dark souls

Nioh Review — Somewhat Soulful Action

by Jed Pressgrove

The word out there is true: Nioh swipes a lot from Dark Souls. Enemies resurrect when you heal at a shrine (a parallel to the bonfire in Souls); you lose experience points (known as Amrita in Nioh) when you die but can regain them if you make it back to your point of failure without perishing; shiny objects on dead warriors attract your eye; and so on. But developer Team Ninja shifts the focus from deliberate horror to whip-smart action, similar to how Hideo Yoshizawa’s Ninja Gaiden (1988) revised Castlevania (1986), and avoids Hidetaka Miyazaki’s pseudo-existential, juvenile gibberish that made the latest Souls games (Bloodborne and Dark Souls III) case studies in pretentious pop gaming. The only catch is that, unlike Ninja Gaiden and its cutscenes, Nioh doesn’t understand how brief storytelling can supercharge spectacular martial arts.

When it comes to the spectacle and intricacies of fighting, Nioh is what Bloodborne should have been all along. Whereas Bloodborne neutralized its speed, its kinetic potential, with awkward risk-reward concepts (such as regaining health by immediately attacking enemies after taking damage), Nioh adds fresh nuance to the 3-D beat ’em up with the “Ki Pulse” move, which rebuilds your stamina more quickly when you tap the right shoulder button just as balls of light touch your character after you perform an attack. “Ki Pulse” is a rhythm game within the action that, when mastered, creates an unprecedented sense of stabilization and can work as a way to recover from combos, set up jabbing strikes, neutralize stamina-draining fields, or avoid a counterattack. (The flexibility of this system surpasses the color-coded defensive cues in the tragically underrated Golden Axe: Beast Rider.)

Nioh’s triumph over its obvious predecessors doesn’t stop there. You can take one of three stances (low, mid, or high) to improve evasion, counterattacking, or power. These stances also alter the normal and strong attacks of any weapon, granting the player artistic and technical license that make the stylistic flourishes in Devil May Cry, 3-D Ninja Gaiden (2004), or Bayonetta seem amateurish in comparison. As you go from boss fight to boss fight, Nioh forces you to grasp new layers of its complex combat. This approach is a far cry from the grinding that players often experience in Dark Souls, where luck can play as much of a role as skill. You are far less likely to be fortunate in Nioh; continued victory demands an articulate understanding of the game’s martial theories and practices, which emphasize the satisfaction, rather than the relief, of winning.

It’s a shame, then, that Nioh is a rambling mess otherwise. As if samurai protagonist William looking almost exactly like Geralt from The Witcher isn’t embarrassing enough, the narration in Nioh’s intro sounds like someone doing an exaggeration of William Shatner’s choppy delivery. And the cutscenes do not get more lively, outside of when bizarre animal spirits show up. Ironically, the most powerful text in Nioh is its message to you when you die (“Freed from this mortal coil”), which kicks off initially sorrowful music that morphs into something peaceful and content (a breath of fresh air after the dread of the Souls series).

In contrast to Nioh’s one-dimensional superiority over its influences, Ninja Gaiden wasn’t merely a better action title than Castlevania. It revolutionized storytelling in video games, allowing a concise narrative to bring a distinct emotional urgency that played off the speed of the hero. Thanks to protagonist Ryu Hayabusa’s pregame outburst about the death of his father, a fatal duel in an introductory cutscene drives every bit of the nonstop action in Ninja Gaiden. In Nioh’s first map screen, a duel is talked about casually, objectively. Yes, this duel involves only a sub-mission, but it’s a wasted opportunity to inject the human condition into the fighting, a missed chance to further enhance an already exciting kind of action, where rhythmic conservation reveals a blistering array of aesthetically sophisticated violence. Let raw emotion run through the entire affair — that’s what Ninja Gaiden on the NES tried to teach the pop video game world, and Nioh is yet another entry that doesn’t get it.

Dark Souls III Review — See Monster, Kill Monster

by Jed Pressgrove

Dark Souls is a great horror game for injecting new drama into the traditional video-game challenge of methodically dispatching enemies and traversing dangerous places. In Dark Souls, the bonfire’s dubious salvation — restoration and growth in exchange for the regeneration of all vanquished foes — might inspire a game critic to write an analysis on death, learning, and repetition, but more inspiring than that is the undulation of suspense and relief (unique from the game’s ancestors, Castlevania and The Legend of Zelda). With Dark Souls III, discovering or using a bonfire means much less. Director Hidetaka Miyazaki and other leads at FromSoftware have allowed the standards of many other (more banal) games to invade: convenient hubs, easy-to-find merchants, more safe spots, fast travel, explicit warnings about danger, more linear level design, enemies that are easier to sneak up on or avoid altogether, and so on. Dark Souls III is about as mysterious as a McDonald’s on a street corner.

The title screen music, composed by Yuka Kitamura, suggests an epic spiritual crisis, but neither the introductory cutscene nor the ensuing journey earn the various emotions of the song. In the intro, a voice-over tries to put a different spin on the Dark Souls tradition of struggle with “And so it is, that ash seeketh embers,” yet the game actually amounts to “Hey, you need to kick these guys’ asses; use an ember to boost your health beforehand.” The brawniness of Dark Souls III would be better without the existential posturing.

The best thing that can be said about Dark Souls III is it doesn’t look as bad as Miyazaki’s recent hit Bloodborne. The player avatar and various physical structures in Dark Souls III do not blend together as they did in Bloodborne, which stupidly wasted its Gothic architecture by ignoring the importance of an illusion of depth. But like Bloodborne, Dark Souls III can’t buy scares with its cheap Resident Evil 4 homages, such as the Undead Settlement and enemies who get taken over by what looks like a demonic virus. Dark Souls III also makes ideas from Dark Souls less captivating from a visual/spatial perspective; Dark Souls III’s perching dragon, for example, doesn’t cause as much anxiety as its Dark Souls counterpart that stared players down from the opposite side of a long bridge. Similarly, the Anor Londo location returns from Dark Souls but with little of the awe.

Considering that so many ideas return from previous entries, the more straightforward pathfinding in Dark Souls III doesn’t serve it well, as dying again and again allows more opportunities to confirm the general lack of startling or curious concepts. Being able to veer more often from the standard path would have at least delayed this realization. FromSoftware attempts to spice up the proceedings with weapon skills, yet all you really need to do is dodge and attack without overextending, and unlike the case in the more fascinating Golden Axe: Beast Rider, there’s little work in countering besides memorizing enemy patterns and locking on to targets.

It can’t be denied that some of the adversaries in Dark Souls III are hard to forget, from the spastic bird people to the tubby undead evangelist women to the Abyss Watchers that hilariously kill each other as you fight them. Since these quirky creations are the main reason to play, one could view Dark Souls III as a streamlined monster mash, yet it still has tons of useless items and pointless texts (juxtapose this flirty storytelling with Planescape: Torment’s clear commentary on the human condition with its descriptions). People often describe Dark Souls games as vague and open to interpretation. That’s Miyazaki and company’s greatest swindle: convincing people that “see monster, try to kill monster” sequelitis is profound. Take the unfamiliar monsters away, and you have one boring-ass game in Dark Souls III.

Bloodborne Review — Another Soulless Franchise

by Jed Pressgrove

Bloodborne, which would have been called Dark Souls III if it were honest, comes one year after 2014’s Dark Souls II. Usually when a video game sequel gets a follow-up this quickly, you’ll see some critics lament this age of rapid-fire franchises. Not so with Bloodborne. Even David Thier’s complaint reads like a glowing endorsement: “Bloodborne deserves all the praise it gets.” Director Hidetaka Miyazaki sidesteps the franchise stench of his latest game with a different title and a switch in currency from souls to “blood echoes.” (Instead of Bloodborne II, perhaps the next title will be Rotgut and require even more intestinal fortitude.) Miyazaki’s references to the red substance may inspire a few theories, but the change mostly plays into a decades-old desire for video games to gain notoriety via body fluids. Game culture is in a sorry state in which superficial darkness gets hailed as part of an artistic triumph rather than a bankable ploy.

Notwithstanding the gaming world’s deification of Miyazaki, Bloodborne is a hack’s version of Dark Souls. The former is noticeably faster due to the increased speed and stamina of the protagonist. Despite this quicker pace, the addition of a gun, and a rule where you gain health back if you attack an enemy soon after it attacks you, Bloodborne retains the awkward timing and constant threat of death from Dark Souls, coming off like a less graceful Devil May Cry. In another way, Bloodborne turns its heritage into Looney Tunes. In Dark Souls, sneaking up on a black knight is a welcome discovery and builds mystery about the creature. In Bloodborne, stealth is expected, instructed, and even unintentionally humorous as you turn a sword into a big hammer and, as a depressing Foghorn Leghorn, smash the giant stone end of the weapon into enemies who might as well be sleeping dogs.

Miyazaki’s imitation of his previous work raises the question of how anyone familiar with Dark Souls can say with a straight face that Bloodborne is frightening, as if it represents the franchise’s first horror aspirations. Bloodborne’s standard Dark Souls tone isn’t served by allusions to the villagers from the campy Resident Evil 4 (critic Zolani Stewart wasn’t far off when he said “Everything is Resident Evil 4”). More importantly, the Dark Souls style is now too predictable for greater suspense. It’s an ingrained drill at this point: Church is evil. Resist overconfidence. Through death, learn enemy patterns so that you know when to strike and counter. Tread carefully because something all new and powerful can kill you with a couple of blows. Devise ways to tease out single enemies from groups so that you stand a better chance (and since Bloodborne’s enemies are more stupid, this doesn’t require that much imagination). Sure, this drill benefits from the fact that the sight of most creatures is impressive, but locking onto them (as in 3-D Legend of Zelda games), evading them, and attacking them make for D-grade horror at best.

Bloodborne forgets what made Dark Souls interesting. The nervousness and giddiness of exploring a strange world are reduced by Bloodborne’s generic structure. Bloodborne trades Dark Souls’ bonfires, which suggested questionable rituals as much as they relieved players, for lanterns that transport you to an agreeable hub called the Hunter’s Dream, a setting that pretends to be meaningful but feels like a pit stop that one often finds in mission-based games. In Dark Souls, discovering an item seller called for celebration because you had no idea what lurked in that world, but in Bloodborne, buying items is a given from the start thanks to the Hunter’s Dream. Bloodborne also takes a page from the juvenile Killer Is Dead with the inclusion of The Doll. If the sexual connotation isn’t obvious in how she’s introduced (“You’re welcome to use whatever you find”), The Doll’s voice sensually babies you, and when you use her to level up, she, of course, bends down (“Let me stand close. Now shut your eyes …”). Dark Souls’ subtlety takes a backseat to Bloodborne’s proven advertising. Still, Miyazaki throws in little twists, such as not being able to level up your character initially, so that players can pat themselves on the back when they inform others of these meaningless inconsistencies. Contrast Bloodborne’s sleight of hand with Castlevania III’s unapologetic conviction, which didn’t offer pretenses of accessibility or petty deviations from formula.

The biggest misconception about Dark Souls lies in a preoccupation with difficulty that is uninformed by video game history. A lot of the praise for Bloodborne continues this peer-pressure parade about accomplishment: beat this, and you’ve really done something. Nonsense. There are innumerable tough challenges in gaming, from topping high scores in Centipede to defeating a Street Fighter IV opponent who has always gotten the best of you to overcoming the trials of Contra 4. Dark Souls’ uniqueness comes from the emotional interpretation behind it. When you go back to Firelink Shrine and hear the violins, a bittersweetness accompanies the joy of hearing music again. In no other game will you feel the exact hopelessness that follows an accidental killing of a blacksmith. Bloodborne is just an enticing package whose next-gen visuals — which remind me of wet, slicked-back hair — are kept in check by absurd loading times, whose locations reject the habitats of Dark Souls, and whose “Prey Slaughtered” tagline confirms the curses of the Resident Evil 4 knockoff villagers. This poorly cloaked sequel is a disease.

A Conversation about Race in Video Games

by Sidney Fussell and Jed Pressgrove

Note: This conversation occurred via email and has been edited for clarity and grammar. Sidney Fussell’s writing on race, gender, and video games can be found here. Last but not least, a special thanks to Veerender Jubbal for providing the idea for this conversation.

BioShock Infinite, The Walking Dead, Post-Racial Climate

Jed Pressgrove: Video games tend to get off the hook a little easily when it comes to race. It’s difficult to compare the importance of race to that of gender since they are both connected to class, but it’s interesting that we tend to see more criticism of gender in games compared to criticism of race in games. Look at Grand Theft Auto V. It has a black protagonist, though I didn’t hear much at all about its handling of race. But GTA V not having a female protagonist made quite a few headlines and led to a lot of analysis about the game’s intentions.

Then again, many games don’t give people as much to examine when it comes to race. Just as a simple example, I could name several good or well-written female game characters off the top of my head because there are many female characters, good and bad, to consider. But I would have trouble naming good or well-written characters who aren’t white or Japanese — it wouldn’t take long to run out of potential examples. And the black character I created in Fallout 3 doesn’t seem much different than any other character I could create in the game. Games often come across to me as very post-racial and safe, which strikes me as a limitation.

Sidney Fussell: I think there’s a real fear in engaging with race/racism in games that leads to many developers either omitting them completely or hoping palette swap options will suffice. This is the bare minimum, post-racial climate we find ourselves in, and it’s one I wish more people questioned. In 2014, it’s absurd for racial awareness and a more evolved understanding of racism to be dismissed as “niche.”

Two big releases, BioShock Infinite and The Walking Dead, both had interesting takes on racism I’d like to explore. Jed and I may disagree about The Walking Dead (it’s excellent, he’s wrong), but a scene midway through “Starved for Help” winningly subverts the post-racial “safe zone” many games hide in. Protagonist Lee Everett, the rare Black everyman, and redneck Papa Bear Kenny attempt to break into a locked door in a barn. Kenny asks if Lee knows how to pick the lock because “You’re…you know…urban.” Lee responds with a frustrated “Come on, man!” before a guilty and embarrassed Kenny quickly apologizes and the two come up with a different plan for entering the room.

The brief exchange is played for laughs but does more to humanize the duo and characterize The Walking Dead’s world than the hours of hackneyed melodrama in BioShock Infinite. When I say I want a game that’s conscious or aware, I’m asking for a game where the characters are shown having a relationship with race and racism. Lee and Kenny like each other very much, but they still harbor assumptions about each other based on race. And that’s how it is in real life. We all have relationships with racism — we overcome it, capitulate to it, conceal it, etc. Kenny awkwardly tried to excuse and sanitize his own racism, but he’s no villain. He’s human — he makes mistakes and occasionally says stupid shit. The Walking Dead doesn’t trot out racism just to remind us that racism is bad; it uses racism to show how identities affect the dynamics of a relationship — identities that the game observes and engages and doesn’t colorblindly ignore.

I think The Walking Dead’s approach is a much better way of engaging with racism than BioShock Infinite’s. For all of Infinite’s allusions to miscegenation, lynching, genocide, eugenics, etc., Booker and Elizabeth have no relationship to the racism that surrounds them. Instead of exploring either character’s prejudices or privileges, Booker’s stoicism and Elizabeth’s naivety ensure they are never “colored” by racism. They recognize it as a moral wrong but have no relationship to it. Racism only touches the game’s villains, implying it as the unique attribute of the corrupt and monstrous, as opposed to something everyone deals with and has a relationship with their entire lives. It’s an archaic take on racism that privileges the isolationism the game reserves for Booker and Elizabeth. It’s especially frustrating since Booker begins mowing down black men Resident Evil 5 style in the game’s final act, (color)blindly deciding they were as bad as Comstock’s men.

A racially conscious game is one that recognizes relationships with race/racism aren’t voluntary and doesn’t use racism as a strawman to characterize the bad guys. That’s neither the identity of racists nor the function of racism. It’s a frankly pathetic way to mimic social evolution.  It’s time games stepped up and made the same commitment to narrative innovation and character exploration that they have to technical advancement.

Jed Pressgrove: You’re right about that scene between Lee and Kenny in The Walking Dead; it goes beyond humorous intentions and serves as a great example of commentary on race. But Telltale’s The Walking Dead could have gone further like George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. The black protagonist in Romero’s film ultimately struggles against the social construction of race. Lee Everett (and everyone else in The Walking Dead) is ultimately at odds with fictional zombies, not race. The majority of the game tries to manipulate our emotions about survival rather than compel us to consider social reality.

Dark Souls, Life vs. Death, Gamifying Personal Experiences

Jed Pressgrove: I think part of the reason games in general lack narrative innovation and character exploration in terms of race is that games are too concerned with death. A fixation on death tends to center on the self. How do I stay alive? What would I do in this life-or-death situation? These questions distract us from other questions, such as: how do different people live? This brings me to an interesting thing I recently saw in Dark Souls, a game obsessed with death. When you’re creating a character in Dark Souls, you can change the skin color/ethnicity of your character. While this option might satisfy some, I think the game leaves a lot to the imagination. For example, if you choose the Great Swamp color/ethnicity, the game tells you that the character faces prejudice — the character is darker than white. Yet there is another character with darker skin who comes with no such description of prejudice. All of this suggests that race is merely a play thing in Dark Souls. In the game’s eyes, all protagonists/players are made equal through death, but such a mentality distracts us from questions about life. I’m not trying to say that Dark Souls is irresponsible so much as illustrative of how games often encourage us to think of death as the main obstacle in life. Meanwhile, social constructions like race are simple background characteristics.

What’s interesting to me is that we do see many games breaking away from the “do or die” mold of classics like Space Invaders and Donkey Kong. Games like Actual Sunlight and Dys4ia clearly encourage us to consider the lives of different people. And we’re even seeing some games stay true to the old-school survival mentality while incorporating truths about social reality — Grand Titons’ combination of trans woman identity and shooting is a fascinating case. At some point I expect to see some very personal accounts about race in games. The question is when?

Sidney Fussell: “How do different people live?” is a great starting point for exploring identity in games. I think zombie media is an especially apt space for this question, because characters are stripped of the institutions that mask their prejudices. Kenny’s misconceptions about black criminality would’ve gone largely unquestioned in his native Florida, and Lee’s elitism is, if anything, encouraged among academics. Their partnership is great because it’s so implausible in the “real” world, where these institutions function to segregate us. But as much as I liked Walking Dead, it was only passingly concerned with how people live; the game is about how they die. Or un-die, I guess.

Dying is as ubiquitous a mechanic in games as pressing Start. It usually means failure — if the player avatar dies, it means you’ve screwed something up. I think a game like Dark Souls is interesting because dying isn’t the Ultimate Failure, it’s part of learning how to play the game.  It’s pointless to tell the player “don’t die” — it’s unavoidable. I think this is an acknowledgment of how similarly pointless it is to tell players “don’t fail.” Just make dying/failure part of the play process, and its meaning changes from “you’ve failed” to “you need to learn something.” It’s an interesting way to become comfortable with death/failing and is really the only aspect of Dark Souls (“Dark Soils” as I besmirch it on Twitter) I’d like to see more games adapt. If dying wasn’t the only way to communicate certain meanings to players, we might see life explored in more interesting ways.

I haven’t died yet, so if I wanted to make a game about some aspect of my life, I’d need some other way to convey failure/miscalculation/error.  I think indies exploring people’s lives are expanding our vocabulary of game mechanics, “breaking away from the ‘do or die’ mold” like you said and encouraging different ways of communicating success, failure, winning, etc. Speaking personally, my friends and I once joked about gamifying (that’s a thing, right?) a racial aspect of my job. I talk to people on the phone a lot, who then come into the office with some line akin to “Oh, I didn’t expect you to be Black!” which I’ve never managed to inure myself to. We imagined a Guitar Hero style quick-time event where the player inputs commands to alter my voice to sound more typically Black. On reflection, I realized “winning” meant I’m avoiding the awkwardness, but capitulating to a problematic definition of Black voices. And “losing” meant I’d have to endure the awkwardness but get to screw with (white) people’s ideas about what Black people sound like, talk like, etc.

I think exploring race and identity is a great way to complicate meanings and mechanics in games because life is complicated. I think translating that fluidity in gaming would make for more interesting, inclusive games. We all win and lose in various hazily defined ways that don’t involve rag-doll physics or torture gorn. I’d love to see games tackle messy notions of identity because I think it allows for new aspirations for the medium beyond simply being profitable.

Jed Pressgrove: Your idea about gamifying someone’s “racial” voice might also apply to certain white people. I only say this from my experience as a Mississippian, but there’s this idea of some poor Southern white people “trying to be black,” including the use of pronunciations and expressions that people associate with “blackness.” But are all of these poor whites really “trying” anything? I think the game idea you mentioned could tackle that tricky question that often gets overlooked in favor of simple stereotyping: why does anyone sound the way they do? It could be a learning experience about background and politics.

Preaching to the Choir, Racial Utopia, Progress?

Jed Pressgrove: Of course, there’s a fine line between a learning experience and something seemingly noble that confirms our expectations. Since our last exchange, I played through Always Sometimes Monsters, which touts the innovation of your racial/gender/orientation status affecting events in the game. I played as a black gay man. Interestingly, I felt the game reminded me that my character was gay more than anything else. There were only two instances where I felt the game commented on my character’s racial status in an honest way, and in both cases it was to show how uncaring a nonplayable character was. In the abstract, this game seems to say that race is an outmoded notion bought into by assholes, as opposed to a deeply ingrained idea that we should overcome as individuals and a society. I can say that Always Sometimes Monsters is a little more ambitious than fantasy games with elves, but its commentary amounts to a few “preaching to the choir” moments.

Then again, the appearance of racial harmony in a story isn’t necessarily indicative of a colorblind fantasy. I guess the question is whether the harmony feels odd or authentic.

Sidney Fussell: As a player, I’m not interested in either extreme. I don’t want a utopic Captain Planet kumbaya setting, nor do I want pure racial tribalism. I’m interested in empathy and exploration. I’m interested in game mechanics, settings, and characters designs that are diverse, insightful, and entertaining. I think one-off micro games — how speech affects racial perception, for example — that are specific experiences can handle this a bit better. I mostly play RPGs, and while fantasy epics routinely tackle racism through metaphor, I find it has a sanitizing effect.

I once wrote about the problematic racial attribute system in older Elder Scrolls games. Specifically, how Redguards (ostensibly Sub Saharan Africans) having bonuses to Strength and penalties to Intelligence is problematic. The popular counter was that Nords had a similar attribute dynamic, so it “wasn’t racist.” Of course, the difference is history — the expectation for people within the African diaspora to be athletic and unintelligent has been backed by everything from science to religion to academia to literature for centuries. I find players aren’t necessarily adept at translating these metaphors into concrete ways of understanding race or racism.

I also think the Grand Conversation on Race in Games needs to talk about the metric by which we measure progress. I’m certainly thrilled to see more brown folks on the covers of games as well as discussing and critiquing them, but with this new generation that I’m paying hundreds of dollars to be a part of, I think it’s critical that we set goals. Utopia isn’t anyone’s goal, but it’d be nice to at least start chipping away at the culture of contrasting backlashes we slip backwards into whenever something/someone is deemed racist, homophobic, etc.

If games can make players feel like they’re the world’s greatest heroes, strongest marines, most cunning thieves and secret agents, they’re more than capable of changing a few minds and making a few players go, “Huh. I don’t think that way, but I can see that.” I think it’s time developers aimed higher for themselves and for players and let go of the “oh no this is too political” fears that have stuck in the past hardware cycle. And contrary to popular belief, I think a Conversation may be what starts that process.

Digging Past the Hype

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: I played this game on the 2DS.

Much has been said about Shovel Knight resembling an updated NES game. Whether parts of the game could have worked on the old system amounts to tech trivia and marketing. But that’s far from the silliest commentary: IGN asks, “Is Shovel Knight an early game of the year candidate?” Shovel Knight might have the polished shell of an NES game and the ardent support of critics, but it lacks the soul of a classic.

References to an NES “aesthetic” don’t explain why Shovel Knight is a marvel to watch. Those who compare Kojima’s Ground Zeroes to their favorite tracking shots might instead write books about Shovel Knight’s superior use of motion, framing, lighting, and setting. As you extinguish ghosts in one level, scores of unique portraits come into light (a shift that comments on the life-restoring effect of art). In one short sequence across a bridge, Shovel Knight upstages Limbo’s morbid, trendy use of silhouettes through unexpected color and grander purpose. Shovel Knight’s campfire sequences don’t merely recall Golden Axe’s bonus stage — they graphically evoke healing and, with occasional dreaming, anxiety. The game even manages to inspire joy through the gestures of individual townspeople. The heroism and struggles in Shovel Knight are simply exquisite, with an attention to detail that rivals Muramasa: The Demon Blade and Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.

Unfortunately, the profound emotional core of the visual storytelling cannot save the game’s lack of suspense and adventure. Shovel Knight has received a lot of good press for borrowing a little, as opposed to a lot, from Dark Souls. Instead of having a lives system, Shovel Knight has checkpoints in main stages that sort of work like the campfires in Dark Souls. If you die, you lose some of your treasure and return to the last checkpoint you reached, and you recover the treasure by getting back to where you died on the first try. However, this idea fails to make the game interesting or challenging for a few reasons:

1. You don’t even lose half your treasure when you die, so the stakes aren’t remotely as high as they are in Dark Souls, which takes all of your currency away when you die.

2. Stages in Shovel Knight tend to have four or five checkpoints, so death rarely puts you in a tough spot. Furthermore, you can exit any stage, regardless of whether you’ve beaten it, through a menu.

3. Despite dying several times on a couple of stages, I was never in need of treasure. I always had enough treasure for the upgrades I wanted/needed, which renders another feature of the game rather pointless: you can destroy a checkpoint for treasure with the trade-off of the checkpoint no longer working, but what difference does it make if you never need treasure?

In fact, Shovel Knight is at times insultingly obvious when it comes to finding treasure, items, and “secrets.” As in Castlevania, you can break certain walls with your primary weapon to find things, but in many cases Shovel Knight marks the exact part of a wall that you can break, robbing the player of discovery.

Similar to A Link Between Worlds, Shovel Knight plays like a dream and thus suffers from coasting. The Mega Man boss fights in Shovel Knight are great concepts that typically can’t withstand how souped up you are: near the beginning of the game, you get an item that renders you temporarily invincible. Of course, you need points to use special items (as in Castlevania and Ninja Gaiden), but I rarely ran out of those points, which can be increased with upgrades via the easily located treasure. Shovel Knight is full of easygoing systems that undermine its potential as a satisfying experience — just another game that you play, not a quest that you conquer.

People should reconsider the absurd comparisons of Shovel Knight to Zelda II, a difficult (for most people) action game that never let you forget that you’re in a rough, vague world. A title can have elements from other games without resembling the essence of those games in practice. As such, all the beautiful visuals and music in Shovel Knight shouldn’t make us ignore its dubious distinction of being the most forgiving game influenced by both NES classics and Dark Souls. It’s almost as if Yacht Club Games made Shovel Knight with the hope that we would forget some of the reasons why we cherish and remember certain games in the first place.