The previous generation of consoles have had their time in the spotlight, and it’s safe to assume that the best is behind us. True, the final years of a console might churn up an experimental classic that succeeds on the pure game front rather than lean on new technology, but by and large, the best games have been either launched a long time ago or are already announced.
With that in mind, it is time to look back and pick out a few of our favorite games, but before we get to that, I’d like to call to attention to the two original franchises from the last eight years that have stood out as the best and for totally different reasons: Mass Effect and Dark Souls.
Together, these two represent everything that was amazing about the previous generation. One brought all of our modern trends in gaming to a peak, moreso than any of its rivals. From morality to cover based shooting to in-depth storytelling and believable worlds and characters, Mass Effect took gaming to the heights that other developers promised but only dreamed of delivering.
The other was a bad boy of the generation, refusing to play along to anyone’s rules and sticking to what used to make video games so great a decade ago and beyond. Dark Souls evolved old formulas in a far more natural sense than the hostile takeover of PC gaming forced on console gamers.
One came from the West. One came from Japan. Both will live on as a triumph as the generation’s best original franchises. Which one was better though?
Mass Effect was the series that pulled me into HD gaming. In 2007, I was naively convinced that the Wii was the future of video games and that Nintendo has successfully won back its audience all over the world by keeping everything simple and inventive.
It took a single trailer for a new game called Mass Effect, from the creators of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, to leave me in awe of what I was missing out on. Gears of War, Dead Rising, Tom Clancy, yet another Halo game. None of them were enough to convince me of the superior technology the Xbox 360 provided. This Mass Effect game was the crown of the bunch, and it effectively altered the course of my gaming life.
I have always been something of a console gamer, always subscribing to the Mario and Cloud Strife style of games, but with Japan not providing any alternative other than a few decent DS games at the time, my old set of mind didn’t even stand a chance.
Western games overtook both me and the industry with very little resistance.
I plopped in Mass Effect the first day it was released, and was instantly hooked. I played through the game not once, but four times to obtain all the achievements, experience all of the branching storylines, and just totally lose myself in this world that BioWare had pulled from its own imaginations.
It delivered a rush I had not felt since the PlayStation days of JRPGs. Not in a decade had I felt so compelled to replay a game over and over again and see everything it had to offer. To mine, and everyone elses’ surprise, BioWare managed to take its franchise a step further with the next release. The best was yet to come.
Mass Effect 2 was the peak of this gaming console. BioWare took what was an expansive role-playing game and boiled it down into a slick action game, all the while keeping sacrifices as minimal as possible. Your choices still mattered, your comrades still were the best written group of rogues you could find in a video game, and your galaxy was still among the most immersive gaming settings ever created.
BioWare, realizing that its original vision was simply too vast, turned to outside sources to aid in streamlining its series. Action game developers were brought in to perfect the cover based shooting and squad command strategy. EA jumped aboard and bought out BioWare, granting them artistic freedom without the burden of a tight budget. Action scenes and explosions replaced the quiet scenes from the previous’ more subtle moments.
If Mass Effect was Gene Roddenbury’s Star Trek, then Mass Effect 2 was J.J. Abrams Star Trek.
And yet, with Mass Effect 2, it didn’t matter. All the streamlining and Hollywood adjustments it made would have garnered more scorn around the fanbase if it had been any other series, but because BioWare did such a fabulous job tweaking and perfecting every last element of the game, it managed to escape the public stoning from its fanbase.
That’s really the true nature of Mass Effect 2. It was a game that stuck remarkably close to what developers envisioned it could do with this technology, and by being one the few to truly achieve it, BioWare emerged as the crown jewel.
Mass Effect 3 launched at a time somewhat after this PC dominance has started to lose its initial luster on a lot of console gamers. Regardless of how some felt about the game’s ending, it’s main fault was falling into the trap of “sequelitis.” I had a blast playing through the game and watching the events of the amazing story unfold, and I even dabbled in the multiplayer for a while, something I never do with other games.
However, one thing I have not done is return to it the same number of times I returned to Mass Effect or Mass Effect 2.
This “going through the motions” counteracted everything that separated Mass Effect’s marvelous leap into Mass Effect 2 from the other blossoming franchises out there, except for a little series from Japan called Dark Souls.
If anything, this console generation can be credited with giving the RPG genre a second chance after Japan’s rapidly aging “turn based” formula finally began to show cracks. Who wants to click through menus when you could be blasting apart alien scum with a high powered assault rifle?
Well, I don’t really mind, but there is no getting around that action games and RPGs were destined to intertwine, and it took a B-grade studio from Japan called FromSoftware to teach its fellow countrymen how to do it.
Demon’s Souls was released quietly in Japan with absolutely no fanfare in the West. Import stores had it popping up here and there, and nothing but glowing reviews were coming from the few who had played it so far. Atlus eventually picked up the rights, and it launched Demon’s Souls to universal acclaim and a handful of GotY awards in the states.
Gamers didn’t just love it for its intricate level design, its dark fantasy aesthetic and original monster design. Gamers loved it for the challenge.
Not in many years had a game pummeled us into submission like Demon’s Souls, and not in years had we felt so encouraged to pick up and press-on after failing so many times in a row. This was everything that made the classic console action games separate from its PC strategy games of the same era: twitch gaming skills, boss pattern memorization, and a driving force the never let you turn back.
Never easy, but never so unbeatable to which there was no hope. Perfectly balanced.
Demon’s Souls is the natural continuation of Nintendo action games and RPG elements spreading into the Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden series and beyond, and if PC gaming hadn’t caught on so well with the console scene, we would be seeing a lot more of games like these. Demon’s Souls would have been the mainstream, and Mass Effect would have been the exception.
Granted, some wanted Demon’s Souls on a much larger scale. This was a time when Oblivion was still all the rage, and who wanted such great mechanics cramped into such a tiny game? Again, I didn’t mind so much, but when FromSoftware showed of Dark Souls, I was once again floored by how a series could evolve itself.
If BioWare scored points for streamlining Mass Effect into the perfect action game, then From Software scored just as many points by inflating Demon’s Souls into the perfect open-world RPG.
Dark Souls took everything that made its predecessor amazing and stretched it to just the right amount. Not too long and not too difficult. Just right for a perfect blend of challenge and pacing. It was still hard and sported the the same strong combat mechanics, just a lot more open and intricate, creating that much more of an urge to get out there and explore its insane world.
Now you weren’t just dying to beat a barrage of creepy and original bosses, you were dying to see where all of these hidden tunnels actually went. What treasures lie at the end of a bleak tunnel. Would these items make your suffering any less painful. Continuing with these analogies, if Demon’s Souls was a great NES game, then Dark Souls was Super Metroid, a perfectly laid out and designed game that equally focused on action and exploration.
No need for cover based shooting. No need for bald or masked space marines or huge exploding cutscenes. No strobe light effects, no generic monster designs, no apologies for being too difficult, and especially no adhering to any trends. Dark Souls stuck to its guns in ways that a lot of other series had to sacrifice their souls to become bullet point action games.
Much like Mass Effect 3, Dark Souls II couldn’t quite pull off what its predecessor had done. We had already seen the massive leap between the first two games, and maybe that distorted my expectations.
Regardless, after two attempts to judge Dark Souls II on its own merits, I remain unconvinced that it does anything better than its previous two games, meaning that for the first time, FromSoftware finally broke ranks with its unique image and adhered to a gaming trend.
Not just any trend, but the biggest and worst of them all: making Dark Souls II become a “me-too” sequel. Even bigger does not always mean even better, and Dark Souls II drags on with too many flat ideas and starts to show some muffin-tops where Dark Souls was nothing but chiseled abs.
In this world of AAA sequels where the third game is often the weakest and most forgettable, that’s exactly what we find in Dark Souls II. These series set itself apart so well from the crowd that the fact that it closed out its standard three game run on the same uninspired note as the rest of the AAA series out there stung quite a bit.
There is no getting around how different these two series are, but when put next to how they unfolded over the years, there are a few similarities. Both were early attempts to blend action and RPGs, the dominant genre of the generation, and they achieved their goals to great success.
Both gave players the opportunity to create a fully customizable avatar with job classes that approached combat in very different light. Both feature the most intense and atmospheric settings in video games, and using this customized avatar, both let you explore and find your way through the non-linear game rather than force you down a single path.
BioWare and FromSoftware both had fanbases by that time thanks to previously successful franchises, but the unheralded success of Mass Effect and Demon’s Souls put them in an entirely separate class from anything they had achieved before.
Using this new found success, both developers pushed their ideas to the brink and created two of the best sequels of the previous generation. Neither continued the team’s’ original game design approach, but both managed to become something better. Mass Effect 2 and Dark Souls can’t be praised enough for being genius sequels in a world where sequels rarely have new ideas and are often looked on with scorn for being unoriginal.
From there, it’s very clear that the creative and driving force behind the games dwindled and their second games would stand as the peak of quality. Some might disagree, but neither Mass Effect 3 nor Dark Souls II were able to carry on this torch of perfection. Both are solid enough games, but neither was able to kick it the extra step or make the same leap in quality, resulting in both come off as underwhelming.
Both series also seemed to come to the end of the road, at least with the original creative minds in charge. BioWare founders Dr. Ray Muzyka and Dr. Greg Zeschuk moved on from the studio following the release of Mass Effect 3, leaving the series in the capable hands of other producers who help work on it.
Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls Director Hidetaka Miyazaki also moved into a more reserved position for the development of Dark Souls II, and he received a promotion to FromSoftware’s president. He currently is working on Bloodbourne and longs for a returning to the “Japanese” style games that defined his company before Demon’s Souls’ success. Shows where his heart in the franchise lies.
Speaking of the future, we know that a new Mass Effect is in the works under the EA Frostbite 3 development plan, but Dark Souls has yet to announce anything new for us.
Where do you Stand?
That just leaves us with where you stand. Which do you think was better? A series which perfected all of our biggest trends and was inspired by the world around it? Or a series which set its own trends and dug into history for inspiration?
I was perfectly ready to put the crown on Dark Souls, but after Dark Souls II came up short of what I would have liked, just like Mass Effect 3, the decision remains a lot more foggy. Both are fine games, but they both get a collective sigh of regret after failing to live up to the previous games’ high standards.
Mass Effect was a revelation to me in ways that Demon’s Souls was not, speaking more to my favorite years of gaming as a PlayStation RPG enthusiast than my masochistic NES childhood roots. Vice versa, Demon’s Souls was a more complete and better constructed game because Mass Effect felt more like an experiment at the time.
Dark Souls too was also an eye opening experience that contributed greatly into pulling me back towards Japanese games after dabbling in the West for several years.
So many contradicting ideas between the two, but that just leaves me with a tipping point I can’t ignore. I loved Mass Effect 2 way too much. I played it at least five times and was blown away with no matter which path I took through it. As a collective body, the two series come that close in quality, and this is the only tie-breaker I could think of: the individual game which stood out the most.