Souls in retrospect.
Recently, Bit Cultures put up a review of Dark Souls 2, giving it a high score but with some stern criticism. This article is in no way a rebuttal. In fact, I agree that Dark Souls 2 is easily the worst in the series. The mechanics are way more ambitious than they are effective, the level design is an order of magnitude inferior to Dark Souls, the boss battles degenerate into “forgettable fat dude with a halberd” copied and pasted and don’t get me started on ****ing soul memory.
That being said, Dark Souls 2 is only a a failure in that it is a great game being compared to a transcendent one. The best game that year being compared to the best game of the console generation.
Best game of 2012! That’s right, eat it Dragon Age: Inquisition!
My argument here is not to justify Dark Souls 2’s several missteps but to explain why even the least Souls game is still a worthy addition to the series and is still perfectly playable next to Bloodborne and Dark Souls 3. Let’s begin with…
5 How freaking beautiful this game is
Every Souls game from Demon’s Souls to Dark Souls 3 has a strange yet stoic beauty that tends to age far more gracefully than most games in spite of never having cutting edge graphics. Dark Souls 2 is both no exception and the exception that proves the rule. Where Dark Souls used a washed out color palette to portray a world burnt out with only embers of its former glory remaining, Dark Souls 2 used far warmer colors to portray a ruined civilization and a vibrant world happily growing over it. The ocean vistas and varied forests look like places you would actually want to visit if not for the, you know, the giant skeletal demon horses and red phantoms trying to murder you for “teh lulz”. The character models were likewise more vibrant with slightly stylized features and an almost anime-like emphasis on the eyes (when they aren’t wearing helmets).
Just because I’m a hollow undead horror that feeds off souls to stave off madness doesn’t mean I can’t also be an underwear model
I actually railed against this “kinder, gentler” art style when I first saw it, but looking back on it, I kind of miss it. The beauty of Drangleic did not to dull the horrors and atrocities of this world, but it did make a subtle argument that, in spite of that horror, this world may still be worth saving. Which leads rather well into the next point.
4 Dark Souls 2 is a more hopeful game, and that’s okay.
If you torture Dark Souls into a linear narrative, it can be read as a heroic tragedy about the game’s main antagonist. Gwin, Lord of Cinder, is basically Charles Foster Kane playing the role of King Lear (not saying Dark Souls is the Citizen Kane of video games. It’s more like Rashomon). The world you inhabit is a hollow shell of the world Gwin built. The bosses you face are the former friends, allies and family of Gwin, who one way or another, were doomed by his great ambition and need to control. The undead curse that drives you is both his greatest sin and his last, desperate hope. When you face him in the end, it’s as much a mercy killing as an epic battle.
The game can also be read as a heroic tragedy about you the player. Progress can be marked by which of your friends are dead (often by your own hand). The quest you sacrifice them for is effectively a con job devised by Gwin’s poor neglected son to gain his father’s posthumous approval. Even if you get wise to his deception, your only options are to sacrifice yourself and keep Gwin’s senile ruined world alive a little longer, or walk away and plunge the world into an age of Dark on the promise of a smelly snake monster that everything will be okay.
On second thought, how could you not trust this face?
Dark Souls ends with all of your friends dead and the whole world maimed because of the same thing that saves (and damns) the day in Undertale: your determination to overcome adversity and finish the game
Dark Souls 2 is more like a series of shorter stories about several kings and how they each dealt with the undead curse; one quarantined them, one tortured them for his amusement, and one particularly heroic king seduced a daughter of Chaos and sacrificed his life to contain the curse. Dark Souls 2 isn’t as concerned with telling an epic story as a series of character studies that frame the final choice the player character makes.
As for your player character, the scope of your tragedy is greatly reduced. While there are certainly some sad stories like Lucatiel’s, your quest is marked more by the friends you make than the friends you slay, building a new, second home for the various misfits you find. Even the Crestfallen Knight, Dark Soul’s perennial sourpuss, eventually admits to feeling like a family.
Even more optimistically, the “maintain the ruined old world/bring forth the Dark” dilemma now has a third option (if you do all the DLC quests) in that you go out and seek a third option. It’s not an easy or simple ending (it wouldn’t be Dark Souls if it was). It ends with you looking for an alternative, not necessarily finding it, but merely seeking a good ending boldly rejects the old nihilism of Demon’s and Dark Souls, and I can’t call that a bad thing.
3 The covenants are actually better than Dark Souls (in spite of soul memory)
Demon’s Souls introduced a fascinating take on multiplayer with players being summoned to help other players out or invading to fight other players in something similar to the casual jump-in-jump-out style of multiplayer in arcades for a complex, modern rpg.
Dark Souls refined this formula with covenants: rival multiplayer groups with in game lore and their own agendas who added both structure and chaotic whimsy to the game.
Dark Souls 2 perfected covenants.
Everyone’s old favorite, the Warriors of the Sun (a covenant that helps players with boss fights, affectionately called Sun Bros), remained more or less unchanged, but the other covenants were tweaked in intriguing ways. The Darkmoon Covenant, a higher level PvP group dedicated to “punishing” red phantoms (invaders) was changed to the Blue Sentinels; an order of knights dedicated to defending new players, who would join the Way of Blue, from said red phantoms.
Pro-tip for new players: red phantoms are bad for you
Where it really shines though is its two interpretations of the Forrest Keepers, a group that would “defend” a particular forest from “invaders” (here invaders means hapless players oblivious to what a bad neighborhood they’ve wandered into). That general concept was refined into two very strange and interesting groups. First, the Bell Tower Covenant maximized the potential chaos by having the entire covenant defend a single cramped and tall Bell tower. If that wasn’t enough, the invaders could also invade each other, because the Bell Tower covenant is just demented.
Second, and my favorite, is the Rat King Covenant. This Covenant will actually send a player into your game, which you have to defend using the tight hallways, pools of acid, dead ends and, of course, a small legion of rats.
Rat King is best husbando
But just as important is the way Dark Souls 2 eases in new players who might not normally enjoy multiplayer. Much like how it eases new players into everything else.
2 It’s the best game for new players
Yes, Dark Souls 2 is the easiest Souls game. No, that’s not what’s wrong with it. In fact, I would argue that its accessibility is what saves it.
Things like easy respecs, quick merchants and covenants (especially the Way of Blue) do nothing to detract from the game. One of the things I hear most from people that try a Souls game only to quit a few hours in is that they feel they’ve run into a wall. Some boss or some obstacle has completely stumped them. They feel like they’ve run out of options and the only way to get past these situations is to “git gud” and just be a better player. Any experienced Dark Souls player knows better; the trick to Dark Souls has less to do with twitch reflexes than observation and open mindedness. There is always another option in Dark Souls, even if it doesn’t seem that way. But for a new player, it really doesn’t seem that way.
It seems more like this
I’ll be the first to admit that this newer, user friendly approach didn’t always work (and that Dark Souls 3 is arguably closer to that sweet spot), but when it did work, it meant that someone had the confidence and interest to really get into this amazing series (and the confidence to play the better games, perhaps).
1 Fashion Souls!
Seriously, look at that Drangleic armor. That is dosh as hell. You even get a badass red cape! Do you know what happens in Dark Souls when you get armor with a cool red cape?
Exhibit A : Balder Knight Armour on a Balder Knight
Exhibit B: Balder Knight Armour on you
That’s right, they cut it off as soon as you get to wear it. I rest my case.