Dark Souls 2: And My Feelings Are…

68 hours and 48 minutes, 147 deaths and innumerate swear words later… (Oh, and SPOILERS!)

Dark Souls was, for many, one of the standout games of what is dubbed “Gen7”.

Sure, Demon’s Souls came before it; and we saw that it was good. But it was stifled, straight-laced and a bit po-faced to boot – a supremely strict and brutal adventure, but ultimately as lovely as it was, it was overall a quirky title that paved the way for a far better title to come to fruition. Dark Souls was bleak, aggressive and laced with sadness and regret; but also, tinged with knowing humour, clever nods and smart narrative choices that allowed a far deeper complexity to come to the fore. Covenants defined playstyles; people had the freedom to choose, than be shepherded into defined roles and specs. With this breadth came depth; a complex, subtle, nuanced system of understanding weapons and magical effects came into play – each one bringing new challenges and benefits, always evolving the player – never restricting them. Dark Souls – its success came because ultimately, it put the player first and foremost into perspective – and your choices were yours to make.

It was facing the Ruin Sentinel’s in The Lost Bastille when I realised I needed a 100% physical damage reduction shield to alleviate the sheer brutality of the fight; the dawning of the realisation that for all its pomp and ceremony, Dark Souls 2 is not, suffice to say, built with players in mind – it’s built to capitalise on the co-op, and the freedom of allowing people to build something from scratch (and have limited means to upgrade their equipment before that point!) makes that incredibly and so far notoriously unreliable. Not to mention that the co-op servers haven’t exactly been reliable; since launch, it’s been a cavalcade of problems and most of us have ended up resorting to the NPC summons where available; this means you need to offset their weaknesses, and generally speaking – that means tanking, with shields.

This isn’t to say Dark Souls 2 is a failure however, as to do so would be incredibly facetious. As an example of a challenging modern RPG, it’s light-years ahead of what most companies offer – one recent example that springs to mind is Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII. But it’s certainly also not as good as The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, and it’s not even close to the first Dark Souls.

The narrative is a lot more straight-forward; a tale of hope, dangled in front of your face like a carrot on a stick. You are an undead; your past, shrouded in mystery. Erased by forces beyond your comprehension, to tackle a problem that few would willingly give their lives for otherwise. The roll-call of supporting characters is as varied and complex as they ever were – there’s certainly nothing to the same degree as our Sun-Hero Solaire, but an interesting and varied cast of misfits and ragtag merchants all stuck in a place that is, itself, stuck in time. A land where souls are the currency, the commodity and the very essence of what drives things. Got souls? Expect to be brutalised. Need souls? Be prepared to fight for them.

It keeps up nicely with the gameplay; except it peaks and troughs with alarming regularity. It’s true that the first Dark Souls got tuning in this regard at some point; there’s no reason to believe that FROM Software won’t have a damned good balance pass at some point in the coming weeks and months. But Dark Souls was still reasonable and fair; there was always a sense of having a chance. Dark Souls 2 offers little recourse for those who deviate from it’s grand plan of a knight to save the day – throwing stubborn fights in as gateways to make damned sure you’re abiding by what IT wants. Unfortunately, by this time you’re probably ten or fifteen hours in, and the prospect for some looms like a dark cloud that actually, someone might need to reroll their character; the dual-wielding, the crossbow sharp-shooters, the twinbladers – it’s all smoke and mirrors, distractions in the end, and you’ll find reverting to these builds for bosses in particular is an exercise in true futility. The game ALLUDES to a freedom of choice; it just doesn’t have the balls to stand up and say that actually, it’d rather you played by it’s own rules. And that’s fine – but to give the freedom of choice only to cruelly begin to revoke it after so many hours in is one of its most fundamental design flaws, and one – for fans of Dark Souls – of its most egregious.

The world design is, as always, faultless; not withstanding the bullshots used in promotional material last year, it’s an effortlessly beautiful game. The character creator in particular is stunning to my eye; I found myself lost within it, enjoying the deep complexities that come with making a face as close to my own as possible. It’s a haunting, sweeping kind of game. It’s true that it’s not ‘dark’ per se; some areas are more prone to darkness than others though, it must be said, but a lot of it is bathed in sunlight, moonlight and torchlight. The new mechanic of torches helps add atmosphere, and aids in making some things easier to see – particularly in the Shrine of Amana, where the water is just murky enough to hide a multitude of sins. But for the most part, I found myself largely not needing the warmth of light. Where it has the most effect, the new Pharos’ Contraptions offer valid alternatives, which sort of defeats the objective really.

Invaders should also be wary – when you CAN get into someone elses adventure, some areas are much, much more deadly to the uninitiated than others, and those who found themselves often at the mercies of better-prepared invaders can now console themselves with a few new gimmicks – the first comes in the form of environmental switches and changes that, used wisely, can genuinely be used to hilariously brutal effect; Iron Keep one of the most brutal in this capacity, with a series of traps that can snare the unwary. The other is rarer – but altogether more simplistic. Now a defender can use a Seed of a Tree of Giants to set the enemies of an area at an invader; there is no longer immunity from their attacks, and this can also throw invaders truly off their tracks. It leads to a more interesting dynamic; but my playthrough saw only a few willing contenders brave my landscapes. How this will work out long-term is hard to say.

Part of that is because the game, despite it’s brickwalling, throws souls at you with careless and reckless abandon. This can be coupled with the surprisingly easy-to-obtain Silver Serpent Ring +1, adding an extra 20% to your souls tally, to make a lot of the entry-level surprisingly efficient to deal with. The game is clearly set with the intention of more pronounced levelling – by the end of my first playthrough, I was Level 145 and I was by no means spending all my souls on the levelling up (which can now only be done in the hub-town of Majula), preferring to fill out my elemental arrows, polish my Warped Sword +5 and make sure my gear was in tip-top condition. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear of much higher level tallies; another part of this is that the game is surprisingly easy to exploit, with four ring slots and all rings being repairable, having a stash of Rings of Life (or Soul) Protection on hand negates the death penalties – most of the time. Sometimes the game still bugs out and robs you of your souls, but at that point there’s no way to retrieve them. It’s take it whilst the offering is good and accept that the game sometimes will taketh with the other hand.

And it is fun; inspiring at times, again weaving tales of those facing the inevitable with a mixture of hope, contempt and resolve that makes them far more human, although they do now have a LOT more dialogue; which you can determine as you wish. The ending though; oh dear. I’m not so sure about that ending. I understand the series is about the bleakness of inevitability, but I felt somewhat denied of a proper resolution. The final boss is, at least, a pleasing enough nod to the Artorius of the Abyss expansion that Dark Souls got – but I felt somewhat hollow (narf!) at the conclusion. It weaves a fantastic tapestry and you get to the end and think… “hang on, did they finish this?!”

Dark Souls 2 is, if we’re being brutal about it, a victim of the success of Dark Souls; and evidence that sometimes, even the developers themselves can just narrowly miss the mark at what made the original such a surprise hit. It’s rough-around-the-edges charm was fine when you had such freedom of expression; but in more narrow, linear confines I found myself regularly snagging myself on things that just didn’t quite come out as planned I guess. I found myself talking with one chap online who talked of a later encounter with a certain Pate (voiced by the legend that is Peter Serafinowicz), one I hadn’t come across; turns out, my game had bugged out. I didn’t even get the option. Similarly, he found it hard to find the same NPC summon signs as I was finding; it’s not like Dark Souls was perfect on this front, but at least coming first there’s something of an excuse. Second time around, the justifications are harder to apply.

I don’t want to make out like Dark Souls 2 is bad because it isn’t. Most games don’t even net you half the length of Dark Souls 2, and Dark Souls 2 is by no means a game stuck in any given place for long. But I sense ambition was misplaced; moving it closer to Demon’s Souls and giving it in part a more Zelda-style progression line takes away much of its Metroidvania credentials, and places it more resolutely in the Action RPG section. Someone wrote a story and wanted it to be told – the freedom to take what you want from it is somehow more lacking this time. And then there’s the name.

Had this been called Ancients Souls, or Warrior’s Souls or perhaps even Dragon’s Souls, you could give it more leeway in many of its deviations and flaws; but they called it Dark Souls 2, and that was preparing the noose for its own neck. Topping a surprise hit is never easy; and when more money is put on the table in order to recapture that same success and build upon it, the inevitable thing that happens is people put forth ideas that sometimes simply don’t hold up in the game. A sequel is often held up against the predecessor; moreso when you have a numbered sequel, because the expectation is to compare the titles and that’s just a game that currently, Dark Souls 2 cannot win. It isn’t Dark Souls; not really, not deep down. It’s a wondrous, thrilling, inventive and imaginative ride – but the nuance and the freedom has been jettisoned in lieu of a grander story and a long journey through many, many locales. And that’s not a compromise I’m sure I could live with.

Many of its current quirks and design choices will be debated for months to come; the warp travel from the start, the simplification of weapon upgrading, the exploitable mechanics and the woeful online server component that despite a fix, still seems to be very broken. I’m sure much of what we complain about now – the choppy boss difficulty and the lack of build freedom – will be fixed as well. This is 2014, and we have the technology to actually fix these things now. The game still holds up without the fixes; it’s just a bit more of a slog, and you may feel the game is a little unfairly brutal at times – an accusation you could never have levelled at Dark Souls, no matter how hard you tried.

But as someone who did take Dark Souls into my heart – I am left wanting. This new game talks the talk and walks the walk, but its soul is not the same. Sometimes, I fear the core essences that came together to bring Dark Souls to us were a fluke occurrence. Somewhere, deep in there, is the little Humanity fairy that I remember. But I can’t say I’m as bowled over; it’s a much less satisfying experience this time around. Not because it’s terrible – no no, that’s a stupid thing to say and it’s categorically not true at all. I won’t hear any of that said about it.

It’s hard to love it in the same way though. The Dark Souls I fell in love with wanted a relationship on equal terms; we both knew the score, and we were both happy experimenting with every toy we had at our disposal. The end result was a relationship built on a degree of masochism; but a fulfilling one, where we both gave and received in equal measure without compromising on each others inner being. Dark Souls 2 is faking it; the rise and fall is far too orchestrated and it doesn’t seem as genuine. It wants us to play it; but it’s own terms and conditions are much less clear-cut. On finishing Dark Souls, I couldn’t WAIT to play it again; another round, bartender. Dark Souls 2? I had to walk away for a day. I had to let it sink in. I had to give it some time. And I just don’t love it in the same way.

But this is all contentious anyway; I’m sure many will fall in love with Dark Souls 2 for many reasons; it’s grand landscaping, it’s varied bossfights (The Demon of Song is my particular favourite and a definite high-point of the boss designs!), let alone it’s sheer scale. There is much to love and much to admire and indeed, a hell of a lot to applaud – and applaud we should, for what it does and what it is is still an incredible game with a hell of a lot to offer. The only thing I know for sure right now is that I’m not quite ready to take Dark Souls 2 into my heart. It’s just lacking something; and maybe it is the ending. Maybe it threw me so completely that I am struggling to deal with the emptiness of it all. But I’d at least leave it at the ending, I’d like to think; I wouldn’t have been so conflicted. I’d say the ending sucks, and it’s something we may have to deal with.

One thing is for sure though; I think we all know, deep down, it’s not as good as Dark Souls. But I fear that’s the most damning criticism of all. That it ultimately fails at what it sets out to be – a sequel to one of gaming’s most recent surprise hits. This time, there was expectation, and hype, and interest and all those other buzzwords. This time there were fans; an almost irreverent cult that has sprung up amidst the shadows of its gloom, the Sunbros (still there, but well hidden!). Many of us even went as far as to buy another copy of Dark Souls and finish it before the sequel; I did platinum Dark Souls on my PS3 very recently (I had it on my 360, but it’s dead Jim!). Dark Souls 2 carried far too much on its shoulders and perhaps, perhaps it is our fault. Perhaps this is one of those cases where really, FROM couldn’t have satisfied all of us in the same way as Dark Souls. I’m not sure it was entirely prepared for hitting that particular goldmine.

The end result is a grand, epic adventure that dwarves many other games and probably is still going to be one of this years best titles. It really is. And it’s hardly the end of the world when you can say the sequel isn’t QUITE as good as the original; not when it’s still so far and away so much better than many games right now, and the original itself set such unattainable standards.

I just wish somehow, it had a little more soul. That’s all.

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