I had to try Dark Souls II a few times before finding my stride, or more accurately, finding the first path out of the starting hub area. There’s actually multiple that lead out from Majula, but I had failed to see both a chain lever in a nearby tunnel — camouflaged well against the stone behind it — and also a path that wraps around the bottom of the cliffside beneath the primary bonfire (my camera panning never caught it). But Majula was pretty and quaint, lit golden by a setting sun, and a mysterious woman had given me such a poignant set of directions. I wanted to give this a shot.
An opportunity to break a curse, a daunting task behind it, Dark Souls II is about a lowly undead on a quest to avoid Hollowing, or, becoming a mindless husk like the many you will slay again and again in the kingdom of Drangleic. It’s a kingdom long past its prime and devolved into creatures of the dark, not just of hollows but also of shades, ghosts and ghastly plague bearers. Fantastical monsters abound too: Dragons sleeping atop treasure, ogres with a widely sweeping fist combo, fire breathing salamanders and animated statues equipped with maces and great swords. All are dangerous, where if you let a shield down or dodge roll at the wrong instant, it’s back to the last checkpoint you go and with all previously defeated enemies respawned.
It’s frustrating but manageable. Strike back with careful timing and fit as many hits as possible in the small windows of opportunity enemies allow, doing a good bit of damage too if you’ve settled on a favorite weapon and kept upgrading it with gathered materials. Dark Souls II has a huge variety of weapon and fighting styles associated with them, from oddball whips and fist weapons, to a slew of powerful basics in rapiers, great swords, axes, and clubs. Armor ranges from light to heavy and decisions to sacrifice survivability for unrestricted movement is an ever present question. Really just a game of recognizing familiar attack patterns and finding openings, however, choices in equipment can feel arbitrary, and yet also fun to fashion a favorite look or style of character.
Enemy souls are absorbed and used as currency to level up or buy items from wandering merchants. It’s a world void of civilization and most signs of humanity, but merchants such as these, as well as lone wanderers and curious travelers on their own quests are to be found throughout Drangleic, filling in some detail on an otherwise broad subject. What exactly happened to the kingdom, and what happens if one were to set it straight?
These questions lacks real pull for much of Dark Souls II. Meeting a traveler is a solemn affair of a few lines of dialogue that give little bearing or motivation, while some awkwardly sputter out very specific explanations without much prodding from the silent protagonist. Bosses, four primary ones you must find and harness their great souls from, bear less exposition still. A half woman half scorpion lies waiting for the player in a cavern of sand, a great knight named The Dragon Rider expects you in his tower, a giant that wakes from slumber here, a dragon there. Beyond the clues they leave behind in the item description of their vanquished souls, these encounters miss an opportunity to rouse interest in what’s otherwise a bleak and magical premise.
They’re also startlingly less difficult than the creatures that guard them. Indeed, stumbling into the den of a boss is a relief in most cases. They telegraph their attacks with generous animations and in many cases can be defeated by locking onto them and circling their body. They’ll attack, miss, and reveal a backside open to countless blows. The same can’t be said for the ranks of monsters and guards in Dark Souls 2, who are exceedingly dangerous in groups as they simultaneously attack, backstab, and even drink their own health potions. One of the last areas is such a difficulty spike that I decided to sprint past its numerous setups and dodge roll my way to the story event trigger. I felt slimy for it, but the deliberate nature of attack animations in Dark Souls 2 makes it work all too well, enemies missing strikes and me flying by as they recover.
Branching out from Majula there are more waypoints to find, bonfires that are lit and act as nodes to teleport to and from. Each environment is one to push through to its end, defeats several bosses along it, and then port back to Majula to seek out the next path to etch and explore. The first half of Dark Souls II involves wooded areas with simple paths, stone ruins among overgrowth, caves, gulches and cliff side remnants of Draenglic’s civilization. Similar to how Dark Souls II struggles to expose its story, it fails to show a bigger picture in the tight corridors of most if its zones. There are few opportunities to get a bearing on where exactly you are geographically and thus appreciate just how many branches the game features. Navigating ruins or the fortifications of a bastille amounts to a claustrophobic view of its stone walls and involves only room to room travel, elevators to basements, and long halls of sewers. Call it thematic and dark, but it’s not much of that either. Chambers are unfurnished and square and enemies feel like artificial placements rather than tied by the fate of their environments.
It is an appropriately lonely atmosphere but simultaneously boring and unmemorable. The massive castles entered in the ending parts of Dark Souls II are a step up for the wonder they inspire, but inside them feature hints of the same disappointment. I recall a throne room as a massive rectangle empty of all but its two seats and knew right then this game would hold no surprises in its grand finale, a boss with such slow and inaccurate attacks it made me wonder if I was the boss character and everything else my victim.
The ending gave me that sort of vibe, actually. One of those table turners that make the player reflect on what exactly his journey was about or if there was even any point to it. But Dark Souls II misses the scabbard here, too, in a final cutscene that narrates how I have a choice to ‘embrace or renounce’ the current situation, as my character proceeds to apparently embrace it anyway. It literally asks you the question and doesn’t let you answer. There’s alternate endings to pursue if it’s played again and maybe that’s what it was referring too. If so that’s definitely clever, but no thank you.