yourself that is of pivotal importance in two particular scenes.

If we could rebuild even a small part of ourselves, why wouldn’t we do that?” ~in game dialogue

The monsters, robotic or humanoid you are avoiding have various ways to navigate past and learning their behaviour is essential to successfully avoid them. Whether looking at them directly or stealthily creeping, or simply running as fast as you can to get away, slamming doors behind you to slow their pursuit. They aren’t particularly frightening or at least aren’t as frightening as you think, but when analysing the game’s story their existence is terrifying. It’s telling that the game eventually asks what the monster might be, whether it’s you (and your decisions in the game), the WAU or the beings themselves. The vague shadowy monsters often distorted your view as they near, or the monstrous ambiguity present in your decisions are what build a cerebral tension, rather than a release of epinephrine. In this, the game plays to its existential themes.

Organic fusions with technology lead to bizarre conglomerates

The environment which switches between the Atlantic seabed and the constructed environments of Pathos-II itself create variable stages of calm natural surroundings and the intensity of a decaying industrial complex. Pathos-II is aptly named for the tragedy that plays out within it’s hallways. It’s clear the complex was a height of international, scientific co-operation. From the English and simplified Chinese that dot the terminals and hallways, to the broad cast of characters of multiple nationalities that once inhabited it, to the hope embodied by Katherine and her calm discussions driving you forward. Yet even with this aid, that gives your movement forward impetus, the environments are linear. There is little leeway for exploration other than to find the pieces of story. Only when one is about to encounter a monster does the game shift to a labyrinthine pattern enabling one to dodge around and use obstacles to separate oneself from the figures that chase you, quickly changing these segments into games of hide and seek. They do create moments of needed tension, desperately dashing about rooms to uncover as much as possible. But the game is always ready to assure you that you are no Daedalus, and Icarus may just be a vain delusion.

Catherine offers a moment of reflection and a new challenge

The controls are immensely responsive, and focus purely on movement and observation. Stealth, and running are the two variations on your walking pace, and, as is standard for first person perspective, the mouse controls the direction you look. Whilst the mouse buttons offer contextualised interactions for solving the various short puzzles that you will encounter. These puzzles are fairly easy to solve, and are varied enough to increase engagement. They didn’t require too intense observation leaving you free to solve them, without a great deal of exploration.

The sound design is superb and is heavily contextualised. Walking across varied surfaces, will produce different tones, and even walking slower will lower the sound of your footsteps. Venturing out into the water, leads to sounds being distorted by the water, only returning to normal once you are back in the relative safety of the Pathos-II interiors. Pathos-II itself creaks and groans, the stress of metal reverberating through the speakers, as the pressure of water creates strange new stresses. These clues of your surrounding are alleviated by the comforting sounds of human voices, digitally preserved in various recordings, the emotions lending an analogue feel to the otherwise inhumane situation, and of course Catherine and Simon themselves, Simon’s fluctuating emotions traced with the stress of his situation against Catherine’s non-inflected, rational tones, that emulate her humanity. They are wonderful performances.

SOMA is an ambitious project. With its blend of philosophy and exploration tinged with horror it executes perfectly on its themes. The emotions it evokes both in its characters and in the player are well balanced. Moving from visions of the past with Amnesia, to a dystopian future lent much needed weight to the story, and expanded on the concept of what a post-humanist position might entail. SOMA is exceptional. It is certainly not to the taste of all, but if you are looking for an excellent interpretation of science fiction themes, and solutions for the future that lets you decide for yourself what the negative and positive consequences may be, you will be in good company with SOMA.

~8/10~ Cerebral Transcendence

Pros

Wonderful level design that shifts as needed

Atmospheric sound design

An intelligent narrative with thought-provoking moments

Cons

Narrative shifts are extremely abrupt with little build up

The horror is not outright scary (subtlety may be a pro for some)

Publisher: Frictional Games

Developer: Frictional Games

Platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One

ESRB: M / PEGI: 16

Available from: Steam, GoG.com, Microsoft Store, Playstation Store, Humble Store

Banner image is used under fair use. The images in the review are from the author’s own playthrough.

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Enderal: Forgotten Stories (PC)

What distinguishes a free man and a slave?

This is the opening question of Enderal: Forgotten Stories and informs the basis of the games narrative. Leading from Nehrim which challenged political and religious structures, Enderal continues to explore this concept further by focusing on alternative philosophies of freedom and slavery such as slavery to one’s own desires.

This is easily one of the most tightly knit narratives within an RPG, nearly every quests relates to the primary theme. Moreover each quest establishes and builds upon the world, from small domestic dramas that play out as consequences of the imposition of societies structures upon individuals in the early game, to the larger consequences of responsibility when one is in charge in the late game. Enderal does not shy away from difficult material and right from the outset exposes the player to its visceral drama.

The quests are organic and build naturally, escalating in importance as the tale unfolds. Seeing how the secondary and side quests all bear impact upon the main game at later stages, many foreshadowing future events is fascinating and a testament to the focus of the writing. Even quests that at first glance don’t seem related still expound upon the central themes of freedom. Ultimately though the game never quite resolves or comes to a conclusion despite having branching endings, including a secret one.

Instead the decision is left up to you the player.

The premise of Enderal is a struggle against the enigmatic High Ones, beings (or forces) that impose their will upon the world for a purpose -at least initially- only known to them. Their indirect manipulation of desires and the subconscious of their agents in the world gives them power to unfold their will over others, essentially turning their human tools into unwitting slaves. It is the player’s purpose to attempt to thwart this, and free themselves. Much of the scenario is a continuation of Nehrim’s tale (their previous mod) however understanding the tale of Nehrim is not essential as Enderal stands sufficiently on its own, those who have played it however are in for a few surprises and nostalgic flashbacks.

“From the forces that all creatures bind, who overcomes himself his freedom finds.” ~Goethe

First amongst such is the inclusion of notable characters from Nehrim, with Tealor Arantheal most prominent among them. His nobility here is shown as flawed and though he strives for perfection his very human failings set him up as the tragic hero. Accompanying him are a new cast of characters, including romanceable options Jespar Dal’Varek and Calia Sakaresh. Both have extensive companion quests that develop over time, and a new introduction to the Creation engine is displayed in building favour with them, whether to become friends or lovers. This mechanic bears fruit in other aspects of dialogue as well, since other characters have important arcs where befriending them is useful. Most importantly is the Rhalata side-quest were actually disagreeing with one of the characters leads to some significant character growth that would not be possible if you’d pleased them all the time. This break from the ‘Bioware’ dialogue reward system was incredibly refreshing to see, and sets up the idea that game dialogues are possible to more extensively develop interactions and change companion’s ideas (something I’d only really seen in Pillars of Eternity so far). This leads to far more satisfying relationships whether they are romantic or platonic.

Mysterious places await discovery

The story and background of the world is extensive, and revealed in various ways. Since the game does make use of Bethesda’s Creation Engine, all the hallmarks of the Elder Scrolls games are here. From books in the form of poetry and scholarly treatises, to notes that expound on behind the scenes occurrences, and through normal means such as cut scenes, scripted segments (which sadly detract from player agency at certain times) and of course the old staple of dialogue, the game is quite diverse in conveying it’s narrative. In addition there are various motifs and symbols within the world that have significant impact to the observant player this environmental storytelling plays a significant role here as well. After all this, the game still does adhere to the hallmarks of Western RPG’s with its large open world, and a plethora of dungeons and locations to adventure in, emergent storytelling through the players creativity is possible as well.

“Always act according to that maxim that you can will as a universal law of nature.” ~Immanuel Kant

Despite being a mod, Enderal significantly overhauls the character progression system. Not only are the classes and skills renamed, but many systems are significantly overworked. The challenge is significantly harder here, and in addition is actually scalable, selecting harder difficulties will spawn more enemies to fight you, and at times the mobs can become quite overwhelming. The feel of combat will still be familiar to veterans of Skyrim though.

Most obviously different is the progression system, experience is gained from enemies in order to level up, which increases the grind, since you can only progress to the next area once you are of sufficient level as the areas scale as well. Once you have leveled, you acquire various points to spend, named learning and crafting respectively. Reading books allows you to develop these further. These skill books can be obtained from vendors or found scattered about the world. In addition if you are a caster spells will need to be learned in a similar manner, making mages one of the more expensive classes to develop in the game.

Crafting is familiar though, many of the ores retain the same names, except for the high level ores, and you will be able to craft potions through alchemy. New to Forgotten Stories is the phasmalist class, an interesting riff on the games themes of freedom since the phasmalist captures and binds souls to amulets to summon them in battle. The enslavement of these souls is a lengthy process since they must be discovered within the environment of the game, and are invisible without a special detection spell.

“But to manipulate men, to propel them toward goals which you—the social reformers—see, but they may not, is to deny their human essence, to treat them as objects without wills of their own, and therefore to degrade them.”

Isaiah Berlin

Magic has been divided into different schools and at first glance is more limited than Skyrim. This is compounded by the fact that in the early game caster classes are heavily penalised by the Arcane Fever mechanic which advances every time you use powerful magic and drink potions. It is only mitigated by drinking Ambrosia, and if left unchecked will cause death and a terrible transformation. Once a certain story point is reached the Arcane Fever is less problematic but it is certainly a major hindrance in the early stages. Elementalism is the most prominent magic school, as it is your primary means to deal damage, but other magic skills such as the Thaumaturge take the place of supplementary spells allowing you to enhance damage or armour values or alternatively debuff enemies. The most interesting variants are the Sinistrope fields that deal with mind control, and are considered to be a forbidden school. These are obviously most at variance with the games theme, so make an interesting counterpart to the narrative. Many of the skills create an enhanced challenge since they drain your own health, and increase damage based on how low your health is. Using them carefully is an interesting hurdle to overcome.

The combat system in Enderal is in essence not much different from that of Skyrim, but does add some new interesting elements. The weapon types are the same however there are some notable additions such as set item bonuses. Unlike Skyrim combinations of specific specializations (like great-sword and light armor) will unlock additional bonuses. These abilities take the place of Skyrim’s shouts and can be unlocked as part of the skill trees. These abilities are gained through meditation and unlocking memories. A strange ability unique to the player character that ties into their role as the Prophetess and are hidden abilities of past lives. Without them combat can become difficult, and using them strategically is important as many have cool downs. Since the enemies are significantly harder in Enderal, playing strategically and combing abilities to gain advantages is important when developing battle tactics. This is made somewhat easier by carrying a liberal amount of health potions and pausing to drink them.

The old water-works

Using these skills take place in a variety of environments. Dungeon crawling is still a staple , and descending into narrow hallways and tombs is essential for both experience and loot. Sadly these tombs, whilst visually impressive are old fashioned in execution. Many are linear and don’t offer alternative exists, meaning you need to backtrack to the exit rather than emerge at the cleverly hidden exits that Skyrim was so famous for. It does however make these spelunking adventures more realistic. There are a few notable dungeons that do break this mould, with the Ark Crypt being one such with it’s labyrinthine corridors and multiple approaches to various rooms and some do offer platforming and jumping challenges which were notably absent from Skyrim.

The monsters that inhabit many of these areas are slightly overhauled, whilst many of their attacks are the same as Skyrim, there are special boss monsters that occur in quest encounters. These are fairly significant encounters, in one scenario you choose who becomes the boss, in another there is a scripted sequence with temporary opportunities to attack. Something not usually present in Elder Scrolls games but familiar to players of JRPGs. To see this sort of battle presented on this engine is a testament to the skilled adaptation of the coding.

Ancient ruins hide untold secrets

Getting to locations is also artificially delayed. You’re encouraged to explore the landscape. Teleport scrolls are available to various quest hubs, and the large creatures known as Myrads also offer transportation similar to Morrowind’s Silt Striders, except Myrads can fly! (They are overhauled Dragons after all). This does mean the length of the game is increased since you will need to travel and get lost when climbing mountains yet it does allow you to continually enhance your skills and level, so that by the time end game arrives you are of sufficient skill to handle it. This forced exploration does lessen the feel of the grind since you are usually in pursuit of an item or travelling to an event.

The quests are fairly standard, most being fetch quests, yet the experience never feels tedious due to the well written dialogues and advancement of the story. Encounters within the quests also help to make them feel more varied despite the fact you’re doing the same thing over and over.

“Out of the crooked timber of humanity, nothing completely straight was ever made”

Isaiah Berlin

All of this takes place in a world that is remarkable considering the age of the engine. Being a total conversion Enderal does make significant use of various graphical overhauls, that create some truly remarkable environments. Some assets used will clearly send the player into reminiscing over Skyrim, however many new objects and textures are introduced, leaving a distinctly new feel to the world of Vyn you are adventuring through. These overhauls do come at a slight cost though, as performance does suffer. I noticed significant frame drops when wandering through highly vegetated areas, whether tropical or temperate forest. It is recommended to play this on a machine that is more powerful than that required for Skyrim as the resource demands are significantly higher for Enderal.

Another notable aspect was the heavy use of visual effects. For the most part these were impressive, however at times the flashing colours and lights did create significant eyestrain and during one sequence in particular the combination of blurring and flashing brought on a headache quite quickly. There is no epilepsy warning, not that I suffer from it, but considering many games do hold such a warning it’s absence was rather notable considering the usage of these special effects.

The demesne of Vatyra

Some of the monsters are renamed and recoloured into new variants, yet there are a few new unique monsters created for the game, that showcase some of the teams creativity. It would have been nice to see a few more such creatures, like the special bosses that need specific methods to combat and defeat whilst being utterly unique to look at.

The film sequences are not used extensively in the game, and sadly do look a bit like machinima productions, which was disappointing since the opening cinematic was highly stylised and reminiscent of Bioware’s Dragon Age opening. This wasn’t used again instead transitioning to the machinima pieces, I’d have enjoyed seeing more of this type of skilled artwork,, especially since it harkens back to many classic RPG opening sequences

Accompanying the visuals is an overhauled sound system. New music has been composed for the game, and whilst it clearly draws inspiration from the works of Jeremy Soule and Inon Zur it does manage to stand on its own. There’s also some Skyrim and Dragon Age inspiration creeping in again as bards are able to play various songs that reveal more about the world and its myths. Requesting songs at taverns led to a nice counterpart when relaxing, and the instrumentation of the game was beautifully used, with even bands of musicians playing during particular scenes. Yet all of this paled when compared to the way the game introduced its leitmotifs. They blend in so well at climactic moments, and as soon as one begins to hear them, tension begins to escalate, even if the music being used is a simple lullaby. Sadly the soundtrack doesn’t quite have the large orchestral impact that other games have yet it is still superb considering the budget and constraints that a free game is made under.

Childish pursuits

The voice acting is notable as well. Having played the English version some of the voices seemed slightly poor at first, and the dialogue did not always match the written texts, but for the most part the voices matched the characters. Whether it was the strident, authoritative tones of Arantheal, the confidence of Lishari Peghast or the hidden vulnerability Calia the characters are excellently portrayed and to see this aspect blend with the characters animations at various points was incredible to witness.

Enderal is a significant accomplishment, being one of the first total conversion mods released as a standalone product on Steam, but due to the consistent quality throughout. Whilst there are many areas that show some amateur design decisions, the tightly executed narrative and new possibilities revealed in the Creation engine code make this an interesting landmark in the history of videogames. In addition to this is the fact that it released for free, in the face of Bethesda’s consistent attempts to monetize mods via their workshops. SureAI has shown incredible skill here, hopefully their passion will lead them to new success in the future.

Score ~8/10~

Pros

*Beautiful overhaul of the Creation Engine

*Tightly woven narrative

*Incredible environments to explore

*Wonderful soundtrack with some excellent vocal performances by the ‘bards’

*Different endings to sidequests as well as the main game add replayability

Cons

*Some areas can be quite linear

*A lot of visual effects that create eyestrain

*Graphics overhaul increases the system requirements, which makes for a decreased performance when compared to Skyrim on lower end systems.

*Crashes are still fairly frequent

Publisher: SureAI

Developer: SureAI

Platforms: PC, Mac

ESRB: / PEGI: Not rated (Skyrim is rated M/18+)

Available from: Steam,


Hollow Knight (PC)

Hollow Knight is a game with a lauded reputation that precedes it, including being brutally difficult but also extremely rewarding. What was striking to me is that it does live up to this reputation in every way.


A mysterious bug emerges from the wilderness to discover an ancient village, decrepit and with one sole inhabitant, who points out a mysterious ruined city far below. Compelled by this mystery the small insect descends to discover the secrets beneath.

Pros

  • Rich lore and setting
  • Gothic aesthetic that adds to the mood
  • Intuitive and flexible playstyles
  • Fair challenge that rewards increasing skill

    Cons
  • Immense amounts of backtracking
  • Sometimes frustrating pathways back to the bosses if you need to retry the fight
  • Not always clear about what to do or where to go next

Rich in archetypal symbolism, from contrasting opposing forces, to vague references to dreams and a creeping infestation and plague that results in madness, Hollow Knight explores its themes of decay and decrepitude with you the player, the Knight gathering the last remnants of civilization even as you ultimately seal its own fate, in one of four possible endings. 

The motifs that Hollow Knight uses are sometimes subverted and sometimes remain the same, even as the world descends into further chaos due to your actions (which have a real and visible affect on a certain area of the game), for instance light and illumination are here in the role of the Jungian shadow just as the darkness or void and chaos are revealed to as the substance of the Knight. In a world of ruin, anarchy becomes paramount and the swathes of destruction that you leave in your wake partially reveal you as an anti-hero just as much as the prophsized saviour. It’s a beautifully complex tale and the lore is often revealed through poetic stanzas; phrased and contextualized in prophetic forms. It’s also subtle, barely revealing the hints to the player until you’ve actually encountered it and realise what was being referred to. At times this vagueness can be frustrating, but it does lead to further impetus to explore, to figure out the mysteries that surround the environs in which you are in.

It’s this notion of exploration and discovery that drive many elements of the game. As such various motivators are used, from various collectibles, whether its slaughtering enemies to add to the bestiary or pursuing charms to gain additional advantages or unfolding the next segment of the story, there is much to explore. This is impeded by aforementioned enemies and the area designs themselves. As interconnected as they might be with multiple entrances- and two transport options- the game itself will actively limit your exploration with a variety of hazards. Backtracking after gaining a new ability becomes essential as new parts of old areas will become accessible. At times this can be immensely frustrating as you slowly wend your way back across the map praying for a bench to save your progress.

The controls to accomplish all this are fluid and responsive. I played with the keyboard that used the arrow keys to control movement and z, x, c, & d that controlled various abilities such as dash and attack. From this basic system emerges one that is far more complex. Jumping and swinging your sword in a down attack can result in a pogo like movement, combining dash with an attack can result in a new move, and the game slowly reveals its complexities. It’s intuitive and flows easily which is a direct counterpart to the games other mechanics. 

Enemies come in a great variety, all with distinct move sets to be memorized and unique strategies to defeat. The environment itself becomes a tool, defeating a flying enemy may mean avoiding it by jumping up a wall then dashing off of it to slice your enemy from the air, or dodging incoming missiles by dashing behind part of the scenery so that it harmlessly hits the object instead. Enemies also at times explode, so even a triumph might inadvertently turn into a defeat. At times I found myself also luring enemies toward hazards such as water or acid, making them dash towards me, leaping overhead to watch them drown in the depths… although this did lessen my financial reward. Notably the game does reward a more cautious playstyle than an aggressive one and this may not sit well with some players.

The bosses are where the main struggle of the game also arises. Usually located fairly far from the benches you need to first get to them then attempt to defeat them. Soul, which is used to heal yourself may be used up just before you get to them, and so trying to harvest from the enemies on the way creating a balancing act between acquiring soul from hits and using it to heal damage becomes a delicate economical affair. The bosses themselves have the familiar stages of attack patterns to them as well as unique attacks to each one. Some bosses can be faced multiple times with the second iteration a far harder battle yet offering a greater reward.

Currency takes the form of geo, which can be used to purchase additional charms or map markers. It also acts as a toll fee to open up transport options and at times even benches which serve as rejuvenation and save points. Early game I struggled immensely with geo, it was in short supply and even affording a map (which are essential!) was often a struggle. However my mid to late game it was in more plentiful supply. 

The charms become essential mid-game and finding unique interactions and boosts around them will aid in various play styles. You can boost soul intake for more healing or spell casting, or boost up your nail (sword) arts for more damaging attacks. Finding a set that suits your needs adds a slight rpg like feel to a game that doesn’t really have true rpg mechanics. In fact I began to find mid and late game to be far easier as I boosted myself with the charms and new earned abilities.

With it’s low system requirements Hollow Knight still manages to appear incredible. This largely lies in the creative art design and small attention to details. The colour palette is sombre and subdued, yet the ornate and intricate fore and backgrounds great a gothic aesthetic that is hard to compare to. It simultaneously creates the sense of decay, a mood of despair whilst still portraying the decadence of the once great kingdom. Here are all the same hallmarks of art style that games like ‘Castlevania’ and ‘Dark Souls’ also used to great effect. 

The animations are fluid and each enemy can be clearly seen to have unique aspects so essential to knowing which attack they’ll use and so how to avoid it. This combined with the creativity of the designs makes for a game that is constantly providing feedback to the player about how to react in order to survive. 

The soundtrack is gorgeous, and use of leitmotifs will occur at intervals to hint at new events as well as (obviously) each boss having their own unique track further increasing the intensity of the fight. The calmness and tranquility of a few of the ordinary environmental tracks help calm you even as the frustration and high intense concentration required from the gameplay increase stress. So this counterpoint was one I was rather grateful for!

Hollow Knight certainly lived up to the high acclaim it has received. I was immensely surprised by it, and despite the initial difficulty curve I found myself absorbed by its world, environments, gameplay and lore as they unfolded. The exploration struck a wonderful balance between the extrinsic motivation (I want that new charm) to the intrinisic (will I be skilled enough to overcome this gauntlet of traps?) It’s truly a wonderful experience and whilst it is hard, it is rewarding, immensely so!

Score: 9/10 ~Elegiac exploration~

Publisher: Team Cherry

Developer: Team Cherry

Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux, PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch

ESRB: E / PEGI: 7

Available from: Steam, Humble Store, Microsoft Store, GoG.com

The banner image is copyright of Team Cherry and used under a Fair Usage Policy.

Oxenfree (PC)

Oxenfree defies genres at the same time as it weaves the American obsession with high school culture into a horrific tale that is more about the loss of freedom at a time of life when young people look towards expressing new found liberties.


A young group of teens decide to spend a night on a nearby island, however rebelliously innocent this may at first appear, all is not well beneath the surface as tensions arise from the various traumas that each character bears. Grief is very much poignant in their relations and sours a number of friendships. As they explore the island and are thrown into a supernatural occurrence these dramas unfold, as each character is exposed to the stress of the situation.

Oxenfree is not only a horror game but also fits into the genre of character drama. By isolating the characters and placing them in a situation where they face an existential crisis, is a staple of literature and film, and is used to good effect here as well. 

The tensions between the characters are revealed early on in the game, however the reasons for this are only slowly revealed through the course of the game. The narrative is thus forced to carry two stories, one for the present events on the island, and another that reveals a past tragedy that shapes the present. It’s a heavy burden to bear and the game suffers as it slows the pace down heavily, which may make some players bored as a consequence. The game demands investment of your time, and though it is rewarding you will need to slog through the game to get there.

This slowness is ameliorated somewhat by the brilliant characterization. From the superb voice acting to the dialogue trees that form in response, the game deftly shapes each person through their speech. Little idiosyncrasies in the diction come to the foreground to differentiate each character and the writers have mastered the delivery of emotions through the responses. The tension, relief and fear of each character is effectively realised.

Most interesting was the primary mechanic of the speech process. You have usually 3 responses, and although it’s fairly obvious which ones would portray Alex as more sympathetic to others, or which would have her more individually focused the third also gives her a sense of humour. It’s tempting to think if you answer only a certain way you’d create a specific ending, but this isn’t entirely true as the consequences of choices (the player as) Alex makes also determine the outcomes. Add in various linguistic issues such as being able to interrupt others while speaking by making a quick dialogue choice, or just not replying at all and the speech system here is one of the most robust I’ve ever encountered in a game. It makes for excellent roleplaying of Alex, as you shape her character towards compassion for her current acquaintances or whether she is torn and guilt ridden over her past. 

The game itself will have you travelling around the island in an attempt to escape, and in order to make this more interesting the game offers small collectibles in the form of special radio frequencies and letters to discover. These illuminate more of the backstory of the island and the reason for the encounter with the supernatural and in addition to having specific information for in the game itself, they also include hidden messages such as morse code in some of the audio for the player to crack the code of. The game then slowly bleeds these messages out into the real world, referencing actual telephone numbers that make it more real for the player as well.

As mentioned most of the game will be responding to dialogue and this is fairly easy to do as it works off the mouse. The environments themselves are actually 2.5D and can be moved around using the keyboard. In addition Alex uses her radio to solve various puzzles by tuning into different frequencies when she pulls out her radio and dials it with the mouse. Finding out the correct frequency to progress, is the primary puzzle mechanic and with a stronger radio later in the game, Alex will even be able to open doors not just react to the supernatural.

A map is available to use to help you navigate around the island, and Alex will scrawl objective notes on it to help the player recall where they are meant to go. Despite how small the areas look trekking across them will take quite a bit of time, because walking and even jogging is quite slow. This is partially because dialogues will occur as you walk so the speed is artificially slowed to allow the dialogue to play out largely in full. Add in sections that will trap you in extra-dimensional spaces and memories of the past and you’ll be slowed even further. Whilst these “occurrences” or “happenings” do move the overall story forward they feel more like interruptions (which metaphysically they are). It can become frustrating but if they were not there the game would most certainly lose the element of suspense that these intrusions create.

The suspense and horror elements are subdued. Most of this is born out by the fact that the colour palette is largely composed of pastel tones, and only occasionally will move to the harsh reds and blacks that define the contrasts of worlds during a supernatural invasion. The scenes are also soft, almost appearing to be made of a velvet texture with blurred outlines, it’s actually incredibly beautiful, though somewhat stylistic.

The game often zooms out when moving drawing back to give you a larger sense of the location, however in times of stress or when moving indoors the camera zooms in to better show the characters, although when playing at high resolutions they can still seem quite small.

Audio is where the game excels, from the small ambient sounds to the orchestral pieces that build up slowly adding to the tension, and the arbitrary crackle of the radio’s white sound interspersed with old jazz and country rock. A large part of Oxenfree’s aesthetic relies on the sound. Additional elements such as the morse code mentioned before, that cries for release and a radio and tape deck puzzles all add to the games central element revolving around the radio device that Alex used to unveil the horrors of time and entrapment.

Oxenfree is a very special game. Despite it’s incredibly slow pacing it is a masterwork of character interaction and dialogue and cleverly espouses its themes of concealment, entrapment and the desire to be set free and escape, and return to friendship just as the old phrase “All ye, all ye oxen free” would amicably end a childhood game,

Score: 8/10 ~Slowly suspenseful~

Publisher: Night School Studio

Developer: Night School Studio

Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux, PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, iOS, Android

ESRB: T / PEGI: 12

Available from: Steam, Microsoft Store, Humble Bundle, EPIC Store, GoG.com, Google Play

The banner image is copyright of Night School Studio and used under a Fair Use Policy

Dark Souls (PC)

Dark Souls was originally released in 2012 to widespread critical acclaim. The spiritual successor to the lesser renowned Demon’s Souls, it carried through many motifs and ideas that Hidetaka Miyazaki and From Software had initially established. Now nearly 7 years after its original release it is one of the high points of gaming both as entertainment and art.

With widespread discussion of its lore (including an excellent series by VaatiVidya) and with a plethora of games that have followed in its footsteps in terms of mechanics and design, it has become one of the games that many others are held to in terms of standards.
To approach a game that has established so widespread a legacy in so short a time is somewhat daunting but not quite as daunting as approaching the unassuming white mist that bars the way to a boss fight.

Pros
  • Integrated area design
  • Satisfying progression system
  • Complex yet intuitive combat
    Cons
  • Frequent camera clipping
  • Still quite a few glitches (suggested to use dsfix)

Dark Souls has a Promethean premise. From its mythical opening moments, that clearly draw inspiration from the Greek myth to a more expansive view that incorporates the Arthurian romances and Christian motifs of the holy grail and sacrifice; the setting, ambience and ambiguous lore is deftly established. The root material and philosophical premise that looks at an understanding of existence and the torment it inflicts on those who are alive expand upon the western literary tradition it draws inspiration from, but juxtaposes this with a more postmodern nihilistic worldview, that challenges and subverts notions of redemption, sacrifice, chivalry and restitution.

Anor Londo and Lordran as places are equivalent to a mythical Camelot or Olympus. Set high upon a mountaintop, inaccessible by ordinary means, the passageway is only opened by the tolling of bells (that ring for birth and death). Once one reaches the heavenly city (heavenly since it exists in the sky) one finds that the gods have already fallen, and existence is tenuously preserved by the rekindling of a flame that symbolizes the age of fire. It’s only by sacrificing the Lords to a lordvessel (similar to the Holy Grail, or Black Cauldron of Cernunnos from which the dead arise) that the age might be preserved. The entirety of civilization and order is dependent on this sacrifice. As the ‘Chosen Undead’ it is your duty to either fulfil the sacred duty of preservation or allow the world to fall into a ‘dark age’.

The ramifications of this are further explored in the concept of Souls. Souls are not only individuals, but also function as currency, by defeating and acquiring the essences of people who have been divested of their own will (those who have fallen into despair). Humanity is considered separately, and it’s in humanity that one is able to realise both the best and worst of what makes the concept of human (to invade or to assist). These metaphysical elements underscore the overall narrative and create a comparison to the darkly physical yet still alluringly beautiful world.

As an RPG with action mechanics Dark Souls is viscerally satisfying. Combat is slow and heavy, even with dexterity builds you will find yourself delaying attacks to seek for the perfect opening. Played out in a 3rd person perspective, navigating and using the environment to the best advantage whilst cautiously enticing enemies into overplaying their hand before you parry, riposte or outmaneuver them for a backstab. Playing strategically is of the utmost benefit in Dark Souls, and will demand your attention; carelessness will quickly result in death.

Characters advance by collecting souls and using those to pay for attribute points. As your ‘soul level’ increases the cost to increase the attributes does so as well in a carefully scaled system. The max attribute benefit is around 45, after which the scaling levels off. As such its best to focus on the starting attributes of your class which are the standard RPG fare, with warriors, clerics, sorcerers and pyromancers (fire of course holding especial significance). Each class is viable (I usually play casters so I have both a pyro and a sorcerer, and a low level warrior) and will require different approaches to areas and enemies. I quickly found my sorcerer excelled at picking off enemies from afar, which meant I could find a good spot and launch volleys of soul arrows, the pyromancer was better at mid-range, with a combined strategy of running in and out and leading the enemy around, whereas the warrior was close range, and much more reliant on dodging and parrying.

In addition to your stats, your equipment is of vital importance. Weapons (and the right choice of weapon) are serious decisions. Various weapons scale with different attributes, e.g. the estoc will scale with intelligence whereas the great axe scales with strength, that mean you will likely choose a weapon that best fits your class. In addition weapons have different move sets, a halberd has a jabbing attack as well as a sweeping attack and great reach whereas a long sword has slashing attacks in different directions and good ability to stagger an opponent. Knowing your weapons attributes and move sets is equally vital to survival. A well leveled weapon can easily determine the difficulty or ease of an encounter.

Other equipment is more situational. Rings provide various benefits such as increased item find as well as increasing your weight limit or making sure you don’t lose your souls and humanity if you do die. I found myself switching armour dependant on needs. Armour also has weight and mobility is dependent on this. Heavy armour will make you dodge more slowly however gives you more poise making you less prone to staggering, whereas lightweight armours will keep you mobile and able to dodge swiftly.

Most enemy encounters take place in a variety of areas, from precarious cliffside paths that will send you plummeting to your doom or expansive hallways and forests. There are a range of locations to explore with unique enemies in each area. As hostile as the environments can be, from poison water to trees and branches impeding your escape, the enemies themselves are the most lethal.
Each enemy has a specific move set and will provide you with tells for their attacks. Working out ways to approach encounters, as well as having a strategy to effectively take down each enemy type is integral to the game. Some enemies may require you to stay at range dashing in for quick attacks whereas other enemies it’s best to stay nearly underfoot, causing them to twist around to attempt to hit you. The enemies are often placed in strategic locations so using the environment to your best advantage is necessary, otherwise you may just find yourself impaled.

As much as the exploration is a driving force behind the game, the other major aspect is the boss fights. Each boss is distinct, from the calm encounter with the moonlight butterfly to the intensity of the final boss, each one will offer a new challenge and new move set to learn. Observing the bosses’ tells is key to avoiding their attacks, allowing you seconds in order to counter or escape. Combat becomes a dialogue, listening to the boss before responding.
In addition you can use summons (NPC or PC) to assist with the bosses however in some instances additional party members can increase the difficulty of the boss, so whether you want a greater challenge or are looking to make it easier, is situational.

Multiplayer aspects are still available, however the player population is fairly low averaging out at 500-1000 players daily with slightly higher numbers in the remastered edition (source:Steamdb). My own observations hovered around the 400 concurrent player mark. It’s possible to find matches and duels but is not always consistent. On the plus side if you’re a PvE player you’ll have less worries about invasions and being ganked. PvP enthusiasts however will be disappointed.

The graphics are beginning to show their age even when using the dsfix mod. There was some camera clipping and I did see a frame rate drop in Sen’s Fortress (the game also crashed a few times there), but for the most part the game is holding up well. Textures are all still viable and the game worked well in HD widescreen, with no tearing or stretching.
The ambience evoked by the design is superb. Each area is distinct, and whilst they all add thematically to the tone of the game, they also contribute to the mythical elements. From forests and woods, to the soaring parapets and gothic cathedrals the elements combine to clearly showcase the inspirations.
Enemies such as Hollows or beasts are deftly animated, and whilst some are generic others are truly fantastical in their design. In particular the later game enemies that have much of the grotesque about them, that show the decay and corruption that has befallen the world.

The soundtrack is beautifully executed with an orchestral soundtrack that accompanies various moments in the game as well as faster tempo and grander tones during boss battles, with each boss having their own motif.
The environmental sounds are where the game is at it’s greatest, from the chink of armour as your move about to the clash of weapons increasing during a crescendo of attacks, the audio makes the battles and struggle to survive come to life. In addition audio can assists with hinting at enemies locations. Pausing for moments at a blind corner, you might hear the tap of armoured feet, or scuffling of a beasts claws. Running from enemies you can trace the sound of their approach. I played with stereo headphones rather than a surround system and it really was a phenomenal experience.

As much as Dark Souls is a game of skill, there is some leeway within the RPG elements to surpass areas by grinding yourself to a higher level. With some luck and above all persistence Dark Souls will slowly reveal its world. Observation and attention to detail is integral and will allow for greater interpretation of its obscure and ambiguous lore. At its heart Dark Souls doesn’t just explore how the decline of a civilization occurs, it also looks to human intrepidity and exploration as means of salvation.

Score 9/10

Dark Souls is no longer available in the standard edition

Publisher: Bandai Namco, From Software Inc.

Developer: QLOC

Platforms: PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch

ESRB: M+ / PEGI: 16+

Available from:

Steam, Microsoft Store, Humble Bundle

The banner image is copyright of From Software Inc. and used under a Fair Use Policy.