Fully done with the game and having waited long enough to let others do the same, I find now a fine time to air my final thoughts on one of this year’s most anticipated games in a franchise that has gotten a good deal of attention of late. Doubtless some of that attention has been from my own writings, so before I get into the swing of what will be a mostly unflattering retrospective, I should note that Dark Souls 2 was a game I enjoyed while playing. It is also a game I would consider, for fans of the series or games similar to them, a game well worth its price. Unlike some games that have released at inane MSRPs, Dark Souls 2 offers a long journey and a goodly amount of challenge served along side some welcomed improvements. So what could be so wrong with the game that all the compliments were squared away in the first few sentences of this article? Why, if the game offered me a good value and can be recognized as a good game, do I have about a thousand more words to write in its disfavor? Because it could have been more, and in many regards it represents a squandering of potential (bad enough) alongside many steps backward (even worse).
The original Demon’s Souls had rough edges, it was a bit too unforgiving in all the wrong places, the world layout utilized a clunky lazy hub design, certain character builds were flat out useless, and the ending finished rather meekly. It is sad to say that many of these criticisms, which represent the efforts of a new IP and much less funding, can be placed deservedly at the feet of Dark Souls 2. And what criticisms that do not apply (Dark Souls 2 does in fact do a good job making all builds viable and fun) can be ably swapped out for fresh new ones. The biggest criticism, and the one I worried most about pre-launch, regards the game’s difficulty. Difficulty and the Souls series is an all too common, all too well covered, subject matter but not when it is pointed out as lacking for such a quality. Though I admitted above that Dark Souls 2 offered up a fine challenge, I found this to be true in a very limited capacity. The game is almost coated with a veneer of difficulty underneath which lies all the trappings of developer fear in the face of mass popularity. The fear being that once a thing reaches a certain threshold of popularity that thing aught then to bend more in the direction of trending patterns in game design. It is an unfounded fear since it forgets that a thing becomes popular for what it did and not what it will do. This is not to eschew all changes, of course, however I should wrangle this thought back into the scope of this article. Dark Souls 2 has, not as subtly as the developers think, made large compromises to the challenge of the game. Healing, thanks to plentiful health gems, is made much more easily done. Demon’s Souls had similar items but it also lacked the potent Estus Flask, which is a quick and upgradable and infinitely refillable healing item. And again, Demon’s Soul was the first game in the series made over five years ago. The idea was ditched in the original Dark Souls in favor of the Estus Flask as it required no grinding for health items and worked well into that game’s Humanity system. Implementing both in Dark Souls 2 undid the balance and positive attributes of both mechanics. This touches on the overall issue with Dark Souls 2, but let it first be said myriad other compromises were made in the face of rising popularity. Vendors no longer permanently die, enemies despawn after defeating them more than ten times, and of course the Ring of Sacrifice. This ring, in the original Dark Souls, used to permanently break upon death but it saved all Souls and did not generate a bloodstain. In Dark Souls 2, however, this ring can be repaired for three thousands souls infinitely. The game, in one playthrough, also gives you at least three of them. “Prepare to Die” was an old tagline for Dark Souls and Dark Souls 2 can aptly add to it “but it won’t matter”.
But to return to the issue of melding the design choices of Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, Dark Souls 2 does this in a rather repeated and at times flagrant manner while seemingly cheapening the copied elements. From Software copy pasted bosses along side nearly identical locales, to the health items mentioned earlier and the both open and hub-like world design. In what I assume may have been a reaction to making the gameworld too unwieldy and gigantic to backtrack through, likely credited to looking for quantity over quality, the developers gave the player the ability to warp between bonfires from the beginning. Not only was this ability withheld until near the end in Dark Souls as well as worked more skillfully into the plot (read: at all), but it also embraced a backtracking element all too scarce in games today. Too worried the bloated gameworld they spent millions designing would be too boring to slog through, the immediate addition of warping looks to me like a band-aid to a self inflicted wound more than a simple convenience. One of Dark Souls‘s best qualities was its amazingly realized world which was intricately fit together, seamlessly, with the ever so scary backtracking in mind. The result is a far more memorable world. In Dark Souls 2 I got dozens of locations, dozens more bonfires, and few if any shits left in between to give a single one of them. And finally on the subject is the hub world itself. Each game in the series had a sort of main location, some more important than others. And where Demon’s Souls‘s disconnected hub world looked to me a cost cutting design, Dark Souls 2‘s looks like an attempt to give importance to at least one location in the game. And indeed it does. It gives all the importance to it by requiring constant trips back there to level up and buy from the copious vendors. Without the need to return to Majula to perform all that exciting housekeeping work the game experience would likely have been even more disjointed and vapid in the end. It would seem that covering up for poor world design is a bit more difficult to do than anticipated.
Now I would like to take this opportunity to say, smug as I damn well please, that I called it here, at the bottom of the last body paragraph. Unfortunately I overestimated (underestimated?) the developers there at the end of my rant about how the series showed signs of compromise even in the previous game. Make no mistake, though, I do realize that changes toward difficulty are not always tantamount to compromise (which is itself an unnecessarily dirty word) and that sometimes changes are made for the better. Dark Souls 2 happily rid itself of much of the esoterica that bogged down the previous two entries as well as made it easier to play the game effectively by being more than just a no-armor crit monster. At the same time, and probably in the response to a departing series director, Dark Souls 2 seems to desperately cling to any and all elements of past entries in a attempt to find the magic combination of ingredients. In the end that attempt only demonstrated that those who worked on the title at best have much to learn, and at worst had not enough to lose in the face of feverish popularity.
This has been a slightly more acerbic column from me this week, but it needed to be said! Has anyone out there finished Dark Souls 2 and if so what were your thoughts? Especially if you have played all three games but even if not, weigh in and fear not if you disagree about my unabashed dressing down of From Software and their latest release.