My Hatred Of Inane Save/Checkpoint Systems (And Other Grumblings)
A couple weeks back I finally gave Darksiders a whirl and was immediately drawn into its ghoulish post-apocolyptic world. War's (the game's main character) story of redemption and revenge – while not terribly original – was enough of a hook to keep me fairly engaged, yet it was the many traits the title shares with my beloved Legend of Zelda series that ultimately made me go coo coo for Cocoa Puffs. Everything from the level design (theme-based temples anyone?) to the gameplay (z-targeting, silky-smooth and enjoyable combat, riding around on the equivalent of Epona's steriod-laden doppelganger, collecting ever-so handy items at just the right time, etc.) to the boss battles (hello handy item I recently found, now's your time to shine), Darksiders is imbued with Zelda character through and through. And as you might imagine, I couldn't be happier. That is, until I got a good taste of the save/checkpoint system developer Vigil Games decided to utilize for the title. Son of a...
I got my first taste of the brilliance that is the Darksiders save/checkpoint system when I ran across a cute little foe named Trauma. While the encounter itself isn't all that significant, what should be noted is the fact that after I died I was ever so lovingly transported back to what was my supposed checkpoint. And as the game would have it, that certain checkpoint wasn't anywhere near the place I was when I bit the big one. Awesome. So not only did I have to travel all the way back to the location of my forthcoming battle with Trauma, but I also had to deal any annoying little minions along the way. All in all, it took a good couple of minutes of me wasting my life away before I was actually back in the thick of things with Trauma – talk about a buzz-kill. And, to make matters worse, upon reaching Trauma I had to sit through the same canned animation of that pile of crap appearing out of nowhere a half mile down some road and subsequently throwing a car at me. There was no way to skip this sequence. I had to watch it in its entirety again.
Ok, so let's get this straight: You're going to punish me for dying (because dying in and of itself isn't punishment enough, obviously) by making me trek all the way back to the point in which I had just lost my life only to make me sit through a sequence I've already seen and have absolutely no interest in seeing again? What year is this, 1997? This type of game design should be dead and long gone by now. And yet here we are in the year 2010. What am I missing here? Is this some lame attempt to artificially increase the play time of the game or do the developers have a little sadism coursing through their veins? Not being able to skip certain cutscenes after having already viewed them – multiple times?! I thought such a narcissistic mentality regarding game design died long ago with the likes of other bloated titles such as Final Fantasy VIII. How is it that tactics that do nothing more than bog down and undermine a player's overall experience continue to persist in this day and age? It just boggles the mind.
But that's only half of it. Unfortunately there's another facet of Darksiders that gets under my skin – the manner in which the game tracks your progress should you save then quit and come back to play at a later point in time. I assumed (silly me) that – like any other sane-minded game – should you save in a particular spot, the game (upon loading your saved data) would deliver you to the exact same spot with any and all progress achieved (items collected, levers pulled, etc.) the next time you booted the title up. I mean, that seems to be the general trend more and more games are embracing these days. Anyway, so here I am working my way through the Twilight Cathedral (simply sublime level design, by the way) and loving every minute of it when I come across a puzzle-based room that has me stumped. I figure out about half the puzzle – placing certain bombs here, pulling certain levers there – and collect some random power-up items before deciding to quit for the night. Thus I save my game with the full belief that, upon booting up the game the next time I play, I'll start out in the exact location with everything I've collected and done up to said save point intact.
Instead, the game delivers me to a room that is easily a good couple of minutes from the puzzle room I last saved in. Sound familiar? So enemies and platforming pitfalls I had previously worked my way through had to be dealt with once more. And what do I find when I finally reach said puzzle room? Yep, you guessed it – all of the items I had collected and levers I had engaged were reset. Everything had to be done all over again. It was as if I had never been there at all. Why, you ask? Well, it appears Darksiders only saves your game at certain points (noted by a blue flashing icon) and should you create a save in between those points, you're inevitably going to lose out on some sort of progress be it travel, collected items, and/or story development. Simply put, unless you save right around the time you see the blue icon, you're going to be doing and seeing things again whether you like it or not. Who in their right mind thought this was a good idea?! Haven't we moved past crap like this? Apparently not.
And what makes this all the more frustrating is the fact that there are countless other games on the market – many of which are no spring chickens, mind you – that succeed in the aforementioned areas where Darksiders fails. And it's all done in the spirit of making the gamer's experience as pleasant and streamlined as possible. What a crazy notion. Take Half-Life 2, for example: You can save at any point, and should you die or restart the game, you're immediately brought back to said point – all progress intact. Oh yeah, you can also skip any of the cutscenes as well. Brilliant. Fallout 3 is another "forward-thinking" title that comes to mind that doesn't punish you for ending up face down in a pool of blood or for saving at an inopportune time. And thank God it doesn't. Can you imagine what that game would have been like if you had to haul a** through the Wasteland over and over again, performing the same tasks in an attempt to make up for the game's feeble excuse for a save system? I would have thrown the disc out the window. And those awesome cutscenes involving a story no one actually cared about? Yep, skippable. That's the way it should be – always.
Granted, not all games can utilize such a tactic for saving and checking progress, but even a title like Bayonetta – a game in many ways similar to that of Darksiders, but infinitely harder – doesn't torture its players with unnecessary travel and forced canned animation. Should you die battling a mid-level boss, there's a high likelihood that you'll be brought right back to the point in the game that allows you to almost immediately initiate said battle once again. That's one game that got it right. And that's coming from someone who didn't like Bayonetta all that much to begin with. Are you listening Vigil Games?
Listen, if I wanted to be tortured with a lame save system I'd go back and play the original Tomb Raider. Those stupid floating blue crystals still give me nightmares. And if I wanted canned animations that I'm forced to watch against my will then I might as well return to Balamb Garden and beat up on Squall a bit more. But guess what? Those gaming conventions died off for a reason. And yet we have titles like Darksiders bucking that trend and, in the process, marring what is an otherwise outstanding game. And that's the thing – despite these egregious flaws, I still really like Darksiders. Really, really like it. Take away the mind-numbingly dumb save system and non-skippable cutscenes and I'd absolutely love it. Talk about frustrating.
Here's hoping Vigil Games can smooth out these rough patches and really let the franchise take off. It's got boat-loads of potential and character to boot. Besides, I need something to satiate my Link fix in the down-time between major Zelda releases, right? I just don't have the time nor patience to deal with subpar garbage in my games anymore.
Don't let me down next time War; I'm counting on you.