Tuesday, November 25, 2014

\\ Dark, Yet Clear As Day: Dark Souls II //

This article contains spoilers of plot points and gameplay scenarios in Dark Souls II for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.
After much deliberation, I think it’s safe to say that the original Dark Souls is my favorite game of all time. It’s just such a wonderful thing that I can barely contain my composure when talking about its vast, sprawling worlds, filled with things to do, secrets to uncover, and mysteries never to be solved. Huge, imposing creatures found in the most dank, depressing corners of Lordran. Tough, imposing, uncompromising, yet doable boss encounters which tested your limits, pushing you further and further into the brink of uncertainty, kicking you out from the game for days, weeks, possibly months. But when you returned, fresh and revitalized, you’d find yourself empowered, a changed person, and would find the strength and the courage to plow through until the next surprising twist, the vicious circle beginning anew.

Dark Souls took me two years to complete; a long time indeed for a game that’s not really that long in the grand scheme of things, yet the experience of playing it is long. It felt like finishing a year at school; one takes the time to sit down and look back at the things that have changed in their life, the friendships mended and broken, changes in our bodies, maybe finding ourselves in a new place to call home. Finishing Dark Souls felt like how I would imagine breaking up with a long-time spouse could feel; it was good that I had closed the book on it, but I yearned for more. But of course, too much of a good thing is never a good thing.

I’d already played Hidetaka Miyazaki’s original masterpiece, Demon’s Souls, in anticipation for what was then known as Project Dark. Many fans of the original game seemed absolutely ecstatic about its spiritual successor, simply on the grounds that it was to be another game in the vein of the original, but with a wider vision via an open world, it was to be released on two platforms instead of one and promised to be as brutal, challenging, and satisfying as Demon’s Souls before it.

Demon's Souls makes quite the first impression
Demon's Souls makes quite the first impression. (image credits: Eurogamer)

Demon’s Souls confounded me in ways that a game never really had before. I remember thinking that the game seemed literally impossible yet engaging, an unplayable yet strangely parsable mess. Again and again I threw myself into scenarios which now seem trivial in hindsight, mashing away at the attack buttons in hopes of overcoming adversity through sheer willpower, each small battle a grand war of attrition. Souls aficionados will know this to be a rather futile approach, but it’s the way we’ve been taught after years of differently-paced action games, games which award not patience but pure animosity.

This approach to a combat-oriented game is what makes Dark Souls so brilliant to me. With Dark Souls, From Software managed to take the original game’s more level-oriented approach and put it into an expansive world full of twists and turns, secrets to find, dark mysteries to unravel. This required the designers harnessing a deep understanding of the original conceit behind Demon’s Souls and melding it with a more Zelda-esque philosophy, minus that franchise’s hand-holding walks through the park moments.

An ambitious undertaking, indeed, but From Software passed the test with flying colors. Dark Souls is so good that I wish I were playing it once again right now instead of writing. How I wish I could re-experience my first time conquering the impossible duo of Ornstein & Smough (glitchy as they are menacing); how I would love to go back and find The Great Hollow and Ash Lake on my own instead of having the surprise ruined for me via the Internet (would I have found them in the first place? Indeed, I yearn for unadulterated experience); how I’d like to feel anew the tensions, the heightened nerves, the heartache of losing victory to the Gaping Dragon when it was so close. The game is still there, but replaying it, New Game + mode or not, is a different experience, one that’s no less valid (being able to defeat the Asylum Demon with just a few simple hits when previously he seemed impossible feels fantastically liberating) but is still different.

...as does Dark Souls.
...as does Dark Souls. Image credits: Dark Souls Wiki

For a long time, I wondered how it would be possible to follow up such an ambitious feat. A few months after releasing the botched PC port of the game with the new Artorias of the Abyss expansion, From Software announced a sequel to the original at the Spike Video Game Awards. Fan reaction was a bit disjointed; people were afraid, and rightly so, that an announcement at an event as mainstream as the VGA’s signaled that the game’s much-beloved difficulty and sense of discovery would be watered down so as to appeal to a wider audience, one more interested in shorter, simpler, more straightforward affairs. But From Software made it a point to assure the fans that those elements of the original Dark Souls would remain intact, while also adding that the game would have some things changed so as to ensure that more players would be able to enjoy this new Souls experience. It seemed like a decent compromise to make; after all, publishers and developers alike do have to make money, and the new Dark Souls II team was larger than the last, with a new director at the helms to boot. As well, Bandai Namco backed the game with a much larger marketing push than any of the previous Souls games ever had. Games are expensive; these are things I’m cognizant of.

That said, having put a lot of time into the final game (I completed it in under two weeks), I can’t help but shake the feeling that Dark Souls II feels like a huge cash grab in a lot of different, dissappointing ways. I feel that the game is a rushed “product” more so than a intelligently-curated experience, a fundamentally broken game which arbitrarily changed some things while also not attempting to surprise players enough that overall makes for a generally stagnant experience.

From the game’s onset, immediately something feels amiss. A long introductory CGI cutscene plays, a far cry from the original Dark Souls’ short but sweet camera pan into the prison we find ourselves in. We’re privy to a good deal of exposition, though it’s still all quite vague in that signature Dark Souls way.

Once all the talk is over, we’re thrown into Things Betwixt. Walking forward, we meet an old woman who gives us even more talk. I actually skipped it about halfway through as I was just kind of done listening and wanted to start exploring; I feel there are more interesting and concise ways to introduce your game’s story, especially in a game like the Souls franchise.

Luckily, while the next area does contain some tutorial sections, they are in fact optional; we can just walk right by them. It is important to teach players the controls, as the Souls games do have a good deal of context-sensitive actions which can require quite tricky button presses and timing, so I absolutely don’t mind this style of tutorial, especially since as an experienced player I can just walk by them. I like that they kept this stuff pretty short and to the point, but it still isn’t as quick and forceful as the original game’s intro, which teaches you by throwing you right into one of the game’s signature boss encounters; instruction by failure at its most poignant.

We soon leave Things Betwixt and are introduced to Majula. Majula serves as a hub of sorts, less so than the Nexus from Demon’s Souls, but they definitely share some characteristics. We’re forced to level up here, replacing the previous game’s convenient way of being allowed to level up at the game’s bonfire checkpoints. Both games feature a maiden who we talk to quite a bit, though the original game’s is more whimsical and less bothersome (we end up seeing her in more places than just here, as we’ll later find out). There are merchants, though they’re a little more spread out, as Majula is sort of like a very small town or commune. A few locations are initially locked away, such as the blacksmith’s house, the mansion, and the well (this isn’t actually locked away but can only be explored by obtaining a ring which reduces our fall damage or by meeting a character who can put ladders in one of two locations). This aspect of Majula was interesting; it’s different to have a hub location in a game which has immediate mysteries to solve. I do hope if future games in the series have hub worlds that this trend continues.

After getting settled in and spending our souls on precious stats, it’s time to go on our way. You see, in Dark Souls II, we play as an Undead human who bears a dark curse, whom has travelled to the land of Drangleic in search of revived humanity. The Emerald Herald at Majula informs us that if we are to slay the four Great Souls, owned by the Old Iron King at the Iron Keep, the Rotten at the Black Gulch, the Lost Sinner at Sinner’s Rise, and the Duke’s Dear Freja at Brightstone Cove Tseldora, we will gain access to Drangleic Castle, home of King Vendrick and Queen Nashandra, in hopes of restoring our character to their former selves.

If this general conceit seems familiar, that’s because it is, in more ways than one. Dark Souls as well had four important bosses to slay, which would give us access to the final encounter. In the sequel, finishing off the four bosses doesn’t quite bring us to the conclusion, as there are a couple more things on the checklist to carry out, but it bears similarity. In fact, upon playing the game anew in New Game + and slaying the bosses again, we’re told that the four Great Souls bosses are actually directly related to their Dark Souls descendants (the Old Iron King to Lord Gwyn, the Duke’s Dear Freja to Seath the Scaleless, the Rotten to Gravelord Nito, and the Lost Sinner to the Witch of Izalith, also known as the Bed of Chaos).
And so we venture forth, given a choice between the Forest of the Fallen Giants (you’ll hear a lot about the Giants throughout your time in Dark Souls II) and Heide’s Tower of Flame. The immediately striking thing about this game is how linear it is; once in a while you’ll be given a choice on where you can go, like in the introduction or in a fork in the road in the Shaded Woods, but the game is much more of a set of differing branching paths than it is a dense, sometimes confusing yet also clear sprawling recursive series of shortcuts and hidden alcoves.
The game doesn’t try too hard to make much geographical sense; I’m reminded often of the absurdity of taking an elevator upwards while on top of a mountain and finding myself in a firey lava temple, or taking an elevator while on top of Aldia’s Keep and reaching the floating spires lived in by dragons. Indeed, Dark Souls II’s world is one of fantasy, but in the past, Miyazaki tried to make the world seem logical, and thus relatable in a weird way. This one feels mangled together without much forethought.
I’d like to highlight one particularly absurd and egregious example of a navigational goof that seems absolutely absurd in hindsight, but I didn’t think much of when first encountered. One of the paths in the Shaded Woods leads us to a pile of chest-high ruined structures blocking our way, but there is an elevated path up the side of a mountain to our side. Going up it, we find the Shrine of Winter, which is basically a door that won’t open until we have the required Great Souls. When we can enter it, we basically just end up going down the same mountain and end up on the other side of the rubble. I can’t stress how ridiculously patronizing this feels; surely my character could walk up and over some trash? It’s the kind of world-building that Miyazaki would not have allowed, an obviously rushed workaround, but a workaround for a problem that they themselves introduced. After all, could not the door have been placed where the broken pillars currently are instead? That seems like it would have been less work and would have made way more sense in the grand scheme of things.
The mostly linear pathways offered by Dark Souls II worked much better in Demon’s Souls, its different worlds like the Boletarian Palace or the Valley of Defilement acting more as vignettes that are unified by the portal that is the Nexus than the pseudo-connected land that is Drangleic. If you’ve played the original Dark Souls, this might immediately sound like a bad idea; if all areas are linear, doesn’t that mean that you’ll end up having to do a lot more backtracking when done with certain locations due to the game’s lack of branching shortcuts?

Safe, too safe.
Safe, too safe. (image credits: Les Numeriques)

The answer is no, as you’re given the ability to teleport from bonfires right from the beginning. In the previous game, you had to earn this ability by conquering Ornstein and Smough at Anor Londo, one of the game’s most often maligned boss encounters (possibly one of the hardest in all of the Souls franchise). Without it, you felt trapped; being stuck in the Depths or in the swamps of Blighttown, too afraid to try and reverse your progress for the sake of light and freedom felt straining, but in a way that contributes a lot to the original Dark Souls being a fully-realized experience. Dark Souls II undoes this extraordinary pressure in progression by increasing the amount of bonfires one finds exponentially and giving you the teleport immediately, which you’ll need to do often as you can’t level up from any bonfire now. It robs Dark Souls II of the original’s sense of place; the game’s different locations feel more like levels that can be quit out of now, even though they were built with the original conceit of emulating the first game’s open world nature. By the time you had the teleport from the Lordvessel in the first Dark Souls, it didn’t matter, as the last few locations in the game, arguably unfortunately, were built linearly (though personally I liked this approach as it made those particular sections of the game feel like extended dungeons to conquer; you’re not trying to explore, merely trying to reach the end of all of them, and it follows your pace in that way).
The new game has a lot more areas than the original did, but again, they lack that connectedness that makes having an open world worthwhile in the first place. The original game’s world-building felt so integral to the experience of playing the game, so wholly woven into the game’s design that the new game’s had a lot to live up to, and I think that by not going that extra mile the game sorely misses out. I remember finding the elevator in the Undead Church that took us back to the Firelink Shrine; this was an almost revelatory experience for me. I loved thinking of the ways that the game linked together, wondering about the directions one would have to go through the game’s world in order to have the optimally short trip; in that Metroid way, you’d eventually have the entire world internalized, as if solving some sort of grand puzzle. It was stimulating in a way that Dark Souls II’s Drangleic simply isn’t; it feels sterile in comparison.
This lack of “newness” in Dark Souls II permeates the entirety of the experience; a lot of things found in this game are basically ripped out of the first two Souls games. There’s a lot of the same armor and weapons, with only a handful of new ones. It’s a shame; I don’t really like the idea that I can exactly rebuild my character from the original game, with next to no distinctions. Dark Souls II tries so hard to emulate, yet tries so little to innovate.
Enemies and bosses get reused from the last game, some reskinned, while others are direct rips. Ornstein returns, without his Smough compatriot; this is justified through some lore reason, but likely moreso because, hey, you all liked Ornstein right? Smough sort of returns in the form of a common enemy found atop the Dragon Shrine, who pretty much uses all of the boss’s animations. Great Grey Wolf Sif, one of the most staggeringly beautiful battles from the original game, was reskinned as the Royal Rat Authority, complete with miniature rats diluting what made the original fight so special, that intimate one-on-one experience. The Belfry Gargoyles are here (they were the Maneaters in Demon’s Souls and the Bell Gargoyles in Dark Souls), but you now fight several more of them at a time, and again on a rooftop. The Scorpioness Najka closely emulates Dark Souls’ Chaos Witch Quelaag.
Even the game’s own bosses get reused throughout the game’s runtime. You’ll meet the Pursuer early on, and find several more of them later. The Dragonrider gets used again later (you’ll fight two of them at once at Drangleic Castle). The second DLC expansion, Crown of the Old Iron King, reuses the Smelter Demon, with simply a different-colored aura permeating its body. The Ancient Dragon is a larger version of the Guardian Dragon, who is a stone’s throw away. Elana, the Squalid Queen from the Crown of the Sunken King expansion emulates Nashandra, the final boss of the core game and can even summon an enemy to assist her who wears Velstadt, the Royal Aegis’s armor.
I wouldn’t chastise anyone for thinking some of the game’s other bosses are all copies of each other; almost every boss encounter in this game has a sword or some equivalent. It makes many of these encounters feel samey and boring. I started to actually loathe new boss encounters because almost every time they just ended up being another swordsman. For emphasis, I will list every boss in the game that is primarily a swordsman, or rather, who wields some sort of a weapon as their primary means of attack: The Last Giant uses its own arm as a sword halfway through the fight; the Pursuer; the Looking Glass Knight; the Skeleton Lords; the Flexile Sentry; the Lost Sinner; Belfry Gargoyles; the Ruin Sentinels; the Rotten; the Old Dragonslayer; the Smelter Demon; the Old Iron King; Velstadt; King Vendrick; the Darklurker; the Dragonrider(s); the Giant Lord; the Throne Watcher and Throne Defender; Nashandra. From the downloadable expansions: Elana, the Squalid Queen; the Afflicted Graverobber, Ancient Soldier Varg, and Cerah the Old Explorer fight, two of which have swords; the Smelter Demon redux; the Fume Knight; Sir Alonne; and the Burnt Ivory King. Perhaps I’ve made my point clear enough? To put this into perspective, Dark Souls II has (including the expansions) 38 unique bosses and I just named 24 of them (I don’t count the Twin Dragonriders, nor do I count the second Smelter Demon).
I’ve had a hard time articulating one of my other problems with the game, which is about the core combat system. To put it simply, it just doesn’t feel as satisfying as the previous game’s does at all. I always feel as if I’m just hitting rocks or a stone wall when I attack enemies, instead of piercing actual flesh. I’ve not done much research in this regard, but I suspect that it may have to do with the game’s weaker sound effects, or perhaps just a general disdain for the game that developed after a lengthy amount of time spent with it. Again, I don’t know exactly what it is, but I’ve read other opinions similar to mine, so I thought it worth mentioning.
There are really only a couple meaningful changes to the gameplay to be found here. In Demon’s Souls, if you were a human and died, you would turn into a soul form, which cut your health bar in half. This health bar cut was removed in Dark Souls, though you would still turn into a hollow form, which was always a little bit strange, as it was one of the biggest drawbacks to dying (you still couldn’t summon others or be invaded as a hollow). Dark Souls II makes a bit of a concession between the two; when you die, you lose a bit of your overall health bar every time you die until your health bar is cut in half. As well, the previous game gave you an Estus Flask with five uses, an amount which could be upgraded later in increments in five; it would replenish upon death. Demon’s Souls gave you non-replenishable health items, which I never liked and was happy Dark Souls decided to do away with. Dark Souls II gives you both; you are given one Estus Flask usage (which can be added upon with upgrades) by the Emerald Herald, and can also find non-replenishable items; both methods replenish your health way slower than the items in the past games ever did.
The aforementioned health changes as well as the fact that there are often way more enemies fighting you at once feels like From Software bought too much into Bandai Namco’s “This game is really fucking hard!” marketing campaign. Many of the boss encounters add a bunch of extra enemies to distract you, or simply are just a bunch of enemies trying to fight you at once. It ends up feeling like the game is simply difficult more because the combat system is not really built to fight more than a few enemies at once, instead of the enemies actually being challenging, interesting encounters. I managed to finish both Demon’s and Dark Souls completely by myself, but felt that there were encounters in this game that were designed around having more than one person fighting at once (luckily they fixed most of the previous game’s online problems here!).
Aside from that, the most I can say about it is, well, it’s a Souls game. You explore places, kill enemies, find treasure, fight some bosses, and repeat until you’re done. I don’t know that much needs to be done to this general formula, though I can’t help but wish something were added or changed to the blueprint to spice it up a bit. Of course, I want the games to remain in the same general spirit of each other, but I do wonder what some experimentation at the base level of the games’ core designs could do for the future of the franchise.
Visually, Dark Souls II just doesn’t look as good as the previous game. The sequel received a lot of flak during the lead-up to its release when news came out that the game would no longer feature the lighting system that was heavily advertised as being the core aesthetic push forward; this graphical upgrade was to be the entire basis behind the now-useless torch system, wherein you can replace an arm’s weapon or shield with a torch which barely lights up anything. But worse, the game’s art direction just is not as good as the original. The colors all look muted and lacking in diverse visual designs for individual locations. The textures are much worse, and the enemy designs aren’t anything to write home about. The original Dark Souls had some beautiful-looking areas, but the sequel didn’t really have any standout visual moments to me.
Still, I can’t deny that during my initial run through the game, I definitely had a lot of fun and was engaged for most of it. There was something there inside me that Dark Souls II was able to tap into, forcing me through its several hours worth of playtime in an embarrassingly short span of time. But I don’t know that From Software would be able to do that again for me; I definitely felt soured on the future of the Souls franchise by the end of the game.
It’s a shame, because now Hidetaka Miyazaki himself is helming a new game that is Souls in all but the name, rebranded as Bloodborne. It’s a PlayStation 4 exclusive, just as Demon’s Souls was a PlayStation 3 exclusive, and it’s a huge part of the reason that I’ll be buying a PS4 this holiday season. Still, Dark Souls II left me feeling a bit worn out, which sucks because Bloodborne looks immeasurably more impressive in terms of visual splendor.
So what does Bloodborne need to do to leave its mark on me? It’s simple really: try new things. Experiment with the Souls franchise again, a la Dark Souls. There are likely some brilliant ideas that can be applied to the franchise to keep it fresh, but they need to be tried and built upon throughout the duration of the game, even if these ideas end up failures. One of my biggest aspirations was to see some aspect of randomness/procedural generation in the series, which Bloodborne seems to be going for in a few ways; according to what I’ve read in interviews and articles, enemies will move through the city of Yharnam as if they actually live there, and aren’t simply relegated to standing in one spot, waiting for the player so they can strike. As well, though as of this writing there aren’t much details about it, information has surfaced that Bloodborne will apparently feature, “an expansive network of multi-leveled ruins,” which will, “appear differently to each hunter brave enough to enter.” The prospect of this sounds extremely exciting; it’s potentially the next big step this franchise could take to feel incredibly unique and interesting again, not treading water in the way I imagine a theoretical Dark Souls III would (and, sigh, probably will). It also has a new aesthetic and some changes to the combat system which sound interesting, but alas, only time will tell.

Most of all, I just want a Souls game to make me feel something genuinely deep again. Dark Souls II did not; it simply retraced the last game’s steps and wasn’t a strong enough experience on its own to stand out much in my mind. Of course, I do fear that genuinely new and frighteningly mysterious emotions could never be generated in me from a Souls game ever again, but still, Dark Souls was not my first Souls experience; I merely finished it first (and then Demon’s Souls a few hours later). It still managed to leave an indelible mark upon me. The quiet, contemplative, almost zen-like quality of the game was brilliant, because these moments later accentuated points of deep existential fear and anxiety within my psyche. I don’t want them to try to recreate these feelings though; like I said, Dark Souls II tried and failed. What I want is for these things to recur through happy accidents as a result of venturing new ground.

Return to the dark.
Return to the dark. (image credits: The Geek Agenda)

Maybe one day I’ll be afraid of a new Souls game. Maybe one day I’ll dread playing it again, not out of disdain for the work itself but for my inability to play it well. Maybe one day I’ll be confounded by its bosses, its wayward new systems, its abilities to affect my cognitive well-being, its ideas of progression. Maybe someday. But maybe Dark Souls has permanently left me immune; perhaps that, in fact, is the toughest part of the game.

- @dtraposo

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