Dark Souls 2 is the most polarizing game of the series including FromSoft’s other Souls-like games. It almost always ends up being either someone’s favorite or least favorite of them all, rarely ever ending up in between somewhere. Some people hate the lore while some find it unique when compared to the original; some dislike the more linear level design while some find it more like a true adventure. The list could go on ranging from varying opinions on bosses, PvP, the combat system, and area design, but I’ll try to touch a little on each and give my opinion on where Dark Souls 2 ranks among them all.
Dark Souls 2 takes place centuries or even millennia after the events of Dark Souls 1. The chosen undead wakes in the crumbling kingdom of Drangleic where King Vendrick and his Queen Nashandra rule. As in the first game of the series, your goal is to reach the palace and either take the throne for yourself (which is akin to rekindling the first flame) or leaving it barren. But there are many other tasks to complete on your way there. To reach the palace, you must gather four Lord Souls to pass through the Shrine of Winter – a temple blocking your path. To defeat King Vendrick you must enter the memories of Giants and gather their souls. To enter these memories, you must traverse the Dragon Aerie and converse with the Ancient Dragon. The game is layered with these plots and more (NPC side quests, optional areas, etc.) which make for a much longer story than the original game.
And like in the first game, while the base story itself is good, it would not hold up if it weren’t for those dense layers of hidden lore underneath. Despite the negativity that the game’s story initially received, I do believe that this is one of the game’s strong points. The back story about the war with the Giants and the Giants’ subsequent invasion brings themes of war that are attributable to humans and not just gods. Nashandra being born from a shard of Manus is a perfect tie-in to Dark Souls 1 and asks many questions about the player’s actions in that game. There are also many character backstories that are excellently told (Vendrick, Lucatiel, and Aldia, for a few) but I do find that overall there was not the same level of emotion developed as extensively. Sure those that I mentioned had great stories, but few other NPCs or bosses had any that are worth discussing.
With that, which story is better? I think Dark Soul 1 takes the lead, but not as much as I remember. Dark Souls 2 beats the first game in the fact that the greater length makes for a far more comprehensive and satisfying adventure. But what is packed into those extra hours does not feel as emotionally charged or as perfectly balanced. While the first game was a bit short comparatively, nearly every boss and NPC you came across had a beautiful story tied to them that I will always associate with when I see them. In Dark Souls 2, I can say that about a few, but when it comes to others like Covetous Demon, the rat bosses, or Shanalotte, I already am fuzzy on what their stories were. While all that may seem like a complaint (and some of it is, of course) it is more just a comparison, and the story of this game is still great overall.
This is the one area in the game that truly falls flat, and I can’t stand it. The combat has so many annoyances that I found myself getting incredibly frustrated multiple times per level over stuff that should never have been included. For one, locking on to enemies but still attacking in a completely different direction until you finish your attack, pause, face the enemy, and attack again. Or having the lock-on randomly switch enemies without you controlling it to. Both of these alone create a frustrating gameplay. They cause you to miss multiple attacks per fight which in turn could end up in your death, and they add nothing fun or complex to the combat system itself. The item durability is once again way too annoying. I understand that they wanted to actually make it a feature in this game as opposed to the first, but they overcorrected and then some. Items somehow break before you are even done defeating a single boss. And this all would have been somewhat forgivable if repair powder weren’t so incredibly rare until you get to Drangleic Castle.
When you’re not dealing with these annoyances, the gameplay is still incredibly fun. Everything someone loves from a Souls game is still very much there. The ability to learn enemy and boss move-sets and then exploit them to defeat the boss, the relentless difficulty that leads to satisfying wins, and the complex leveling mechanics which allow for infinite variation in gameplay types. (Which reminds me that the ability to re-spec is one of the best things FromSoft ever included). All of this is what makes the series great, but sadly they really did just take a few major steps back.
Finally, I mentioned that the stories of the bosses weren’t all that great, but neither were their designs themselves. While the main game does have some beautifully designed bosses ranging from Darklurker to Vendrick to Smelter Demon, I would honestly say that at least 75% of the main game bosses are wholly forgettable.
As for level design, as with the story, while it is definitely not as good as Dark Souls 1, it absolutely does not deserve all the hate it gets. To start with the linear layout, Majula is the home base (the Firelink Shrine equivalent) and multiple paths jut off from it going off into their own unique set of areas. Rather than everything connecting on a vertical level, these unique series of levels act as their own stages and are each given a linear path until you reach the end. I personally preferred the more vertical level design of Dark Souls 1, but I cannot truly say that it is objectively better than this type of design. It serves a more adventure-like gameplay design where you trek off further and further into the unknown, occasionally coming back to rest and recoup.
The areas themselves are a step down though, as while some are great, some lack that sense of awe that nearly every area in the first game gives you. For a few examples, No-Man’s Wharf and Lost Bastille are very monochrome and, while they have some good parts, they simply don’t make me ever excited to complete them. Earthen Peak is another obnoxious poison area, but it isn’t unique in design like Blightown. There definitely are some amazing areas like Iron Keep, Dragon Aerie, and Heide’s Tower of Flame, but the consistency isn’t as present.
The first of the three DLCs is absurdly good and when it first came out made me reinterested in playing Dark Souls 2 all the way through again. The area itself is gorgeous and brings back that incredibly intricate vertical design. It is also the first (maybe the only) time a poison-area has been done well in a Souls game. There is some wonderful anticipation as well when you see the massive temple below and realize that is the goal. And once inside, it does not disappoint either, continuing with the vertical design and puzzle-like structures and paths. Then the bosses themselves are some of the best in the game (other than one, but there’s a bad one in each DLC). I would easily rank Elanna and Sinh both in the top five in the entire game, which I believe would put the Sunken King DLC as the best Dark Souls 2 DLC in terms of overall boss fights. Unfortunately, the third area and boss is pretty bad, and even when using summons it does not make up for that fact. But nonetheless, other than the optional area, the entire Sunken King DLC is absurdly good and takes us back to the roots of Dark Souls.
The Old Iron King DLC is another winner. The outdoor areas are gorgeous with the views once again giving you that early anticipation of what is to come. The area takes place on multiple vertical towers, one of which is the main area. You work to start up the elevators to reach higher and lower areas within this tower, and every bit of it is a joy to play. The use of the Ashen Idols is one of the more interesting mechanics in the game, and the broken-up soul is a fun one to collect. Once again, there are two incredible bosses and one bad one. Fume Knight is probably the best boss in the entirety of the game, Sir Alonne is a wonderfully difficult and beautiful fight, and Smelter Demon is, unfortunately, another poorly done rehash (although better than most rehashes I will admit) with the lead up to it being worse than the fight itself. But despite this optional area again, the entire DLC itself is truly a wonderful accomplishment.
And finally, the third DLC once again comes through as one of the best moments of Dark Souls 2. The area is initially obscured by a blizzard and once you dispel it, an astounding city shrouded in ice is revealed. The world is built on a semi-vertical, semi-horizontal level design which ends up working very well. Saving the Loyce Knights forces you to explore the interesting areas you are given, and gives a great sense of progress for the boss to come. When it does come to the bosses, the Burnt King is a very fun fight with one of the best intros to any boss game in any Souls game I’ve played. The drop-down to Chaos and the battle with the Burnt Knights still floors me after having done it dozens and dozens of times. Aava is also a very fun fight which forces you to learn various tells, but the double King’s Pet fight is a mediocre rehash that comes after what is the worst area in any Souls game I have ever played. But leaving that part behind, the third and final DLC once again makes for one of the best moments of Dark Souls 2.
Dark Souls 2 is obviously a unique entry to the series for both good and bad reasons. The story is still excellent and fun to explore deeper into, the level design (while a few steps down from the original) is expertly done, and the DLCs are all some of the most exciting areas and bosses of any Souls game. But unfortunately, the lack of many great bosses overall and the far too frustrating combat system do end up making Dark Souls 2 my least favorite game by FromSoft. It simply does not live up to the rest on an initial playthrough and does not make me want to immediately replay it as the others do. But, this FromSoft is so incredible that even the worst one is worth playing. It is an awesome game that has a few too many faults, but it is still good nonetheless.
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