For the uninitiated, Dark Souls 2 is a high fantasy RPG… might and magic, ghosts and goblins, swords and sorcery, dungeons and dragons… no I’m not naming off series here, these are a few things you’ll find in game. As you might have heard, Dark Souls 2 (as with its predecessors) is defined by death. It’s to be expected I suppose, if you’re going to put the word ‘souls’ right in the name. Souls are currency, you amass them as you move forward, you lose them if you die. You will die, and you will lose all those hard fought souls ( as this beauty of an introduction will tell you *spoilers*) and you will rage quit, that last straw breaking time and time again, only to find your gaze inexorably drawn back to your console as you try ‘one more time’. There is something sadistic about it, there can be no denying, but if you’ve been wondering what all the fuss is about, I’ve got a few thoughts on the matter.
Release Date: March 11, 2014
Genre / Rating Fantasy RPG / T
It’s getting a bit late in the ‘game’ for this sort of talk, as those of us from the first console generation begin to age out and more and more of the 90’s and 00’s grow up, but those early titles, the legendary ones, the ones they’re still making versions of today? They were limited in a very real way by the graphical power they could bring to bear back in the day. As a result, the game designers had to get very clever indeed. When you’ve only got a 2D plane to work with, you have to start getting pretty ‘out the box’, and this is where the phrase ‘metroidvania’ that gets bandied about was given birth. Compartmentalize maps, make people work for it, it’s part of why Mario had secret levels, and Link discovered underground chambers hidden under trees, why Samus met a lot of locked doors. I think we lost sight of that a bit as we reveled in newfound graphical power. It’s an over simplification but, as everything got bigger and better looking we got distracted by the size of our chainsaw guns and the shiny shiny reflections from our space armors. Not that there’s anything wrong with visceral and straight to the point, as there’s nothing wrong with a good old fashion action flick. Not that there’s anything wrong with linearity either, it certainly has its place… but let us not forget why those early games still resonate today.
There was a point, and this is fairly early on in Dark Souls 2 mind you, after I had been exploring an old keep for awhile in all directions vertical and horizontal. Different sections opening up to me as I made my way through, seemingly isolated quadrants connecting by my progress, like some 3D puzzle. After defeating my first boss, a gigantic thing, I received a key which would further open new parts of this map, including as it turned out, access to another much more difficult boss. Let’s just reiterate that… my reward for beating a boss was the ability to face an even more difficult boss, and that’s Dark Souls summed up. It was at about that point I realized this is game design as it was, as it should be, this is the heir to all that was legendary about those early games. It’s not ladled to you in generous portions like some coddling mother who swaths you up and wipes away the mess, the corners aren’t padded so that you don’t hurt yourself. It’s a labyrinth, and yes you better believe there’s a monster in here with you, heck.. there’s a castle full of dragons. After finding your first hidden wall or secret passage, after finally opening up the way to that until then unreachable courtyard or tower tantalizingly in view, or discovering your first chest guarded by an old iron door, something occurs. It might not be the first, mind you, it might take a few of these things, but, you begin to realize that you have no idea what is around the next corner. In fact, if you’ve found all these things and more in the first ten hours of the game (early stages, believe me) how much more is there? How much have you missed? It’s heady stuff, if you like secrets, mysteries, and treasures long lost to time that is.
Dark Souls 2, as with its predecessors is steeped in lore, world building and a game environment that is rich and alive (or in this case, filled with dead) holds a history that, mostly unspoken, still manages to tell you ‘there’s something to this’. It’s the stuff that sets a game like Skyrim apart from a corridor shooter, and Dark souls has it in spades. You won’t be beaten about the head with it, you will learn as you go, whispers from other lonely survivors, evidenced by the things you face, and what they must have been before they warped into monsters, and the bits they leave behind when they fall. Lonely towers, once majestic and still beautiful in the setting sun, roiling mist, or moonlight, statues of kings toppled and crumbling, keeps reclaimed by creeping woods… the examples go on and on.
Dark souls 2 really puts the ‘Role Playing’ in the RPG, the ‘fantasy’ in High Fantasy. Talking to a friend who is also an enthusiast, I realized I was speaking of the world and my character as though it was real, the struggle and victory tangible as any day to day struggle. We all do this from time to time, but the depth of it struck me. Every hard fought footstep I take in this thing takes me deeper in, and I don’t mean that in the obvious and literal way. There is a barrier to entry, , it’s still true now, and it can be a tough one if you’ve been raised on instant gratification. But it also means that, once that uphill climb starts to slacken, even just a hair, you feel it. There is a moment when despair, the frustration at having fought, again, only to die, again, just trying to win free is converted into pure euphoria. It happens when the ancient and horrible monster of the keep (belfry, sewer, cave, pit, tower, castle, etc) breaths its last and falls, that’s the moment when you remember exactly why you do this to yourself.
This is a journey, in the greatest, most literal and interactive sense I figure you can achieve in a fictional space at present time. Fans of high fantasy RPG aren’t strangers to this, but with the Dark Souls franchise (and I’ll admit to being bias) they might have distilled the experience to its purest form. You take a very active role in deciding your fate, there’s no wrong moves really the world is open in all directions, and yet there’s a path too. There’s a variety of starting classes to choose from, but these are basically starting points, suggestions. Leveling is done whenever you want, if you have the souls, you can beef up whatever stats you like. You can re-spec any time (provided you have managed to find the required artifact) Your arsenal is yours to choose too, weapons based in magic, fire, strength, ranged, up close. Your armor donned by fallen heroes, and vanquished foes, or bought from travelling merchant, made by a blacksmith, or perhaps from a musty old chest you found behind a secret passage. Oh, and that boss whose grand soul you now possess? Well, forge it into a weapon, and turn its hate against the masses before you. It’s a tough ole world out there, and once you make it to its hub, you can choose which direction you wish to take. You might not be tough enough to handle it yet, but trust me, you’ll figure that one out on your own.
There’s nothing quite like Dark Souls, be it Demon’s Souls before it, or the most recent Dark Souls 2. They stumbled across that magic thing that happens with franchise’s occasionally, finding a frequency, a feeling, a series of synchronistic traits and characteristics that meld so brilliantly into something unique and all its own. It remains true that it’s not for everyone, and certainly not for the faint of heart, but I recommend you try it, you’ll learn something new about yourself, I promise you that.
Lasting Appeal/Replayability: 5