Apple v. Orange Review: Dark Souls and Bloodborne (w/spoilers)

Apples and oranges aren’t that different, really. I mean, they’re both fruit[…]I could understand if you said ‘that’s like comparing apples and uranium’ or ‘that’s like comparing apples with baby wolverines’ or ‘that’s like comparing apples with the early work of Raymond Carver’ or ‘that’s like comparing apples with hermaphroditic ground sloths.’ Those would all be valid examples of profound disparity.

– Chuck Klosterman (Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs)

What’s on the docket today?

After the trifecta of disappointment that was L.A. NoireMass Effect 3, and BioShock Infinite (that’s a story for another day) — I lost a lot of my faith in the AAA videogame industry. When coupled with other titles like Watch_Dogs or The Order: 1886, I just couldn’t trust any gameplay demonstrations or the hype by way of the press and masturbatory events like E3. The cycle of being given empty promises, getting my hopes up, and then having them quickly dashed was wearying.

His favorite song is “Staring at the Sun” by TV On The Radio. Obviously.

Then, I discovered Dark Souls. It reminded me that the AAA industry can be capable of creating fantastic experiences with their resources if they bothered to have ambitions beyond cranking out mediocre spectacles. It provided actual challenge in an age where almost every title comes with training wheels, it treated its plot as integral as the gameplay rather than an obstacle to it, and could occupy well over a hundred hours of your life without forcing you to partake in pointless busywork.

Needless to say, I had become obsessed with getting my hands on a copy of Bloodborne (along with a PS4) after its release. When I finally did — thanks to the grand generosity of a younger cousin — I could not contain my excitement or overwhelming urge to dedicate as many days of my life to playing it as humanly possible. The only downside was the sense of confliction I felt on whether I liked it more than Dark Souls or not. It could drive one mad…

Dear God, enough with the gushing!


Okay, you asshole…so why compare at all?

Both were developed by FromSoftware — known for the Armored Core and King’s Field series — but Dark Souls was published by Bandai Namco and Bloodborne by Sony. However, the more important connection is Hidetaka Miyazaki (no relation to Hayao Miyazaki the legendary animator) who acts as director for both titles, as well as some other individuals such as programmer Jun Ito and artist Makoto Sato.

Don’t sound that different.

Oh, but they are!

[Cue Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale”]

Dark Souls (as well as its sequels) is an apocalyptic, surreal high fantasy while Bloodborne has a whole Gothic-Lovecraftian steampunk vibe. Though the overall style of the storytelling is incredibly recognizable, minimalistic and relying more on implication than exposition, their different settings and subject matter give them disparate narrative beats. Also, the gameplay of Dark Souls rewards patience and punishes recklessness while Bloodborne contrarily rewards boldness and punishes hesitation.

Point taken — so, what about those “disparate narrative beats”?

A primary trait in both titles is the sense of player disempowerment. The whole environment is hostile, where you can be easily overpowered by those stronger than you either by intimidating stature or in overwhelming force. The big picture, however, is obscured and the player character is continuously manipulated and misled by those who may know more and whose motivations are never quite clear. Other characters are perfunctory, serving one specific purpose or another, but many either become tragic victims of a cruel world or lose their mind and attempt to slaughter you mercilessly. It’s almost impossible to find a genuinely decent person, moreso for them to survive. The road to success is a war of attrition and willpower is the key to victory — to quit is to surrender and admit defeat.

The point of divergence may seem insignificant but, with everything I described, it is important to note that the Chosen Undead of Dark Souls is a prophesized hero — downright counterintuitive to instilling a sense of disempowerment. The Paleblood Hunter of Bloodborne is constantly reminded of their position as an expendable pawn within a cosmic chess game. No matter how many god-like tentacle monsters from outer space slain, you never forget that your place in these events are wholly circumstantial and the ultimate outcome of one’s actions is even beyond comprehension. Why wouldn’t they be? You’re enacting a task based on the vaguest instructions from a being that interacts with you as indirectly as possible, unless agitated enough to become direct. You are little more than a fly caught in the web constructed by a spider of planetary proportion. It is surviving these horrors with as much sanity intact, not prophetic fulfillment, which is the ultimate goal.

Don’t ask. Just…don’t.

The way other characters react to the protagonist is indicative of how the player is encouraged to continue and succeed. Dark Souls’ cast is an affable bunch, save for an underhandedly malevolent few, and willing to assist — even applaud your achievements as you progress. Not only are you prophesized, but others tell you how awesome you are regularly. Bloodborne does the opposite with inhabitants of Yharnam that constantly mock you, despite protecting them against the plague-ridden beasts and providing them safe haven. The environment despises your presence — but those living in it hate you more. You can’t help but try and prove them wrong…

Though argued that Dark Souls and its sequels’ emphasis on a never-ending cycle — of how many empires rise and fall, only to be forgotten — negates prophetic importance, this only came about from the game becoming surprisingly popular. It was a spiritual successor to the PS3-exclusive Demon’s Souls but intended to be a cross-platform release, thus wider exposure and ensuring sequels. But it’s an inherent flaw with the lore: the fact that it can be described (as I have earlier) as “apocalyptic” is oxymoronic when the subsequent installments are suggested to take place millennia afterwards. At that point, can it really be “apocalyptic”? If anything — that just makes it business as usual, like superheroes saving earth from an alien invasion on a monthly basis…

And how about the fun stuff? Y’know, the gameplay?

There’s a basic template: a third-person, exploration-heavy action RPG with level design similar to “Metroidvania” titles (albeit in 3D) with shortcuts that open as one progresses or gaining access to other areas after acquiring specific items. Combat emphasizes timing attacks and managing a cool-down phase — the agility bar itself acting as something of a secondary health meter that regenerates. It is integral to observe and memorize the behavior of antagonistic A.I. and strategize accordingly, as they are capable of delivering hard-hitting blows when one is left open or cornered. The means for combat as well as the amount of mobility given to the player is probably one of the starkest contrasts between both titles.

Weapons in Dark Souls are traditional melee types — swords, knives, spears, etc. — accompanied by varying shields along with spell-casting staffs as well as bows and arrows for ranged combat. Bloodborne adopts far more fantastical instruments, including an edged cane that transforms into a steel-plated whip and a hammer that can cause small explosions or set opponents aflame upon impact. Ranged weaponry comes in the form of firearms, from flintlocks and handheld flame-throwers to an arm-mounted cannon and portable Gatling gun — either riposting enemy attacks with good timing or simply to deal (often lesser) damage from afar.

Make Contact, Not War

If those descriptions did not make it clear enough, Bloodborne’s armaments are simply more memorable in terms of design and function. Each one is different from the last, all with secondary modes that are not only varied but add strategic versatility even with the intense and fast-paced fights. Dark Souls may have a greater quantity available but a sword is still a sword, a bow shoots arrows, and wands cast spells as they usually do. Though melee weaponry functions satisfactorily (at least in single-player mode — multiplayer is prone to odd glitches), spell-casting and ranged combat do not. Using magic missiles and arrows are simply nowhere near as viable a tactic as wielding a sword, dagger, spear, axe, or mace.

The average player in Dark Souls is usually weighted down by shining steel-plated armor, accompanied with a shield, as most enemies are prone to physical attack and blocking is one of the more effective ways to defend one’s self from damage (with parrying as a counter-attack function). Evasion is an option, especially for more skilled individuals, but the character — whether they dodge-roll, back-step, or side-strafe — is still kinesthetically cumbersome.

The attire available in Bloodborne is entirely light-weight and the stats for such equipment vary little between one another. One outfit may be more fire- or lightning-retardant than others, giving the edge in a certain boss battle or two, but much less emphasized as the game encourages evasion above all else. The Paleblood Hunter can gracefully skip about every direction and practically dance around a mob of diseased madmen, herding them into a narrow passage to be efficiently slaughtered. Even the misshapen behemoths can be dealt as such since they’re placed in large, open environments and their movement laborious enough to reasonably counter. In fact, being aggressive — even to one’s detriment — is encouraged by being able to recover any health lost to an enemy by retaliating quickly.

There’s a constant sense of forward momentum in Bloodborne, even during quieter moments, whereas Dark Souls is a stop-and-start affair due to being very methodical.

Is that it?

Well, no, those sensibilities are reflected in the layout of their level design as well.

These guys. These fuckin’ guys.

When it comes to enemy and checkpoint placement, Dark Souls is fairly conservative as most fights are one-on-one, with an occasional mob or two, and the distance traveled between bonfires make them seem scarce. The upside is that there’s a sense of dread even when you know what to expect — the downside being it makes backtracking unbearably tedious. Though perhaps heretical to fans of Dark Souls to say, I hated Blighttown and The Great Hollow. Navigation is purposefully confusing, as part of the challenge, but no decent shortcuts are given back to The Depths (a rather generic sewer area too) as an award. Before attaining the Lord Vessel at the game’s midway point — it was the most frustrating part of the experience. Even better areas, like The Catacombs and Tomb of Giants, suffer from this problem when encountered early on not simply because those areas are harder but because any enjoyment to be had would be ruined by backtracking.

The overly-generous approach to checkpoints as shown in the sequels or even Bloodborne shouldn’t be the alternative — yet allowing teleportation between them cuts down on so much of the monotony that comes from backtracking. Bloodborne, as a console-exclusive title, streamlines itself for both better and worse. The single-player campaign is less reliant on summoning other players and NPCs to take on bosses and environments offer much more visual storytelling even within a smaller space. Admittedly the main hub, The Hunter’s Dream, is nowhere near as interesting as Firelink Shrine was in Dark Souls and even the downloadable content — “The Old Hunters” — feels heavily recycled when “Artorias of the Abyss” was an improvement on the main game. Yet Bloodborne connects Gothic horror to Lovecraftian horror seamlessly in such an interesting fashion that it makes Dark Souls’ subversions of high fantasy seem quaint.

This makes the Chalice Dungeons of Bloodborne incredibly disappointing as a procedurally-generated dungeon-crawler by FromSoftware makes a lot of sense. The actual result, however, is generic and lifeless when the abandoned streets of Yharnam were lively in detail. One can’t help but think this is some secret beta version of another title to be released years down the line. Hopefully it’ll be improved a ton and knock it out of the park then.

I’m pretty sure you prefer Bloodborne.

As much as I hate to admit it, yeah, I guess I do. But that game would’ve gone ignored had I never played Dark Souls and became as enamored as I was by FromSoftware’s approach to gameplay and storytelling — it feels intrinsic to why I enjoyed Bloodborne as much as I did.

Blood Moon Rising

What bothers me about Bloodborne the most is that, as a console exclusive for the PS4, lacks the same exposure and support as the cross-platform Dark Souls as well as its sequels. Console exclusivity in this day and age has become antiquated and counterproductive yet (given industry avarice) the practice is continued despite the obvious obsolescence. That makes Bloodborne kind of an underdog, in a strange way, and I want to be more supportive of it due to such.

Though I warmed up to Dark Souls 3 despite being so riddled with fan-service and recycled assets — it’s difficult to not see the success of the initial game being a bane on the series now. Dark Souls 2 and Bloodborne, despite their (respectively) poor reception by fans and a limited audience, were at least trying to go in new directions and expand on the material. Dark Souls 3, on the other hand, feels like the moment a serpent has begun to devour its own tail. Though I suppose that’s fitting, all considering…

[Originally posted on 8/12/17 @]

Apple v. Orange Review: Bastion and Transistor (w/spoilers)

Apples and oranges aren’t that different, really. I mean, they’re both fruit[…]I could understand if you said ‘that’s like comparing apples and uranium ‘ or ‘that’s like comparing apples with baby wolverines ‘ or ‘that’s like comparing apples with the early work of Raymond Carver ‘ or ‘that’s like comparing apples with hermaphroditic ground sloths.’ Those would all be valid examples of profound disparity.”

– Chuck Klosterman (Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs)

So, what’s the big deal?

Supergiant Games’ new release, Pyre, is coming out later this month and I thought a compare-and-contrast retrospective on their previous titles would be relevant.

Unlike many other mainstream titles, both Bastion and Transistor rely more on implication than exposition; having its audience fill in the spaces left purposefully blank. It’s a style of storytelling I find preferable for videogames, rather than another wrong-headed attempt to be “cinematic.” Because, as we all know, the best way to improve interactive entertainment is to slavishly mimic a passive medium (not really though). There is more to intrigue and incentive for players to actually ponder and further explore the physical setting, which reinforces a seldom felt sense of immersion. A rarity at a time when extravagant facades, built upon shoddy foundations, are the norm. Especially as it can occur through gameplay rather than as an overlong movie cut to pieces and interjected, no matter how awkward or contrary, in between the parts that begrudgingly give the audience agency.

That isn’t to say either Bastion or Transistor is entirely successful. Even with the limitations that come from being a newer studio, Supergiant Games does an admirable effort with the resources at hand. However, the flaws are noticeable enough to distract.

Then what’re the…er, plots at hand?

Chris Franklin’s interpretation of Bastion being, metaphorically, about recovering from a disastrous break-up of a long-term relationship is hard to argue against and I can appreciate that. The problem, however, is that Bastion establishes a very lived-in ecosystem with basic laws attached that contradict its interpretive elements. Given that, how does the actual plot function? To answer that question in one fell swoop: it starts and remains strong up until the game’s midpoint, leading to a revelation of morally reprehensible actions by Caeldonia towards the Ura — that the titular device was, in fact, a weapon for ethnic cleansing — with an endgame twist made inane by lacking any precedence.

Along with being a doomsday weapon, it’s apparently a TARDIS that looked like a vividly lush floating island…or something.

…Wait, what…?

Yes, in fact, Ruckus — the character acting as the game’s narrative voice — explains that the device was meant to rebuild the world as much as destroy it; but there are no clues given that it could bend time and space. This reveal is brought up during the final level, occurring at so late a point that it is downright contrivance. Internal logic be damned as the narration is implied to have come from a person aware of future events…except Ruckus claimed that, in literally winding back the clock, events would be forgotten by those who experienced them. Why is he immune to such effects? Oh, right, there wouldn’t be an omnipresent narrator otherwise. For that matter, why create a device that can act as both a terraformer and a weapon of mass destruction? Why have an Ura refugee work on the device or give him the knowledge to use it against them? The more information given, the more plot holes become apparent.

And Transistor?

In deciding to be far more abstract and less concrete, it fares better as a minimalistic and interpretive story. What little explanation is given remains obscure, as do the rules applied to the setting, making it more difficult to determine whether or not one element of the plot is inconsistent with the rest.

Much to my chagrin, the patronizing adage of “your mileage may vary” would apply on the issue of whether or not that works in its favor. Personally, I loved the story. It gave me the same sense of wonder I had when watching ReBoot as a kid and then years later with The Matrix during my early adolescence — seeing it as an allegory of the democratization of culture in the internet age, of the dangers in relying so much on consensus that it becomes erroneously conflated with quality. Yet, at the same time, one can’t assert those less enthused with this game are somehow wrong or “don’t get it.”

It’s like an expressionist painting or Dadaist assemblage: while one person can find meaning in it whatever the reason, another can find none, and both perspectives are valid. Only a person who claims to understand it more than anyone else is full of shit.

What I will argue with is how it deals with voice acting. It bothered me that, in Bastion, Zia is only given a speaking voice at the penultimate scene. If she could have a voice before, why didn’t she have it then? Transistor is even more problematic in that it not only renders the female protagonist a mute before her introduction (even Ariel in The Little Mermaid got better treatment than that) and explained away with a lazy hand-wave, but there are male characters in the supporting cast who do get their own voices. Her talking sword drones on, sounding like Harrison Ford in Blade Runner reading passages from a Raymond Chandler novel, in a one-way conversation — even though some friendly or flirtatious banter would’ve added so much more. Red is a character as indicated by the comments she posts, in response to news articles found at computer terminals, where she’ll even delete what she just wrote to rephrase her statement to be more succinct or dramatic. The problem being that such terminals are wholly supplemental and leaves that characterization unseen by those who didn’t bother to look. It comes off as a sexist creative decision even if done unintentionally — moreso given it’s been done twice now.

That is unfortunate with the game’s otherwise progressive attitude towards sexuality and gender, as several gay characters and one transgender individual are present. None of that is treated as somehow abnormal nor their sole defining trait, instead adding a layer to their overall personality. It’s the kind of story beat needed in the medium.

What’s their commonality?

As said before, they were developed by Supergiant Games and are isometric action-adventure videogames with RPG elements. The art direction, from Jen Zee, is more evocative of painted illustrations than computer-generated imagery and is accompanied by a collaborative musical score by Darren Korb with vocals by Ashley Lynn Barrett. Logan Cunningham also provides most of the voice-over work on both titles.

And the differences?

Bastion is hack n’ slash while Transistor has mixed real-time/turn-based combat mechanics that emphasize strategic usage of special abilities and numerous variations when combined with others for either an active or passive effect. The earlier is also Steampunk filtered through Spaghetti Western aesthetics, whereas the latter is cyberpunk infused with noir sensibilities and a fondness for Art Nouveau.

Okay, whatever — how about the gameplay and graphics?

Aside from the chibi-proportioned characters of Bastion contrasting with the more realistically formed ones in Transistor, there isn’t much difference in terms of overall in-game graphical quality. It goes without saying that Jen Zee’s art direction is absolutely lovely. It’s in the level design — in how they progress — that they diverge.

Despite the isometric view, Bastion has the pretense of being a platformer as well as encouraging exploration (the operative word here being “pretense”). Blocks of flooring, both small and large, appear as the player character ventures forward, that indicate possible hidden paths. But in reality it’s actually quite linear and those paths are easily found. The items they lead to add texture to the game’s setting, but that’s about it. It also doesn’t help that these platforms are littered with both breakable items and décor, which are hard to determine from one another, adding to frustration in combat when it comes to dodge-rolling away. There’s even a level selection screen though one can’t replay completed areas nor have much choice as which to play next.

Transistor, to both its benefit and detriment, streamlines the environment and lacks the aforementioned pretenses. There’s no worry about continually falling into a void. While it does implement platform jumping as last minute as Bastion’s, it is done purely by button-prompt (rather than poorly implemented precision jumping) that functions better overall. There’s no doubt it is linear and that point A leads to point B, with very few detours for world-building texture. However, it also lacks the vibrant colors and details needed to make an environment more fit for the combat with the most gorgeous vistas — outshining even those in Bastion — being few and far inbetween.

It’s the closest I’ve come to playing an interactive Gustav Klimt painting, if only for one brief and fleeting instance. I wished the whole experience was like that…

I’d put that print on my wall!
I’d put that print on my wall!

Combat is central to both games’ mechanics and those are more dissimilar. As stated in the previous section, Bastion is a hack n’ slash and it’s a competent one — though overburdened by features disproportionate with the game’s length. Going back to the review by Chris Franklin, he praises the game for lacking anything frivolous or unnecessary in its design and I just don’t get it.

You only have two weapon slots and the game gives you a new weapon almost every level, save for the challenge areas, up to the final one. As much as variety is the spice of life and all that, it creates this problem where I’m forced to use this new weapon I’m not familiar with even though I’ve been using those I prefer or have gotten used to already. Were this to allow for various playing styles, it would be understandable, but they’re often needed in the level you find them in anyway. The game isn’t extensive enough to justify needing that many to begin with. The challenge areas themselves, save for four, only provide more money for upgrades or special skills for a specific weapon you probably won’t use otherwise. It gave me flashbacks to Assassin’s Creed 2 when they piled a bunch of melee weaponry on you, even given a steady income to buy more of them, that went unused because the wrist-blades worked well enough anyway (and, hey, they’re pretty damn cool).

Meanwhile, in Transistor, there is only the titular weapon — though it functions less as a melee instrument than it does a medium for casting spells dubbed as “Functions.” You can use a Function by itself but combining it with others can extend its range or add a status effect that stuns or weakens opponents. Alternatively, one can put it in a slot for a passive effect for the player character by, for example, spawning a decoy to distract enemies or shield them from damage. There’s a very tangible effect with each Function that can drastically change the nature of a battle. You can employ a number of viable strategies and applying them can become an engrossing experience.

When I finished Bastion, only to restart it in New Game+ mode, I felt like I saw everything the first time around and wasn’t really challenged anymore. Transistor, well after completing it, had me replaying battles that totally kicked my ass with a new set of Functions to see if they were more effective than the last.

Anything you forgot to mention? You do that sometimes. Well, a lot, actually.

Not sure why Darren Korb and Ashley Lynn Barrett haven’t made a studio album or two yet, because the soundtracks of Bastion and Transistor work wonderfully by themselves. They act as proof that original musical soundtracks for videogames can actually be better overall than all the compiled licensed music you’d find in Grand Theft Auto. Like Akira Yamaoka’s compositions for the Silent Hill series, each song perfectly represents its environment and remains tonally consistent throughout — whether it is Bastion’s idiosyncratic country/bluegrass-style strumming and percussion or Transistor’s electro-jazz beats with occasional lounge singing.

I’m guessing, based on all that, you prefer Transistor?

Well, yeah, obviously.

Yet I can only say that I liked it quite a bit but not that I loved it. There’s a lot of charming elements like its unique take on combat, the Art Nouveau aesthetics you see nowhere else, and a form of storytelling that’s (as George Wiedman once put it) borderline avant-garde. At the same time, being different doesn’t necessarily equate to quality. They’re all things I’d be pleased to see more of, to some extent or another, in the future — but their awkward implementation does not keep the rest from falling short of true greatness.

[Originally posted on 7/12/17 @]