Dark Souls 1 may be my favourite game. It has stern competition from the original Command & Conquer, but there are no other games in the last few years I’ve poured as many hours into. As you might expect, therefore, when Dark Souls 2 came along I quickly preordered one of the super-special editions, happy in the knowledge I would be sending some more money to a company who had made an absolutely stunning game the last time around, and a game I only paid £10 or so for after it had been out a year. Having played it through once – and then having gone back to the original for my first playthrough in around half a year – I found myself with so much to write about I just had to put some of these thoughts to paper. If you’re not interested in some detailed thoughts about the two Souls games I’ve played (I have yet to play Demon’s Souls), feel free to skip this one. Otherwise, let’s begin. I’ll start off talking about the things the game does better, then I’ll talk about the things the game does worse (alas, a list that is both much longer and deals with much more significant parts of the game), and then conclude with some final thoughts on the whole business.
The UI is clearer – you can see more items at once, check out a larger selection of items more easily, and so forth.
Although I have been hearing issues about the “soul memory” system in the game – designed to help balance PvP encounters, but apparently it can be exploited in order to do the exact opposite – the loss of lag is a hugely important point here. Even if the PvP mechanics may be weaker this time around I still prefer to play this in DS2, not 1, simply because the lag is pleasingly minimal. It doesn’t have the minimal latency of something like CS:S, but it’s still eminently playable now, and doesn’t boil down – quite as much – to farming backstabs by exploiting the lag.
There seem to be many more NPC invasions now which come at a variety of points in the game. These NPCs have an interesting range of builds, appear whether you are human or hollowed, and are much more challenging than the ones in the original. The fact they appear regardless of your status is also a huge step in the right direction for the concept.
Resting at Bonfires:
You now only need to touch a bonfire to activate it, not sit at it. Entirely minor, but nice.
Multiple Soul Uses:
You can now choose how many in a pile of souls to use at once instead of having to pop each at the same time. Truly wonderful.
Humanity/Human Effigy Improvement:
Humanity is no longer an item you only use if you actively want to PvP, or if you want to kindle a bonfire. Instead, the new “Human Effigy” item gives you a real reason to be human – each time you die your maximum health is reduced slightly, so the Effigy becomes an item that you possibly want to use before particularly tough sections, maybe even between bonfires (though as I’ll go onto later, the bonfire placement is far too kind this time around), and balancing how often to use them vs their scarcity is a good move in the right direction. Equally, the removal of some specifications around invasions and being human/hollowed combines with this change very well.
There are many more usable items (like firebombs, resins, etc), and the extra variety is appreciated. I couldn’t find more than one or two of them on my first playthrough however, nor anyone who sold most of them, but I shall assume I missed it.
This is one of the big ones. The level design is, unfortunately, scarily simplistic compared to the two dozen labyrinths we traversed back in Dark Souls 1. This was a feeling I got to an extent upon playing DS2 first, but after I went back to DS1 and explored areas like the Painted World anew, this realization simply could not be ignored. Here is a map of one early area in Dark Souls 2, Heide’s Tower of Flame…
…and here is a map of a mid-game area from Dark Souls, Sen’s Fortress:
Just flick your eyes between those maps (thanks to the Dark Souls wikis for both). Yes, the first is a sketch and the second is detailed and neat; yes, Heide’s Tower of Flame is simply a smaller area; yes, Dark Souls’ Ash Lake and Lost Izalith, for example, are very linear (though even Ash Lake has more alternate routes than HToF!); but the problem is, the Tower of Flame map is indicative of almost every area in Dark Souls 2 – a straight line with one or two tiny diversions – whilst the Sen’s Fortress map is equally indicative of almost every area in Dark Souls 1. The only large, densely-packed area is the Lost Bastille, which has five bonfires. In Dark Souls, an area of that size – the Burg, say, or the Painted World, or the Depths – would have one or possibly two, but the level would be designed in such a way that there are multiple paths to take, shortcuts to unlock, and the level design would be incredibly dense as a result. This pattern unfortunately repeats across the game. Most areas are fundamentally a straight line with a few minor tangents that basically lead back to the same original direction; almost no-where is that multi-layered maze-like level design that worked so incredibly well in the original DS.
The second issue with the level design is more aesthetic and thematic. For any game with an “exploration” factor the ability to surprise the player is surely paramount. This may seem obvious, yet many games fail this simple test – the only place in Skyrim that might awe the player is Blackreach, for example. In the rest of the game, even though you don’t know specifically what lurks in each cave, you do know what lurks there in more general terms. You know what a Dwarven ruin will look like, what a cave will look like, what a draugr-infested place looks like, etc. I really value the moment where the game confounds your expectations, or shows you something you didn’t even know was there, or gets you totally rethinking what you thought you knew.
One of the best things for me about the Souls series is their ability to constantly surprise you. Maybe for a boss you’ll fight another player, or maybe you’ll uncover a secret in the most obscure of places, or find a region whose architecture makes you utterly reevaluate the fictional world in which you play (a la Ash Lake). Unfortunately I found the first half lacking in this regard – one boss surprised me and sent me spiraling into a little pondering of the in-game lore, but otherwise nothing really struck me and amazed me. The gameplay was fine, the storytelling decent (though too many items boil down to “This sword was used by an ancient hero – or was it?”), the aesthetics of the world (mostly) as great as ever, but nothing made me rethink what I thought I knew. However, the later half of Dark Souls 2 really picks up in this regard. In the first half there was probably only one area which had the same impact as being snatched by the crow out of the Undead Asylum, seeing the Moonlight Butterfly perched upon a distant ledge, descending into Blighttown and realizing an entire civilization squats amid the foundations of Lordran, being cursed for the first time, or winding up in the jail in the Duke’s Archives. All those moments in Dark Souls both impressed me with the creativity and the audacity of the game’s design, and made me feel the game could continue to surprise me both aesthetically and mechanically.
Although the first half lacks any real surprises and often feels like a rehash of DS1 – indeed, see the plot spoilers below, there is a reason for this – the second half of DS2, in fairness, has many such moments. At one point I was sure I was approaching the penultimate boss which I thought would just be followed by a 5-minute ride to the final boss, and then discovered the boss I expected was actually an NPC and three entirely new areas had just opened up to me; at another, rather than descending down into the depths of the planet (a common Souls theme) I found myself climbing up higher than one has ever been in a Souls game (this is debatable based on your interpretation of Drangleic geography, but I think this region is subjectively significantly higher than Anor Londo was). Another point saw a visually arresting area unlike anything before in a Souls game whilst elsewhere assorted secrets referencing the original game point towards all manner of lore speculation. Whenever I thought I knew what the was going on and what the game “was”, on some fundamental level, it changed things up and surprised me, and that is something an exploration-focused game should always try to do.
The last aspect of level design lacking is that foreshadowing the previous game did so well. Often you could make out something in the distance, either a structure or a boss, and later would find your way towards it. This made the entire world feel incredibly connected (see the next section) and quickly raised the interest and excitement to get to this location on the player’s part. The “here’s something you’ll be fighting!” is less common this time around, or rather, is almost entirely lacking. In DS1 Ceaseless, Kalameet, the Moonlight Butterfly and the Iron Golem are all enemies you likely see long before you ever fight them, and you wonder – are these bosses? NPCs? When will I fight them? To its credit, Dark Souls 2 undermined this expectation nicely by turning what I was sure would be a boss into a very cryptic (and very large) NPC towards the end, and similarly I was very surprised when encountering a character I’d heard a lot about (and knowing the Souls’ series perspective on “King” characters), but these were really the only two examples. You cannot see outside the little corridors the game channels you down at any point, and the corridors themselves are, for the most part, sadly very dull.
Roughly speaking, the world structures of each game are as follows (in both cases you begin in the middle).
Dark Souls 1 is split into two halves – the first half of the game where you navigate the central interconnected wheel, and then you gain access to a fast-travel system and the four spokes open up. Once you’ve reached this point you know your way around the core well, and fast travel is only available to pursue the paths that branch out. It is worth noting that the levels on this path – Duke’s Archives, Tomb of the Giants, Painted World, etc – are every big as multi-layered as the others, but they just don’t connect with each other. When you’re in these regions you can still see other parts of the map, and the world still feels huge because you’ve explored most of it before gaining access to the fast travel system. By contrast, the latter game is a very simple structure. You have four main paths, and later you gain access to the branching path in the bottom corner. No regions connect with each other. This, combined with the fact you can now warp from the start, combine to make the world in Dark Souls 2 seem flat, uninteresting, unconnected (because it is!) and simply a far less interesting place to explore.
In Dark Souls, on one’s first playthrough, one is overwhelmingly likely to pass through the “expected” route – through the Burg, the Parish, the Depths, Blighttown, and through to Quelaag. However, if you really look around (and fight through some Drakes), you can sequence-break that and move around a lot of Blighttown. Alternatively, if you take the Master Key on a later playthrough, you can totally change the order you do everything by opening the tower Havel is locked in, or even more importantly, the door between New Londo and Blighttown allows you fight Quelaag first if you’re so inclined. You can also fight the Four Kings as anywhere between the second, and the penultimate boss, of the entire game. Sadly, nowhere in DS2 is there a comparitive level of freedom to decide on your own route even once you know the game well. Even though the hub area has many routes, most are closed off when you start, and it only really offers you five linear paths, and the second half of the game – although far stronger – also sticks to the generally linear regions. There is no sense of mastery over the game world on repeated playthroughs, nor a reinforcement of the idea that you are exploring one area.
Another glaring weakness is, as hinted at above, is that even the levels that lead to each other are not connected! You almost never see things in the distance you’ll later find your way to, and the rare times you do – for example, you can see the Tower of Flame from Majula – the perspective and location are all wrong. However, the most shameful example of this involves the middle of one of the early paths the game sends you down, when you find the structure shown below.
You will note, I am sure, that there is nothing atop this windmill-castle-thing. No lift, no path, and certainly no volcano. Indeed, there is no volcano anywhere even remotely in sight. As you progress through this region (Earthen Peak), you reach the top of the structure and defeat the boss. After that, you get in a lift and go upwards… into the air… and emerge into this area, Iron Keep, a castle within a volcano with lava and flame for miles around.
Which, basically, means this area of the world is laid out like this…
…and the upper half is entirely invisible from the ground (Credit for first two pictures go to Matthewmatosis (Youtube), last picture to maplejoker-anno.tumblr). This hammered home to me more than anything else that these were just levels in a game, not segments of an actual world I was exploring. Anything like this would not have been considered for a heartbeat in the beautifully pieced-together map of DS1 – where you can stand atop Sen’s Fortress and look down upon the Parish, or walk through the Tomb of Giants and catch a glimpse of Ash Lake – and, whilst this example is more extreme than others, this repeats throughout the game. A quick look at the map viewer for the game shows a huge number of both logical and thematic discrepancies. No-Man’s Wharf is way below the sea level seen from the Bastille, Sinner’s Rise is entirely invisible from up above, going up the lift from Aldia’s Keep launches you into a sky area you hadn’t seen anything of before (though a visually amazing region), whilst the Shaded Woods path goes from a forest into an area akin to the Giant’s Causeway (again, aesthetically impressive, but entirely incongruous) and then into a desert all without any real warning.
Ultimately, Lordran felt like a single location that had stood for thousands of years and finally fallen into ruin, through-out which you might run across a few other souls on their own personal quests or missions, picking through the ruins of this astonishing megastructure/city/fortress that stretched far up into the sky and deep underground. Drangleic, alas, feels like a sequence of tunnels and people specifically laid out to greet the player at every turn. It’s more like a sequence of “levels” akin to, say, early FPS games where you basically “teleport” between each level (Goldeneye style), rather than anything approaching a connected world. In fact, although the areas in Demon’s Souls are not connected, I believe they do not overlap either in as horrifying or jarring a way as some of the DS2 ones do.
I recently bought the Dark Souls design works book, which is fascinating. At the back is an interview with Hidetaka Miyazaki, the design lead on the first two Souls games, and in the interview he mentions that one of his inspirations for the lore of the Souls games was reading Western fantasy books/RPGs – his English wasn’t amazing, so he wasn’t entirely clear on what was going on, and had to form his own connections. This in turn inspired the way the story/lore are told in Souls games, and I for one love it (and it is something I aim to emulate in URR). I think the storytelling in DS2 remains strong and encourages you to piece things together, but those pieces are far less interesting than the pieces in the original game.
PLOT SPOILERS BELOW.
Seriously, major ones. I know some people – like me – read at a pace where just seeing “spoiler warning” is not enough to stop you reading before you read on a few words, so let this sentence be the final warning. If you’re like me and adore the Souls story, stop reading at once. Otherwise, let me state up front – Dark Souls 2 introduces the idea of a repeating or cyclic history. I have no objection to the “cyclic nature of history” plot ideas – Japanese games seem more willing to use this than their Western counterparts, but this is far from an exclusive rule (e.g. Mass Effect). However, in this case I think From Software made a colossal misstep by assigning a cyclic history to the Dark Souls lore. Now, I should state, to an extent the existing lore suggests a cyclic history, on a very small scale – the bonfires keep those cursed endlessly resurrecting, yes, but on the grander scale of history Dark Souls 1 has no mention of repeating patterns. The world began with the dragons; the Lord Souls were discovered; Gwyn forged “civilization” atop the archtrees; but now even his soul is beginning to fade, and must either be replaced or allowed to die. Nothing repeating or replaying is mentioned. By contrast, a little delving into DS2 lore makes it quite clear this is the case – “many civilizations” have risen and fallen on the spot where Drangleic stands (which is where Lordran once stood); the four Lord Souls have been taken by other creatures, who have been defeated by other “chosen undeads” (though DS1 does imply this very concept is a fictional creation if you talk to Kaathe or consider the role played by Gwyndolin), who have each had to make a choice about keeping the First Flame going or allowing Dark to spread. You begin the game tasked with seeking four Great Souls, and each of these corresponds to one of the four from the original game – Seath, Gwyn, the Witch of Izalith and Nito (though Seath had a fragment of Gwyn’s soul, the nature of the Dark Soul is different in DS2). They have taken new forms, but their origins are apparent for those who care to look. The new location of Seath’s soul features a Duke and an entombed Dragon; the new owner of Gwyn was also a king who overreached; the new owner of the Witch’s soul tried to relight the first flame and appears to have been cursed by Chaos; while Nito’s new owner is also a foul amalgamation of corpses dwelling far below the Earth. This isn’t “cyclic history” – this is just repeating the same ideas, which were wonderful the first time, but we’ve seen them before.
As much as I wish to say this is just a part of the story… it just strikes me as lazy. By the game’s own admission the first half is a “repeat” as you gather the same four Souls. For those Lore-buffs, you will note that the Lord Souls are what gave Gwyn et al their power, not something inherent to those individuals/creatures themselves. That may be, but that’s no excuse to just say “other creatures now have these souls and are rather similar to their original owners!”. The second half of the game when you break away from the four Souls from the first game is far more interesting and varied and had far more “surprise” moments than the first half, which (sadly) only contained one or two. In general the original lore – about Navlaan, Aldia, the Dragon, the Giants – is genuinely great, and I’ve enjoyed keeping track of the internet’s collective deductions about all this new lore, but the rehashed lore is very uninteresting.
PLOT SPOILERS END.
In Dark Souls 1 each of the few NPC characters has their own story which might not necessarily link up with your tale; they have their own objectives, and you can only trade/talk with them for certain periods. They move through the world and may die or live on their own quests. Completing these quests was an interesting extra challenge in the first game and one lacking in Dark Souls 2. NPCs don’t generally have their own quests, and once they get to the game’s hub, they then just don’t go anywhere! They just sit still until the end of the game and never do a blasted thing. Many of DS1′s characters were far more tragic – Solaire and Seigmeyer spring to mind, not to mention Sif and Artorias – whilst DS2 lacks a single NPC I felt a damned thing for, though I guess Lucatiel wasn’t half-bad. And I am convinced that “Laddersmith” is not a real profession.
There is a fine line between “homage” and “reusing the same art and AI assets we used in the first time”, and alas, Dark Souls 2 falls squarely on the wrong side of that divider. Two entire bosses from DS1 are simply lifted wholesale into DS2 whilst others (Najka, Royal Rat Authority) are lifted from DS1 but reskinned and with a few new moves, and others (Royal Rat Vanguard, Dragonrider, and then… Twin Dragonriders!) are, as much as it hurts me to say it, just phoned in. I am not rose-tinting DS1′s bosses – Ceaseless has hitboxes large enough to strike you in the next country, the Bed of Chaos is a travesty – but the selection is far more limited, many have far less impact (as they have less lore behind them) and some are simply direct copies, even with the exact same name as in DS1. DS2 does have some great bosses – the Smelter Demon has an interesting core mechanic (proximity does damage), the Executioner’s Chariot is very different and original, the Demon of Song is a magnificent concept (though not the most fascinating fight), but… the list is short.
Other, much smaller issues:
Four K-, er, Rings:
You can now put on four rings instead of two. This is a totally pointless change; any meaningful decision-making between your rings is gone. In Dark Souls 1 the Abyss forces you to use one ring for the Covenant of Artorias and thereby restricts you to a single ring; Lost Izalith all but requires the Orange Charred Ring to survive on lava; many rings are very strong in Dark Souls 1 and – unless you’re a good enough player to have the Red Tearstone Ring on 24/7 – offers a lot of tricky choices. Even the amazing Ring of Favor and Protection, boosting three key stats, breaks permanently when removed; its cousin in DS2 can simply be repaired. Four rings is far too much, and there was no point where I felt uncertain about which to wear. Also, the Ring of Binding is vastly overpowered (for singleplayer, anyway).
Randomized Crow-trading rewards instead of fixed rewards for specific trades:
This is inherently stupid.
If you kill an NPC, they return as a grave, and you can still interact with a ghost. So there is now no penalty for killing NPCs, and the weight of your decisions in DS1 are lost. Souls games are meant to eschew the weak hand-holding of so many modern games, and yet they’ve removed a minor but excellent aspect of it here.
Cursing – which used to be a permanent reduction of your max health by 50% until it is cured – is now an almost meaningless ailment, thereby constituting another step back from the amazingly bold/confident (ballsy?) game design of DS1.
So what went wrong? For the most part I enjoyed my first playthrough, even though some bits left me cold the first time I was playing them. Other parts impressed with their aesthetics or some of their enemies, but upon further consideration their linearity compared to the first game became apparent. The fundamental problems are two-fold – the development team tried too hard to create Dark Souls 2 instead of a new Souls game, and – for whatever reasons – they moved away from the maze-like structure of the first game (at both the individual level scale and the entire world scale) towards a world of straight lines with minimal deviation. Too much of the first half draws from the first game; too few bosses, NPCs or areas feel at all original; and too many regions just boil down to straight lines which try to cover up wildly inconsistent geography. There are many small improvements, but the few major steps backwards are just too significant. After finishing DS2 I returned to DS1 for the first time in six months and instantly fell back into its incredible world. I thought I was certain to want to 100% DS2, and yet nothing from that world actually calls me back. There’s so much to go through to get to the more interesting segments, and even those segments are still just walking from one point to another. I’m sure I’ll revisit it some day, but Lordran, not Drangleic, remains my Dark Souls home.