The black sheep of the Souls family that dares to be very good instead of great.
What is the margin between being good and being great?
It’s something I’ve often thought about. It also seems to be preoccupation of every self-motivation video I see on Instagram, or misattributed quote on Twitter. There is an obsession with greatness, and yet so few people are able to achieve it. I believe it’s because greatness is an ephemeral quality, something that shifts and mutates from work to work, that cannot be easily replicated or written down in a how-to book. You can be guided towards greatness, but you cannot be taught it.
These were my thoughts as I was playing Dark Souls 2.
Many people, including myself, thought that the first game was an unadulterated masterpiece. The second arrived with with fanfare and expectation, and amongst critics, it mostly met that expectation. In fact, given the scores on most websites, you’d assume that Dark Souls 2 was of the same quality as its predecessor. And for the first few hours, it is. Then the question began popping into my head.
What is the margin between being good and being great?
The development of Dark Souls 2 has been as well-known as the game itself. It’s also the first, and only game, in the series not at least partially helmed by the now President of FromSoftware, Hidetaka Miyazaki. Because FromSoftware was in a rush to come out with a follow-up to Dark Souls, and Miyazaki was busy working on DLC for Dark Souls as well as helming a Souls-like game for Sony (Bloodborne), a new director, Tomohiro Shibuya, took over development. However, after moving to a new engine and slow progress, Shibuya was replaced by Yui Tanimura, who would later go on to helm Dark Souls 3. For a deeper dive into the games troubled production, there are a few useful resources out there.
This is enough to put off most Souls fans. Dark Souls 2 can seem like it doesn’t have the authorial stamp that makes the Souls series. On the history of the production alone, those fans would be wrong. On the reality of the game itself, they are correct, if only by a small margin.
My own history with this particular game is not great. It was the first Souls game I ever bought, and it was the first one I bounced off of. The combat made no sense, the world was too dark, and I just didn’t like the aesthetic. In the years since I bought the game, two of those issues have since resolved themselves.
As I played through this game, my emotions see-sawed more violently that almost any other game I have ever played. I loved the first few hours, I loved how much smoother the game played than the original. I loved the hub world, your sacred safe space, Majula. It’s a coastal town bathed in permanent fading light that, in semi-Suikoden style, will populate with the NPCs you meet during your journey.
Then I got deeper into the game.
If you do even a cursory search into Souls games, you’ll see players getting killed by traps, ambushes, and cheap hits. It’s the joke of the entire series, the developers having fun with the player, taunting them with the unfairness of the world.
But in Dark Souls, it’s done sparingly, cleverly paced to shake the player out of their “I’ve figured this game out” apathy. Dark Souls 2 does not take the same approach.
In fact, Dark Souls 2 approaches the Souls series the way the newer seasons of Arrested Development tackled it’s original series. It seemed like the creators of that show heard the critics praising the first few seasons surprisingly complex story, and decided to turn a half-hour comedy into a labyrinth of plot points Rashomon-like in their complexity. The creators of Dark Souls 2 seemed to hear fans say “man! this game is so unfair!” and decided to make it more unfair.
It feels that there isn’t a treasure chest you can approach without being back stabbed by a hidden enemy. In Dark Souls and other Souls games, you have the option of spotting these enemies beforehand and killing them before they can surprise you. Dark Souls 2 wants you to be constantly ambushed.
There isn’t a large area you enter without being ganged up on by a half dozen enemies. It’s an interesting tactic every once in a while, as it changes up your fighting style. You learn how to control crowds, which is wildly different to fighting enemies one on one. But Dark Souls 2 does it constantly. Every single area has gangs of enemies that swarm you in tight spaces.
And the characters are oddly forgettable. While so many characters can feel ephemeral in Souls games, they truly feel like accessories here. The magic of Souls games’ storytelling is that the world feels like its going on around you, agnostic of your actions. Characters are on their own missions with their own motivations.
In Dark Souls 2, they feel like traditional NPCs, placed in important spots to sell you goods and feed you information. There is one NPC who appears to be on his own, doomed journey, but unlike a similar character in the original game, this character’s ending is so telegraphed you feel nothing when his expected end comes.
And this hints at the bigger issues with Dark Souls 2. It leans on one or two moves, ambushes and gangs, constantly, to make the game hard. And while it does feel hard, it more often feels cheap. The design of Dark Souls was what made the game hard, the seamless connection between world and the enemies that populate it. The original game’s levels felt like living worlds itching to kill you. Dark Souls 2 levels feel like zones populated with enemies.
Most importantly, and its something that isn’t discussed even in Dark Souls 2 criticism, is the world. Drangleic, the setting of Dark Souls 2, is nowhere near as interesting as the world of Lordran in the original Dark Souls. So many of the levels, and there are a lot of them, are drab and palely colored, blending from one texture to the other. There are so many castles to traverse that you can’t tell them apart. The “poison swamp” area of the game, a Souls hallmark, is vastly more frustrating that Blighttown. None of the areas have the terrifying feeling of the first where every hallway turn is tension filled. Dark Souls 2 areas are museums filled with the zombies of former visitors.
With all that said.
This is still a Souls game.
While the bosses are nowhere near as creative or epic, the action of fighting a boss, the chess match of dodging and timing, figuring out exactly how many hits you can get it without being punished, and when to heal, is genuinely thrilling. Some of the boss fights, which feel impossible at first, are back and fourth battles to the death that are some of the best in the series. They take some of the best parts of Dark Souls, one on one battles with similarly built foes, and make them the heart of the game’s combat. It’s a gamble that, sometimes, works.
The story is also more interesting, in its own ways. The opening cinematic is full of dread and plays to the core themes of the series. Madness.
The deeper message of the Souls saga has been that the search for power is ultimately fruitless and leads only to the madness of those who seek it. Dark Souls 2 puts this theme front and center. It makes you feel the futility of warring over control for kingdoms that are no more than piles of rubble. The world of Dark Souls 2 is empty and has long forgotten its own history. Important set pieces and moments from the original game are minutely referenced, suggesting that the epic struggles you faced in the first game was all for nothing.
Dark Souls 2 since its release has slowly become the black sheep of the Souls universe. It’s almost universally regarded as the worst Souls game. And it might be. For Souls games.
However. Were you unacquainted with the series, Dark Souls 2 comes across as a very challenging, yet thrilling action-RPG with tricky bosses and unique levels. It would be a memorable game with fascinating lore and a nearly impenetrable story (in a good way).
As I write this, I am also playing through Elden Ring. I see more of Dark Souls 2 in Elden Ring than I do of Dark Souls. The movements of the enemies, the fluidity of the running, the added challenge. A hundred different micro changes made to the series between Souls 1 and 2 carry over to the rest of the series. Dark Souls 2 tried, and succeeded at a lot of different things.
But its in all the little micro-details that you realize how narrow, and how rare, it is to be truly special.