The Fire Burns Them All Away: A Return to Dark Souls II

Has there ever been a franchise more gratifying than From Software’s Souls series? No other springs immediately to mind. That is, no other game or series quite matches the tough but fair difficulty, the sweetness of victory and bitterness of defeat, and a narrative that tells so much by showing little. Dark Souls is mired in ambiguity, everything about the world and the people who dwell within are mysteries easily left ignored and unraveled. As much as I loved Dark Souls, I recall feeling somewhat ambivalent towards its sequel, Dark Souls II. When I fired up the Scholar of the First Sin HD re-release, I was struck by how little of the game I remembered. Memories of Bloodborne are still a bit fresh and each time I tried to pick out a memorable scene or interaction from Dark Souls II, more often than not it actually came from its predecessor.

That is likely by design. One of the bigger questions that people pulled from the game was whether or not the kingdom of Drangleic was built atop the ruins of Lordran. There are plenty of clues to suggest it and the cagey, non-answers from the development team (at the time, if I recall correctly) did little to quell the discussion. Built atop this cursed burial ground, Drangleic suffers a fate similar to that of Lordran, as the power of the Dark Soul aids in the kingdom’s ruin after a seduced king instigates a war with a race f giants. Once again, the player character is led to believe that the cure for Undeath lies within a journey that involves conquering four great beings before making a pilgrimage to Drangleic proper. And because this is a From Software game, that journey will mean lots and lots of death.

Scholar of the First Sin was meant to scratch an itch I experienced while playing Rise of the Tomb Raider. Traversing the abandoned tunnels and tombs made me think of Dark Souls and with the third game due out in April, I felt the pull to venture back to Drangleic. As a bonus, the Scholar re-release would mark my first attempt at the game’s DLC and take advantage of From shuffling the deck, rearranging enemy and item placement to make the experience feel altogether new and different. Funny thing, despite having forgotten most of the game, my muscle memory made me think differently. I created a DEX character as a result of enjoying the speed of movement in Bloodborne and as means to move past my tendency to build a tank.

And what a difference it made! To my surprise, I blitzed through the first several areas. It helped that I had friends helping me out with trouble spots (like the new dragon found in Heide’s Tower of Flame) but knowledge in Dark Souls is nothing without the ability to perform! Knowing to dodge this and roll that is one thing but to do it in practice? Entirely different! And that’s what makes Dark Souls II and its ilk so satisfying. For example, I beat the Old Dragonslayer (essentially a re-use of Ornstein from Dark Souls) completely by myself. In the original game, I summoned help and felt pretty useless most of the fight. When I think back, I summoed help for nearly every boss in the game and while I felt justified (“It wouldn’t be in the game if it wasn’t allowed!”) I certainly deprived myself from overcoming the game’s biggest challenges. By forcing myself to summon only when absolutely necessary, I surprised myself on numerous occasions. I completed Forest of Giants, Earthen Peak, and Huntsman’s Copse at a speedy clip (hell, I bet the Executioner’s Chariot on the first try!). One of my notable victories was defeating the Belfry Luna Gargoyles by myself! It’s a major achievement I still so proud of despite happening a few days ago because it’s a fight that requires patience, concentration, and knowing when not to be greedy with attacks. Heide’s Tower of Flame was initially tricky because I had forgotten how to fight the stone knights. Once I figured that out, it wasn’t too bad to finish.

But what is Dark Souls if t can’t find some way to knock you down a peg or two? Stepping into The Iron Keep is a textbook example of the game letting develop confidence and sure footing only to punch it right in the face. The samurai-like Alonne Knights, defender of the Old Iron King, are vicious and numerous. Not to mention the TWO NPC invaders that crash the party. The Iron Keep became a complete brick wall and the only way to advance was to grind souls and take advantage of the finite enemy spawns. I tried to take on the Smelter Demon several times but was severely humbled. The same with the Old Iron King, whose small and irregularly shaped arena was the result of many, many aggravating deaths. I eventually defeated the monster but I didn’t feel the same joy as with the other bosses. The Iron Keep is total pain in the arse.

I’m now about to make my way into the depths of Majula’s sewer, the Gutter. I made a quick stop to the Rat Bro cave and defeated the Rat Authority, a nice easy boss to take away the sting of The Iron Keep. I can’t say I’m looking forward to the Gutter and the Black Gulch, only because Blighttown’s technical monstrosities were a real sore point for me in Dark Souls. Now if From Software where to make an HD version similar to Scholar of the First Sin, I’d be really happy. Dark Souls II runs so much better and smoother than it did on the PS3 and I’d love for my favorite game to get the support, longevity, and update it truly deserves.

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