In late 2011 RPG gamers quit their jobs and split with their girlfriends to invest hundreds of hours into a pair of expertly crafted fantasy worlds. Both featured dragons and established memes, yet that was where their similarities would end – one appealing to the compulsive looter, the other seducing players harboring a fetish for punishment. With 25 million physical copies sold The Elder Scrolls has become one of the most successful video game franchises of all time, dwarfing Demon’s and Dark Souls humble 4 million by six-fold. But sales play no role in determining which RPG classic will advance to the 2nd round of this elimination tournament: this is about the games themselves.
The Elder Scrolls has, in many ways, come to define contemporary RPGs, both in terms of scope and genetic make-up. You only have to look at Fallout to recognise the influences it’s had. What makes Tamriel so alluring to gamers? Well aside from featuring its own language, history and races of people, it offers game environments so large they’re literally the size of small countries. Daggerfall, the second entry in the series, was so big it covered an area the same size as Great Britain. That’s 487, 000 square kilometres with over 15, 000 cities, towns and dungeons to explore. In fact their environments are so epic that even the mighty Grand Theft Auto series cowers at Tamriel’s intimidating scope. It all amounts to Bethesda creating living worlds on a scale only Tolkien could achieve.
Augmenting Tamriel’s gigantic landscape is an abundance of quests to complete, gear to loot and armour to enchant. Whether you enjoy decapitation by warhammer or the politics involved in a civil war, The Elder Scrolls has something for every fantasy fan, novice and veteran alike. This choice of seemingly trivial tasks is what separates the Tamriel universe from that of Lordran and Boletaria. You might be able to slay more menacing dragons in Dark Souls but you could furnish your own freaking house in Skyrim – which is pretty damn cool.
Making matters worse for the Souls series is its utter disregard for video game conventions. Playing either game for the first time is like throwing a monkey in charge of the neurosurgery department – he’ll get the hang of it eventually but don’t think there won’t be death in the process. The lack of a combat tutorial system and ridiculously high difficulty level means game-over often comes in one swipe. Dying also strips you of half your health and leads to a super powerful dark demon being summoned for you to weep over, in case impossible wasn’t difficult enough.
So why would someone submit themselves to a fate of suffering and torment? The answer is simple: satisfaction. The sense of joy that accompanies every single victory in Demon’s and Dark Souls is so overwhelming that it stands as one of the most rewarding experiences to be had in gaming. Part of this satisfaction rests on the quality of its battle system – every attack holds a sense of weight to it and is supported by one of the industry’s best collision detection systems. On top of all this is a structure that rewards patience and punishes stubbornness. Challenge in the Souls series is not a simple numerical value placed on your inventory or a collection of random stats, but organically integrated into the design of each and every one of your enemies. You defeat your adversaries by studying their attack patters and noting windows of vulnerability. The Elder Scrolls on the other hand relies on seriously outdated leveling mechanics, granting players more power only through grinding rather than skill or learning from their mistakes.
The Souls series worlds are also far more compelling, they might not be as large as The Elder Scrolls but they make up for that in depth. Exploring every single corner is something you appreciate because every step you take holds the potential for death. Tamriel’s, in contrast, often feels like filler. It’s a detraction that’s been plaguing the series since its inception – how else could you create a game world the size of Great Britain? Drop into Skyrim and you’ll find the same dungeons structured slightly differently, reverse back in time through the series and it gets dramatically worse.
Topping off The Elder Scrolls landmass flaws are bugs. Discovering the main quest line is broken because of a fault in the games programming is more than a little frustrating, especially when that bug results in restarting the game from square one. Flip the coin to Demon’s and Dark Souls and most of the flaws pinned against it are by intention; its punishing difficulty meant to breed satisfaction, the lack of a combat tutorial so as not to spoon feed the player, its subtle lore giving the world a layer of depth only visible upon close inspection.
This all ultimately leads to one experience that starts well but dwindles the more hours you put into it. Meanwhile the other experience clamps your malnourished testicles and gradually tightens until they explode out of pure, unadulterated bliss.
And the winner is …
Whether it’s the rewarding challenge it offers to impeccable enemy design this Japanese RPG nails virtually every aspect of game design it attempts. We’ll see you in the next round!
So the Souls series hammers The Elder Scrolls six feet into the ground. What are your thoughts on the decision? Drop down and let us know in the comments below!
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