Is Dark Souls 2 as perfect as I once thought it was? Not quite.
Time has a way of changing one's opinions. A year and a half ago I reviewed Dark Souls 2, and I gave it a perfect 10. A few months after the review, I played through the game again, and even more recently, I started yet another run. Exploring the game's damp corridors, I couldn't help but ask myself, “Is this a perfect game?” Is it a good game? Positively. A great game? Probably. A perfect game? No.
I was undeniably hyped to play Dark Souls 2. Dark Souls is probably my favorite game, but in my excitement in playing Dark Souls 2, I too easily overlooked its flaws, which, once fully explored, reveal clearly how the lack of Hidetaka Miyazaki, director of Dark Souls and Bloodborne, lead to some small, but significant errors. These are errors that gnaw on the player and bring down the experience, especially upon replay.
Probably the most visible flaw revealed in revisiting Dark Souls 2 is the lack of tightness that is present in Dark Souls, from its combat, to its mechanics, to its story, to its map design. A clear example of this is evident when comparing the opening sequences of both games. Dark Souls begins with an overview of the world that the player is about to inhabit, introducing most of the major players and bosses that the player will fight later in the game. The player has a clear sense of his position in the world. He is small, maybe the chosen undead, but right now it looks like he is just another prisoner or mentally ill patient in the Undead Asylum.
Dark Souls 2’s opening cinematic is much more vague and ambiguous. Visually, nothing really makes sense in correlation with the loose plot established in it. The explanatory text describes what it is like to be cursed but gives the player no sense of direction or purpose. “None will have meaning,” a voice says, bemoaning your existence, though ultimately being “cursed” only has an effect on gameplay, but virtually none on the plot. Even the narrator pokes fun at this vagueness, saying: “But one day, you will stand before [the city’s] decrepit gate without really knowing why.” Right out of the gate, Dark Souls 2 feels like a directionless video game and the haze of its muddy exposition never really lifts.
Whether or not the player fully grasps it, Dark Souls generally provides clear direction to the player. The first NPC that the player meets after escaping the Undead Asylum tells that player exactly what to do, “Go ring the two bells.” After that, a gate opens and the player follows a fairly linear path through the City of Gods until being told to go get the four “Lord Souls”, which is where the game becomes similar to Dark Souls 2, in that the game lacks force in propelling the player to accomplish his goals.
The player is never given clear directions in Dark Souls 2. He is told to seek four “great souls” and “the king”, but generally, it is up to the player to explore and find his way through the world. While it's not too difficult to find where you are supposed to go, much as it is in the previous game, the player is really given few specifics on what tasks to complete. Instead, one wanders from place to place until finding a boss to fight. Ultimately, upon replay, this makes the game's early stages feel a bit sluggish by comparison to Dark Souls and Bloodborne, which are just as much open world and free roaming games as this sequel is, but the path towards the goal is made clearer in the other two titles.
The combat in Dark Souls 2 also suffers from this feeling of sluggishness. In what I assume is an attempt to emulate reality, dodging attacks feels especially unresponsive and difficult in a way that is based more on those controls than on creating challenging gameplay. One own weapons swing a little slower, and even enemies seem to struggle with their weapons sometimes in Dark Souls 2. Thus, even if the game itself isn't much longer in length than its predecessor, combat feels so much slower than it does in the first game. An hour in and it feels like more time has been spent than that, especially if the player is retreading areas again and again due to a difficult section or a difficult boss fight.
The mechanics of the game are more punishing but also less polished than its peers. Taking a page from Demon’s Souls, the player loses maximum health every time that they die, which can be solved if the player uses an item. The developers never really commit to this concept, though, giving the player an item that mostly negates this effect fairly early on. However, this can lead to a feeling of helplessness when the player has no way to get their health back to normal. In my opinion, there is enough punishment when the player loses virtually all of their money when they die (unless they can get it back with a bit of effort), so there is no reason to punish them further.
One of the strongest elements of Dark Souls is basically missing from Dark Souls 2, map continuity. In Dark Souls, the areas of the game are interlinked. The player may find a path from one place to another that they didn't imagine or can find a shortcut making their game easier. The interconnectedness of the map makes the world feel real and sensible. There is a feeling that if you see a castle, fortress, forest, etc. in the distance that you'll eventually be able to get there. But in Dark Souls 2, the map branches outwards from its starting area like spider legs, branches which often never meet.
A particularly awkward geographical location is the path to Iron Keep, which instead of feeling like it progresses logically, feels instead like four geographically disparate areas merged together. The player first proceeds through a forest, then a poisonous dune area called “Harvest Valley”, then through a windmill, and then into a lava filled fortress. What especially does not make sense is how the player rides a large elevator up from the windmill to get to Iron Keep. I guess that Iron Keep is in the clouds, but then why is lava not raining down around it? In the original Dark Souls, every location felt like it logically progressed to the next. Of course there would be a library near a castle. Of course there would be catacombs near a graveyard. But in Dark Souls 2, the areas feel more like set pieces loosely connected by elevators than they do like a reasonably geographically realistic world for the player to explore.
Dark Souls 2 also tries to offer quite a few nods to the content of Dark Souls with varying results. Sometimes it’s nice to see an old boss like Ornstein make his way into the game, but the amount of recycled content, especially in terms of weapons and armor, makes the game feel rather thin. Now I'm not saying that FromSoftware needed to make entirely new weapons, a sword is a sword, but many of the “unique” weapons are retreads of ones that have been seen before. In some instances, Dark Souls 2 tries to up the ante by providing moments in which the player must fight six “Belfry Gargoyles” who are virtually the same as the two gargoyles from Dark Souls. Yet, instead of feeling like improvements, these repeat boss fights feel uninspired, like the easiest thing that the developers could have done.
Ultimately, the loose way that Dark Souls 2 plays with the tropes of the Souls series damages it somewhat. While at times it nails the mood and tone that made Dark Souls a surprise hit, occasionally it feels more like a fan-made pastiche rather than it does like a true sequel. It's no surprise to me that Miyazaki is back on board for Dark Souls 3, and it wouldn't surprise me if the game plays and feels more like the first game than its direct predecessor does. While I don't regret giving the game a 10 (it was given based on how I felt at the time and also based on a single playthrough) and I would still give it a high score, a more careful reevaluation can reveal qualities easily missed on a first pass through it.