Dark Souls 2 is Kind of Disappointing

dark souls 2

Look at the awesome picture of my character that I took with my phone. She got that scythe for beating the final boss. It’s badass.

{OBLIGATORY SPOILER WARNING}

There’s a huge door between me and the final boss.

When I approach it, the huge door tells me to produce the sign of the king. I go into my inventory. I find the King’s Ring, put it on.

The ring starts a process. The door seems to consider it a moment before a mechanism starts to spin. The device moves slowly. Gears turn to unlock and free the huge door. It opens with dramatic sluggishness, gradually swinging inward.

I go into my inventory again, restore the ring I know I’ll need for what’s ahead—equipment that boosts my attack power.

When I finally get through the huge door, I’m in a huge cavern. I’m standing on a walkway that is suspended above a chasm. There are torches on stone columns on either side of the walkway. The walkway is dramatically long and winds its way to a fog door in the distance. I can’t just run forward in a straight line. I have to pay attention and navigate the curves, otherwise I could easily fall off.

So I start running.

Should my anticipation be mounting at this point? Am I supposed to use this time to reflect on what I’m about to do? Should I be experiencing a greater sense of purpose as I rush towards the end-game?

Honestly, I’m just kind of annoyed. I finally reach the fog door and go through it and find the first of what will be two boss battles. I die pretty quickly.

Then I’m back at the bonfire. The huge door is between me and the final boss again.

Produce the sign of the king.”

Go into inventory, put on ring. Door reacts in its own time. Go back into inventory, put on the ring I actually need for the battle. Run down the winding path. On and on and on.

Die and do it all again.

Yeah, I figure this sequence is supposed to be dramatic. There’s a sense of ceremony in the act of presenting the ring, in running down the torch-lined path to that ominous fog door. But truth be told, I think it’s annoying as hell.

I’ve seen plenty of others say that the final boss battle of Dark Souls 2—against Drangleic’s queen Nashandra—is disappointingly easy and anticlimactic. I, however, struggled with this particular fight more than any other in the game. All of her attacks resulted in instant death. I needed to make a perfect run. And maybe that wouldn’t have been so bad, except that each time I died, I had to go through this agonizingly long sequence just to reach her (and promptly die) again.

Surely, I think, the developers must have expected that players would be going through this repeatedly. Surely they understood the tedium of wading through inventory menus to put on and take off rings and then to wait for the door and then to scramble down this empty walkway. Surely that damned door could just stay OPEN after the first time! …But obviously not because I keep having to do this stupid set of actions again and again.

What I’m sure is supposed to be a ritualistic and dread-building segment ends up being infuriatingly pointless. It feels gimmicky.

And really, that’s how I feel about a lot of Dark Souls 2.

But isn’t that, like, the point? The tedium, the frustration, the repetition-until-perfection…isn’t that what Dark Souls is?

Well, yes, I guess. Yes and no.

I’ve been on a Dark Souls spree since the beginning of March. I played through the first game for the first time (after a half-hearted and failed attempt to start it a couple of years ago), finishing it at the beginning of this month. Then I immediately started the second game. Something about the first game just worked for me. I was hooked and I loved every minute of it, even when I was at my most exasperated. I had originally started it for academic purposes, but soon I felt absolutely determined to finish it. I thought it was a fantastic game.

But for reasons that I still struggle to put my finger on, Dark Souls 2 just doesn’t work for me the way its predecessor did.

The two games function very similarly. But while the mechanics, the flow of the game, and its structure grabbed me and pushed me forward in the first Dark Souls, many of those near-identical gameplay elements bored and irritated me in the second. I eventually got burnt-out, and by the time I reached the downhill slope to the end, I was so aggravated that I just wanted to finish and be done with it. It was like the game just gradually disintegrated and fell apart in the end.

There are, of course, some crucial differences that contributed to this. One is the central hub of Majula. The village is supposed to act much like Firelink Shrine of the original, but more. It is designed to require players to return far more frequently, spend far more time there, and interact with more NPCs. It is also now where players must go each time they want to level up—which ends up being grossly and unnecessarily tedious.

Another change between games is that enemies no longer infinitely respawn. When you kill them, enemies drop souls—the game’s currency and experience points. To level up, you use souls. But if you die, you drop all of your souls. And if you don’t get them back before dying again, they’re gone. And if you kill all of the enemies in an area and they stop respawning, they’re gone. Dark Souls 2 wants you to think that souls are a scarce and invaluable resource that you need to handle and spend wisely and carefully.

What you end up with is just plain ol’ irritating—not pleasantly and enjoyably challenging.

Because you have to return to Majula to level up, whenever you get enough souls to level up, you end up abruptly stopping what you’re doing so that you can make a mad dash back to a bonfire so that you can teleport back to Majula so that you can use those precious souls to gain a level. Then you teleport back to wherever you were and make your way back to whatever you were doing and then go at it again. I hate to use the cliché, but it’s immersion-breaking. It’s also just a pointless waste of time.

There are some other annoying little habits that these changes create, too. The availability of fast-travel from the game’s outset made me feel disconnected from the world. It eliminated the sense of interconnectedness the existed in the first game, where moving from one area to the next was a thrilling process of discovery, of understanding how every piece of Lordran was tied together and related to one another.

Movement in the original Dark Souls was also an experience of calculated risk. Going into a new, unknown area always posed the possibility of getting stuck, of finding something too tough to face, of then needing to struggle to find a way out. There was always a sense of impending doom. As a result, every little bit of progress felt like a well-earned victory.

An especially memorable moment that illustrates this for me occurred when I had accidentally stumbled on the path to Great Hollow from Blighttown. Getting to the swamp at the bottom of Blighttown had taken me a very, very long time. It had been an ordeal (as I think many other Dark Souls players would agree). Still, I poked my nose in Great Hollow against my better judgment while the boss of Blighttown was still unbeaten. I ended up running into a creature that cursed me.

In Dark Souls, getting a curse was a horrifically bad thing. It would cut your HP in half (which in Dark Souls 2 is basically a default thing if you’re Hollow and not wearing a particular ring). I knew I couldn’t face Blighttown’s boss with half my HP. I couldn’t do anything in Blighttown with half my HP, really. But I didn’t have the item necessary to cure my curse. It was very, very far away…and would require that I leave Blighttown after I had worked so hard to get down there. So I had a choice: try to face the boss with a curse or try to make the run out of Blighttown and to the merchant that had a(n expensive) cure…which would then mean having to run back to Blighttown afterward and make the descent into the swamp yet again.

It was a bad day in my Dark Souls life. And it was all because I’d decided to go exploring. But this didn’t feel tedious or pointless. It was a challenge, a risky move I had made; it was my own damned fault and I knew it.

In Dark Souls 2, I went into any area knowing that if it was too much for me, I could just teleport out. Not only did this prevent any real apprehension or challenge or subsequent sense of accomplishment, but my patience for any given area wore thin very quickly. If I faced something I didn’t want to do, I would just warp away and go find something else to do somewhere else. Or if I ran into trouble, I could just go to Majula and buy some new stuff and reinforce my weapons and equipment and bulk myself up and then I’d go smash things. I would just skip from one place to the next at whim.

More often than not, the game felt less like a pursuit of perfection and more like dull level-grinding. If I ran into a tough spot, I would just repeatedly kill enemies one at a time until they were completely gone. Moreover, because the game tried to suggest that souls were a finite resource (which they really weren’t), I felt like I needed to fight against enemies until they stopped respawning so that I could move through areas without the risk of being killed, and therefore without the risk of losing souls.

This was especially the case for paths that led to boss battles (or what I thought would be boss battles—there were so many fog doors and so many boss battles in close proximity to one another that I ended up just constantly grinding). I was always afraid of racking up souls on my path to a boss, only to get killed in the boss battle. Then I would run the risk of getting killed on the way back, or killed by the boss, and then losing all of the souls I had collected on the way. By the end, countless areas of my game were cleared and empty.

(If you’re curious about how I eventually figured out how I could still get souls and why I now don’t think they’re a finite resources: I ended up farming huge amounts of souls through co-op and PvP, most frequently by inviting other players to summon me as a phantom to help them with boss battles, invasions, or other difficult segments of the game. This could net me thousands of souls in a very short period of time. And if I was using the Small White Soapstone, I could also farm Smooth and Silky Stones at the same time, which also allowed me to farm other valuable and supposedly finite resources. Anyway).

But even the similarities between games felt gimmicky and grating with the way they were presented in Dark Souls 2. Frankly, I think this is due to lazy design. There were so many parts that felt identical to the first Dark Souls—and not in a good way. It felt like a sloppy rehashing of what I had already done.

Trying to maintain a high level of difficulty felt like a forced exercise, speaking of gimmicks. True, there were sometimes genuinely clever moments, as if the AI were adapting to my strategies. I wish there had been more of these. One such example is a fairly notorious ambush on the way to Undead Purgatory with a group of four brutally difficult enemies. I tried the strategy of “aggro one at a time until they stop respawning.” But when I’d permanently done away with the first, I discovered that the three others would all ambush at once, no matter what I did. They weren’t going to let me keep using that lame strategy. I had to make a new strategy. That felt smart. I liked that.

But some of the “hard” moments were just outrageously pointless complications that only served to make me angry and not want to play. One of the worst offenders was a path to a boss late in the game, when a weak undead would ring a bell to summon tough magic-using wraiths in an area already crowded with knights. To prevent this from happening, you’d have to kill the bell-ringer first. I did this until the bell-ringer stopped respawning. The game’s answer to this was then to just have the bell ring randomly. So it had suggested a problem (left alive, undead thing will ring the bell and summon wraiths) and a solution (kill the undead thing before it can ring the bell) only to then slap you on the wrist for trying to use the solution and tell you that you’re now utterly solution-less because it’s actually totally arbitrary. It wasn’t signature Dark Souls difficulty. It was just stupid and lazy.

Many of the bosses played out in ways that were so similar to one another that I have trouble remembering any particularly brilliant, stand-out moments or victorious or soul-crushing battles. The Pursuer was kind of okay in his numerous appearances and the slightly different strategy he necessitated. But there was no Ornstein and Smough. There was no Seath, no Sif. No DAMNED CAPRA DEMON. There were Bell Gargoyles, but they were pushovers and nothing like the battle to which it tries to pay homage. I barely remember the names of most of the bosses in Dark Souls 2 even now, let alone in a month or a year down the road. (I want to write more on this, but it’ll be in a post on a plot analysis comparison that I want to do later).

In fact, I think a fairly constant theme in my opinion of Dark Souls 2 is that it’s not much of a memorable experience. I had memorized the world and layout of so much of Lordran. I could easily sit here and map for you my progress through Dark Souls. But right now, I can barely remember the most basic locales and enemies and characters in Dark Souls 2. I have to really try to remember what path led where or how I got to a particular place. I don’t remember how this thing connected to this other thing. And I don’t care.

Like I said, a sloppy rehashing of what I’d already done.

I’ve seen some players talking about themes of cycles in both Dark Souls games. In fact, many are interpreting Drangleic as being in the same location of Lordran while the narrative suggests that same events of Dark Souls are being repeated as a cycle in Dark Souls 2. There are also some hints that some of the bosses of Dark Souls 2 are reincarnations of Dark Souls characters.

All of that is cool and exciting. It’s also cool and exciting in light of the fact that the gameplay itself is about repetitive cycles. Usually I get really geeky and enthusiastic when games do this—when gameplay so perfectly matches narrative themes and then has something to say about the narrative itself. That’s awesome (and I’m going to write about it more later in that plot comparison I mentioned a minute ago). I loved it in the first Dark Souls.

But super awesome narrative consistency about cycles and the repetitive nature of human life and human mistakes doesn’t excuse lazy design. Reincarnated bosses is fascinating—but that doesn’t mean that they need to behave exactly like their earlier counterparts or require the same strategies to be beaten. It also doesn’t excuse a lazily put-together experience that idly mirrors the first game, doesn’t do it as well, and tries to beat you over the head with “difficulty” that is really just needless, forced gotchas.

I want to conclude by talking briefly about fairness.

Part of the reason why Dark Souls worked with its brutal, devastating difficulty is because it always felt fair. I knew that it was up to me to overcome the game’s challenges—it put that ability in my hands, structuring an experience that I knew would be grueling but fair.

I think part of what annoyed me so much about Dark Souls 2 was that its version of difficulty often felt unfair. The tedium of reaching Nashandra? Not fair. Bell ringing arbitrarily in the Undead Crypt? Not fair. Enemies adapting to my strategy and demanding that I adapt to them in new and creative ways? Fair. That’s cool. Do more of that.

But one of the most absolutely unfair and lazy things I have discovered about this game is a known, widely discussed, and frequently-occurring game-breaking glitch. I discovered this after running into it myself. Outside of Drangleic Castle—and thus very late in the game—are a pair of golems that open the doors to the castle. These golems are powered by souls. So you have to fight perpetually respawning enemies (the only place in the game that that is the case) to power up the golems to open the doors to proceed in the game. It is very possible that the golems just don’t get powered up. They just won’t work. If this happens, you can’t move forward. You’re stuck. The game is over.

To this point, there hasn’t been a patch. When I faced this myself, I read comments from others online that had experienced the same problem. They were having to restart their games after investing so many hours to reaching that point. Some were on playthroughs in New Game+. With 75 hours in the game, I felt pretty despairing and incredibly bummed out…Fortunately, after repeated attempts, I finally managed to get the game to work again. But this doesn’t happen for everyone.

I point this out because this is a lazy and fixable mistake in the game. And because it highlights that without a sense of fairness, games like Dark Souls 2 just don’t work. If I hadn’t squeaked past this close call, I probably wouldn’t have wanted to pick up the game again for a long, long time. But even at those more minorly unfair moments, I had a hard time motivating myself to continue. When the difficulty is lazy, forced, random, and without purpose, it feels unfair. It’s infuriating, not compelling or empowering. I want the promise that I can eventually overcome what I face, not the prospect of dealing with a gimmicky complication. If the difficulty isn’t meaningful, I just want to put the controller down.

I will say, though, that I did enjoy Dark Souls 2. It’s still a solid game. It’s still good fun. There are even some things that I think it did better than its predecessor (e.g. online play, like the Covenants). But I’m just kind of relieved that it’s over…whereas when I finished Dark Souls, I was sad that it came to an end. I’m still hoping for another Dark Souls game. I’m just hoping for better.

But! That doesn’t mean I’m done talking about Dark Souls 2, so expect some future posts on it soon. First, as I’ve already said, I’d like to do a plot analysis and comparison between the two games. I’m also cooking up a post on gender representations in Dark Souls 2 which has to do with narrative and characters as well as some of my experiences in online play. Eventually, I may also go back and revisit my experience of playing the first Dark Souls (since I ended up writing about that for my courses and not for here, oops).

So there’ll be more Dark Souls here yet to come.  

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3 comments

  1. I liked the game but thought it was fairly easy if you have a faith build – I killed most bosses, including the final one, on the first try. This isn’t because I’m amazing, but rather because I had plenty of lightning bolts to throw and light armor and stamina galore.

    I think DS2’s meandering, jump-around easiness you mentioned is great for some players, and certainly new players. You can sort of do whatever the heck you want and try different builds (and even respec) and you haven’t painted yourself into an extremely tight corner. The stat and magic system has always been opaque, and the flexibility to mess around is nice.

    On one hand, I liked jumping around from the beginning – it brought back memories of Demon’s Souls, where some levels might be tough at first but can be revisited with proper preparation. But on the other hand, I mostly used it to level up or backtrack, both of which were less satisfying than the previous two games.

    It was certainly interesting. It felt like a patchwork of Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, but without the satisfaction and sense of achievement that either of those games bestowed. I’m still glad I played it, but I wouldn’t replay it while I’d still replay Demon’s or Dark Souls.

    1. Thanks for the comment!

      You bring up some great points that I didn’t even mention, but which also made my experience of Dark Souls 2 disappointing.

      One is the brokenness of the magic system. I play a pure melee character (dual-wielding Dex build focused on speed; didn’t put any points into Int or Faith), but from what I’ve seen, the magic in the game appears to be shockingly overpowered.

      Most of my experience of this has come from the incredible frustration of dealing with Faith/Int builds in PvP. At the risk of sounding like a sore loser (which, yeah, I admit I am), I’ve found it to be absolutely wrath-inducing to face players that are pure magic users. Many times, they get a single hit with one of the homing attacks and I’m instantly dead. And most of the time, I feel like there’s nothing I can do to dodge, avoid, counter, or recover from it. It’s just an auto-kill. Additionally, it seems as though more and more players are relying on a magic component to their PvP builds, to the point that I no longer think pure melee is viable in PvP at all. (Granted, I’m new to PvP, but I had hoped to make it by with a melee-based character; but maybe this was never viable to begin with). Based on this, I’m not surprised that the magic in the game would also be disproportionately powerful in PvE as well.

      The other thing is respecing. I’d realized fairly early on that if at some point I didn’t like my character build, I could relatively easily change it…and had multiple opportunities to do so. You’re right, this is great for new players and does offer some nice flexibility.

      But one of the things that I really liked about Dark Souls was the idea that every level and every choice of where to put that single level-up point mattered. I felt like I needed to plan ahead and be careful with each and every stat that I chose. It felt like an irreversible decision (though I think there was one opportunity to respec? …But I sure don’t know what it was or how to do it!). That’s part of where the genuine difficulty came from, I think, and also the sense of accomplishment when your carefully-chosen build worked out. There was this sense of care and responsibility with character builds that just doesn’t exist in Dark Souls 2.

      So on the one hand, there’s an interesting availability for experimentation that isn’t in the first game; but it also loses one of those aspects of difficulty, punishment (when you get it wrong), and accomplishment (when you get it right).

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