Narrative Review: Dark Souls II


Very early on in Dark Souls 2 you’ll encounter a statue inscribed with a tally: the number of in-game deaths worldwide, updated in real-time. The figure has now surpassed twenty million and jumps by another million every day. It’s an appropriate preface to assuage the fear that many fans of the series have been harboring since the sequel was announced – that this time around, we should prepare to die less.

With the goal of avoiding prescience, I’ve tried my best to not have any preexisting knowledge of the game. Despite this, I’ve heard over and over again that Dark Souls 2 is easy.I heard it last this past Monday as I opened my wallet with quivering hands at a midnight release event. I was rung up by a man adorned in a filby hat and a short-sleeve suit.

“The game really is easy and short,” he said.

I looked up from my wallet slowly.

“It’s a glorified DLC,” he chortled.

I looked at him.

“If you’ve played Dark Souls 1, you played 2.”

I was obviously a victim of a master-troll, because Dark Souls 2 is not easy and it’s definitely not short; I’m more than forty hours in and I still haven’t scratched the surface of what the game has to offer. For that kind of time investment, I foresaw that I’d be further along than I am, due to the fact that I beat the original to a pulp.

Imminent back-story ahead:

I still owe a Redbox kiosk $34 for the first Dark Souls, which I’d casually rented on October 5, 2011 (with zero knowledge of the game) and vehemently returned on October 20th with feelings of resignation. Soon, resignation segued into determination. Within hours, I paid full price for the game and on the drive home I gave myself a prep talk, staring at myself occasionally in the rear-view mirror. While I spoke with great ardor, I was shocked that I appeared hollow – gaunt, bearded, with piercing, ardent eyes attached to a brain with one goal: to take this game down once and for all.

As I ran lights to a crescendo of car horns, I mused:

It’s paramount that you admit that you’re stuck. Know this: you’ll push through this. It’s really not that hard, man. Just run from the bonfire, past the silver knights, through the hallway alongside the titanite demon, weave between the giants and on up the stairs through the fog gate. In the boss room, put some space between you and Ornstein and dodge his lightning attack. When Smough comes down with his hammer, roll through it. What is the problem?

And on and on and on until I got home and died before I could even get my other foot through the fog.

I remember kicking through a chaise lounge and screaming with such guttural poignancy that birds flew from a wire in Manhattan and a crack grew in an arctic berg, until it finally was hewn clean through and dropped slowly into the cold ocean foam without a Soul to hear it.

screen_07I’ve since logged 250 hours into the original Dark Souls, beating it five times across four characters. To my wonder, on my last play-through I was still discovering new areas, mechanics, strategies, algorithms under the hood. And when at last I thought I’d wrung the game out for all it had, I started digging into the lore; one beautiful thing about the series is that the tale is always there for you to unfold, nestled in item descriptions and character dialogue paths and hidden behind illusionary walls. It will get only as deep as you want it to.

To me, nothing equates to the synapse-flooding reward-system of the Souls series. Nothing anymore can match those trembling-hand, adrenaline-tinged victories which made otherwise pioneering experiences (like taking down a dragon in Skyrim) dull in comparison. It became my Pandora’s Box and it was clear that the only way I’d be able to catch the dragon was to corner it in the sequel.

This past Monday, as I stood on line at that midnight release, I overhead someone yell out: “I hope I die before the title screen bro”.

The cheers and applause which followed were an affirmation that Souls fans are unlike any other gamers on this planet, who for the most part have an aversion to dying over and over again whilst suffering through surmounting tedium.But we relish in the masochism. We wallow in being poisoned, petrified, cursed, crushed, rolled over by a boulder, dropped off a cliff, balancing precariously on an inclining buttress just to be blindsided by a giant arrow, or getting a towering boss down to a sliver of health just to die to a careless, cocky lapse in defense.

BattleWithStatueKnightsAn hour into Dark Souls 2, beyond the statue marked with the perpetually-rising global Death Count (which read 700,000 on Monday night), I entered an area called The Forest of Fallen Giants. Despite it being an augmented tutorial, the forest’s inhabitants killed me more than twenty times. Right there, at that moment, I was enamored all over again.

I died because the combat in the sequel is different – it’s more challenging than it was the first time around. It’s slower, heavier, more deliberate (but not necessarily more precise). Basic enemies hit harder, and strategies that were once integral in the first game (rolling, turtling with a shield, back-stabbing, parrying) have all been abated /nerfed to some degree. In light of this, it’s now less about getting in close than keeping a smart distance, all while keeping a keener watch on the stamina bar (which still determines your character’s ability to complete actions like dodging, attacking and blocking).

Compounding this spike in difficulty – every healing item in the game takes longer to use (the animation time has increased), meaning an enemy or boss can easily get a cheap shot in as you attempt to get back on your feet.

Several core mechanics have returned from Demon’s Souls, the seminal game in the series. Firstly, the basis of gaining levels is once again done by way of speaking with a particular character, rather than going through a menu at a bonfire. There’s also the returning promotion for your character to be in human form (non-human characters suffer from a reduction in maximum hit points), and the throwback episodic (not linear) feel of progression.

Because your max HP decreases further upon each subsequent death (kind of like how the Cursed status stacked in the first game), being in human form definitely makes the game less unforgiving. Turning to human form is done with an item called Human Effigy (like Dark Souls’ Humanity). This time around, there’s no need to find a bonfire to revert to human; you revert simply by using the item.

screen_02For the third time in the series, the world (Drangleic kingdom this time around) is tied together by a central hub, a nexus which serves as respite, a marketplace for goods, and a meeting place for characters you meet along your journey. The areas which flank the nexus (called Majula) are heavily inspired by Demon’s Souls scenarios, with battles taking place in tight-quartered battalion bases dotted with explosive barrels, traps and firebomb-flinging warriors in close array.

Later, environs open up into sprawling, gorgeous landscapes which are no less dangerous in their expanded boundaries, akin to the deceptive visual rewards of the original Dark Souls’ Anor Londo, which were bestowed upon players who suffered through the therapy-inducing Sen’s Fortress.

It soon becomes evident that the sheer size of Dark Souls 2 trumps its predecessor, but loses the first game’s sense of interconnection, due in part to a new mechanic which allows the player to immediately warp to any discovered bonfire.Arguably, this mechanic could be considered a tool of “accessibility” (a much-maligned term in the Souls community…Indeed, during development, From Software oft-used and oft-retracted this description of how the sequel would play).

Maybe. But not nearly as hand-holding as this new feature: less and less enemies will spawn prior to a boss fight, if you seem to be dying frequently trying to make it there. I think this goes against the entire ethos of the series, which was always uncompromising in its bristling denial of granting the player even an inch of leeway.

On the other side of the fog-gate, the bosses in Dark Souls 2 are less brutal then you may remember, at least for the first-third of the game. By the fourth or fifth boss fight, though, the difficulty scales up and once again the fog becomes an impetus for dread.

Many of the wonderfully arcane concepts from the first game (covenants) return with even more variety. Abstruseness is not lost on newly-introduced concepts that I’m just starting to get my head around (luck, Lockstone items (which reveal symbols upon illusionary walls), soul vessels, and new character attributes). There’s even an item that lets you turn the world’s enemies against your invader in an online session.

screen_03Despite a few initial hiccups, the new server-based multi-player is more fluid than ever before. I’m happy to see that at all hours the ground is littered with summon and invasion signs (allowing co-operative / PVP play); that messages left for other players, helpful or hurtful, are receiving a ton of upvotes (which benefit the poster with a small health increase upon every rating); that every two feet I see the bloodstain left from another player.

The feeling sustains that we’re all in this together – an army of down-and-out hollows against a house where the rules are fixed, the floors are trap doors, and the ceilings are vaulted spikes. The house will break you and your feeble spirit and then coerce you back to brush away its mysteries, to dig deep and wide into the enigmatic, to clear it away like orange leaves from a sylvan pedestal.

9 Exemplary

This profound sequel compromises neither in difficulty nor breadth. Drangleic is a gorgeous, varied, lore-saturated world worthy to succeed Lordran.


About Author

Patrick Berlinquette is a musician, scribe, professional trouble-maker from New York. He owns a search-engine marketing firm that would be a Fortune 500 company if it weren't for Dark Souls.