Dark Souls 2 – Is it really a souls game?

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Dark Souls 2 is an interesting game. It was the first ‘main-steam’ Souls game to release after DS1 rose to become a beloved title after its launch. Initially there was a consensus that it was a letdown. Now though the tide has turned and a large section of the fanbase will crucify anyone that criticises the game. I’ve watched Youtube videos that analyse the game with massive dislike bars just for explaining why they felt that it didn’t live up to its reputation while much of that fan hate has turned to Dark Souls 3.

I am a big fan of the original Dark Souls. It easily tops my list of favourite games. As such I was very excited to play the sequel. I didn’t expect it to quite live up to the first because, how could it? DS1 is like lightning in a bottle. The planets aligned and a damn near perfect game was released. The chances of another game living up to that was slim so I tempered my expectation. Hype is a gamer’s worst enemy after all.

So I pick up the Steam version on release and settle in for a good time. Only, it wasn’t. I will go into detail why but here and now I can say that I just couldn’t find any enjoyment in the game. I continued at it for a while, hoping that something would click or that the game would somehow change, but it didn’t. I got as far as the Iron Fortress and then just stopped.

I came back to it repeatedly over the months. DS1 took me three attempts to complete so maybe number two would be the same. Each time I covered less distance though where I had gone further on each attempt in the original. I never even made it back to the Iron Fortress. The game simply didn’t engage me. I worried that maybe number 1 had been a single time deal for me but then I played Demon’s Souls, Bloodborne and Dark Souls 3 and loved them all.

This left me kind of confused. What is different about Dark Souls 2? All of the elements of a Souls game is there. Stamina based combat, challenging gameplay, interesting lore, cool weapons and armour. When so much was the same, why then did it feel so different to me?

Let me start by saying that none of my thoughts here are to imply that DS2 is a ‘bad’ game. That is subjective at the best of times but the game clearly had a lot of time and love invested into it by the developers. Nothing stands out as bad, only different. Unfortunately though, these differences are enough to kill my personal enjoyment. If you do enjoy it, good for you. I’m glad. I only wish that I could too.

So, over two years on from my first experience, multiple attempts and reading lots of different opinions, why is Dark Souls 2 the black sheep of the series for me. The short answer is that it just doesn’t feel like a Souls game. Everything just feels slightly off. It feels more like a ‘Lords of the Fallen’, a game trying hard to be a Souls game while also trying to be just different enough to get away with it. I can narrow this feeling down to four specific categories: Movement, Maps, Difficulty and Tone.

Movement.

This was the most obvious to me and is something that isn’t really a positive or negative. It is an instant difference between 2 and every other Souls game though. Everything feels slightly clunky. Dodges are worthless at the start of the game until you pump levels into Adaptability skill, attacks feel too weighty with combat sometimes feeling like you are fighting underwater and backstabs and parries are overly long. The whole game feels slower than it should.

Jumping is never brilliant in the Souls games but a massive proportion of my deaths in two came from failing easy jumps. Many of my other deaths came from being caught by attacks mid dodge. I am usually a shield reliant player but two starts with very few shields that block enough damage to justify using them. This means that you are reliant on taking the offensive with you slow, clunky attacks or wasting levels just so you can dodge effectively. This prevents new players from investing in other stats so limits what weapons they can use early on.

Again, none of this is inherently bad, but I had fallen in love with the flowing Dark Souls combat so this was an instant barrier to overcome.

Maps.

Dark Souls 2 felt less like a cohesive world and more like a video game with video game levels. While the world was all connected together it was done in a clumsy way that killed any potential. Most of the maps are linear stretches that don’t interconnect. DS1 achieved the best world with no other game coming close to matching it but DS2 definitely comes off as the least inspired. Drastically differing zones join together in unrealistic ways while instantly being able to warp between bonfires kills any need to learn the individual maps.

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Maybe if I had completed the game then the world would feel more complete but for as far as I got, each area felt disconnected from both the areas around it and the world at large. There is nothing wrong with the level designs by video game standards but the lack of shortcuts, backtracking and cohesion made the whole game just feel slightly stale and tired.

Even the settings were lacking. A small forest with a single path, a stone castle, a lava castle. Even the potentially interesting places come off as flat, at least in the early game. A half sunken cathedral could have been a great place to explore but it ends up as another short area without sidepaths. I didn’t get that chance to spend enough time in any of the areas to feel like I knew it.

Difficulty.

Ah, the controversial one. Mentioning difficulty in regards to a Souls game is a surefire way to start a fight. But here it goes anyway.

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I’ve already mentioned how options are limited at the start of the game. Blocking attacks isn’t a great idea until you find high physical resistance shields while dodging requires a sizeable injection of souls to reach the basic performance of rolls in other games in the series.

But more than that though, a lot of the enemy encounters feel cheap. There are so many ambushes and mob swarms that it rarely felt like a straightforward fight. Enemies seemed to be placed so haphazardly throughout the world. This was actually made worse in the Scholar of the First Sin edition with a big troll thing added to the Forest of Fallen Giants and turtle knights added at the start of the city/castle area after the forest that’s name I can’t even remember.

These turtle knights are a good example of limiting player options too. They are heavily armoured and hit real hard with their mace. If you try to attack them from behind they roll back onto you. If you attack them with bladed weapons it does reduced damage. Blunt weapons are really the only way for early characters to deal with them. Blunt weapons require strength to use so players trying dex builds have to decide whether to chip away at their health or invest some levels into using a weapon solely to deal with them.

Then in combat itself the enemy tracking is terrible. The can pivot and adjust attacks mid-swing so that it becomes much harder to predict and dodge incoming attacks. You as a player cannot do this so we end up with a combat system that goes against Dark Souls core philosophy of fairness.

I wouldn’t say that combat is particularly harder, just more awkward. It certainly wasn’t getting stuck that made me stop playing. I just got bored.

Tone.

This last point is far more obscure but snags at the game’s entire atmosphere. DS1 uses it’s introductory cut-scene to establish its world. Dark Souls 2 uses it’s to wax lyrically about misery and misfortune. I saw someone describe it as edgy teenage angst and I kind of agree. Straight off the bat the game fails to understand the tone that made its forebear interesting and instead revelled in the gloom and death that the marketing relied on but the game ignored.

Dark Souls was never about being hard and dying. They were consequences rather than aims. It was always about overcoming the challenges and celebrating the triumphs. Deaths made this eventual triumph all the more rewarding and everything in the game reinforces this. The NPCs want you to succeed and each have their own ambitions that drive them forwards. Interconnected shortcuts would return you to familiar areas on a regular basis but were far enough apart to make this return to relative safety feel like a homecoming. Returning to Firelink shrine was a moment of peace in a chaotic world were friends would gather. It always felt special to be there.

In 2, Majula tries to emulate this but with the way the mechanics are set up, returning to Majula feels little more than a chore required to level up and upgrade equipment. It never felt like home, rather some kind of halfway house. This is also true of every other Souls game barring DS1 though so is more of a nitpick than a major flaw.

The first NPC we meet in DS2 enforces this negative tone by belittling the player and mocking that they will die repeatedly. They laugh at the player and emphasise the game’s difficulty. Contrast this with Oscar in number one who, by Dark Souls standards, is positively optimistic. He rescues us from our cell, gives us the most useful item in the game and asks us to continue his quest since he no longer can.

This strange focus on death and difficulty just seems to permeate the entire game, or at least as far as I played. Even simple things like the horrid pulsing screen at the start of boss battles that make the encounters feel more like cheap monsters from a bad horror game just chip away at the tone. Bosses in Dark Souls were never meant to be faceless horrors. Each one has a story behind them that cheap blood effects erode.

Losing health after each death fed into this as it didn’t help players to learn and it didn’t encourage exploration. Death had consequences beyond dropping your souls and restarting the area. Hitting a tough patch became increasingly tougher as your health diminished, punishing failure in a way that just didn’t fit with Dark Soul’s general tone.

Conclusion.

It really does feel like Dark Souls 2 was based off of the marketing of the first game rather than the actual gameplay. I never felt a feeling of triumph after beating a boss and so many of my deaths felt manufactured rather than earned. I can sum it up best by saying that Dark Souls 2 had too much of the Dark but too little of the Soul.

What was the reward to keep on playing? Beyond the actual gameplay, which didn’t grab me, Dark Souls 2 failed to offer players anything to get invested in. In the first game we have a clear goal: Ring a bell. It is simple sounding and ties into our character’s goal of solving the undead curse. Dark Souls 2 focuses heavily on the curse in the introduction but then immediately proclaims you the new ruler of the land and tells you to kill four dudes you’ve never heard of. This happens in the second half of Dark Souls 1 but we had a better idea of why we were doing this and already knew who all of the characters were. We had spent the first half of the game picking up little bits of information about them. Dark Souls 3 has a similar narrative as DS2 of kill four guys straight off the bat but again, the introduction cutscene showed us who they are while the narrative gives us a reason to hunt them. They are needed to kindle the fire whereas in DS2 we are expected to kill them purely because they are powerful and so have large souls.

In the end, I really did want to enjoy the game but couldn’t. Too much focus is placed on the difficulty without offering any incentive to keep pushing forward. Nothing compelled me to keep playing whereas every other Souls game has always kept me hooked even when I hit a wall. No one element can be blamed but numerous small issues all build up to create something that simply lacks the soul that makes the other games so great.

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