Saturday, 15 October 2011

Supernatural: Time to Die?

“I kinda feel good Dean” Says Sam at the end of the last episode of Supernatural and thank god. It's felt like for the past two or three seasons every other episode involved Sam and Dean in some kind of emotional talk, tears in their eyes, Sam furrowing his brows because he's conflicted at whatever the hell was going on and Dean talking about his daddy issues again over a glass of scotch. Perhaps this means we can get another few episodes into the season before one of these pops up again but with 23 episodes a bloody season lets not hold our breath.

I don't know how I started watching this show again. After season five I remember thinking enough was enough. The story lines had become too grandiose. Gone were the interesting and unique monsters, in were demons disguised as humans. They also seemed to have replaced the light-hearted fun moments of Sam and Dean on the road to Sam and Dean are on their periods having a good cry about their crappy lives, again. Plus, I have lost count of the amount of times the two brothers have died or made some kind of sacrifice. It seems the two have a competition to see which one can be more self sacrificing and, to be blunt, it gets pretty disgusting. Because half of the situations they end up in can be solved without one of them dying, but they have to act all noble and crap to prove...I don't know, that they're willing to die again? They've both even been to Hell once and suffered countless tortures at the hands of demons, Sam himself being tortured by Lucifer and Michael in 'The Cage' (the badass way of saying Hell).

Somehow, season six pulled me back in. The storyline certainly was an improvement but sadly, it can't hold up to the more grounded stories of the first two seasons. Essentially, they are Hunters, people that drive around and dispatch of all kind of nasties like ghosts, werewolves, shapeshifters and anything else that goes bump in the night. So it can be a problem in the later seasons when they're dealing with things they can't possibly kill. It's a shame since in the earlier episodes they would turn to their Dad's trustful journal, read up on what they were hunting and go and kill it. It was suspenseful because we, the audience, knew that they were doing a dangerous job and they could easily die. It was kill or be killed. Now the big monsters are things Sam and Dean have no hope of even hurting, never mind hunting down and killing. So we spend a lot of the time watching the brothers dick around and cry because their life is so hard, while red-neck Bobby gives them more beer and says something red-neck.

Since each season is over 20 episodes, this means a lot of filler episodes that are boring and don't add to the over-arcing story. Plus, as mentioned, the creature design has dropped to an almost shameful level where even the most basic of demons seem to be disguised as humans. It would appear the staff have given up on creative creature design and thrown all the budget at getting 80's rock ballads put into the show. Yes we know, Sam and Dean are deep characters that are multi-layered. They're tortured, tragic, brave and so forth. Can I not just see a demon with some horns? Christ, even Buffy managed to keep the demons in there all through it's seven seasons.

Whether this will be Supernatural's last season, I don't know. In American the show is on a Friday slot, the place where TV shows go to die. Perhaps that would be best as one more season wouldn't do this show any favours.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Dark Souls Diary: Day One

Whenever the subject of favourite games pops up in conversation, I'm often the first to step in, thump my chest and proclaim Demon's Souls as one of the best games ever. Owning two copies of the game and completing multiple playthroughs, I consider myself a veteran of From Software's brutal action RPG. So having done what I can in Demon's Souls, I've been waiting with bated breath for Dark Souls ever since From Software announced it as Project Dark. Considering the sheer amount of time I've put into the predecessor, I assumed I would go into the successor knowing all the ropes, prepared for anything the game could throw at me. How wrong I was.

Dark Souls' first act of cruelty was its avoidance of me. My usual online retailer dispatches their game early so I normally get my games a day before release date. Thursday arrived and I headed to my parents house to pick the game up only to find the red 'in-your-face' you were not home slip locked away in the letter box, to which I had no key. Using an elaborate method of folded pizza menus, my girlfriend and I were able were able to retrieve the slip of paper and headed to the sorting office to pick the game up. However, upon flashing my ID, I was told the postman was not yet back from his round and that they'd be closing soon. I began to think that perhaps Dark Souls didn't exist, and everything I thought of the game was some euphoric dream I had come up with whilst overdosing on Demon's Souls and diet coke. I climbed in my girlfriends car and spent the rest of morning in a sulk like a child that had just been told Christmas wouldn't be arriving until tomorrow because Santa was stuck in traffic. But I finally have it. Dark Souls is in my possession.

Looking back at Demon's Souls' tutorial, it was a very basic run through of controls and the use of items until eventually you come up against a demon five times your size that swats you down like a fly, killing you in one blow. This, of course, is supposed to happen. This progresses you to the Nexus, the games central hub. In Dark Souls' tutorial, you begin in the Undead Asylum as a prisoner. You escape your cell with no weapons except a broken sword. Depending on your class, you pick up a few weapons (I went with the sword and shield Warrior class) and then have to face off against the Asylum Demon. Thankfully, I survived, but I think you'd have to beat this demon in order to progress and anyone unfamiliar with 'Souls' worlds would wonder how they could over come such odds in the bloody tutorial.

Your only place of safety
Having beat the demon, you move on outside where a giant raven flies down, picks you up and sends you to the island of Lordran and this is where your quest begins. Already things are different from Demon's Souls. There is no longer a central hub as the game is now open world. Your only place of safety are bonfires, a place to rest and refill your Estus flasks. Estus flasks are the healing item of the game, so you can't go farming herbs like you did in Demon's Souls. You have a limited number and bonfires can be far and in between so knowing when to heal already becomes a tactic itself. Using bonfires also re-spawns all the enemies on the map (except bosses and some of the more unique ones) so choosing which ones to use, and which ones to kindle becomes a hard choice. Kindling? That is when you offer some of your humanity to the bonfire, strengthening it and increasing the amount of Estus flasks you get from that bonfire. Humanity is a new precious item in the game which depends on your state - living or undead. Using humanity on yourself at the bonfire makes you living, giving you more health and able to use some of the online capabilities. If this all sounds wholly confusing so far, well, it should. Dark Souls wants you discover much of this for yourself but this what makes the journey such a memorable one.

Starting at Firelink Shrine, I had no possible idea of where to go. Talking to a few of the NPC around the area I decided to move on. Following a path and killing a few enemies, I ended up in Undead Burg, a place that resembles Boletaria Castle from Demon's Souls. This is the place your journey begins and you get to put your new found skills to the test. Already the familiarity of the predecessor will be known well to Demon's Souls veterans. Combat is familiar, having you block, dodge and tactically wait until the perfect opening on your enemy so you can strike a killing blow. And oh yes, there is death. A lot. It's amazing how much Dark Souls brought back all the horrible memories of dying in Demon's Souls. Death is unexpected and comes frequently. Bravado is often punished while patience and perseverance is rewarded. I think it was around the two hour mark the honeymoon period was over and anger and frustration began to creep up on me. It was also around this time I felt confused. Yes, there was familiarity to Demon's Souls but the differences began to show. The aesthetic looked different. Where as before you were often walking down dark grim corridors, Undead Burg had me crossing stone walkways as the sun shone brightly above. With no central hub, I was unable to repair my equipment that was slowly degrading with every use and death and using the online capabilities, such as leaving messages, remained a mystery. But it's best not to dwell on these things. If you push on and explore and check items you collect, a lot more options open up to you and things become clear. Eventually I found a merchant that sold me the item to rate and leave messages for other players. That's one problem solved at least.

Taurus Demon: There's no shame in running
What the fuck is that!? Oh it's the Taurus Demon, the games first big bad boss. Stepping out onto a walkway, this massive bullheaded monstrosity appears from nowhere, wielding a hammer so huge it could destroy a small country. Combat is an intense experience in Dark Souls. Since your precious souls hang in the balance (Souls: the game's one currency you obtain from killing enemies, used to level up, repair and buy new equipment. Die and you lose them) every encounter requires patience, methodical thinking and quick reflexes. So when it comes to boss fights, the heart pounding, edge of seat battle that you must win can be paradoxically euphoric and heartbreaking. Because boss fights are the likely places you will die. Dying sends you back the last bonfire you were at and yes, all those enemies you went through to get to the boss have re-spawned. It's normally the chance of reclaiming your lost souls that spurs you on. The last place you died will have left a bloodstain. Make it back to that stain without dying and you can reclaim your dropped souls and humanity. But frustration is your worst enemy in this game. Running back and trying to slice and dice your way through enemies is one sure way to make sure you never recover those souls. I managed to beat Taurus Demon after three ties after discovering a very useful tactic. Even so, besting a foe, especially a boss that has ended your life - that is the euphoric feeling you play Dark Souls for.

I'm making it sound like my time with Dark Souls has been a relatively easy and pleasant one. I wish I could say this is true. Having spent nine hours in the games company, I have died 35 times, not including the times I forgot to mark down a death from being too angry to remember. It got to the point where even enemies I bested with ease seemed to be killing me and anger got the better of me and petty revenge caused me to become sloppy in my tactics. At no point did this become more apparent then the Bell Gargoyle fight. Having made my way into the Undead Parish and my death count was stacking up, I encountered this boss. The first fight began well and I figured I was in for an easy ride. However, once you have it's health bar is down to the half way point, a second Gargoyle joins the fray and they start using the tactic of fire. I spent most of the fight pathetically backing away with my shield raised, healing when possible and unable to find an opening to attack. I would guess I died around 15+ times at this boss fight alone and at one point I had to shut the game off and catatonically stare at the wall while I thought of tactics to best these two bastards. It was here I explored the area some more and heard the loving sound of a blacksmith at work. Finally, a place to repair and reinforce my equipment. With a new found sense of vigour, I went back to face the two bastards that had ended me too many times before. Perhaps it was luck, or the new tactic using a sword and spear that helped me win, but I did it and all those hours of frustration seemed worth it. After the fight, you climb the tower and ring the bell. I heard this bell being rung a few times whilst in Undead Parish and that was the sound of another player beating the boss. Standing at the top of the tower, the bell tolling away, I looked over and saw the sheer size of the world. Where do I go from here?

After that, I needed some rest. Fatigue had got the best of me and playing a game that requires an incredible amount of mental concentration whilst tired is just a recipe to lose. But I slept soundly, knowing I ended one of the hardest boss encounters I had come across. A world of wonder, horror and endless discovery awaits me in Dark Souls and once the sun goes down I'll be back in it's strange and fascinating world. Watch this space for part two.