The lights are on
The day of reckoning is here. In this One Night Stand, I gather up the courage to face the latest in the series I've been dreading for the past few years: Dark Souls II.
Dark Souls II descends from the original Dark Souls, which, in turn, is the spiritual successor to the "cult classic" Demon's Souls. If you read this site, I'm sure you're familiar with the franchise; it's definitely one of the true grassroots successes on consoles in recent years. If you're not aware of the Souls series, I'll point you to Daniel Tack's Dark Souls II review and essay questioning the perception that the game is too difficult.
Reading both those pieces again, I'm struck by how well-written and reasoned they are. Dan's a great writer, and he does a great job of explaining why he connects with Dark Souls II so strongly. However, after having spent some time with Dark Souls II, I'm also a bit confused - I'm unable to reconcile my own feelings with Dan's views. I love reading what he has to say about the game, but his experience with it is so different from mine that I can't relate. It's an impressive articulation of a view that's completely foreign to me.
I've heard and read a lot about the Souls series. There are a lot of people who love the difficulty, the infrequent checkpoints, the endless failure and brief moments of triumph. At times, I get a whiff of a bit of Stockholm Syndrome in what's said about the game. It's not difficult for the sake of being difficult; it's just trying to make you a better gamer! It's not like these watered-down modern games; Dark Souls II's difficulty is just the stern discipline you need. Having played the game, I understand where they are coming from. After a few days of being hungry, the guard who comes by with a bowl of white rice seems like a hero.
In the spirit of One Night Stand, I came into Dark Souls II completely fresh. I haven't played Demon's Souls or Dark Souls. I didn't consult the Internet for tips or ask my co-workers for advice.
Booting it up, there was an ominous, somewhat ambiguous cutscene. It's fairly typical stuff - a dark fantasy wasteland, foreboding voiceovers, a giant magical tree. Despite being somewhat cliched, it does a great job of creating atmosphere. In general, this was one of my favorite things about Dark Souls II. There's a creepy edge to the game that I can't quite put my finger on. From the old crones who told me of my terrible, undead fate to the dark ambient music, there is something genuinely unsettling about Dark Souls II. This feeling is enhanced by the emptiness of the experience. Aside from cryptic message left on the ground by other players and the ghostlike apparitions of past travelers who met their doom, I felt truly alone in Dark Souls II.
However, this lack of guidance was just as often a hindrance to my enjoyment of the game. Aside from the scattered stone slabs, which give you the basic controls, you're on your own. On the one hand, I can see the appeal for some people, but it's not a structure that resonates well with me. I like exploration in games, but I also appreciate when the developers take the time to provide some hints and structure. Bethesda does a great job of this in games like Skyrim. As it is, playing Dark Souls II often gave me that slightly distracted, fuzzy feeling of looking for my car in a crowded mall parking lot. Another aspect of the game that I feel could use more clarity is the menus. They are poorly designed, littered with many small icons and text that makes it difficult to understand your equipment, items, and weapons. I understand the appeal of a game with a high level of challenge, but confusing user interface is just bad design.
I will give it credit for being - at least in the hours that I played it - very open in structure. Sometimes I would wander into a new area even though I hadn't made any progress in killing the foul beasts in the previous area. Soon, I had several paths available to me - all of which seemed to end with me being instantly killed.
Which brings me to the meat of the Dark Souls II. First and foremost, this is a game about combat. You're either going to respond to its deliberate, extremely challenging gameplay or not.
As promised, the game does not hold your hand. I did battle with a small dagger and broadsword, each of which are activated with a trigger press that initiates a fairly long and unwieldy attack motion. To be blunt, I basically got my ass handed to me over and over, even by what in another game would be basic sword fodder enemies. This succeeds in building a real sense of fear and trepidation; my first encounter with a "boss" (some sort of fearsome medieval rhinopanda) was terrifying. It was also short. I got one good lick in before it dispatched me with two powerful blows.
Each time I died, I was sent back to a bonfire right outside the old crone's hut where I began the tutorial part of the game. Speaking with Dan later, it became apparent to me that I missed a bonfire in the first open-air area (beside the weird talking cat who sells items). That would have been nice to know. I also missed a green lady who Dan tells me is the person who you need to see to level up. I shudder to think how long I could have spent pointlessly grinding because I missed that. Maybe I'm not the most observant gamer, but could you throw me a bone Dark Souls II? I just want to level up.
I think I understand the appeal of the combat itself. It's definitely a deliberate, tactical brand of melee. Dodging and rolling often seem more important than your actual attacks. That said, I do feel at least some of the difficulty comes from the fact that the strike animations are so long and sluggish. If you're off target, you're going to get trapped in the animation and quickly killed off. Dying this often wouldn't be a huge issue for me, but the checkpoint system is very old school; oftentimes I lost a lot of progress and souls (the in-game currency) only to die by another monster's hand on my way back to where I'd failed previously. Maybe I'm just not hardcore anymore, but I actually like the frequent checkpointing of modern-day games. My time is limited, and if I'm stuck on a certain boss or battle I want to get right back there and continue the fight.
Ultimately, Dark Souls II just wore me out. I already play a game where I fail at the same repetitive tasks over and over again, with only small incremental rewards to give me the illusion of progress - It's called "real life." Proponents of Dark Souls would say that, unlike other games which give you an inflated sense of being superhuman, Dark Souls II is pitilessly in its indifference to whether or not you succeed. In this uncompromising way it teaches you to be a better gamer.
But you know what? I want an inflated sense of being superhuman in a video game! In fact, I would argue that that is the entire point of video games. Guess what? Maybe I don't want to be a better gamer. Ever think of that? I'm just going to sit here and be the same old crappy gamer I've been my whole life - just keep those endless lives, recharging health bars, and frequent checkpoints coming, video game industry! Most days, I've got a couple of hours a night to game after my wife goes to bed and before I nod off, so I'd prefer to spend that time making progress in a game, not dying endlessly. If that makes me a video game wimp, so be it.
I want to note that this opinion is coming from my own viewpoint. I understand that the Souls series has struck a nerve with a large audience - in many ways due to some of the aspects of the game that I personally find frustrating. That's fine. At a different point in my life, I may have felt the same. I'm glad I played it, and it's another reminder of how valuable these One Night Stands are for me as a game writer. I'm not going to go back to Dark Souls II, but I do come away with a better understanding of it, and a respect for the fact that the developers have bravely contradicted of much of the conventional wisdom of console game design in 2014. Dark Souls II is a definitely a game I can appreciate - preferably from a distance.
Email the author Matt Helgeson, or follow on Twitter, and Game Informer.