While playing and writing about Dark Souls II, I’ve been thinking a lot about a disagreement I had with a friend of mine who I was trying to get to play the game despite the fact that he had no interest in doing so. He said “I watched someone’s speedrun on Youtube, so I’ve got the gist.” Which... nope! The Souls series is about exploring and about problem solving. Watching someone who knows where everything is, how to fight all of the enemies, avoid all the traps and where to go next? That is the opposite of Dark Souls, I or II (or Demon Souls, for that matter).
I’ve been lost and rudderless for most of this game—in the best way—constantly seeking clues on where to go next. When I find out what to do, then I go in like a wrecking ball, as the bard said. Even then, it is a thinking person’s game; you can’t find your way through a level without looking in the nooks and crannies for treasure or secret doors, without figuring out the tactics to beat the enemies in it and the strategy needed to take out the boss. That is the game.
I’ve been using a few “exploits” in this playthrough, which is not normally my style. Or at least...most “exploits” are little more than finding oversights in game balance, essentially finding ways to break the game or make over-powered characters or not-technically-cheat using glitches. As a tabletop DM who kicked too many of those types out of his games when he was younger, I don’t really have a yen for “min-maxing” or finding ways around the games’ mechanics. I’m not saying they all are, though, and case in point: in Dark Souls II I’ve really taken a shine to using the Binoculars as a “scope” for my spellcasting. It doesn’t really add any more power, but it saves me from the pain in the neck that equipping a bow, putting my shield away, and sniping with arrows is. It just lets me shoot without locking on, which I really appreciate, especially when I’m just trying to lay down suppressing fire through a doorway or aggro an enemy without being noticed by his friend.
As for the other, well, I keep on the Ring of Life Protection all the time, and just pay the 3000 souls to repair it every time it breaks. Easy mode engaged. I sort of think of it like Havel’s Ring or Homing Soul Mass; the fact that it almost universally and naturally becomes the prime characteristic of a huge swath of builds hints to me that it is slightly over powered, but I mean, it doesn’t break the game or anything. It might make it easier but then, so does using a sword instead of your bare hands. It is right there in the game, and can’t be accidental. A “No Ring of Life Protection” rule of bragging rights seems inevitable, but then, since the Onebros—people who played Dark Souls without ever increasing their level—are such an integral part of the culture, I think self-regulation is something the community ought to be able to manage.
To Castle Drangleic I go! After killing all of the Big Bosses of the outer world that I could find, I was aimless, again. Maybe that is another downside of the horizontal layout, along with the loss of the interconnectivity being vertical gave Dark Souls. You know what else really destroys that feeling of unity in this game? Instantaneous warping from bonfire to bonfire, right at the beginning. I get it, with such a spread out game you want to be able to jump all the “grinding,” but I much preferred the unlockable shortcuts and cunning elevators of Dark Souls. I miss seeing the skyline of Anor Londo...and then later on realize I am climbing on the exact towers and rooftops that I saw on my approach. I will say that the layout does give Dark Souls II room to have greater diversity of vistas. The Dragon’s Aerie gave me the heebie-jeebies; I hate those Corrosive Zombies or whatever they are called but really it was being suspended in the sky that made the level so tense. I hate those zombies twice as much as any Bonewheel, though. Bonewheels just kill you; acid zombies ruin your armor and your rings, like a Rust Monster. Eventually I just stripped down naked and ran through there as fast as I could.
Still, I was lost. I’d killed everything, and all I could find were these locked King’s Door, which I clearly needed a MacGuffin to get past. But where was it? Eventually, with some hints from friends—Playground Rules, remember!—I returned to the roundabout in the misty woods, found the Shrine of Winter and... oh hey, the Mad Scientist’s laboratory, the Castle of Doctor Moreau! Hit up that place, and meet the madman imprisoned there. Lever: unpulled. I learned a thing or two from Lautrec. When I find a madman locked in a cage, I think twice about letting him out. So we talked and he asked me to assassinate people for him and I thought, “why not?” After all, how is that any different from what my main quest is? Some lady in green tells me to kill a demigod, and I go kill it. Same thing. There were a few I was able to skip—lucky them—and then, to Drangleic, and beyond. Into the dreams of sleeping giants, seeking a way to kill an invincible, mindless, undead god-king.
I’m exploring the higher level places now, and I’ve finally switched my look...except my signature beret and monocle. I think the Chaos Hood probably boosts my magic, and I’ve always said that the reason I wear the Wandering Merchant Hat is that it has a special power, and I can always just increase the weight on the rest of my body, so there was no point in switching. Well, now I guess there is a point, but I’m not going to, either out of sentimentality or sense of fashion. I’ve started wearing the Throne Defender Armor with Dark Gauntlets and Dark Leggings. I have no complaints about the scarcity of Twinkling Titanite; I had to burn Bonfire Ascetics and raid the nests of dragons to get enough to level everything up, but there was enough and I like having to scramble for my elite stuff. I want to feel like I’ve earned it.
With any luck, by next week I’ll have finished & started on the extra-hard New Game Plus. Tune in!