Dark Souls II

A Journal Of Death: Five Hours With Dark Souls II
by Andrew Reiner on Mar 06, 2014 at 09:21 AM
Platform PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC
Publisher Bandai Namco
Developer From Software
Rating Teen

[This feature originally appeared in Game Informer issue #251]

Stumbling through a heavy downpour, you fall to your knees, gravity unceremoniously pulling you down face first into the mud as thunder booms above the forest’s canopy. You hear an elderly woman’s voice holding a calm, cautionary tone. “You will lose everything. Once branded. The symbol of the curse. An augur of darkness. Your past. Your future. Your very light. None will have meaning, and you won’t even care. By then you will be something other than human. A thing that feeds on souls. A Hollow.”

Hazy memories of a life soon forgotten flash before your eyes. You see a loving mother holding an infant close to her chest. She’s in a moment of motherly tranquility, yet her black robes and sullen expression tell another story. In a flash, splinters of wood dislodge from the ceiling, falling slowly like light snowfall. The wood rains down on the woman and child, but they are oblivious to it, unmoving. You enter the room. Your back is diseased, a shadowy blur of grotesquerie. You raise your hand toward the family, inching closer ever so slowly. And then the unexpected happens. The woman and child melt rapidly, looking like wax figurines held to a blaze.

You blink out of this moment and into another reality. Your hand is still outstretched, only now it’s reaching for a door. A familiar voice grabs your attention again. It’s that of the old woman, who is seated at a loom directly behind you. She tells you of Drangleic, a land to the north. You see it for a brief second; a kingdom built into mountaintops, spiked castle spires piercing a beautiful sunset filled with dozens of airborne dragons.

The old woman warns, “One day you will stand before its decrepit gate ­without knowing why.” A smile creeps across her face, a flicker of life almost appearing in her pearly white eyes.

You journey across land and sea to find it, passing across realms in ruin and littered with the dead. Your expedition ends at a pool, so calm not a ripple can be seen on it. On the far side of the pool rests Drangleic’s gate. It registers your presence and opens, releasing a harsh breeze. Your skin cracks and dies, and your pupils become black voids. Winds send a swarm of specters across the pool. They roar over it, their skeletal features screaming out in anguish, turning the waters into a violent vortex.

You study the swirling waters for a brief second, and then calmly leap into it. “For that is your fate,” the old woman says. “The fate of the cursed.”

This is Dark Souls II’s dramatic introductory sequence. When you take control of your character, all that guides you are a hint of a past life and a vision of a kingdom overrun with beasts. Your skin is green, dead. From this point forward, what happens next and who you become is in your hands.

My first moments in Dark Souls II are best told through a journal of death. I explored Drangleic for over five hours on PlayStation 3, and in that time, I kept the Grim Reaper busy. Over the next four pages, I chronicle the events that lead up to 20 painful defeats. Although I was beaten and bloodied in the early stages of my journey, I learned from my mistakes, adapted to my surroundings, and made significant progress through this challenging world. Read on to find out what transpired during my quest, and to see how Dark Souls II differs from its predecessor. 

Warning: Light spoilers abound.

Death 1: One Small Step
The first stop for every player is to enter the cabin, which is home to a coven of witches known as the Fire Keepers. They speak cryptically of who you are, but give you a gift to help you remember. This item, called the Human Effigy, is a new addition to Dark Souls II that reverses Hollowing and also weakens links between your world and those of other players.

In this instance, however, the Effigy is used as means to create your character. You gaze upon it and recall what your physical being looked like. The character-creation process is as barebones and disappointing as it was in the first Dark Souls. Little effort was put forth to enhance the character model details or give players the tools necessary to truly create unique identities. The most dramatic character differences are once again wild hair colors. Next up is selecting a class. The choices are not as robust, offering just Warrior, Knight, Swordsman (a new addition), Bandit, Cleric, Sorcerer, Explorer, and Deprived (who is now hiking the loincloth as high as possible in the front, but is fully covered in the back). Noticeably absent are the Wanderer, Thief, Hunter, and Pyromancer classes from Dark Souls.

After selecting Sorcerer (my go-to class in the first Dark Souls), I’m given the option to select a gift from a list of seven options. While I debate grabbing the Homeword Bone, which can send me back to a bonfire, I select a Life Ring that gives my character a slight bump in HP. The oddest choices are Petrified Something (an oddly shaped lump that suggests it will have a use at some point in the game), and the Bonfire Ascetic, an item that, once thrown in a bonfire, raises the strength of nearby enemies.

The witches inform me that I’ve come to this land to break the curse that has befallen me. After conversing with each chatty witch, I depart their abode and run into my first bonfire. I take a seat in front of it and I’m presented with a list of options. I can use bonfires to travel, attune spells, burn items, and access my item box. The “level up” option is not present at this point.

A brief jaunt brings me into a darkly lit woodland. I’m not on the forest floor, and instead find myself elevated a good 30 feet above it on narrow passageways (I’m sure I’m a goner if I make one wrong step). This zone is infested with slow moving adversaries, appearing to be knights who have gone Hollow. They wield either sword or bow, and are easy to fell, as they lack significant motor skills and act like zombies. When I take their lives, they explode into dust. In these early moments I’m already in a groove with the controls, which are identical to Dark Souls.

After exploring many different paths that lead through hollowed out trees, I come upon an overlook with an expansive swamp below. Lurking on its shore is a creature that can best be described as an obese bipedal rat. One of my favorite aspects in Dark Souls is that oft chance of stumbling upon a high-level adversary. I’m already hit with that sensation, and I sit motionless for a few seconds to determine if I should continue along the path or leap into the swamp to try to take down this beast. I roll off of the cliff and plunge into the water with a splash. My character doesn’t resurface. My first death comes from drowning.

Death 2: An Unexpected Encounter
I awaken at the bonfire outside of the witches’ home. I retrace my steps as best
I can. Enemies are all in the same locations. When I reach the clearing this time around, I stay on the cliff, touching the bloodstain where I died previously to regain the souls I’ve collected from slaying enemies, and I also burn my only Human Effigy to restore my humanity. Whenever you die in Dark Souls II, you start off with less health. Restoring humanity brings the character’s health back to full. Are Human Effigies going to be in great abundance? I’m willing to bet they won’t be. This realization makes me think I should have saved the one I had.

At the end of the forest, I find a path that leads up to a small crack in a canyon wall. I enter it and the visual aesthetic changes completely. I run toward a blinding light and emerge onto a sprawling golden terrain filled with rocks and dead trees. The game alerts me that I’ve entered a zone called Majula. The hilly terrain creates bad sightlines, and though I can’t get my bearing in this area I do see numerous destinations, such as a black tower in the distance, what appears to be the remnants of a city in a nearby valley, and a sprawling ocean.

I cling to the hillside to my left and stumble upon another cave entrance that I likely wouldn’t have noticed had I not hugged this side of the terrain. This path is not a place for claustrophobic people, offering little room to do anything more than maneuver forward or back. In this dark passage, I find ruins of an ancient civilization that must have perished from the cave collapsing. I emerge from this dark area onto a path and immediately seize up. Leaning against a nearby rock is a knight taking an afternoon nap. He’s armed with a sword the size of Cloud’s Buster Sword from Final Fantasy VII and the glow of a Jedi’s lightsaber. I inch forward slowly. When I reach his location, he doesn’t move. A prompt to communicate with the knight appears. He needs help; he wants me to remove a statue from a tower. Traveling a little further down the path, I come across said tower, and the statue, which is more disturbing than I thought: It’s a woman who looks to have been trying to flee, but was turned into stone just as she was trying to open a door. She’s petrified in front of the door’s lever. Can I remove her? Heal her? I have no answers, and I see no solutions.

On my way out of this area, I see two gates that escaped my vision on my way in. I open one, and a creature leaps out, giving me a jump scare. I inch backward slowly, and am taken further off guard by the creature’s body. He looks a little bit like Lord of the Rings’ Gollum – skinny to the bone, but with an enormous stomach that drags on the ground. One quick claw strike from this foul monster ends my life. I’m not opening that gate again until I level up. I check the bonfire to see if that option is available yet, and it’s still absent. Odd.

Deaths 3-9: The Cat and the White Knight
After retrieving my souls from the tower, I retreat through the cave and progress deeper into Majula. That village I spied in the valley is my next stop. It consists of three houses. One shop offers armor, but I can’t afford anything yet. Another is occupied by a talking cat named Shalquoir, who compliments me on my fragrance and tries to sell me rings and items. I’m not interested in what she’s peddling. At the center of this town is a giant concrete pit. Peering over the side of it, I can’t see how far down it goes, but I do spot ledges holding flashing items roughly 50 feet down. I already died once from taking an ill-advised leap. I won’t do it again…yet.

On my way out of this settlement, I find a bonfire on a hill overlooking the ocean, a foreboding sight consisting of black waves passing through jagged rocks. Upon exploring the area thoroughly, I learn how to level up my character, but it wouldn’t be fair of me to reveal it here, as it seems like another element From Software wants people to figure out on their own. I turn in what souls I have to reach level 12. I focus mostly on improving my stamina (which is tied to spell casting).

Clinging to the oceanfront, I spy another cave. Before entering, I light my torch with a lantern. I use it to explore this darkened area – a new feature in Dark Souls II. This dreary place takes me into a well-preserved brick catacomb that eventually gives way to an underground river and the ominously named “Forest of Fallen Giants.”

A Hollow knight and some archers are no match for my Soul Arrow strikes, but one hidden foe lands an unexpected blow, injuring me severely. Rather than using a lifegem to heal, my curiosity gets the best of me. I ascend a ladder and touch foot in a beautiful, enclosed grassland with a giant tree in the center. This area is filled with enemies, including a new foe: a white knight, who is resting against the tree’s trunk. All of the adversaries hone in on me, and out of the corner of my eye, I can see the knight getting to his feet. I frantically try to take down as many foes as I can, hoping against hope to battle the white knight without any other interference. The white knight sprints into the fray, pushing past the other foes to crowd me. He’s at least eight feet tall. I circle strafe to avoid his sword strikes successfully for roughly a minute. I sprint behind the tree and try to use it as cover, peeping out for a second to launch an arrow at the knight. This works well until I run out of Soul Arrows. At this point, I switch to my dagger. It’s a weak blade, but it can stun enemies temporarily with its quick strikes. Unfortunately, I can’t pick away at the pack fast enough. Numerous enemies land the final blow on me at the same time. I die horribly.

I foolishly try the same tactics five more times, thinking I actually stand a chance, but I don’t. My last foolhardy attempt depletes all of my health and magic resources. Not only do I have less health to work with after each death, my soul reserve is stuck in what appears to be a no-win situation.

The only ray of hope that exists for me is a small opening in a mossy wall to the right of the tree. On my next attempt, I sprint directly through this gap, and several enemies give chase. I climb a ladder, thinking I’m safe, but I immediately run into two more foes, which stop me dead in my tracks.

After an awkward pause, I kill them with dagger and turn my attention back to the ladder. My attackers are climbing, and I realize that I’m only alive because they move at a snail’s pace. I take them down one by one, and continue exploring this elevated terrain, which runs around the tree area. My Soul Arrow won’t reach the white knight, but I’ve done a nice job of removing the threat from this troublesome zone. Only the knight and two other foes remain. I replenish my Soul Arrows.

My heart racing, I retrace my steps and confront the white knight. I won’t let him or his friends get close. I have the room to maneuver, and I’ve managed to bunch them together, making for an easy battle. The knight is a Soul Arrow sponge, taking nine shots to drop.

With the threat cleared, I study my ­surroundings and find another path in this area that leads me through a dilapidated castle interior to a bonfire. A saleswoman who has five effigies in supply (900 souls each) warms herself by the fire. I purchase two, and all of the other items
I need to get back to fighting shape.

A ladder near the fire takes me into a dungeon that looks eerily like Sen’s Fortress from Dark Souls. I move with caution, fearing I’ll trigger a trap. Spear-wielding knights are roaming the walkways, and many of the corpses I pass reanimate. I’m on edge. I won’t ruin some of the surprises that this area holds, but I advise that great caution be taken in exploring this zone. The level designers at From Software clearly had a good time putting this deadly fortress together.

Although I’m inching through it slowly, I’m dealt an unexpected death by a firebomb thrown by an unseen adversary, who is holed up in a second story window.

Deaths 10-20: Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum
Retracing my steps to retrieve my souls takes roughly five minutes. This area is fairly large and nicely designed, offering plenty of locked doors and openings that I haven’t explored yet. My next death comes quickly. A slow-moving turtle wielding a sizable mace lands a “lucky” blow against me when I try to take advantage of his slow movements, hoping I can take him out with my dagger. One hit is all it takes to smash me into the ground.

Although I try to follow in my same footsteps again to get my souls back, I see a ladder that eluded me before and decide to explore it. What happens next is both awesome and surprising to the point that I won’t spoil it here. Whatever I encountered killed me – I didn’t stand a chance. I ascend the ladder again, hoping to grab my souls and run, but the mysterious threat is no longer here. Very strange.

With a fair number of souls in tow, I use a Homeward Bone item to return to the last bonfire I used. From there, I fast travel to Majula’s bonfire so that I can level up and hopefully stand a better chance in this challenging dungeon.

Upon returning to my previous point, I make great progress over my next few lives. Numerous shortcuts are opened, allowing for quick travel to new areas. I even stumble upon a new helm that gives my defense a much-needed boost.

I also learn why this world is called the “Forest of Fallen Giants.” In the lower section of this maze-like fortress, I pass through a mist portal, triggering a cinematic sequence that reveals my first legitimate boss encounter, a ghastly being called The Last Giant. He stands around 30 feet tall, and seeing that he has a giant tree trunk impaled through his torso and other various objects jetting out from his mud-like skin, I doubt my Soul Arrows are going to phase him much. My assumption is correct. Each shot only takes off a sliver of his health. Thankfully, his attack patterns are easy to read, granting me plenty of time to roll out of the way. When I deplete roughly half of his health, he wises up and changes his tactics – removing one of his arms to use as a club. This painful choice makes him more aggressive and gives him a new set of attacks. One wild arm swipe is all it takes to end my life.
When I return to his lair, I can’t help but smile, as I know he’s going to die this time around. The reason for this is a glowing mark that has materialized in front of the mist gate. Interacting with this mark gives me the option to summon an NPC-controlled Phantom into my game. I waste no time doing this, and a ghostly knight appears at my side, following me through the gate.

My newfound friend charges the Last Giant and hacks away at his leg. He keeps it busy, dealing a fair amount of damage as I fire off Soul Arrows from a safe distance. Our combined effort overwhelms the beast, and he collapses without even engaging me. This victory rewards me with a bounty of souls and a key, which will presumably opens up one of the numerous doors I passed earlier.

The key does just that. Although I’m technically still running through the ruins of the same fortress, the sun finds this new area, casting it into different, more vibrant light. Horrors still lurk around most of corners, but this area eases my stress-level. After spending a few minutes in this wing of the fortress, I run into another mist gate that leads to a second boss. He goes by the name of The Pursuer. This heavyset humanoid figure stands roughly nine feet in height. All of his features are hidden behind thick silver armor. His sword and shield are comically large.

His appearance isn’t as menacing as the Last Giant. He floats slowly toward me. I unload Soul Arrows as fast as I can, but they do little damage. I learn quickly that he has a long reach with his sword. Rolling to evade is incredibly challenging, and as his name implies, he always seems to be in pursuit. I pick away at his health, taking off roughly 20 percent, before one of my evasive maneuvers ­falters. This life was my best attempt. All of the others that follow are absolutely pathetic.

That’s where my journey ends. Not with victory, but with a death that lives up to the legacy of this series, making me question whether or not I have the skills to take down this foe. Even as I write this, I want to jump back in and give The Pursuer another shot.

My extensive time with Dark Souls II taught me that this entry carries the series’ torch of throwing players into gameplay rapids rolling with crushing defeats, great triumphs, and plenty of unexpected twists. I walked away feeling like I played more of the first game. From Software and new director Yui Tanimura are clearly trying to replicate the experience that came before, and I think that’s a great decision.

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