Thursday, April 28, 2016

New Patch Brings Pre-Launch Event and First Stages of Stormwind Park Restoration

It has been a long, long time since Deathwing took a deep breath and blasted apart Stormwind's Park. If you're a newer (meaning post 2010) player, you might not realize that rather than a burning, smoking crater that dips into the ocean, the area north of the Mage District and west of the Cathedral Ward in Stormwind used to be its own area.

The Park wouldn't look all that impressive compared to the graphics of today, but it was, essentially, the Night Elf part of Stormwind, where Druid and Hunter trainers could be found (there was another Hunter trailer in the Dwarven District as well, but none in Old Town.)

Well, 7.0 will see Stormwind's construction workers finally get off their behinds (hopefully well-paid this time) and repair that gaping maw of destruction, which will prominently feature a [REDACTED.]

Additionally, and more ephemerally, it looks like Legion will have its own sort of variant on the famous/infamous Zombie Plague from the pre-Wrath event. It appears that going through major cities, players will sometimes encounter "Dark Whispers" with promises of power. This will give you a buff that slowly corrupts you with demonic magic and allows you to spread it to other players, eventually transforming you into a Dreadlord (hostile to the rest of the world.)

It appears that this buff can be clicked-off, so you can opt out, but I'm curious to see if some of the other features of the Zombie Plague make a comeback, such as a gradual ramp-up of sources and virulence, or the ability to team up with members of the other faction.

In addition, there seems to be a pre-launch quest line that involves dealing with cultists who are already taking the "if you can't beat them, join them" attitude toward the Burning Legion.

So it sounds like for the first time since Cataclysm, we might be getting a full-fledged launch event.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Zendikar (Magic: The Gathering Setting) Gets a D&D Sourcebook Online

I've only started doing D&D within the past year, jumping into the deep end as I DM my own home-brew setting. However, the Wizards of the Coast property I've been far more familiar with in Magic: The Gathering. I started playing when I was eight years old, from roughly Fallen Empires to Tempest block, then picked it up again in college (using a Virtual PC emulator to play it online - seriously, would it kill them to make MTGO available for Macs?) for Kamigawa and Ravnica (the latter of which is probably my favorite block I've played.)

While I haven't played actively in quite some time, I have followed the game on occasion, and two of its more recent settings, Innistrad and Zendikar, kind of split the difference for my tastes in fantasy.

Wizards has kept MTG and D&D separated for over twenty years, which is probably wise, preventing them from growing too similar. But they're breaking that rule in a free online sourcebook to accompany some art book coming out thanks to their return to the Zendikar setting.

Zendikar was conceived a bit as the "RPG" block, what with creatures that leveled up and its focus being on small bands of adventurers seeking treasure, so it makes sense that they would adapt the setting to D&D.

The sourcebook (which can be found with this link) adds or modifies playable races, so you can be a Kor, a Vampire, a Goblin, or a Merfolk, in addition to Humans and Elves. It also adds a ton of monsters, largely using existing creatures in the Monster Manual as analogous creatures from Zendikar, with slight tweaks in some cases to make them fit better.

Given that my D&D setting has a lot of Lovecraftian beings and the Monster Manual is pretty limited in that regard, I'm sure that I'll be stealing some of the ideas about Eldrazi creatures.

I'm really happy about this sourcebook, especially given that it's free, as it's a kind of chocolate and peanut-butter of nerdiness. I recommend checking it out if you're looking for a new D&D setting or at least looking for inspiration.

Nintendo NX Coming out Next March, Along with New Zelda

The Wii U had a ton of potential - I bought one a few months after it came out, and I was excited that Nintendo was planning to try to get back into the top-line gaming that it had ceded to Microsoft and Sony during the Gamecube and Wii era.

It did not succeed at this.

The Wii U has some fantastic games. I think its version of Smash Bros. might be the best yet (though I'd bet most people still consider Melee to be the pinnacle.) The problem is that there really just aren't that many games for it.

As someone who's approaching 30 pretty soon, it's also true that my taste in games has shifted over time. I'm more interested in complex stories and mechanics, and of course novelty. I love Mario games, but I'll admit that Super Mario 3D World and New Super Mario Bros. U kind of melt together in my mind even though they're not even in the same number of dimensions.

But given that I invested in the Wii U, I do feel like I got burned.

For one thing, a general rule with Nintendo is that you can expect one and a half Zelda games per generation. Two for the NES, one for the SNES, two for the N64, and then practically one and a half for the Gamecube (Wind Waker and Twilight Princess) and again for the Wii (Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword.) Now, the new Zelda game will not be launching until the NX does, which means that you can be certain it will come out on the NX, likely with a Wii U version, meaning the Wii U only gets, effectively, half a Zelda.

There's also the fact that it will have been only four years since the Wii U came out, with very little produced during the time.

It's a real shame, because I felt that the return to traditional controls might have meant more 3rd-party titles. But this is the big problem for Nintendo:

I grew up primarily with the SNES and N64 era, and at that time, Nintendo was a place for 3rd-party studios to show off their stuff. Now, however, for technical and also business-politics reasons, Nintendo is treated more like the American Politics version of a third party - people forget they exist.

What keeps me buying Nintendo consoles has been their 1st party games, but maybe it's me or maybe it's Nintendo, but I don't really see that many exciting things coming out from them these days.

The Wii U didn't have a Metroid game, it will only just barely have a Zelda game.

I'm assuming the strategy here is to cut their losses, hoping that the NX will be at least on a technical level on par with the PS4 and the Xbox One, but I'm going to be a lot more cautious about buying this new console than I was with the Wii U, given how recently I did so.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Whispers of the Old Gods Live in Hearthstone

The latest Hearthstone expansion is now live, and with it comes some very nice quests to help you get started into the expansion, a free copy of C'thun and two of his cultist buff cards, and also the new Standard/Wild format distinction.

Moving forward, we'll be getting a new season of cards each year that eliminates some of the older cards from being available. If you love your old decks, though, you can play in the Wild Format, but for those of you more interested in stepping into a new meta-game, Standard is the way to play.

This is a very similar thing to the way that Magic: The Gathering works - there Standard allows the latest Core Set and the last two expansion blocks. You'll still be able to play Wild if you want to have all of Hearthstone's history available for deck-building, but the idea here is to keep the game fresh by mixing up the meta-game, and allowing Blizzard to force out old overpowered strategies and cards without fully removing them from the game.

Notably, Hearthstone's Standard will always allow Classic and Basic cards, so the things that have been in-game since the game launched will always be available for play (though the recent patch nerfed and/or buffed a few of them to keep them in line.)

The current Standard excludes cards gained from the Naxxramas solo adventure and the Goblins and Gnomes expansion, but Classic/Basic card, Grand Tournament, Blackrock Mountain, League of Explorers, and of course the new Whispers of the Old Gods cards are all available.

To promote Standard, there will be a couple new quests that you'll get that reward several packs of Whispers of the Old Gods cards.

This expansion, I splurged and got the fifty-pack pre-order. It really shows you how rare Legendary cards are, as I only got two, and they were both Ragnaros the Lightlord - after opening all the packs, I managed to more than double the amount of crafting dust I had, which is considerable as I have crafted a grand total of two rare cards in all my time playing the game.

Given that C'thun is provided to all players, I naturally first created a C'thun-focused deck. While some C'thun cultists cards are class-specific, many are not, so I just dumped all the ones I had into the deck that fit with a Warlock and then picked out a few others that I liked.

One of my favorite new cards is Darkshire Councilor (maybe Councilmember or Councilman?) which is a Warlock card. It's 3 mana and is a 1/5 minion, but every time you summon a minion, he gets +1 attack. This is pretty great for any small-minion-heavy deck (it also triggers when minions are created by spells and effects,) and the 5-health body means he can actually fight a few times before he dies.

The C'thun cultists are often decent on their own, and I've won a few games without seeing C'thun at all. But there's something immensely satisfying about getting him out there after being pumped up to high health and blasting the crap out of the opponent's side of the table. If you have him, Brann Bronzebeard is a pretty fantastic complement to him, as many of the cultist cards buff C'thun with a Battlecry, and C'thun's burst of damage is also a Battlecry, meaning that with a 16/16 C'thun, you can wind up doing 32 points of damage when you drop him on the table. (And it's split damage, so Divine Shield minions are not going to have much of an advantage against him.)

Of course, the trick to any of the Old God-based decks is that getting up to 10 mana is going to require some finesse, not to mention drawing the card. There is a minion that will put a 10-cost minion from your deck into your hand if it survives a turn, which should help with this.

My strategy is largely using lots of taunt creatures and death rattle creatures that either buff fellow minions or generate additional minions to keep my board active. I can often survive long enough to cast C'thun if I get him into my hand.

While it feels like only yesterday that Goblins and Gnomes launched (or even was announced,) I'll say this: I am so happy not to have to deal with Doctor Boom or the freaking Healbot anymore. Priest decks are still a thing (and will probably continue to be,) but at least until people figure out the most annoying cards in this new expansion, I'm loving Standard as a format.

The new board is an Old-God corrupted version of the Stormwind board, which is sadly not terribly interactive (though I've been playing on my phone, so there might be more interesting stuff int he upper left and lower right that I'm missing.) I love the aesthetic of the expansion - the even-more-cartoony look of Hearthstone (as compared to WoW) helps transform the Lovecraftian horror of the Old Gods into something more Halloweeny and fun.


It shouldn't come as a surprise that the Old God cards themselves sort of demand to have a deck built around them. My own Warlock deck, "Cult of C'thun," feels awesome when it goes off well, but if I cast C'thun and either through bad luck or just not enough buffing by Cultists the match is not over (or over on the next turn,) the deck deflates really fast.

I haven't seen anyone play the other Old Gods, but it does look like there are a few "cultist" equivalents. N'zoth summons back dead Deathrattle cards, so obviously you'd want to have a bunch of those in your deck (sadly Baron Rivendare is no longer in Standard, as he'd be a pretty obvious piece for such a deck.) Yogg-Saron casts spells, and given the random nature of his spell fire-off, he's a bit of a gamble. Y'Shaarj summons your big minions, so I really see him working best in a Druid deck with lots of mana-gain and big, expensive minions.

The trick, of course, will be building decks that also work on an effective theme. My deck could use some work, as I think it does a decent job of building up to C'thun's summoning, but once I've pulled that trigger, there aren't really any rounds left in the gun.

I haven't seen or thought much about other themes to build around using Whispers of the Old Gods cards that don't include the OGs themselves, but I'm sure those will surface over time.

Monday, April 25, 2016

The Shadowlands, The Undead, and Revival in World of Warcraft

World of Warcraft Chronicles Vol. 1 Spoilers to Follow.

At this point, the statute of limitations on the spoilers for the books I think has passed - if you haven't gotten the book by now, you'll probably just want to find out these things through gameplay and internet osmosis.

I'm almost hesitant to keep marking these as spoilers, but just out of courtesy, I'll do it again this time.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

New Alpha Build Brings New Dungeon and Suramar, Along With Other Things

While I'm still a bit peeved at how long it will be before Legion comes out, I'm still quite excited about the expansion, and the latest patch is filling it out in a few ways.

First off: Suramar, the highest-level zone is now open for testing. While the other four leveling zones will be available to do in any order, scaling to the level of the player, Suramar will be handled last. I don't know if that means it's a level-cap zone or if it will be for players level 108-110, but I'd guess the latter, as it would allow players to do two levels per zone.

The other nice bit of news is that there's another dungeon for testing: the Court of Stars, which I assume was the "Suramar City" dungeon. I'd actually despaired of seeing more 5-player dungeons being opened up, thinking that The Arcway (once called Suramar Catacombs) would be our only Suramar dungeon.

There also plenty of revisions to specs, talents, and other such things.

One curious thing is the addition of Order Hall armor sets. Not sure how those will be acquired, but they seem to be epic quality with set bonuses.

Also, it appears that there's a new souped-up PvP mount, which looks like it's the Goblin Trike. I'm curious about what the Alliance will get, given that the Worgen don't really have a unique mount (other than the "Mountain Horses" which old models there purely to avoid giving Horde players an advantage on mount collection achievements.)

There are still systems to implement, and the World Quests and Order Campaigns likely require a lot of implementation. Ultimately, though, there's already a release date. I can only hope that if they have things in good order months before the expansion releases that they'll be hard at work on post-launch patches.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Legion Launches 8/30/16 - Two Raid-Tier Expansions Officially a Bad Idea

So there's good news and there's bad news: The good news is that Legion's release date has been officially announced, which means that we can now purchase it in good conscience, knowing when said purchase will actually be available. The bad news is that it's way the hell over at the end of August, which means a few things:

First, even with the rather thorough Alpha testing we've seen, there is actually enough time for a whole Beta test between then and now. Second, it means that the whole "advantage" of having only two raid tiers for Warlords of Draenor (something which I wouldn't even consider an advantage, given that even if the expansion were coming out now, we'd still have had a pretty damn long content drought) is utterly null, because this means we're still going for something like thirteen months between major patches (only one less than the post-Mists drought.)

For most games, this wouldn't be too much of a problem - in fact, taking a little longer to come out with the next Assassin's Creed is probably a good thing - but WoW is A: subscription based, meaning that we're paying for all those months of non-content and B: it's multiplayer, so the more people who give up and stop playing, the less enjoyable the game is for the players who are online.

I've been on a WoW-hiatus for a while, and I was looking forward to getting back into the game soon. But apparently it'll be another four months (maybe slightly less, given the pre-patch.)

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

New Legion Build Completes the Specs and Brings us the Alliance Half of the Broken Shore

It's now the middle of April, and thankfully we're seeing a more complete version of Legion now. With the addition of Destruction, all 36 class specializations are now in the mix. I don't know if Suramar has been opened up yet (I think not,) but one of the major set-pieces of the expansion, the Broken Shore invasion, is open for the Alliance.

I won't go into plot details, but it looks like this scenario will serve as a somewhat shorter equivalent of the Tanaan Jungle intro, ensuring that fresh 100s are getting gear that will let them keep up with those who are decked out in Hellfire Citadel stuff.

There are also a bunch of new UI elements. Legendary items (which are world-drops that work a bit more like Diablo III legendaries, altering specific abilities) are now listed in the Adventure Guide. Also, world quests that include world bosses, stuff going on in various zones, PvP objectives and other such stuff are also being introduced.

I believe all the dungeons are available (unless there's a missing Suramar one, though I'm pretty sure we would have heard about it by now.)

So there's not a ton left to add to the expansion at this point. Suramar as a zone is potentially a big one, and hopefully that'll make it in soon, but it does seem that while there's a bit of talent redesign going on at this point, it's mostly a balancing and polishing thing for many of the core game systems.

I'm still betting on a June release, though at this point that's starting to be somewhat soon. My hope is that we'll get a solid release date by the end of the month. I feel like two weeks for a pre-patch is generally what you can expect (Cataclysm was a special case because there was the pre-event as well as the Shattering itself) so hopefully we'll be seeing that somewhere around the release of the movie.

Anyway, some other fun tidbits from the patch: there's a new Beholder model for Warlocks (I think it's a Demonology talent... that I'll probably be taking) that looks a bit more Fel (purple/green) and tentacle-y than the Throne of Thunder one. Also, there's finally an updated Voidwalker model, in both standard and armored void lord varieties, which is good to see considering how apparently crucial their kind are to the Warcraft cosmos.

Here's hoping for a release date announcement in the soon-times.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

The Story of Dark Souls - Entropy and Stasis

There's a debate about video games that resurfaces every once in a while: whether games are art. To me, the answer is obviously yes. I'll say that my definition of art does not make any judgment on quality. Art can be cheap, it can be mercenary, it can be wrongheaded, but still art. While not all games have a narrative behind them (there's no "lore" to Soccer, Checkers, or Tetris,) a lot of games use the medium as a venue for storytelling, much as film, theatre (which you can expand to dance and opera,) poetry and pose often are used.

I'm not really interested in arguing for the art-ness of games here. Dark Souls does incorporate much of its symbolism and ideas into the gameplay features - fire and cycles of death and life are at the absolute core of how the game works.

For now, though, I'm going to attempt to piece together the lore of the game. There are many people who have done so - check out YouTube - but the game's story is so open to interpretation that I don't feel that I'm just rehashing things other people have said.

There are two direct sequels to Dark Souls, but I'm mostly familiar with the first game (though I'm following the news about Dark Souls III, which has been released in Japan and will come out in the US sometime soon.)

As the game begins, we're given essentially the origin story of the Dark Souls universe. To begin with, the world was a cold grey place where there were simply grey trees and the "everlasting dragons." Nothing lives and nothing dies during this period, and it seems to suggest that going back in time, it was simply always that way.

Deep below the earth, though, there were four beings who discovered "Lord Souls."

Right off the bat, there is a huge question here - what is a soul in this game? Later, the even bigger mystery of what exactly humanity is will also be raised.

These beings took on the Lord Souls and became Lords - gods, essentially. There was Lord Gwyn, Nito, first of the dead, the Witch of Izalith, and the Furtive Pygmy, the "oft-forgotten" fourth lord. These deities struck against the dragons on the surface, combining their powers to blast the scales off the dragons, plague them to death, and burn down the trees, beginning the age of fire.

The age of fire seems to have been, well, a whole age of normal human activity, with different cultures developing. But over time, the First Flame - representing the life of the world (maybe) began to die out. First, Izalith tried to create a new flame, but somehow this became corrupted, and she accidentally birthed demons into the world. Eventually, Gwyn sacrificed himself to keep the flame burning, allowing his own soul to be consumed. But in the end, this only prolonged the inevitable. As the game begins, the flame appears to be dying down once again.

Humanity has a growing affliction, which is the Darksign - those carrying it become undead, and cannot die (at least not permanently.) You begin as one of these unfortunate undead who has been locked away in the "Undead Asylum" because the rest of humanity just doesn't know what to do with you. Worse still, the undead gradually go "Hollow," becoming the mindless zombies we usually think of as undead.

So here's where things get interesting. Good and evil is not really the dichotomy that Dark Souls concerns itself with. By creating the First Flame, the Lords created disparity, and disparity leads to entropy.

A scientific definition of entropy is the amount of disorder a system has. Essentially, over time, the number of possible states for a system grows larger and larger. In fact, there are some scientific theories that entropy is not really defined by time, but rather the other way around - that we perceive time as going in one direction because of the flow of entropy. In a way this makes sense - there's only one past that exists, but there are many possible futures (you might chalk that up to simple ignorance of the future, but given how quantum mechanics suggest that the universe is not, on a fundamental level, deterministic, it actually seems to be literally true.)

The era of the everlasting dragons was one in which nothing happened. You never had to worry about anything ending (or at least, it was a real shock when the Lords emerged) because everything was just going to keep being exactly as it was.

But that doesn't seem very good, does it? After all, perfect stasis is pretty much just like death. If you had a person who was cryogenically frozen (if that technology existed) and you never thawed that person out, would they basically just be dead?

The Lords' emergence means change, and change means life. But that change is ultimately entropic. The energy output of the First Flame cannot be channeled back into fueling itself. Lord Gwyn's solution prolongs the Age of Fire, but the major message of the game is that it cannot be prolonged forever. Yeah, this isn't exactly a happy story.

What's interesting, though, is the way that the Lords embody disparity.

Nito, First of the Dead, represents - duh - death. There's more to say about this, but he's clearly representative of human death - he basically looks like a bunch of human skeletons bound together with a grim-reaper cloak.

On the other side is the Witch of Izalith, who could be argued as the representative of life. She brings creatures to life, but it goes wrong and they wind up being demons. She's transformed from humanoid into a giant weird tree-thing called the Bed of Chaos (no, I haven't gotten to her yet,) and while she's clearly unleashed harm upon the world, plants are most commonly used as symbols of life.

Gwyn represent light - he's the clear Zeus/Odin-style patriarchal deity, and his realm of Anor Londo is cathedral-like and filled with light (it's also the one place in the game that looks clean - which is a bit of a shock after spending so much time in crumbling ruins.)

In contrast, however, the Furtive Pygmy is clearly associated with darkness. The game suggests that "humanity" is actually a fragment of the Pygmy's soul, and it is passed down through all humans. One needs humanity to "reverse hollowing," which allows you to look like a normal human being instead of a desiccated corpse. Why is the Dark Soul different from the other three Lord Souls? Why did the Pygmy spread it to his offspring? I don't know.

The irony of all this, though, is that as the Fire burns out, the world might actually just return to a state similar to how it was before the Lords arose.

The origin of the Darksign is also a big mystery. We don't know what the Pygmy has been up to - there seems to be some suggestion that he might be Manus, Father of the Abyss, but I can't comment on that. Given his association with darkness, one could suspect his involvement.

But in a way, the Fires burning out kind of fits with the curse of Undeath. Being undead is a reversion of the disparity between life and death. You're not really alive, but you're not really dead. It's reflected in game mechanics - just as you just wind up back at a bonfire if you're killed, so too are most of the enemies in the game. No one can really die, but instead people go "Hollow," and so they can't be said to really be living either. The Fires going out would extinguish both life and death, and so if the world is reverting to the Everalsting Dragon era, it makes sense that humans would also be taking on an everlasting form - but one that has no disparity to fuel true living.

Probably the most confusing thing thrown into the mix here is the presence of Kaathe and Frampt, the absolutely ridiculous-looking... "Serpents?" These big-toothed guys with floppy mustache-tendrils each suggest different things. The goal of the game is to get to the Kiln of the First Flame and essentially put Lord Gwyn out of his misery, as he's gone hollow. One (I want to say Frampt) tells you to then "Link the Fire," giving your own soul over to it to fuel it for another age. The idea would be that while the Fire might have to go out eventually, as long as there are those who are noble enough to sacrifice themselves, they can keep it burning. The other, however (Kaathe, I think) tells you to simply kill Gwyn and then walk away, bringing about an age of darkness - the Age of Man.

And that's wildly open to interpretation. Humans seem to be connected to the Dark Soul - it seems that "Humanity" as seen in-game are fragments of that Dark Soul. So if humans are dark, then an age of darkness might mean an age in which humans become the dominant force in the world, which could be good or bad.

But are we to understand that the First Flame is simply that of Gwyn - the light, complete with patriarchal deity who is in charge of the world - or is the Flame the very disparity that allows both light and dark to coexist?

There's a ring called the Serpent Ring that describes Serpents as imperfect dragons. Could it be that they are manipulating the player into undoing the works of the Lords?

But Frampt and Kaathe both tell you to do basically opposite things.


They're both pushing you to kill Lord Gwyn - and the other Lords, for that matter (the Pygmy isn't in the game, at least not before the DLC, assuming everyone's right about Manus.) Could beating the game actually be the wrong thing to do?

Setting aside that tin-foil hat interpretation (I say tin-foil hat, but I imagine it's one of the many valid interpretations of the game others have had,) there's also a kind of odd irony when you think about the idea of linking the fire. The flame created disparity and change, but the act of linking the fire - preserving it - actually means preserving things the way that they were.

The Age of Darkness ending obviously sounds like the "bad" one, especially given that it plays into ideas of our hero doing something selfish - it's suggested that he or she will become some sort of god-emperor over the coming age, assuming the serpents aren't just lying to him/her. But perhaps it's actually better. The First Flame might have been the catalyst for the universe having... stuff happen in it, but perhaps it's inefficient in consuming the fuel of reality. Maybe there's a whole other way for the Dark Souls universe to be organized that allows it to be totally different things, and perhaps that's what the Age of Darkness entails.

But honestly, who the hell knows?

Dark Souls and Exploration Games

I've been playing a bunch of Dark Souls lately after a fairly long hiatus. The game is of course five years old, but I only got it late last year basically because I've become obsessed with its spiritual sequel, Bloodborne, but do not yet have a PS4. Dark Souls is sort of unlike any other game I've played, though I'd call Metroid (well, Super Metroid is the one from that series I've played the most) a sort of antecedent.

Metroid games are all about gradually expanding the areas you can explore. In Metroid, you typically do this by unlocking new tools or weapons that let you get the job done. Dark Souls borrows a lot from Western RPGs (a term that confuses things a bit, since Dark Souls is pretty unambiguously a Japanese game,) which includes the ability to use different playstyles, and so a "gadget-based" exploration system wouldn't totally fit.

So the world gets unlocked usually by means of opening doors and getting keys and such. Interestingly, a lot of the time "unlocking" an area is less about getting there for the first time and more about creating a shortcut so that you can get there more easily. For instance, to get to an (infamous) area called Blighttown the first time, you have to go through an aqueduct, up into the rooftops of the "Undead Burgh," up onto the city walls, down into the lower part of the Burgh, down into the sewers, and finally farther down into Blighttown. If you explore thoroughly, though, you can find a key that unlocks a gate leading to a couple of elevators that get you right back up to Firelink Shrine - the activity hub around which most of the friendly NPCs you encounter congregate.

What's also kind of interesting is that sometimes there's no clear barrier between areas that you are ready for and those you aren't. For example, there's an area called the Catacombs - a massive subterranean burial ground filled with undead enemies. I was able to beat that area's first boss, Pinwheel, at around level 30. But right after beating that guy, you can keep going into an area called the Tomb of the Giants, which at level 52 I don't yet feel ready to take on.

Of course, seasoned players can learn to handle these hard enemies at a lower level. Healing resources are severely limited in Dark Souls. There is one ring you can find (I haven't) that gives you some HP back after killing an enemy, but otherwise, you're limited to healing spells and Estus Flask charges. These get reset when you rest at a bonfire, but so do almost all enemies, meaning that you need to be very conservative with your heals unless you know you can recover very soon.

Because of this, almost every enemy's attacks can be fully avoided. Many shields will prevent 100% of the physical damage a strike would do, though you have to be careful to let the shield down between an enemy's attacks to recover the stamina needed for blocking, as well as striking and dodging.

On the other hand, though, because every enemy's attacks can be avoided, they tend to hit quite hard. Even the skeletal soldiers around the Undead Parish - a pretty early area in the game - will take a good 10% of my health out if I manage to get hit by them. That might not sound like a lot, but when you can only heal a finite number of times (and there sure as hell ain't any health regeneration over time - though I think you can get a gem or something that does that in Bloodborne) every hit you take is dangerous.

It's hard to identify why this isn't just horribly frustrating. I suppose it's that the game feels like it usually obeys its own rules. If you're clever, you can exploit those rules. For instance, in Anor Londo (a late area in the game,) there are nasty gargoyles that do lighting attacks. But they also tend to jump around a lot in areas with no railings. You can sometimes maneuver them to jump off a cliff, instantly killing them. Sure, they have wings that they use for some of their attacks, but if they're doing their backward jump, they're not primed to fly.

Perhaps some of the difficulty is the way that things are left unexplained. For example, the functionality of Humanity (a resource that, like Souls, is left in your bloodstain when you die and has to be recovered) is totally obscure. Also, I'm still not sure I have any idea what the Covenants do. You're encouraged to experiment, but at the same time, there are a whole lot of no-take-backs. For instance, if you kill a friendly NPC, they won't come back (even if they're supposed to be undead like you.)

Still, the difficulty makes success feel that much more satisfying. It's also definitely the sort of game that will give you your money's worth. There is an insane amount of depth here, both in the world and items you can find, the playstyles you can try out, and the story, which is filled with open-to-interpretation ambiguities.

An exploration-based game is all about mystery, and Dark Souls makes investigating that mystery a huge challenge.

(EDIT: For the record, Executioner Smough, you are a dick.)