We Need To Talk About Dark Souls II (Part 1)

Okay Dark Souls II. Let’s do this. We have a lot to talk about so let’s get started.

Firstly, and it’s a minor point yet still important to me, can I just point out how happy I am with the Roman numeral numbering system? Dark Souls 2? Sweet. Dark Souls II? Awesome. Dark Souls 8? Sounds over-wrought. Dark Souls VIII? Awesome.

There’s something about Roman numerals that implies both ‘epic’ and, more importantly, ‘never-ending’ (oh hi there, Final Fantasy XIV). On a similarly minor note, that is some pretty fucking sexy box art ya got there DSII. Look at this:

DSII-BoxArt

Oh yeah. That’s it.

Okay, time to clean ourselves up and get on with the important work at hand. Where to begin? Let’s start with how From Software are seemingly confused over what Dark Souls II actually is.

 

“We are creating this game with a thought that challenge and difficulty are core elements of the game.”

So says one developer in one interview. What the same developer, or a different one, says in a different interview – well, that may well be very different. No-one outside of The Know can really say whether From are planning to indulge the hardcore demands of their biggest fans, or whether they will be courting the delicious dollar associated with new players who may be less prepared to die. The sensible prediction is a mixture of both with some attempt to please everyone. Cos we all know that attempts to please everyone at once always work, right? Right guys? Back me up here. Guys?

Roughly 70% of the content in Dark Souls is entirely optional, so perhaps DSII will follow down that path, with the slight tweak that the optional 70% retains the difficulty of the original, but the mandatory 30% eases back on the constant unremitting misery a little bit. That wouldn’t be so bad. But it would be a little bit bad.

Mostly though, it would be a shame. Not just a shame that a game doesn’t reach its potential, but a shame that the only big title brave enough to challenge the wrong-but-all-consuming belief that easiness creates more commercially viable products in gaming would get sucked down that horrible dark hole. Here’s the nightmare scenario:

  1. Game is popular and well-loved because it does something gamers love but game producers want us to hate.
  2. Sequel gets more budget and attention.
  3. Subsequently, more executive meddling, and higher importance placed on shifting minimum number of units.
  4. Executive meddlers decide that we all hate the thing that actually we love and remove it from game.
  5. Pointless franchise is born, dies out after one or two more sequels when everyone realised that they only ever truly enjoyed the first game.

Why even bring this up in the context of Dark Souls? Because we worry. Sometimes, we worry a lot. I wouldn’t be Alvin Marshing over this if there was a clear and unanimous voice coming out of From saying ‘We aren’t reducing the difficulty’. Nor would I be too concerned if that unanimous voice said ‘We are reducing the difficulty’. At least they would have a vision if they said that (though the vision would take some serious getting used to). It’s the conflicting messages that scare me.

DSII-4

There’s no doubt that Dark Souls II will be a reaction to the success of Dark Souls. And that in itself can almost never be a good thing. The change in Project Director at From is an unsettling omen, the dedicated servers is another change which is being celebrated (and rightly so), except for the change in intention and direction that such a move implies. The real cause for concern, though, is a terrible Dark Souls myth. One which seems to be prevalent among both fans and within the development company itself. It’s a myth which has potential to be extremely damaging. Specifically:

 

Accessibility Does Not Equal Difficulty

Yes it fucking does. You bastards. It just does. Stop saying it doesn’t.

A common claim coming out of From at the moment is that they aren’t making the game easier, they are making the game more accessible. No such thing. The majority of the difficulty in Dark Souls derives first and foremost from its inaccessibility. Furthermore, the inaccessibility also defines the tone and atmosphere of the game, which is one of its best and most defining features. However, it depends what they are making more accessible. Game mechanics, or story? I don’t want them to make either more accessible, but one option is just disappointing, whilst the other could be fatal.

Let’s do story first. Dark Souls has a brilliant story. It also has practically no story whatsoever. How so? Well, the actions and experiences of the player do not make a real story. At least, not a good one. The plot as far as the Chosen Undead’s journey goes could be summed up in a sentence. Let’s make it this sentence:

‘You play an immortal zombie thing in a world populated with immortal zombies and there is a very vague prophecy that something unexplained will happen if one of the immortal zombie things kills loads of dudes, so a guy you have the option to talk to near the start gives you a quest to kill loads of dudes and you can do it if you want, or you can just kill loads of dudes for fun – either way nothing really happens except killing loads of dudes followed by a short, un-explained and inexplicable ending cut-scene.’

It’s no Badger on the Barge, that’s for sure.

 DSII-2

However, the world it is set in is fiercely and comprehensively detailed, and is host to a vast, sprawling and fascinating history. None of which is anywhere near the forefront of the game. It’s all communicated through hints, suggestions, small and rare snippets of dialogue, examination of the locations and people around the player, and clues nestled within item descriptions. The outstanding work which went into this largely obscured element of the game is phenomenal and exploring it is a wonderful experience.

But the vast majority of players will find hardly any of it, nor take the time to put all the pieces together. Even if they do so they will gain little insight into what’s happening in the present, to their character. They will only ever find out what happened 100 or 1000 years ago, to characters and cities long dead and buried, and rendered irrelevant to anything contemporary to the Chosen Undead’s quest to kill stuff for some reason.

Buried within it all are enough clues to piece together a decent portion of the plot of the current timeline and the player’s actions, but this element is the part of the story with the least definitive answers and the most speculation. Makes a sort of sense I suppose; the Chosen Undead is meddling with Gods and ancient prophecies in a world where the tools to understand either are no longer available. He or she has no idea what they are really doing, and neither does even the most exhaustively clued-up Dark Souls player.

If DSII tries to make its plot accessible, I’d be upset because the fun of picking apart the lore in the first game is a huge part of my love for it. But, I will not feel like the game experience is being wholly compromised.

DSII-3

On that note, let’s look at accessibility of the gameplay.

Dark Souls has none. And it’s brilliant for it. The list of gameplay mechanics which go unexplained is too large to even take a stab at putting together here, but every Dark Souls player with multiple playthroughs under their belt has their own example: ‘I discovered that your character can jump on Playthrough 7’, ‘I didn’t know that you could upgrade your estus flask until I’d completed the game ten times on ten different characters’, and so on. I was delighted recently to learn of the backstep-heavy lunging attack. Before that, it was combining a jump attack with a plunge attack. Oh, and the New Londo Ruins short-cut, God bless it, but at the same time curse God for not bringing it to my attention sooner.

As an experienced player of the game I sometimes watch YouTube videos of people finding the game impossibly difficult. I do so not to laugh at them (although it is funny, but only in a observational comedy “oh yeah, I’ve been there” way); I do it because I so dearly miss the experience of being completely lost and confused by Dark Souls and I want to relive it vicariously through other people. However, when watching these videos it is quite clear that the idea of difficulty and accessibility being two separate things is a work of purest fiction.

I see players with five non-upgraded estus flasks. I see people using terrible weapons and armour when they have easy access to significantly better equipment but just don’t realise it. I see people convinced that they have to fight some uber-hard optional late game boss to progress any further near the start of the game. People who don’t realise that they can summon NPCs to help them. People who don’t realise that they have an unexplained item in their inventory that would turn their brutal challenge into a breezy stroll. People who think a helpful NPC is an enemy and attack on sight. And pity the poor soul who thinks the only way to get across the Hellkite Bridge is killing the dragon. Or those who don’t find the bonfire in Sen’s Fortress. If that was you, I feel like Dark Souls should probably apologise to you. It won’t.

The key point is we all made those mistakes and many many more like them. They are why the game is hard. When experienced players start a new game, they don’t find it hard. That’s somewhat to do with general game experience, but predominantly it’s because they don’t land in Firelink Shrine at the start of the game and think ‘Right-o, what’s this Catacombs place all about then? I shall check it out, immediately after I take a look around the New Londo Ruins.’

They aren’t even really mistakes. That the game gives you no guidance is a big part of it – you’re meant to randomly stumble across some of that information through blind luck, and the rest you’re meant to figure out at some point later, whether it be before or after it’s most useful just depends on where you’re standing when the crushing hammer of chance falls. If DSII tells you where to go, what you’re capable of, what your items do, if it makes the world around you clear and readable, if covenants are explained either before or after you join them, it becomes significantly easier. It truly is not hyperbole to say that whether the enemies are equally as aggressive or do just as much damage is a borderline irrelevant point in comparison.  Inaccessibility IS the difficulty.

Good, I feel better having got that off my chest. At least one of you better be reading this.

Shall we take a quick break to watch a video?

 

“This is something new we’re trying to show you right now.”

So there it is, the world’s first look at Dark Souls II. I am slightly ashamed and slightly proud to say that a friend and I huddled around his phone in a pub to watch that streaming live, then I went outside ‘for a cigarette’ (to discuss it on Reddit through my phone without appearing anti-social), and then I went home to watch it again with my girlfriend. Don’t judge me. It’s reasonable to say at this point, in case you haven’t already observed as much, that I am looking forward to Dark Souls II.

What does this video show? Nothing, basically. And that fact is strangely appealing and also a little deflating. Firstly, the engine is identical. The graphics are very very similar but significantly better. The style of level design and architecture is very very familiar, and though the guy doing the voice-over makes the point that they’ve improved it, I see no evidence of that no matter how generous I am. It was ideal and perfectly fit for purpose before. It still is. All is well. The combat system appears to be identical. There’s a symbol that wasn’t there before. Dunno what that does.

There is talk of a variety of new things, but none of them are, like, NEW THINGS, they’re all just things that weren’t in the original because they just weren’t  but they easily could have been and wouldn’t have been surprising if they were.

Here’s the full list as far as I can tell:

  • A guy who we thought was dead came back to life – like the Skeletons, and the Stone Knights, and the evil tree things in the first game.
  • There are more dark areas that force players to use one of their weapon slots for a torch – this is a negative point, not a good thing.
  • A dude breaks through a wall unexpectedly – the only thing in the whole video which is actually truly new. It’s not particularly exciting though, it’s obviously scripted and no different from any other form of dramatic entrance. Does show off destructive scenery though, which hopefully will have some better application in the full thing.
  • Level design is ‘more 360’ – whatever.
  • You can move about whilst using the bow – I must be mad, because I could swear on everything I own that you could always do this in the first game too.
  • Some new lighting effects – they look cool I guess.
  • Uh. Grasping at straws here, but enemy HP bars have improved readability against the dark backgrounds.
  • No, I’m done.

Since that first video there’s been a follow-up which shows the player running from a chariot. Now, I’m starting to think that From is staffed by a hundred clones of Peter Molyneux and the Molyneux God-Head runs their PR department.

The chariots were initially introduced in cryptic statements that led players to believe that Dark Souls II included vehicle mechanics. This was later clarified by From, who said that the chariots can’t be controlled by the player, they’re just methods of transport and also enemies. Right. So they’re just an animation then? Like the gargoyles that take you to and from Anor Londo? Or the crow who transports you back and forth from the Northern Asylum? Or when you ask a primordial serpent to drop you off at the Kiln of the First Flame if they’re going that way anyway? Maybe you can pick from a few different destinations, unlike in the first game. But is that really worth any of this fuss?

Listen up, From. It’s just a new model that does a thing. There could have been chariots in the first game, only there weren’t. But no-one would have noticed if there were. Same with the guy who breaks through the door in the introductory video. The things you say are new aren’t new. Or they are, but they aren’t so new that they’re worth mentioning to anyone, or making a video about, or hanging a PR interview on. I wish they’d just tell us straight what they’re planning with DSII, instead of all these strange dead-end paths they insist on walking us down.

So what does any of this mean? Is it basically the exact same game again with the core difference being that I haven’t played it yet? I hope so as that sounds like the best game ever. Is it basically the exact same game again but a bit easier? Looks like it might be. That’s brilliant too but also a bit of an anti-climax. Are there other new features of the game which From haven’t revealed yet? Who the hell knows, because every time a From employee opens their mouth they’re just as liable to tell you the Earth is flat or that they are reconsidering their favourite ice cream flavour as they are to give you clear and non-contradictory information about Dark Souls II.

At the moment it looks like a very similar game, with some tweaks designed to improve the experience and some other tweaks designed to pull in players intimidated by the first game. But let’s you and I both keep an eye on it. We’ll reconvene here in a few months or so and see where we stand. I’ll be waiting.