This week I've been playing Dante's Inferno and Demon's Souls. One of them is an incredibly frustrating and annoying game, the other is a relatively smooth and painless ride.
The frustrating one is Dante's Inferno.
I am not a fan of this type of games. While God of War didn't invent the genre, Dante seems to clone its gameplay mechanics without paying attention to GoW's many mistakes. I don't care about a game imitating another, but I'm very annoyed when it doesn't even try to fix what's broken in the original. I hate timing puzzles with a passion. I hate checkpoints separated by fifteen minutes of platforming, puzzles, secrets and bosses. I kept playing because I absolutely adore Dante's presentation and was relieved when the final third of the game finally calmed down and focused more on combat.
The previous hours were spent almost constantly raging in caps lock. The timing requirements and checkpoint placement were pure torture. I got better, of course, and yet every new death and bad checkpoint drew me closer to a heart attack. Every passed challenge and activated checkpoint weren't a triumph – but a IT'S ABOUT **** TIME, VISCERAL! Same thing was true for God of War, DmC and many other similar games over the years. I highly enjoy the presentation of these games, but their gameplay outside of combat is mostly horrible.
As a side note, many times I'm not able to properly judge distances and object placement. I wasn't always sure if I'm about to drop in the abyss or on the rope below, I misjudged jumps, ignored or hit ledges because it seemed they were background elements. That is one area where 3D would indisputably aid the gameplay in the absence of a controlled camera.
After finishing Dante I went back to Demon's Souls. It is a difficult game, but it's fair and that removes the frustration.
You have to restart the area every time you die and you lose your souls. A minor annoyance, because the enemies respawn and you can happily hack away and regain them – even better if you touch your bloodstain and recover the souls. All items discovered remain in your inventory. All enemies are in the same place, so you can plan your strategy better. All levers pulled and all opened doors remain activated.
Every new step is learning. This is not about perfecting some bull**** skill you don't even have. It's not about training the reptilian part of your brain. You have to think, learn, adapt in a way that very few games allow. Off the top of my head I can only think of a few games that touch this so very human part of your brain – Ultima Underworld, Dwarf Fortress, a couple of roguelikes... and, well, Minecraft.
There is of course the fantastic online integration. Watch and learn.
It's not frustrating because every time you restart, you think. It's not your avatar that is or is not able to do something, like in many RPGs, it's the man behind the wheel. The game lays down a rather generous set of toys and shifts the world's behaviour according to an arcane set of rules. It's up to you to understand these rules and *actually* play the game. Who knew you can cross a bridge guarded by a dragon in so many ways? You're not constantly required to exploit patterns, press the right buttons or shave a hundredth of a second. You're not even required to think, adapt and play smart – you can tank and cheese your way across that bridge in 1-2 if you feel like it.
You know what makes Demon's Souls even less frustrating? The presentation.
There's no Enochian choir and 210 people orchestra drilling through your brain. No flashy what-the-****-am-I-watching not-so-special effects. There's no cockney bloke screaming in your ear while mortars fall all around you, everything's a grey mist and the entire Russian army has wallhacks. Demon's Souls is simply down-to-earth, stern yet polite. It's always clear what you did wrong and there are always hints about what's coming. You don't defeat the first area's blobs by reading messages and watching ghosts – you draw the conclusion that they must be flanked and don't like fire from the second you first meet them. It's all clear and and logical. Blind trial and error is an almost unknown quality in Demon's Souls. It's like the Matrix code: if you can read it, you'll see a lot of hints. The game doesn't hate you, like some reviews said – it proposes a challenge, then gives you all the tools, info and training needed to overcome it.
Thus, I can't fault the game for my shortcomings. I can be at most upset with myself – and that only drives me forward and makes me want to improve. To be a better human, not a better pavlovian dog reacting to triggers and timers.
There is also the fact that the gameplay mechanics and world rules work exactly as you expect them to.They're responsive and realistic. It's so disappointing to see how hard The Witcher 2 tried to imitate its combat, only to fail miserably! Demon's Souls is polished, logical and functional, while TW2 suffers from terrible omissions and a lack of understanding of very simple principles that make the combat enjoyable.