Happy New Year! On Reading Break…

Hope everyone had great holidays over the Xmas and New Year season.

Quick updates on my end:

Guild Wars 2 – My activity level has dropped off in accordance with the Living Story pause and Wintersday break. This is not a BAD thing. There are times for obsession, times to stop and smell the roses and times for taking a break. I’ve mostly been popping in for long enough to finish dailies.

My silk surplus has finally dried up, putting my daily bolt of damask sale on partial hold, but it’s funded a decent amount of miniatures in the meantime. My PvP grind lasted a faithful week before I started getting bored and have missed 2-3 days in a row now. Might continue, might not, depends how I feel and if I have time to spare. Somewhat like my relationship with Teq, I pop in one day and then miss two or three days and back again.

Dark Souls – With attention falling off one major MMO, I have time to focus on singleplayer games. I’m still not sure what to make of this game. It kind of strikes me as a shared puzzle game, in the sense that it seems to have been built on purpose to have a difficulty that is soulcrushing alone, but it also seems to expect that people will discuss tactics online, write wikis and share guides and walkthroughs. There is also the repetition of each ‘stage’ of getting from bonfire to the end boss with enemies that are always in the same place and tend to pwn you UNLESS you hit upon and repeat certain strategies that counter them, in which case things become fairly simple.

I’m also somewhat confused in how to deal with the variable difficulty levels of the game. In that there are certain known ‘cheats’/’exploits’/’strats’ that can make fights a cakewalk, or you could choose to tackle the fights the hard way via your reaction times and ability to dodge. But then, is it really a cheat or just smart use of known weaknesses and part of the game, given that Dark Souls is all about finding the optimum solutions to puzzle fights?

Take the Abyss Demon. If you fight it the first time, you get a dinky sword hilt that does like 2 damage. Apparently your best bet for “legit” defeating it is to strip down nekkid for best mobility and use your fists, that also do 2 damage and hit faster. Goal: get behind the demon and wail away on its backside and/or dodge its telegraphed attacks and just jump in and jump out. OR you could back down and fight it the second time, in which case you get better weaponry and the ability to do a plunge attack on it to take off more of its hp. OR you could start with a class that does ranged magic damage OR even take advantage of its fire damage weakness and choose to start with black firebombs. That last one feels patently unfair, to the the demon. One hit takes off a good quarter of its hp or so.

But then, its presence at the very beginning of the game was patently unfair to the player to begin with, right?

I got smacked around by the Taurus Demon too many times to count, but patiently repeated over and over the attempt of using plunging attacks to kill it until it finally worked. The Bell Gargoyles utterly worked me over, until I finally gave up, became human and summoned Knight Solaire, where upon the nice NPC tanked them for me and I just smacked them from behind.

The Capra Demon necessitated numerous restarts, while I alternately pondered if I should grind for more bleed resist, grind for something to augment my weapon, grind for more levels, put on or take off more armor, or just keep -trying- to dodge it and its dogs’ attacks while making it up the stairs, trying to kill the dogs while evade it and plunge it, and mostly getting smooshed from the front while staggered by flanking dogs. It was not lost on me that this was theoretically an optional fight too. Finally, I decided that if I was willing to grind to defeat it, then I may as well just do the simplest grind possible – enough souls for a bunch of firebombs, which were then faithfully lobbed in following a guide video from -outside- the boss room, turning it deep fried from utter safety.

It’s stuff like that that utterly confuses me about this game. The game REWARDS this sort of behavior. Or rather, accepts it as a valid solution. Often, you get the same reward regardless of whatever strategy you used (though sometimes there are bonus rewards for doing something the game decides is worth giving a bonus for.)

The current boss that I was at, the Moss Butterfly, smacked my melee character around repeatedly from range before it even got to the stage where it moved within melee reach. Then I learned via reading up that a) I was using the wrong shield to block its primarily magic attacks, b) I was keeping the wrong distance and thus couldn’t dodge its attacks with enough predictability and c) since I was going to alter my strategy regardless the next time, I may as well go whole hog, go human, and summon the NPC that did RANGED damage so that she could smack it around while I just concentrated on not dying. Man, she barely gave me a chance to get a hit in.

Then there’s the potential of co-op multiplayer. Obviously not as popular now, but in theory, in its heyday, you could summon help to defeat some of these bosses, and dealing with them would be naturally A LOT easier if one person is tanking while another is striking from behind, rather than trying to solo tank / survive / run around behind it with dodgy camera and controls / sneak a hit in / get out of the way of the bosses’ return hit, etc.

So is Dark Souls hard or not?! I dunno!

Player deaths-wise, yes, you’ll go through a lot of them. But I play roguelikes where dying is half the fun and you’re expected to die to learn your way through encounters. Except Dark Souls isn’t a roguelike in the sense that you have a lot of variation from playthrough to playthrough (unless you choose to change it up.) The closest thing I can think of is that it’s a brutal puzzle game that you can choose to cheapen by reading a lot of walkthroughs and guides, or you’ll just repeatedly die and die until you devise a working ‘correct’ solution – sort of similar to a Sierra adventure game on steroids where you have to guess the exact word phrase to use or notice that one special out of place pixel or die and reload.

DarklandsJoseph Skyrim’s coverage of the game spurred me to dabble around with the classic for a night. Half of it was spent struggling with the manual and cluebook trying to figure out how to create a character, create a -functional- character and actually select a female image for my female characters and colorize them distinctively rather than have everything default to an identical confusing male knight in battle.

The other half was spent in a repeated grind cycle of sneaking around at night, fighting thieves in alleyways while trying not to die, saving and reloading, getting poorer and poorer while becoming more famous (figures, huh), alternating between making an innkeeper very rich and running out of the city to squat free-of-charge on some lord’s land while waiting -weeks- for wounds to heal.

Getting bored of this, I got a local quest to take on the local robber knight, went through a dozen saves of getting beat up by his men because one was too inexperienced and ill-equipped to handle them, finally hit upon a sequence that let me surround him alone with four very new adventurers and got lucky.

Now suddenly rich beyond my wildest newbie dreams, I went on a shopping spree. A test skirmish in the docks at night shows that I may have overdone it, because everybody is now encumbered and fighting worse than before. *sigh* Inventory management ahead for the next gameplay session.

Other Games – Picked up quite a haul with the Steam sales and Humble Bundles. Not sure when I’ll have time to get around to them, but on the to-try list: Gone Home, Gnomoria, Droid Assault, Anomaly 2, Tower Wars, Dust: AET, Deadlight, Pixeljunk Eden, Brothers, and Sang-Froid. Among others.

I’m staring at XCOM very hungrily and Witcher 2 always going on sale keeps reminding me that I’ve never made it through Witcher 1. *sigh* They’ll keep. I’m sure they’ll go on sale again at SOME point this new year.

A good deal of my game playing time has evaporated too because I’ve lost a week to reading a very intense and well-plotted web fiction serial.

Worm is a story about a teenage girl who gained bug powers and wanted to be a superhero. Except things go wrong, and she has to decide if she’s willing to do wrong things for the right reasons. It’s a setting where every character, hero or villain, is protagonist of their own personal story. Everyone is justified, in their own eyes, and conflict happens when motivations clash. People who loved City of Heroes should give this a shot. It’s darker in tone, but very well-written.

(This series was introduced to me via Eliezer Yudkowsky’s Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality fanfiction page, another good if lengthy read. A far more interesting, scientific and logical Harry Potter, perplexing all of Hogwarts. Don’t blame me if you end up losing hours to these links.)

Each chapter I go through, I’m in utter awe at how solid the writing craft is. Scenes force change. There’s cause and effect. Characters are compelling and have individual wants. Conflict, tension and suspense bleed through every page. Have trouble with plotting? Not this author, they keep coming up with the most compelling litany of things that could keep going wrong for the protagonist.

It’s bloody inspiring, that’s what it is, and I end up trying to devote some time to my own personal writing and solo roleplaying too.

Gaming and blogging time curtailed as a result. Will see you guys as and when there’s more stuff to talk about.

For Extra Difficulty, Struggle With Controls or Concepts

The best way to empathize with complete newcomers to the MMO genre who are not so much concerned with high level concepts like ‘levels’ and ‘xp’ but are struggling with the more immediate concerns of “how do I move” and “how do I look around” and “why can’t I hit this thing that is hitting me, halp” is to put yourself into a similar situation.

Like trying a sports game, for example, only to find out that each NPC is separately modeled to have different areas of strengths and weaknesses.

I guess that’s why my attempt at one of the Madden games when I was in a mild fascination with American football phase failed rather miserably.

Mind you, I live in that majority of the world where football means kicking a round ball into a net at one end of the field. I did always find ‘soccer’ rather boring and individualistic, where the art of falling down and making it look like you’ve been fouled horribly was generally more exercised than teamwork. Watching the goalkeepers was the most interesting thing of the interminably long match of running up and down a field after a ball for hours as they at least had a role different from the other men on the field (Stop the ball, not kick the ball.)

So it was much more fascinating to discover that American football had teams with an intricate breakdown of many different roles – people who caught the ball, ran the ball, threw the ball, kicked the ball and those that didn’t even have the primary role of doing anything with the ball but blocked and interfered with people trying to do stuff with the ball.

It did, however, take some homework of reading the highly intricate rules online, slowly deciphering out scoring and everything else, before I could turn on the TV and not have a match be complete gobbledygook. I did eventually puzzle out enough to develop a casual fan’s appreciation of the game.

The PC game, though… Well.

Plays defeated me.

I could manage controlling one player on the easiest setting and bullrush my clumsy way through ten yards, more or less. Then all these complicated pages of the playbook would pop up with no explanations, Xs and Os and dotted lines and there would be a time limit to select one of them. Randomly picking plays and going ahead with whatever the hell I decided to do in the moment worked about as well as you might expect.

This month’s infuriating difficult game attempt is another go at Dark Souls.

I’m not much of a console player. A long time ago, my ISP had a free PS3 promotion if you contracted with them for 2 years, and well, one was -already- paying for internet monthly anyway. It was a well-timed promotion because Heavy Rain was a PS3 exclusive, and god, did I want to play that game badly. While haunting the local games store for a copy of Heavy Rain, I saw a decently priced copy of Dark Souls and decided, what the hell, let’s see what the difficulty hype was all about.

That very first attempt was pretty much a disaster.

First, there was the encounter with the Abyss Demon, armed only with a broken sword hilt. Yes, I am aware in retrospect that it is meant as a lesson in running away being the better part of valor. I can see the design now, what with the brightly illuminated doorway and all that.

At the time, I had bought into the hype that you could defeat anything, as long as you reacted properly. A dozen deaths feeling out its patterns later, I had indeed found the exit door, but dammit, I didn’t WANT to run away.

I’m doing 4 damage to this thing each hit! If I keep behind him, he doesn’t hurt me! Surely there must be some kind of masochistic achievement award for actually defeating this thing earlier!

Several more dozen deaths later, rubbing in the fact that I didn’t have much skill with the controls and that it was damned difficult to consistently stay behind this boss without getting clubbed into nonexistence, I was getting motion sick and very tired of stone textures.

With the bitter taste of defeat in my mouth, I finally ran away to continue the rest of the tutorial. Except that didn’t get very much further besides killing a few skeletons, and then running in circles, completely lost and unable to figure out how to get past a bunch of locked doors. I couldn’t even go back to play with the Abyss Demon again because a locked gate had slammed down behind me.

After the better part of half an hour or more, I may have finally googled for help, only to realize that I’d missed a new hole in the wall that had been knocked open by a round boulder rolling down some stairs. Good grief, was this a game I was going to have to play with a walkthrough constantly in hand?

Talked to NPC, unlocked door, killed more skeletons, killed Abyss Demon at properly intended time, zoned to next zone.

Where one was promptly greeted with arrows and flaming projectiles and proceeded to plummet to my death trying to dodge them.

I stopped that play session there, having had enough motion sickness and repeated deaths for the day. And never quite felt compelled enough to power up the PS3 specifically just to play it again.

Cycle forward in time to now.

I like to think that playing GW2 has given me a new appreciation for watching mob animation tells, trying to understand their combat patterns and practicing getting the timing right on appropriate button responses (like dodging or parrying, etc.)

I do also own a copy of Dark Souls on the PC, having picked it up for cheap during one Steam or bundle sale or another.

Perhaps it was time to give it another go.

The PC port of Dark Souls has received some criticism for being a rather lazy port. The default screen resolution isn’t great, all the in-game tutorial messages are hardcoded to still show you Xbox buttons rather than whatever controls you’re really using (which makes everything a fun guessing game of hmm, which key represents the green B or the yellow Y?) and the default mouselook camera is alarmingly wonky.

Best played with a gamepad, say the majority of forum commenters.

No problem, I have a very functional Logitech Dual Action gamepad that has stood me in good stead playing PC ports like Indigo Prophecy and various Japanese RPGs.

I gamely chop, run, spin, block my way through the first zone, slowly dredging up from the recesses of my memory all the moments I remembered from my first playthrough. I notice with some pleasure that my GW2 experience has given me better observational skills with regards to combat animations, but this increased observational prowess also applies to myself… and my failure to appropriately press the buttons my brain is telling me to tactically press.

Dodge now! Strike now! No, not -that- strike, the other one! Block. BLOCK! Not parry! Oi, what buttons are your fingers pressing?!

The struggle extends to navigating menus. Firstly, the default controller keybinds are not mapped intuitively to my particular gamepad. The instructions on screen say ‘press start’ or ‘press select’ to bring up some menu or other. I hammer away at my start and select keys, button 9 and 10, and nothing happens. Trial and error reveals that I have to press down on my right thumbstick to bring up the menu.

I’m used to PS3 controls where pressing the bottommost button selects and the rightmost button cancels. Except here, the rightmost button selects, and trial and error again reveals a different button cancels.

I flip open the keybind settings to see everything is mapped onto keyboard keys and doesn’t apply to the gamepad. Aaaargh.

Now, of course, I could slowly and patiently use the Logitech provided profiler to remap all my gamepad buttons to match whatever twisted configuration Dark Souls is using, and then tweak it again so that it feels more intuitive for me.

But it also occurs to me that I’m not that in tune with a controller either. While I can coordinate movements using the left thumbstick while controlling camera with the right thumbstick, they’re not as smooth as they could be with WASD and mouselook. Surely some of that lurching causes accidental hits that might be avoided, not to mention increases my motion sickness queasiness when the camera isn’t acting like I expect it to.

So I put down the gamepad and try it with mouse and keyboard.

Which actually has potential. I move better and more confidently.

Except the mouselook is jittery and I’d like to block with -this- mouse button but the in-game keybinds don’t seem to support that, and a dozen other key binding niggles interfere with any more enjoyment of the game and desire to progress.

On the bright side, players have come up with unofficial fixes for this poor PC port.

Except now I have to stop the game, figure out which fixes I want/need, download the fixes, apply them, test and troubleshoot problems and so on.

One fix, DSfix, fixes the poor screen resolution.

But oh, remember to turn off AA first or you’ll get a black screen. So I start the game, turn off AA, then stop the game. Then apply the fix.

Another fix, DSmfix, fixes the mouse camera issues for those who like to use mouse/keyboard controls. Note the M for mouse. Small, but crucial difference.

I start the game to test again, and while the screen resolution fix is working beautifully, the mouse fix doesn’t seem to have kicked in. Stop the game. More forums and readme.txts later, it turns out I have to edit an .ini file to have it included as well.

Start the game. Ahh, now the camera is moving at a more suitable speed for mouse look. And the mouse fix has also provided a nice customizable GUI for mouse keybinds and an intuitive default setting.

Except… I run dual monitors and my mouse is escaping from the Dark Souls full screen window when I look to the right. When I left click to attack, I end up alt-tabbing out to desktop, with rather fatal results in the now minimized window.

Wut. I try windowed mode, but the cursor still runs off and I have to keep moving it back to the left again. It’s almost playable already, but for this last little niggling detail! I gamely try to progress a little further in the game this way, but it’s distracting and throws me off. *sigh* Stop the game.

More forums searching and reading later, I finally find a fix that involves editing the dsfix.ini and enabling a ‘capture cursor’ setting.

Phew.

Now I can finally start PLAYing the game, right?

I’m putzing around in the Undead Burg, finally feeling like all my deaths are at least fairly earned mistakes and experimenting with various tactics to deal with differently armed skeletons.

An invader has arrived in your realm!

Wut?!! Okay, I sort of had the impression that PvP was possible in this game if you were connected online (and there doesn’t seem to be any obvious way to shut off Dark Souls’ connection either) but I also had the impression that it would be LATER, not when one was in the second zone armed with starter gear.

I knew that I had one item of some kind in my inventory that had text along the lines of send an invader back to their realm, but it was the only one I had and hadn’t the foggiest idea of how to use.

So I just waited.

In strolls some burly guy outlined in red with the LARGEST FUCKING hammer I have ever seen, and probably all kitted out in ‘finished the game’ gear.

*sigh*

I just hold down block and wait for inevitable death.

It’s not like I really have anything to lose. I’d already been dying twice in a row repeatedly to second zone skeletons.

Guy gestures a few times, tries to say Hello.

I haven’t the heart to tell him that I don’t even know how to use the gesture menu. Just kill the noob and get it over with, eh?

He circles me, probably wondering if this is some kind of elaborate trap. Or maybe just laughing too hard to fight. Or taking pity on me. Whatever.

Eventually, he hits me twice with the hammer (hey, holding block prevented me from getting one shot!) and then casts some kind of massively pyroclastic spell that fills the whole screen in flames.

Well, it’s a change from getting stabbed to death by skeletons, I guess.

After getting shot in the back by various archers, then getting gibbed by the Taurus Demon, which solidifies the suspicion that I’m really going to have to play this game with heavy reference to a walkthrough, it occurs to me that I don’t even have the faintest clue what the enigmatic words “Reverse Hollowing” and “Kindle” mean when I sit down at a bonfire, and what does Humanity do anyway?

I quit and save the game, then start googling for a Dark Souls manual. I find some player tips and a wiki instead, which are likely more helpful.

It is then I actually learn that I managed to invite the invader in by having experimented with Reverse Hollowing once, which had the effect of making myself look human. Well, that was totally obvious.

Not.

I’ll be playing Dark Souls again. But not until I read several website’s worth of information, tips, advice and walkthroughs, I suspect.

I was really just expecting execution and reaction sort of difficulty, rather than all this homework.