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A Eulogy for ‘Dark Souls II’: The Strengths and Shortcomings of One of Gaming’s Most Divisive Sequels

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Dark Souls II

Calling Dark Souls one of the most compelling and influential video games of the past generation would be an unbelievable understatement. Developed by From Software and directed by Hidetaka Miyazaki, the original Dark Souls itself was the spiritual successor to 2009’s Demon’s Souls, and served as a testament to how much a sequel can improve, polish and refine an original game’s core mechanics. Five years later, the franchise has gone on to inspire some of the most creative games in recent memory, has paved the way for the return of overtly difficult games, and has essentially created its own subgenre of challenging games with unconventional narratives. Naturally, any sequel following up what is widely considered to be one of the greatest action role-playing games of all time was going to be judged harshly.

Developed by a separate team and without the complete direction of its creator, Dark Souls II received a fairly positive reception by critics, but a surprisingly mixed reaction from the community. To this day, the game is a contentious topic among Souls fans, many of whom completely disregard its contribution to the franchise as a whole and choose to pretend it doesn’t exist. Although the sequel didn’t recreate the absolute brilliance that was the level design, atmosphere, and lore of Dark Souls, I find that it remains vastly underappreciated.

While Dark Souls II has very defined flaws, such as its problematic online system and inconsistent level design, it does its job as a sequel remarkably well. By no means does it serve as a substitution for the original game, instead, it complements and expands on the themes and systems that were already present. Although there are several lackluster aspects of Dark Souls II, its mechanical improvements, subversion of established themes and exploration of new ideas elevate it to the quality of any other game in the series and, in turn, one of the most interesting RPGs of all time.

One area that has undoubtedly improved in the sequel is its accessibility and general gameplay. As the sequel to a financially successful and critically acclaimed title, Dark Souls II has an extra degree of polish compared to its predecessors, creating subtle, yet effective changes to the series. For starters, nearly every aspect of the user interface was streamlined and simplified to be more intuitive to new players and faster to navigate for veterans. Inventory menus, character stats and upgrade trees that were incomprehensible messes of numbers and abbreviations in the original game were transformed into the easily navigated menu style that the series uses to this day.

The movement system now allowed for the players to dodge roll in eight directions, instead of four, while locked onto an enemy and jumping could be mapped to its own button. These small changes had a profound effect on how well players can maneuver during fights and explore the world. While the combat of the game has noticeably slowed down, this is really a matter of preference rather than superiority, as there are pros and cons to both the originals fast-paced and punishing duels and the sequels more methodical and tactical fights. That being said, the sequel benefits greatly from the inclusion of guard-breaking, power stance weapons and locked-on dead angles.

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Additionally, a wider variety of weapons, spells, and armor (with many being accessible from early in the game) create a larger amount of possible character combinations, making each new character fundamentally different to play. This increased build variety, the ability to respect your character’s stats and the inclusion of content exclusive to New Game+ made Dark Souls II one of the most replayable entries in the series. As much as I enjoy Bloodborne, the sheer quantity of content in this game is what keeps drawing me back to it, even if it’s not as innovative as newer games in the franchise.

As much as I love the gameplay of Dark Souls II, I know that it is completely a matter of preference and is heavily influenced by whichever game you played first. People tend to just pick a side and dedicate themselves to that game, so whether I’m trying to get somebody to join a fight club in Darkroot Garden (DS) or the Iron Keep (DSII), it’s like arguing with a brick wall. The story of Dark Souls II, on the other hand, is both interesting and beneficial to the series, regardless of which game you think plays better.

While it’s absolutely possible to appreciate the Souls games solely for their painful difficulty, meticulously designed levels or imaginative bosses, the world building and lore found in these games are second to none. The amount of information that is conveyed solely through the environment in areas such as Aldia’s Keep, The Shrine of Amana and The Forest of Fallen Giants is staggering. Although Dark Souls II was criticized for having less consistent and interesting lore when it was first released, the Scholar of the First Sin DLC added enough content to the game to put it on par with the first game.

Taken at face value, the stories of both Dark Souls and Dark Souls II boil down to “kill a bunch of monsters for their souls.” But in reality, there is much more going on than just what your character is experiencing, as each game has an extensive history behind every location you visit and every character that you meet.

The original game tells the story of how Gwyn, the Lord of Sunlight, and his race of Gods used the power of the First Flame to overthrow the immortal Dragons who ruled the world before them. Over time, the First Flame began to fade and the world started to fall apart, resulting in humans becoming cursed and turning into the zombie-like, undead hollows, which live forever but gradually go insane with each death. Gwyn sacrifices himself to delay the end of the world for a short period of time, but everything goes to hell without him and the world continues to decay.

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You play “The Chosen Undead,” a human hollow who’s destined to collect the souls of the four most important beings in the world (called “Lord Souls”) and rekindle the First Flame. At the end of the game, you can either choose to sacrifice yourself to the First Flame and delay the end of the world a little bit longer (as Gwyn did) or to allow the fire to fade and become the ruler of a world of darkness. The sequel takes place many years after the first game and focuses on your player character facing the same curse as the Chosen Undead in the first game.

Yet again you are tasked with collecting the four Lord Souls then rekindling the first flame, except now there’s a twist: your guide to the First Flame, Queen Nashandra, is actually evil and is manipulating you to bypass the barriers to the flame put in place by her King, Vendrick, when he found out she was evil. Towards the endgame, you learn that this same process of rekindling the flame as it fades has taken place countless times throughout history (called “The Cycle”) and will continue to create and destroy society as long as somebody is willing to fight the curse and sacrifice themselves to the First Flame. Finally, after defeating Nashandra, you are given the option to either accept that the curse is a part of life or walk away from the First Flame entirely, in search of a way to end the cycle for good.

The first game focuses more on building an interesting world and history around the First Flame, while the second is primarily concerned with the protagonist’s struggle against the curse and their fight to understand The Cycle. Both games’ stories work independently of each other, but when they are taken together, they become something truly special. The history of The Cycle provided in the second game retroactively adds a level of mythic importance to the events of the first game and, in turn, experiencing the Chosen Undead’s story in the first game creates a sense of nostalgia and gravitas when repeating the process in the second game. Not only does the sequel expand on the first game’s themes, it actively questions them. Although Dark Souls stands as a cornerstone of gaming, I believe it is grossly misinterpreted.

At a passing glance, Dark Souls is a historically difficult game where you are forced to overcome whatever stands in your way or continuously die trying. But this is only part of the bigger picture. While a lesser game would be content with the simple message of “Try your hardest and you can overcome anything,” Dark Souls takes an unsurprisingly grim step further, and makes the case that this arbitrary choice between a “light” or “dark” ending is just as meaningless as any other choice you’re faced with. No matter what choice you make, the outcome is the same; the game is over, and the player must restart the game or move on.

While both of these interpretations are equally valid, I think it’s remarkably telling that the harshest critic of the black and white “Prepare to Die,” slogan/mentality is the game’s own sequel. What was subtext in the first game directly becomes text in Dark Souls II. As the firekeeper in the sequel’s opening speaks of the last kingdom to rise and fall as a result of The Cycle, she states that “…one day, you will stand before its decrepit gate. Without really knowing why…,” Within the first 130 seconds of the game you are directly told how inconsequential your actions are and the game doesn’t stop there. Countless characters echo this same theme throughout the game.

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“I, too, sought fire, once. With fire, they say, a true king can harness the curse. A lie. But I knew no better…”-King Vendrick

“Many kingdoms rose and fell on this tract of earth; mine was by no means the first. Anything that has a beginning also has an end. No flame, however brilliant, does not one day splutter and fade. But then, from the ashes, the flame reignites, and a new kingdom is born, sporting a new face. It is all a curse! Heh heh heh!”-Straid of Olaphis

“Men are props on the stage of life, and no matter how tender, how exquisite… A LIE will remain A LIE!” –Aldia

While some criticize Dark Souls II for its overt bleakness, I believe it’s done purposefully, to both directly question its predecessor’s message and to interpret this “illusion of control,” in a new light. To further critique itself, the game’s structure initially mirrors the final sequence of the original game (Find the four Lord Souls, then find the King) but then goes on to subvert the player’s expectations in several ways. First, after hours of being told to seek the King, you arrive at Drangleic Castle and are introduced to the Queen.

The “dark” deceitful Nashandra herself juxtaposes the “light” and noble Vendrick and Gwyn. Even when we first meet Vendrick, he is not the proud or fierce Lord we are expecting in the vein of Gwyn. Instead, the player fights their way through the decaying Drangleic Castle, endures the Undead Crypt, and defeats Vendrick’s Royal Guard only to be greeted by a fully hollowed King, aimlessly shuffling around his burial room as an undead. This same subversion is central to the overarching story of the sequel as a whole and is paramount in understanding the game’s climax.

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Before examining the true ending, it’s important to understand Dark Souls II’s change in perspective from a world based narrative to one driven by characters. One fair criticism of this game is that it featured a far less impressive list of supporting characters than Dark Souls. Regardless of what was or was not cut from the final version of Dark Souls II, I can’t really say it provided any characters as iconic as the likes of Solaire and Artorias.

The brief interactions with the majority of NPCs are serviceably engaging but the only real standout among them is Lucatiel’s slow deterioration to a hollow. What the story lacks in scope it more than makes up for in focus, as Vendrick, Nashandra, The Emerald Herald (a mysterious firekeeper who levels you up) and most importantly the player character, are all given ample space to be fleshed out. While the item descriptions of the souls of both the King and Queen serve as small character arcs, posing questions on the nature of “light and dark,” and The Emerald Herald is meant to parallel Nashandra’s manipulation of the King, I believe the driving force of the story comes from its obsession with the main character and the question of what their true motivation is.

The opening cinematic of Dark Souls sets the stage for a story of legendary scale involving Gods, immortal Dragons, wars deciding the fate of the world, eternally cursed humans and the source of life itself. Throughout the game, you seek “Humanity,” the blackened remains of fallen humans, in order to keep the undead curse at bay and remain human. Dark Souls II doesn’t frame itself as some grand epic. There are no wars, Dragons or Gods, only the player character and the curse. Vistas of impossibly large battlefields and kingdoms basking in sunlight are replaced by disturbing, claustrophobic shots of the curse tearing away at our character’s very humanity as their memory fades before their eyes.

Your character’s only tie to reality comes in the form of “Human Effigies,” small replicas of humans that function the same as Humanity. While the sequel is often criticized for being so upfront with the importance of the curse, as opposed to allowing the environment to gradually reveal its intricacies to the player, I think the change in perspective necessitates the change in tone from the past game. Although this story is seemingly more forward than the original, it does so to intentionally misinform the player’s actions so the rug can be pulled out from under them in the endgame.

As I previously mentioned, at face value, the original Dark Souls appears to be the token, soul-crushingly difficult challenge that it has become known for. However, this is actually a very elementary interpretation of the game. As fans of the series have come to learn through each games extensive history of hidden lore, the Souls series is actually just as complex at a narrative level as it is at a gameplay level. The encompassing theme of Dark Souls is that choice itself is an illusion. Light or dark ultimately cap off the game the same way and accomplish the same thing: nothing. The game ends, the credits roll and the player is kicked into NG+ to endlessly repeat the same actions in hopes of a different result. Just as the protagonist of the first game, the player comes to realize they are simply a pawn of forces greater than themselves, the game designers.

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The sequel, on the other hand, offers a slightly more optimistic, albeit vague, conclusion. The subtext of the original game’s ending is presented openly and directly to the player after the final boss has been defeated. There is no good or bad ending, no light or dark path, no choice, the player’s only option is to ascend the throne of want, rekindle the first flame and repeat the cycle anew. That is until Scholar of the First Sin arrived. Without the addition of Aldia (The king’s brother, who was consumed by the First Flame and now exists outside of all worlds) in this DLC, the game’s ending is somewhat unsatisfactory as there were constant hints of “breaking the cycle” throughout the vanilla game. Aldia guides the main character on their path to breaking free of the curse and constantly questions the futility of this process.

From a narrative standpoint, he serves to compare the inconsequentiality of the main character’s acts to the illusion of importance experienced by the player themselves. The new ending, enabling the main character to walk away from The Cycle and the First Flame entirely, arrives at the same nihilistic conclusion as the original story, but takes an unexpected turn:

“There is no path. Beyond the scope of light, beyond the reach of Dark…what could possibly await us? And yet, we seek it, insatiable…Such is our fate.” -Aldia, DLC ending

Just as Aldia states, it seems that it is human nature to desire what is intrinsically outside of our reach and to pursue it regardless. Dark Souls II does not shy away from this fact, it embraces it. Even in this ending, the player is encouraged to continue their Sisyphean journey and continue playing, the only true option available.

“For the curse of life, is the curse of want. And so, you peer… Into the fog, in hope of answers.” -Ancient Dragon

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