By Geoffrey Bunting
Much has been written about Dark Souls on Chronically. My feelings on the game are pretty apparent: I love it, but I also really hate it. Having played through the game again hasn’t changed those feelings. The truth is that while Dark Souls is an interesting, rewarding, and challenging game, there is also an awful lot wrong with it. But this is true for most games; few, if any, exist without some flaws. However, this love-hate relationship with the game meant it took me some time to attempt the sequel.
The problem was, I had heard a lot bad things and I wasn’t sure I would enjoy it. From the sounds of it, it was a broken game that couldn’t even begin to live up to its predecessor. And yet, when I finally persuaded myself to play it, I found that I genuinely enjoyed it. More than that, I actually enjoyed it more than Dark Souls.
Now, I am under no illusion that I am not in the minority – especially of those that have actually played the original – and that most people reading that would start banging their heads against the wall. But it’s true, I really loved Dark Souls II, and I enjoyed it more than the first game. Which is not to say it is not flawed. Boy, does Dark Souls II have some issues. But do these flaws make the game unplayable? Not at all. If you can see past them, you find a game just a rich and rewarding as the original.
So what are the problems? Let’s get them out of the way. For me, the issues came in two parts: mechanical and design issues. Mechanically, Dark Souls II is a little smoother and looks a lot better than its predecessor. The addition of an agility statistic makes for an interesting dynamic when it comes to rolling, etc. But it does appear that From Software has made the hitboxes twice the size they were in the original, and as such collision detection is a little… off. This is an understatement, really. You can get hit from across the room on occasions, as the collision detection tries to catch up with your movement. Yet, this didn’t render the game unplayable. In fact, in instances when this happened a lot – Velstadt hitting me outside the arc of his swing a prime example – it encouraged me to be more careful; to be smarter about how I was approaching certain challenges. It somewhat cheapens the Dark Souls system, but for all those fanboys crying “Dark Souls was fair”, sure, but it was also cheap as hell. Dodgy mechanics and cheap moments are nothing new in this series.
Then there are the design issues. I am moved to agree with people who find the mob-like enemy layout a little frustrating. In Dark Souls, enemies tended to approach you in succession. Being mobbed was less about ten enemies being aggravated at the same time, more not killing one fast enough and the others that have seen you having time to catch up. But again, in my case, this inspired different thought processes. It was less “this is unfair” and more “okay, how can I deal with this; how can I make this easier on me?”
As an example, in the first major area “Forest of Fallen Giants” you climb a ladder to find five enemies all running at you. You can stand and get mobbed and shot at from above or you can jump back down the ladder, heal, and wait as they all follow neatly down. Dark Souls II seems less about one-on-one combat and more about bottlenecking and finding tactical advantages to overcome obstacles.
Perhaps players’ biggest grumble was that the world didn’t link up in a satisfying way for them. Darks Souls used an interconnecting world in which you could walk from the bottom to the top using designated paths and shortcuts. Dark Souls II opts for a hub layout, much like Demon Souls, with branches coming off the nominal safe space, Majula. There are some contentious transitions, like the sea of lava surrounding Iron Keep somehow being above Earthen Peak – in the sky? But if you’re focussing that much on the transitions, perhaps you’re not suspending your disbelief enough.
Which brings us to my favourite part of Dark Souls II, the story. There isn’t one; not really, it’s a bit of a mess. But I really engaged with the concept of being in the same world as Dark Souls, but thousands of years later, when everything has changed but is still somehow the same. It’s indicative of the Dark Souls story – everything happens again and again; history repeats itself. I loved finding bosses and items that harked back to the original. The hub world didn’t bother me either as I went forward, instead I got the sense of a world collapsing in on itself, where everything is out of place and not what it should be. When you examine this concept next to the release of Dark Souls III, and the imminent release of Ringed City, this doesn’t sound too farfetched. I enjoyed the fully realised world of Dark Souls, yes, but it wasn’t the be all and end all of the game. Not by a long way. As such, in a funny kind of way, I could believe that somehow travelling up from the top of Earthen Peak led to The Iron Keep. Not that it was a problem for me in the first place.
I also appreciate that they made the game slightly easier. Not just in difficulty but in how areas present themselves. When I first played Dark Souls, I spent hours in Undead Burg because I couldn’t defeat the Taurus Demon. So I had to grind away in order to be able to use a Black Knight Sword I had picked up. I’m not very good at Dark Souls, obviously. It still felt rewarding and, as a 90s kid, I’m no stranger to grinding. But it did threaten to derail my experience at the start and I’m sure there were many others who didn’t stick at it and missed out. Approaching the first boss of Dark Souls II, I had no such problems.
The game was still hard, and the introduction of mobs suggests that the designers really focussed on adding difficulty, but that these early encounters were simplified was appreciated. People are more likely to understand the enjoyment of the challenge if they can actually progress. I liked that there were little mechanics to help with boss fights too, like draining the smog from one boss room or shedding light on another. These weren’t always obvious – and I’ve seen at least one YouTuber especially put-out by that – but that’s what made them neat and novel.
If there was one issue I had, difficulty-wise, it was that some bosses weren’t hard as much as frustrating. Vendrick, in particular, was vexing for me. I didn’t find him difficult, it just took a long time. But none of that stopped me enjoying the game. Whenever I did find myself growing tired of it, I was saved by something interesting happening or the area being short. When I first saw it, The Gutter threatened to be a new Tomb of the Giants (my least favourite Dark Souls area), but it turned out it was much shorter and with less frustrating enemies. Similarly, the ridiculous Black Gulch was short enough that it didn’t become too irritating.
If nothing else, Dark Souls II was willing to try things. It didn’t want to be a Dark Souls clone; it wanted to build on that base. It experimented with new mechanics and areas, it made some things more of a challenge and some easier, it even included dream sequences. Did it do it all absolutely right? No, not even close. But it had the guts to try, knowing that the community it was trying to cater to was notoriously toxic and outspoken.
In short, a lot of people like to harp on about Dark Souls II being a deeply inferior game to its predecessor. That’s fine, some people like things and some people don’t. But for me, Dark Souls II, with its often wickedly baffling story, it’s neat look, and its experiments was a deeply interesting and enjoyable game. I enjoyed the improvements it made and was able to see past its deficiencies. Perhaps I’m the minority, perhaps I’m missing something, perhaps I’m just capable of suspending my disbelief a little better than others. Whatever it is, I genuinely loved playing Dark Souls II, and yes I enjoyed it more than Dark Souls. And that’s okay.