A world locked in an endless cycle of decay. Sleek, gothic architecture. Imposing black angles and rain slicked stone. Or slimy, blighted lands, every bootstep a sickening squick, squoosh. Ruined forts that keep going down and down, through more ruins, and volcanoes, through the literal Yggrasil-world-tree roots of the world, and even deeper still to crypts intended to seal certain undesirables away for good (alas). Or up and up, atop peaks dotted with windmills, up lifts hanging in space to windswept steppes shadowed by dragons soaring overhead as you scramble across a rope bridge, swaying in the gust.
This is the world of Dark Souls. A bleak, medieval dream created by Japanese developer From Software.
To explore this world, you, a character with a flimsy narrative drive — merely being instructed to pursue The King (and collect more and more souls) — are thrust. Without guidance. I was partway through the first dungeon area, after a false start in another zone available from the onset, before I realized I had missed the vendor that could upgrade my character in an earlier hub town. Indeed, the Dark Souls series has a reputation for being difficult and obfuscatory. While the mechanics are certainly… murky, the vaunted difficulty is a tad overblown. The challenge is fair, and, with some exceptions, stacked towards the beginning before the player has grasped the systems and built their character in a specialization of their choosing. In fact, Dark Souls II goes a littler further than its predecessors. There is a bonfire (checkpoint where you return on death) close to most bosses, many tough enemies can simply be sprinted by, there’s a ring that eliminates all the consequences of death (lost souls, lost humanity), and ranged attacks make much of the game drastically easier.
Dark Souls also shows innovation in multiplayer and player-to-player interactions. One can leave messages to others, based on a set of templates, not free writing. This is often helpful, sometimes purposely misleading, and occasionally hilarious. Shaded versions of other players can be seen running throughout the world, alerting you that you are not alone. When they die, they leave bloodstains that allow you to view their final moments, perhaps giving you a tip on how not to die. Dark Souls II goes further than the original in its take on “covenants”, groups the player can join, many of which allow various cooperative and competitive bonuses. For instance, one allows you to set traps and build up a lair that sucks in unsuspecting players, who now have to navigate your dungeon or kill you to escape. From is one of the few console developers who has nailed a unique take on multiplayer — it combines the best parts of multiplayer (cooperation, humor, competition) but its forced limitations alleviate the worst aspects of spending time with strangers on the internet.
And unlike Dark Souls, the sequel does not taper off at the end. It’s an unfortunate truth that many long games, especially RPGs, display an obvious lack of money and time and the quality falls off a cliff in the final areas. As I mentioned, the goal of Dark Souls II is to find the king, and when you reach the kingdom’s magisterial seat — Drangleic Castle — the game reaches its highest points and does not let up for the rest of its playtime, bewildering easy last boss notwithstanding. The gameplay mechanics are tightened up and overall, there is only the briefest hint of staleness; the series definitely ought to innovate in the next chapter, but I’ll buy it regardless.