My travels through Dark Souls II have come to an end... and a beginning, but before we dive in to that, let me spin my mythos theories. In Dark Souls, the final “big bosses” are the keepers of the Lord Souls, the divinities of the game like Gravelord Nito, a shambling horror of hundreds of skeletons or the Witch of Izalith, the mother of witches consumed by fire and chaos. Actually, you fight the Bed of Chaos, not the Witch of Izalith; the witch was destroyed, or transformed, and her Lord Soul birthed demons into the world. Similarly, Gwyn, the emperor of sun and lightning, split off pieces of his Lord Soul, giving it to kings and knights, making them into demigods which, of course, you have to fight.
DSII on the other hand starts with four big enemies you need to kill, but those four have a lot of links to the other game’s four. I don’t think they are the exact same—instead, I think they are other creatures who seized the Lord Souls, after the hero of the last game collected them. The pile of zombie bodies that is the Rot is something made or corrupted by Nito’s soul; the Old Iron King is the keeper of Gwyn’s soul, twisted beyond recognition into a balrog-thing; the Duke’s Dear Freya—a giant spider—is the scaleless dragon Seath’s familiar, perhaps? And, lastly, the bug inside The Lost Sinner’s mask may actually be the Witch of Izalith, and the bug inside the Bed of Chaos in DSI was maybe her, too.
Anyway, when I say my travels have come to a new beginning, I mean “New Game Plus.” See, Dark Souls I and II are all about being trapped in cycles of death and rebirth, starting the core mechanic of the game: dying in-game is dying: not video game logic where you start over from your last save, but the in-game logic of you being cursed with Undeath. Then of course, there is the plot of the first game: the primal Fire is guttering out, the age of castles and kings and gods is over, has been over for centuries, but the god-emperor Gwyn has done everything in his power to extend the dwindling half-life... until you get there. To rekindle the Age of Fire, starting the cycle anew, or to chose to be the Dark Lord, bringing about the Age of Dark. Is King Vendrick the “ur-PC” who chose the Age of Fire? Nashandra, the Queen, seems clearly to be a sliver of Manus, a Humanity sprite, that grew bigger and bigger, yes? The Giants, of course, come from the broken arch in Demon’s Souls...
In Dark Souls II, the choice between Fire and Darkness is hidden, the Throne of Want like a Schrödinger’s Box obscuring it from view, even from the player. Once you beat the game? You start all over again, but this time it’s harder. That’s what New Game Plus (NG+) is, and DSII shines here. Dark Souls got “harder” the way most video games get harder: by just giving the enemies more hit points and making them do more damage. It works, sure, but Dark Souls II is much more involved and elegant, because while yes, the monsters get “harder,” there are also new critters, more enemies and more aggressive opponents. And new rewards for killing them, as well. You might be surprised by how much a boss fight changes when the boss gets a couple of minions. Remember how hard I had it with the Royal Rat Authority just because he had minions that would poison me? Well, he’s not the only one, anymore...
A new game also means that I finally changed my look. Wandering Merchant Hat, I’ll rep your beret and monocle forever, the same way that the Balder Side Sword from DSI will always have a place in my heart, but now that I’m in my NG+, I think I have to celebrate it with a fashion show. Straid’s headpiece, the Black Hood, has a sweet little cowl. Pair that up with my Throne Defender armor’s fluttery cape, and I cut a very dashing profile. I AM THE NIGHT. I use Dark Gauntlets and Dark Leggings and even they give a very “you know under the theatrical cape Batman has experimental military grade body armor on” look to the outfit. I mean, okay, really I look Hourman, if you are a JSA aficionado. Another big perk? When I’m an Heir of Sunlight, a Sunbro, and I’m summoned as a golden Phantom? The whole thing looks really... Apollonian.
All of this talk about armor combinations, to me, just points to one of the reasons of the game’s replay value: customization matters. A character who focuses on light armor and dual wielding greatswords plays very differently from a tank with a greatshield and ultra-heavy armor, who plays differently from a magic user, or a faith build, or any combination of any number of builds. That layer is further complicated by magic items, but since the game has a good degree of balance it isn’t a question of “did you do the ’right’ thing to optimize your build.” Explore your options, find what suits you, and you ought to be okay. The best advice I can give any player is: pick the weapon you use based on it’s move set. You can play with the stats and bonuses from there.
Comparing Dark Souls II to Dark Souls on quality is a sucker’s game. Dark Souls is a game that instantly became my favorite of this generation of console games, for one thing; for another, comparing a sequel to the flagship of a franchise of course doesn’t work out. Bringing Demon’s Souls into the picture helps provide perspective, but here is my confession: I never finished Demon’s Souls. I got it last winter, along with Dark Souls, and after beating Dark Souls I thought I’d give it a spin, but I never finished it. I just ended up back in Dark Souls, beating NG+, and then Dark Souls II came out.
Still, I played it enough to see how much it influenced Dark Souls II; while Dark Souls is the source of the lion’s share of references, the mechanics of Demon’s Souls—leveling up via a mysterious lady back at home base, instant warping either via arch or bonfire, for instance—loom overhead as well. The interface, too; I personally prefer the brutalist user interface of the first Dark Souls over the filagreed bars and menus of DSII but that’s a very minor and subjective thing. What I’m getting at is...well, I don’t think Dark Souls II is better than Dark Souls, but I think that is a wild thing to expect; I do, however, think it is better than Demon’s Souls. More importantly, I think it is a good game, period.
The best news about Dark Souls II is not sexy, not a headline grabber, but bodes well in the long term: the math is better. Not across the board (the mechanics of Poise need fiddled with, I think) and not always conceptually (you should get Humanity back for helping to kill a boss), but overall the skeleton of the game seems to be improving. There’s no junk stat, like Resistance, and the derived bonuses from the various attributes make them all enticing. And Adaptability, the replacement for Resistance that increases your response speed along with defenses and Poise, is maybe my favorite one, or up there with Int and Vitality, anyhow. Splitting out Stamina and Equip Load is another piece of smart game design—and ultimately, that is the triumph of Dark Souls II. It shows the Souls games on an upward trend, and hints that the future of the franchise is more great games.