I got Dark Souls as a present last December, and it almost immediately became my favorite game of the recent console generation. A massive third person dungeon crawl, it appealed to the core of what I find enjoyable in video games; the risk to reward ratio is just perfect, by which I mean it is a game that is as brutally hard as an old Nintendo Entertainment System game, and like an NES game, the joy of getting good at it really sticks with you. I played it till I’d unlocked every single trophy.
The sequel, Dark Souls II, just came out. Part of the genius of theses games are their cooperative mechanics and the fact that their ambient style of storytelling drives speculation and theorizing. And that there is so much of the game that is obfuscated—random treasure drops, illusory walls, hidden areas—that figuring out its secrets is a shared, community activity.
I’m going to be reviewing the game, in the guise of a playthrough report, for the next few weeks.
Before I started, I was thinking I’d probably play a Knight or an Explorer. I’m otherwise unspoilt; I figured looking at the starting classes was an acceptable kind of “cheating” while I whetted my appetite for death and destruction, waiting for the game to drop. When I got to the character select screen, however, I saw my bald lady swathed in black robes and something deep stirred in me. I always like playing the magic-user, or even better, the mage who can hack it in armor and with a decent sword, so I decided to go with my heart. Heck, I’ll probably pick up decent gear and be going full tilt before you know it, right? Nope. Here is the lesson: I like shields. Call me old fashioned, but I’m a sword and board kind of guy at heart. Don’t get me wrong; I can parry and roll—I’m no turtle—but my instinct, my first response, is to throw a shield up to block a hit. Not having one is a problem.
When I do get a shield and a sword, I’m not strong enough to use either. Silly me, I just keep going, figuring I’ll sort it out later. The first time I played Dark Souls—like many before me—I missed the “right” way to go, and spent far too long being murdered by skeletons and ghosts thinking “dang, this game is really hard.” When I figured out the right path—the stairs, in retrospect, seem obvious—I felt like the game had really put one over on me. Dark Souls II doesn’t disappoint on that front, or rather, I don’t disappoint: I managed to walk right past the person who gives you the refillable healing flask. Which means I also went past the person who lets you level up, too; I was stuck as a starting Sorcerer. It doesn’t help that I went right up to the Victor’s Stone, first thing. Learn from my mistakes, kids; being a Champion is for the hardcore. It spawns like, twice as many enemies, and doesn’t let you summon help. I didn’t figure that out for…quite some time.
Combine that with the fact that I’m a mage in robes with just a dagger and magic missile and I’m getting a very old school feel here. The Souls series has always shone when it is harkening to an older, hard-bitten Gygaxian age of dungeoncrawls, in the sense of megadungeons ready for clever players to exploit to their own ends, of traps that will make you yell at the screen, of one-hit kills, curses, mimics and glorious, glistening treasure. Dark Souls II is giving me that feeling of fragility that a Dungeons and Dragons wizard would have; me and my d4 hit points trying to squeak through the minions before blitzing the boss with spells. That end of the equation was missing in the first game, and I’m pleased—though frustrated!—to run into it here.
It is killing me, though—literally killing me, as a trophy for dying the first time pops up. I got cocky and tried to take on two of those Cyclopses—Cyclopodes?—that look like a cross between a snow troll and rhino. “Huh,” I think, “so I guess Dark Souls II figured it could cash in on some Skyrim cross appeal by making everything a little more Viking?” I summed up the look and feel of the first game as “imagine taking the worlds of ICO then filling it up with Silent Hill monsters.” The analogy holds: like Shadow of the Colossus was less vertical than ICO, Dark Souls II is more horizontal than its predecessor. And, with the addition of a creepy but charming merchant, maybe less Silent Hill and more Resident Evil 4. I was worried that it would hamper the inter-connectivity of the world—the link between the Firelink Shrine, the Undead Parish, the Undead Burg, Lower Undead Burg, that whole complex, being one of my favorite things about Dark Souls—but once I made it through No Man’s Wharf and realized it connected to the Lost Bastille… well, it satisfied something in me. I still think the horizontal layout will provide fewer opportunities for the Tetris-like genius of Dark Souls, but I hope to be proven wrong.
I’ve been playing for a while now, starting to get the hang of it. I really like the way my build is shaping up. I’m wearing the Wandering Merchant Hat because why wouldn’t you? The bonus to item discovery is worth it; unique powers usually are more useful than armor bonuses, especially since I’m willing to wear heavy Knight Armor on my torso—I was so excited to find it, though the Hollow Soldier Armor looked cool so I was happy to wear it for a while—and decent accessories: Falconer Boots and Brigand Gauntlets. But it’s my rings that really sum up my philosophy for the game: the Ring of Blades helps melee, and the Clear Bluestone Ring speeds up casting time. I’m a scrapper who wants to soften up targets with spells, or overwhelm them with heavy magic; the rest of the time I want to be in there with my blade, in the middle ground. The other two slots—four ring slots, how luxurious, how delightful—are me in total concord with the Shieldless Lothian: the poise boosting and busting combo of the Ring of Giants and the Stone Ring. Wolf Ring, represent.
I’m not happy with the bottleneck on titanite shards—the weapon and armor upgrade material macguffin—first thing in the game. It punishes experimentation, and doesn’t let you swap to new weapons when you get them: I want to use the Heide Knight Sword, which seems like a cross between the Black Knight weapons with my favorite weapon from Dark Souls, the Balder Knight Side Sword, but my longsword is +5 and just better, mathematically.
The weekend was spent dying to the Royal Rat Authority. I’ve killed Dragonslayers—hello old friend—and Dragonriders, the last of the giants and a floating knight—the Pursuer was really intimidating without resorting to Dark Souls “just make it bigger!” logic—and a couple of four-armed katana wielding maniacs, but the giant rats are just too much. The ruin sentinels guarding the Lost Bastille gave me some trouble, as did the Lost Sinner—gah, I can’t lock on!—but it was nothing that some summoned phantoms couldn’t help me with. I have only been invaded once, to someone who couldn’t roll under a soul arrow to save their life. Literally. My philosophy in Dark Souls with Invaders was, if you come in and bow, I won’t heal, I’ll have a “fair” duel, but if you don’t… well, enjoy homing crystal soul mass and backstabs. I don’t know what my ethos will be in DSII, but if you blitz me when I’m in the middle of being swarmed by a mob of zombies, I’m going to cheap shot you.
The Souls series will certainly take every chance to rig the game against you; I have no shame about taking advantage of it whenever I have an opportunity to. And really, because Dark Souls II feels more balanced, I am even more inclined to exploit it. I just found a way around the Royal Rat Authority—getting poisoned by the rat swarm in the boss room is the problem I’m having—into what looks like a titanite mine. Giant spiders and evil wizards block my way, traps and miners gone crazy from dark magic swarm the place, but that’s my destination. With any luck, I’ll find a blacksmith or an ember, and lots of upgrade materials.
I was prepared to die. Now? I am ready to go beyond death.