When I started playing Dark Souls on the Xbox 360, I wasn’t really prepared for how punishingly difficult it would be to tackle. The tag line for the game, the ominous “Prepare to die”, should have been my first hint this wasn’t going to be the spiritual sequel to My Little Pony I was hoping for, but me being me and having the burden of superlative video game confidence, I thought it would be a walk in the park. Needless to say, I spent about 2 hours with Dark Souls before succumbing to the might of 3 weedy skeletons in a graveyard and not knowing what I had to do or how I was supposed to do it. Most enemies in the early game these days go down with a quaint whisper in the ear about their name tag merely reading ‘Unnamed Henchman #6’, so when these skeletons wouldn’t give in to my noble but unbecoming dagger with quite as much ease, it didn’t take me long to open up Amazon and add the game to my list of items for sale. There haven’t been many games where I’ve rage quit entirely within a few hours, but Dark Souls is one of them. I’d hate to think how hard Demon Souls on the PlayStation 3 was, if it’s as difficult as I’ve been led to believe. To be fair, I did make it past those skeletons in the cliffside graveyard, but not long thereafter I reached a flying boss (a gargoyle if memory serves) on a church roof and put down my controller after a single, dismal attempt.
The Demon/Dark Souls games are games I’ve always wanted to play and enjoy, but that first experience really took a toll on the aforementioned confidence. However, with me leading the most social of lives, I spent New Year’s Eve at home being bored of my current Xbox One games, mulling over what new type of experience I could try to renew my waning interest once more. There was only so much first person shooting or imitation football I could play, so I ended up settling on the 3rd person, soul destroying (get it?) experience that is ‘Dark Souls II: Scholar Of The First Sin’. I picked it up from GAME on new year’s morn at a 2nd hand price of £20 (or maybe £25), concerned the DLC code I had read it included would be used by its previous owner, but equally not fussed as I doubted I would make it out of the first area anyway. Sequels do tend to get more accessible to bring in the masses, though, so we would see as soon as the game had installed itself on my console.
As I booted the game, it brought back memories of PS2-era gaming for me. I think it’s those Japanese menu systems like you get from Konami that I associate with countless hours of the early PES games; the responsive inputs, the old school sound effects when changing option, and the fact that when you press Start, the menu appears immediately and doesn’t seem to cause the entire system to labour along like a weary old man on his way to the local library. Having got myself started with a new character that I didn’t want to spend longer creating than I would with the game proper, or would be covered by a helmet for all of eternity, I soon remembered why I submitted to Dark Souls a few years ago. This game is hard. Near enough the first enemy I came up against was an enormous ogre that took my life on no less than 15 occasions. It turns out, I didn’t even need to kill it, as the route it led to took me back to where I started. Dark Souls II has an introductory area called ‘Things Betwixt’ that does a pretty good job of getting you started by way of in-world signposting to tell you the main controls. What I like most is that I haven’t got some ethereal co-driver guiding me through the section with the faintest hint of sincerity when, given the fantastical themes of the game, the devs wouldn’t be misplaced in doing so.
Making your way out of Things Betwixt, you are presented with Majula, the game hub and generally most safe (those damn piglets!) and tranquil spot for relaxing in a game with absolutely no pausing whatsoever. You can’t just hit pause mid battle to have a think about your next move or eat a few more Doritos. No, once you’re in, you’re in. To me, it’s the general lack of “do this now, do that next” hand holding that I’ve been looking for in a game for a long time, as in recent years, from a veteran gamer’s perspective (I think 20 years counts as veteran), it’s too easy nowadays; I’m not a child, please don’t treat me like one. In games like Fallout 4 you are technically free to go anywhere at any point, but most people tend to stay on the safer route indicated by an overwhelming number of waypoints. I know it’s supposed to be so we can “craft our own story”, but they all end up near enough the same in a slightly different order, so why bother? Dark Souls II doesn’t. It doesn’t have a map, it doesn’t have hundreds of quests (I still don’t really know why I’m doing what I’m doing and I’m halfway through the game), and there’s no floating icons in the distance telling you this is where you have to go next. It’s refreshing to have to think about where you want to go out of a select few options, and when that location is nigh on impossible to conquer because the enemies are billions of levels higher than you, to have to backtrack and think again. I think this trend has taken off because game devs are catering to the masses these days, the people who are newer to gaming and can’t stomach a challenge, or those that don’t have as much time to invest and so are deterred by what might be seen as time wasted by going the “wrong way.”
The beauty is, if you’re good enough, there almost is no wrong way in Dark Souls 2. Once you’ve had a little chat with a lady who has nothing better to do than hang out by a bonfire waiting to use some hard earned souls to level you up, there are three areas you can tackle, none of which you’re told you must do before another; albeit some are certainly easier than others. There is a fourth route you’re more than welcome to try but it’ll end in certain death; not that you’re told, it is left for you to find out for yourself (which I sadly did, if only for science.) The bonfires primarily serve as both fast travel points, as well as checkpoints as you progress through each zone. There are usually around 3-4 bonfires per area, some of which you can’t miss, whilst others you’ll have to work pretty hard to find (or follow the messages other players leave for you on the ground as hints!) Once you reach a bonfire you might think how great you are for another segment complete, and more often than not you’d be right. The problem is, you can’t just go back on yourself to explore another little corner of the map you missed now you have a checkpoint to re-spawn from when you next die, you have to face off against the same recently slain enemies, as they re-spawn each time you rest. Way to make the game just that little bit more challenging, FromSoftware, thanks a bunch. It all serves to make it that much more difficult to progress.
Retracing old ground is a common tool deployed in open world games these days, and it’s a feature I like in Dark Souls a lot. As I said before, you end up turning back on yourself and revisiting the same areas again simply because you’re too low a level and your gear isn’t good enough to tackle certain enemies, but there are also some other reason to go back to a zone you thought you were done with. The biggest one, often literally, is to return to kill an optional mini-boss you ran scared from earlier in the play through. The best example I have so far in Dark Souls 2 is in an area called ‘Heidi’s Tower of Flame’. My first time through the Tower, all I could do to reach the area boss was sprint past the seven goliath sized enemies wielding swords and hammers longer than my character is tall and a couple of shiny silver Knights that remind me of Yoda, pretending they’re old and frail but tearing you a new one if you engage in combat. If I’d stayed to kill them I would have had no health potions (known as the Estus Flask, which recharges when you rest at a bonfire, along with your foes, remember?) left for the boss at the end, which I couldn’t very well have now, could I? This quick sharp cowardice resulted in me killing the boss (with the aid of an AI controlled aide who I let be sword fodder), but gave me no chance to investigate an alternative path that I could see housed a giant red dragon that you just know would yield massive amounts of souls and some decent items or gear. I didn’t dare go back for fear of death, and the chance to permanently lose those hard earned souls (and therefore important level ups), so left the dragon for a later day. After some time and conquering quite a few more of the games themed zones (think ‘Crystal Maze‘ for the extreme environment changes), I returned to the area with my now comparatively superhero like character and made light work of the minions I skipped by before, and similarly slayed the dragon by chopping at his tail with mighty hand axe until he turned to dust. The prize was next to worthless by this point, but it felt like a challenge overcome, and that was far more rewarding than an item I would have replaced 30 minutes later anyway.
I won’t go on and on, I’m not some kind of Dark Souls scholar, but if you’re looking for a game to both test and reward you for your skill as a player, then look no further. You aren’t rewarded with meaningless peripherals (well, you are but hey, that’s not the point I’m trying to make), instead, are filled with pride at what you have accomplished after every area beaten, and every boss vanquished. That is what gaming used to be about, and I’m glad I could find it again with Dark Souls II, even if I’m not finished a single play through after 35 edge of the seat, shit your pants hours.
Personally, I struggled with the first entry in the series, but definitely look into Dark Souls II as soon as possible, especially with the third entry in the series looming next month: