If Dark Souls was about unraveling the fantasy RPG until its spatial threads connected in your mind like some beautiful gory clockwork, Dark Souls II is just a video game. Its levels terminate in a boss, rarely reconvening on past locations in the series’ signature neurotic anthills of engineering. The sequel seems more predictable and more finite. But after eight years of playing Souls games, it’s the one to which I’ve devoted the most hours. Why is that?
When Dark Souls II was coming out and we discovered that Hidetaka Miyazaki would not be the lead designer, eschewing the responsibility to From Software’s “B-team” in favor of developing Bloodborne, we were worried the sequel would be easier, simpler, more finite. We were right on all counts. But the realm of playability doesn’t always occupy the same space as the realm of immersion, as some levels in Dark Souls II paradoxically inhabit the same relative space as other ones in its dreamy labyrinth of latitudinal nonsense. Sometimes quality sits on its throne while fun is out playing in the yard.
When I choose Dark Souls II over Dark Souls, I’m not making an outrageous claim as the king of quality. I’m choosing fun.
The first Dark Souls thrived on daunting the player, encouraging a hero’s journey within your real self, to rise and conquer horrors. The upward slope to the Ornstein and Smough battle, before the game opens up to reveal the paths to the four lords, is a daunting one to begin repeatedly. Sisyphus has probably learned a lot pushing his boulder, but what do you think he would say if you offered to give him a break? He’d want to play in the yard.
Basically, I’ve discovered I have trouble playing that upward slope repeatedly. By contrast, Dark Souls II begins with choices, and is more truly nonlinear than Dark Souls. The first game made interconnectedness pass as the feeling of free movement while only offering one path (there are even fog gates placed where it halts your progress until you come back later). The ability to tackle the four lords at the beginning of Dark Souls II in practically any order eases the NG+ experience, prompting strategists to scope out better alternatives and allowing weary travelers to take a different path to familiar destinations.
The ability to re-spec the levels of your character was reviled as one of the sins of accessibility plaguing the hardcore in Dark Souls II. But it also comes with a curious acknowledgement that no one character build is good enough to overcome a lack of skill. The ability to take NG+ in stride, experiencing the new things offered by the expansion while also reassessing your skills via a completely new character, is an inviting aspect of the sequel.
But Dark Souls acolytes shun that word: “inviting.” They revel in being enigmatic, in their niche knowledge and core talents. They’re as dismissive as NPCs and as mechanically unresponsive to the needs of the general player. They’ll invade your world and take your lunch money and “gesture” about it. Their collective Patronus would be the hyena.
And for being more inviting, Dark Souls II gets branded as easy. But we were Dark Souls masters by the time we made it to the sequel: in the sense that it still has incredible challenges even to the initiated, some of it may even be more difficult than its predecessor. Everything, as occurs implicitly in any sequel, was just more familiar. Ask people who played the sequel first about its challenges and you may rethink its skill curve, when you hear how many dozens of times they were fed their own virtual intestines by the Smelter Demon and the Fume Knight.
This leads me to the complaint I’ve heard the most concerning Dark Souls II, which is integral to my argument in its favor in that I not only intend to refute it but to take it as its greatest addition to the series. The complaint is that the sequel features too many fights against humans.
Souls games have always been famous for giant monsters: the Gaping Dragon, Seath, Sif, the Tower Knight. Shoving your face into a mountainous crotch and wailing away at ankle bones before rolling to cover is pretty standard Souls strategy. These bosses were imposing, as the music swelled and they emerged from the terrain, and empowering to defeat. This perfectly matches the scheme of the original Dark Souls, of which every element intends to preen its players into warrior heroes and kings. The possibility of overcoming great threats was the narrative through-line that made Dark Souls so enticingly encouraging. Victory, not death, is its major theme.
This isn’t true in Dark Souls II. Even the narrative begins not with the contextual framework of the world but with the tragedy of your own misbegotten soul. Losing and not succumbing to darkness is more the point than overcoming desperately impossible odds. This is why Dark Souls II so often locks its player into mortal combat with equals. Bosses in the sequel test the abilities you’ve been acquiring as you play, rather than requiring you to exploit a new boss’s specific weakness. They communicate to the player differently. They are designed more exactingly.
I believe the best boss fight in Dark Souls was Artorias of the Abyss in the DLC. When I fought that battle, I believed I had experienced what the Souls combat engine was designed for: a brutal war of wits between yourself and an opponent of equal talent and cunning. Dark Souls II is full of battles like this. Matching talents against Sir Alonne in his sunlit chamber I wanted to surrender and become his student. Crossing blades with the husk of the forlorn throne guard Velstadt or the remnants of the Fume Knight, I felt the weight of Drangleic’s continuum of forgotten warriors and lingering souls. The cut-scene at the beginning of Dark Souls is dispersed over its sequel into fragments of dialogue and shadows of men, to be interacted with and lived in again. While the levels themselves are more like a video game, the story is even more fragmentary and sprawling.
This combines into the stark new mood of Dark Souls II. The loneliness is more palpable, the world’s condition seems more desperate. Going up from ground level to a castle floating in lava may not be spatially sound, but it imbues the world with the quality of a dream: the mazy systems of lingering nonsense through which you wander and, as in a dream, may come to rule the world. I stumble by torchlight through a mansion of monster exhibits painted by Goya and emerge onto a precipice overlooking a dragon aviary. I feel the weight of the world’s depth as I descend into the pyramidal lower sanctum built ages ago to contain a slumbering monster. And when I emerge back in Majula, it’s like a lull in sleep, a calm just before waking.
Dark Souls II doesn’t seem as grand at first, and it isn’t. Its journey is more personal. It cannot surpass Dark Souls in what it shares with it, but its broody intimacy invites a new kind of adventure, one that is not a recitation of a hero’s quest. It may even refute them entirely. It’s a revaluation of what it means to play a video game, a journey into the very motives by which we subject ourselves to incredible death and spiritual torment. There are multiple endings, but each is a good ending as far as video games go. The truly “bad” ending is NG+, the resuscitation of the terrors of the world into another inevitable cycle of destruction. Its theme is its own player: the only element in its world that becomes lost willingly. Why do we do it? To wallow in entropy? To self-harm?
To become kings of our own dreams?