I’ve recently been playing Dark Souls II from scratch (both as a caster and as a melee character), and I have a few thoughts about it. It’s generally considered the bad child of the family–the one that drinks and does the drugs and is disrespectful to the entire family. Many people in the Souls community hate it, and while many people like it, there are few who think it’s as good as the first and very few who thinks it’s better. I’m in the camp of, “I think it’s a very good game, even if it’s not quite up to the original. It’s immensely fun to replay.” I’m also in the camp of, “It’s a really good game, but it’s not a great Dark Souls game.”
What do I love about Dark Souls the original? Sit back and let me count the ways. Also, let’s remember that I hated the original game by the time I was done with it, and I never wanted to touch it again. It’s only in preparation for playing DS II much later that I tried the original again and was blown away by it. I had enough distance on it to appreciate it, and I wasn’t as insistent that I beat every boss on my own*, so it was much more enjoyable. I will say as a point of pride that I’ve beaten every boss in Dark Souls solo, including all the DLC bosses. There are a few bosses I haven’t beaten solo in DS II because there are So. Many. Bosses., and the few that I haven’t beaten are early in the game (comparatively) when you’re relatively weak or in the DLCs. I’ve beaten every boss in the third game solo, except for a few in the DLCs.
Anyhoooooooo….what do I love about Dark Souls the original? Let me count the ways. Before I start, though, let me say that it being difficult isn’t one thing I loved about it. That’s the problem with many of the clones (including DS II); they think the difficulty is the end game, not part of the journey. What I do love about the difficulty is how good I feel when I beat the thing that I previously thought was unbeatable. Whether it’s a hard enemy or a really tough boss (looking at you, Nameless King), the exultation when they finally turn into white dust is indescribable.
What’s also good is finding a way to cheese a hard enemy/boss. There is a boss in Dark Souls II, King Vendrick, who is really…not hard, but sturdy. He has physical defenses that is berserker hard, and you have to get a bunch of giant souls (it makes sense in context) to make him easier. He’s so hard, you have to be able to do a certain amount of damage just to start the fight. I have a special fondness for him because he made me change the way I played the first time through (as a caster, of course). Here’s the thing. He hits like a Mack Truck. Even with my not-fragile melee character, he could kill me in two hits. With my caster, yeah, it was pretty much one and done. After dying to him many, many times the first time as a caster. So many times! I decided I had to get radical. I stripped off all my armor so I could have the lightest roll possible, and then I did the classic, “Stick to his left side and smack that ass!” This is what you do with large beasts, which he kinda was. Since I had my shitty Battle Axe as a weapon, it took forever to kill him. It was much easier with my melee character this time around, but it was still circle around the left side and smack that ass. Anyway, beating him melee as a caster while wearing no armor (since one hit killed me anyway, why wear armor?) is one of my fondest DS II memories.
Anyhooooo, as I’ve said countless times, my favorite part of the original game is the exploration. Dark Souls the original is a beautiful, intertwined world with bleak, but majestic views, and that’s before we even mention Anor Londo. The satisfaction in finding a shortcut in the first game is beyond compare, and it leaves me with a giddy feeling that’s similar to beating a tough enemy. Some of the areas in the second half of the game aren’t as intricate or gorgeous as the in the first half, but they’re nothing to sneeze at, either. In the second game, the worlds aren’t as beautiful, objectively, nor do they interlink (there are way more bonfires than there are in the original), so my desire to explore wasn’t as great. Still. There is plenty of meat in this game, enough to sink your teeth into for many, many hours.
I will say, one of the complaints about the second game is that it’s hard to know which way to go in the beginning, but it was in the first game, too. There are three ways you *can* go, but one is the actual path. I’ve seen videos saying it’s a great way to teach the player about the game because if you go one way, there are ghosts with whom you cannot interact (unless you pick up the thing that makes the ghosts hittable), and if you go another way, you run into super-hard skeletons that will wreck your shit. If you go the third way (the way you’re supposed to go), the enemies are placed in such a way where you fight them one at a time, and they’re not crazy hard, but still hard. The videos make it seem like this is all rational, but as someone pointed out, the game is touted for its difficulty, so they just assumed they were supposed to beat their heads against the skellies.
I have to agree. It’s easy to see this explanation and think in retrospect, “That’s amazing design (which is it) and makes complete sense!” While playing the game, though, it’s just trial-and-error, and I can’t blame people for quitting before they realized the third path was the way to go. In DS II, all the paths are difficult for different reasons, and one of my biggest gripes about the sequel is that the developers decided to make the game harder by placing mobs of enemies all over the goddamn place. The path to go is littered with enemies, and I got killed so many times on my first playthrough because the caster doesn’t get a shield, and the dagger she starts with is shitty as well. It wasn’t fun at all, and it didn’t feel fair. One of the things about the original is that is usually felt fair, even when it was fucking difficult.
One thing I love about the sequel is that you can fast-travel from the start. Many hardcore Souls fans hate it because it takes away the tension somewhat between going forward and going back to level up or whatnot. Fast-travel in the original was limited to after you beat Biggie & Small, and only to certain bonfires. Here’s the thing. For me, that’s part of the reason I hated the second half of the first game. Having to trample back and forth over the same terrain so many times was tedious at best and grindy/grueling at worst. I don’t mind fighting through an area once, but to have to go through it time and time again–yeah, no. They kept this change for DS III, while making the worlds more interlinked, and I think it was a good compromise. One of the reason I’ll play the second or third game more readily over the first is because of the fast-travel. It just makes the game more enjoyable, and I heartily applaud it.
Another interesting about the second game is how some guys didn’t like the intro because three crones are laughing at them. At least, that’s how they interpreted it. I’ve seen this more than once, and it made me think about the adage by Margaret Atwood (paraphrased) that men fear women laughing at them. (The rest of the quote is that women fear men killing them, but that’s not the point here.) I didn’t notice it because I didn’t interpret the crones as laughing at me in the beginning. To me, they were laughing about the situation in general, and everyone in Souls games laugh ominously all the damn time. I do agree that them telling you that you will die over and over again, yeah, that’s a problem because it shows the devs were thinking too much of the difficulty at the game without really understanding the reason the difficulty of the first game worked.
What else did I like about the second game? Royal Sorcerer Navlaan’s questline. It’s bonkers, and I had to look up how to actually do it, but once I could, it’s a ton of fun. He’s trapped behind a fog gate, and if you’re human, you can’t talk to him at all. He just whimpers and cowers, then begs you to leave him alone. If you’re hollow, he has a very different attitude, and he asks if you’ll kill for him. You can complete his questline without killing anyone, and you get a badass pyromancy and a magic spell as part of your reward for doing his questline. If you release him (which is what I did first time through because it’s a lever! I should pull it!), he’ll chase you all around the game and make your life a living hell. In reading all his dialogue, it really does seem as if he almost has a split personality that has to do with being hollow/being human. Anyway, I love his questline, even though him chasing after you is fucking annoying.
I like a few of the NPCs, even though most of them just sit in Majula (the hub world) and don’t have a life of their own. I like Majula a lot, and it really felt like home after a particularly grueling session. I made it a habit to go back to Majula at the end of a session, and I continued the tradition by going back to Firelink Shrine at the end of the session. I like Lucatiel a lot, and I like to think we could have been buds.
The second game’s combat still feels weighty. I like smacking things around with the Ultra Greatsword. As much as I’m a caster at heart, there is an undeniable satisfaction in beating the shit out of enemies with a big ol’ weapon. I think the leveling up is easier in this game than III, but not as easy as in II. In NG+, there are different boss souls you can get from the bosses, which is pretty cool, too.
The areas are very different from each other, which is appreciated. They are distinct mini-worlds, and a clear marker that you are now is this different place. I do miss the linking between worlds, and I do think there are too many bonfires, though. I like the Pate/Creighton fight, and I find myself siding with Creighton more often than not.
I guess my bottom line is that I like DS II–just not as much as DS or DS III. If I don’t think of it as a Souls game, I appreciate it even more. In fact, there are people in the Souls community who say, “It’s a great game; it’s just not a good Souls game.” I appreciate it for what it is, and I enjoy myself playing it. In the end, isn’t that all you really want from a game? To have fun playing it?
Last word: Tons of people are still playing DS II (SotFS edition), which surprised the hell out of me! It’s cool because I got to run around with other players and call them in as needed. Much props to my SotFS brethren and sistren!
*I summoned for a few bosses on my first playthrough, but not Ornstein & Smough. Ahem.