Published on May 28th, 2014 | by silent brotagonist0
Dark Souls 2 [feed the earth]
Awareness of Dark Souls 2 started with this sentiment: Co-Director Tomohiro Shibuya expressed in a reveal for Edge, December 2012, that Dark Souls 2 (DaS2) “will be more straightforward and more understandable.” Until I stopped following the game’s pre-release, the effects of this “more understandable” change in the creative team were the center of all fan speculation. Having gotten my hands thoroughly dirty in Dark Souls 2, I found the experience less understandable.
Dark Souls 2 was confusing. Everyone who never actually played Dark Souls likes to make jokes about how non-existent the story seemed, but that was far from the case. Dark Souls gave you exposition on a platter, the opening cinematic explained exactly who you were eventually going to kill and why they were significant in their world. Along your journey, not reliant on the play style you favored and item descriptions were available to be read, there were characters who pointed out where you should go and often if there was anything significant worth killing. Most of all, you had one or two primordial serpents show up, depending on whether you bothered talking to them, who were all too forthcoming with some narrative to justify your entire journey to that point and why they want you to finish the job. Aside from a margin of free exploration or community knowledge, the basic amount of narrative, necessary to motivate the player to finish the game, was there. Dark Souls 2 fumbled this entirely.
I found myself exploring a good deal of Dark Souls 2 as a player operating within some abstract assumptions of the tropes of game design, not as a player with any meaningful sense of direction. The first third of the game leaves you only with a brief orientation of what lies beyond, and very little to go off from the Emerald Herald as to why youI should really care. Things do come together later in the game when the plot related areas have a distinct bottleneck, but the disillusionment is done by then. The real moment of existential doubt is the last leg of the game. Yes, you find out about the past, and about the character you fight as the final boss, even with a nice environmental explanation on why they’re not what they seem, but I’m still at a loss. There are characters and lore, but there is no motivation, it just feels senseless. Thinking about it just makes me stare in a daze, the whole ordeal had no meaningful goal. The issue isn’t a lack of story, or a lack of exposition, but that what lore and characters were there didn’t always meaningfully build or motivate the experience for me as a player or why the player character even mattered. Dark Souls 1 didn’t have this problem, as the player character(s) were never more meaningful than the quest: anyone who wandered into Lordran was a “Chosen Undead” and in the end your player character only mattered because you happened to be the one who made it that far.
Dark Souls 2 might actually be harder, if not less forgiving. Because enemies do not indefinitely respawn, the game takes on a decidedly scarce economy. Death, and the loss of one’s current amount of in-game currency, souls, is inevitable. Removing the ability to easily recover those losses from choice enemies punishes the new player. Yes, the feature also has the effect of making boss runs easier for desperate players (who are also too lazy to learn the simple techniques of how to run past enemies), but the cost is increased entropy. At least this change is consistent though, as some of the meaningful resources- human effigies, unique upgrade materials- are unbelievably scarce, unlike in DaS1, where as long as you can rustle up the dough, because you know enemies weren’t finite, you can upgrade to your hearts content. Let’s not be melodramatic here, that’s not really a big change in difficulty, I just find it hard to believe that it’s a change that makes the game more accessible.
Entropy isn’t completely unfounded though. First, let me be unbearably clear- DaS2 has a horrible ‘gameplay-mood segregation’. Drangleic is eternal. Sure even the name “Drangleic” is only part of the countless regimes to rise and fall on that patch of land, but the world endures, the land endures, life endures. DaS1 had the endgame that fits exactly into the gameplay of scarcity that DaS2 plays with. DaS1 threatened us with darkness, ruin, and death. DaS2 doesn’t even have any NPCs descending into unavoidable hollowing. What the economy does succeed in trying to encourage actually does fit, despite the fact that scarcity doesn’t fit into DaS2 at all, the impetus to press on into ng+ is an important change that was successful. Dark Souls 2 does bring rebirth to the series. The availability of Bonfire Ascetics, ‘localized NG+’ items, alone, not just the deeper pve mechanics, counteracting the economy of scarcity, and broader range of items available to the player, makes playing through extra cycles a much more engaging goal. Enabling a localized instance or playing through a global new cycle offers a broader experience on the whole, instead of just a purely mathematical difficulty challenge.
The Covenants have changed a bit though, and I have mixed feelings about that. While most of the covenants that actually had meaningful gameplay impact remain intact from DaS1, a few things have been greatly adapted. The obligatory ‘first covenant encountered’ is now the Way of the Blue. The WotB is a vast improvement over its predecessor, offering meeker players protection when faced with unwanted PvP invasions, instead of just being an ambiguously useless covenant that at most only benefits miracle using players. There is a sister covenant, the Blue Guardians, that in addition to being a transplant of the Blade of Darkmoon from DaS1, allows members to be the phantoms summoned to protect those WotB players. Another minor improvement is the Bell Keeper’s covenant, which balances the location-based pvp from the old Forest Hunters covenant by making the locations in question optional, only a danger to players that seek it out, and by not giving covenant members an exploitable free pass- making them also open to invasion if they hang out for too long in those areas.
The great disappointment is the Rat King covenant, which I’m choosing to characterize as a completely de-toothed Gravelord Servant covenant. Instead of the excitement of black phantom enemies at any place or at any time, or the excitement of fighting off players that found your incriminating mark, it’s become just a gauntlet-run in completely optional areas that have minimal impact on the game world. A further disappointment is that without a central Solaire-like character, the co-op covenant has become a bit more obscure to find than usual. The addition of the new Pilgrims of the Dark covenant offers a few extra areas with higher level enemies, culminating a bonus boss fight, but the true challenge is to game the economy for human effigies before they run out, as the rare item itself is what’s at trade, not the accumulation of the humanity condition like in DaS1. The Company of Champions covenant is an optional hard mode, but not worth mention after I figured out that it doesn’t prolong enemy respawns.
There are always some gameplay changes that I have reservations about. The system for locking-on to enemies has claimed to improve, but I always find my character following the momentum of a previous move instead of acting in the direction of the locked-on enemy, which is frustrating to no end with weapons that have unique attack animations after a dodge. The behavior of shields has changed, which I assume might be to discourage turtle players in general (which is fair, I guess), where there is a minor level of staggering that happens unrelated to your stamina, when you block a hit. An entirely new feature is the introduction of ‘respec’ items. These Soul Vessels are a positive change, allowing you to entirely change the build of a character, allowing more delicate, highly specific, builds to be viable for less experienced player who would otherwise have had to suffer through the PvE game relatively crippled, and for players to change their play-styles entirely if their bored, face a distinct challenge not suited to their current stats, or otherwise find a spell or weapon that surprisingly appeals to them.
The distinction between human and hollow has been blurred completely, which leads to some confusion. The hollow condition now has a more ambiguous relationship to multiplayer. Successful co-op, specifically defeating a host’s boss, does not offer humanity as it used to, but seems to just remove an increment of hollowing. And being hollow no longer offers protection from invaders, as you can still be invaded while partially hollow. The difference between Human Effigies and DaS1’s Humanities are never properly hinted at, as a player is guaranteed to reflexively burn an effigy or two in a bonfire before they bother to read the text and infer that for the traditional effect it’s meant to be used away from the bonfire.
The health penalty upon dying multiple times seems to be a surprise to some players. Along with the function of the Emerald Herald character, the PvP element of the Mirror Knight boss, and a few other subtle design choices, it’s a hold-over from Demons Souls that seems to have leapfrogged forward. The 50% health penalty for being hollow might scare off some players, but it’s not new, and there’s even a ring, also from Demons Souls, to lessen the penalty- the only downside being that hollows never had the advantage of stealth that being a phantom once had. A bigger surprise is a mechanic where a dedicated player can work themselves down to a 95% health penalty.
The unavoidable question is not whether Dark Souls 2 is a worthy sequel. The fact is that the community has moved forward, and that Dark Souls 2 brings enough welcome change to be the cutting edge of the series. But Souls games are not known for dieing out easily, as even Demons Souls is still has functional online play and the stalwarts in the community are not bound to let Dark Souls 1 fade away anytime soon. It doesn’t matter if you choose to embrace Dark Souls 2. The series moves forward, granted in flawed steps, but it doesn’t have the same planned obsolescence as other games. (such as Pokemon, where love or hate gen 6, you either get with the program or get left in the dust)
The real betrayal is that Dark Souls 2 spoiled the complex mood that drew me into the games in the first place and kept its predecessors so interesting. I can move past that, but the damage is already done. It didn’t make the series less esoteric of new players, it made the series less interesting for old players. So the ultimate question is just whether or not you actually want to play it, and hey, you may as well. You can’t really begrudge a game for being flawed, especially if you want to play it anyway.
Played on PS3
Also available on Xbox 360 and PC