Dark Souls II may not be the greatest Souls game ever made but despite its flaws, it’s still one of the year’s finest. Behind the hideous enemies and the stern challenge lies a world unlike any other – the combat systems and RPG elements may be at the heart of From’s series, but it’s the world of Drangleic that lingers in the memory.
Adam: An exercise in archaeology.
Pay attention to all the details and dig into every corner and you’ll find the story of a hollow wanderer, in search of an impossible cure. There is madness, ruin, an apocalyptic Abyss and, of course, death.
Few games outside the Souls series have ever captured the feeling of arriving as a stranger in a strange land quite so effectively. I’ve written about the games’ approach to the idea of dungeons before and the vertical pile-up of the worlds is part of their mystery. The occasional inversion of fantasy architecture combines with the labyrinthine structures, which often appear to have been built on top of one another over centuries.
Drangleic is a palimpsest on which all the ruins and tombs of a world’s history have been imprinted. It’s a monument to a place that is already in the process of passing into memory and the process of exploring it, in lives without end, can also be an attempt to reconstruct it. Dark Souls II doesn’t tell a story, it contains a story.
The necessity of replaying and revisiting areas means that there’s plenty of time to absorb the details, should you be open to them. Piecing everything together is most likely going to require collaboration though, sharing theories and thoughts online. Part of the game’s appeal, beyond the actual business of fighting and exploring, is in the sense that there are clues in every detail that makes up the strange scenes and creatures.
There’s an elephant in Drangleic’s throne room though. Dark Souls II isn’t as strong a game or a world as its predecessor. That could partly be explained by familiarity – particularly for PC gamers who may not have experienced the series before the first Dark Souls – but despite improvements in some areas, I don’t think Dark Souls II lives up to either of its predecessors as a whole.
So why is it here, in our list of the year’s best games? In simple terms, a decent Souls game is hardly a disaster. The formula hasn’t become too predictable to need an overhaul and even though there are some infuriating enemy placements and campfire locations, Dark Souls II has enough quality throughout (and in its DLC) to make the visit worthwhile.
There’s more. Even in this lesser incarnation, the way in which From construct a world and allow the player to unpick its details is an unusual treat. There’s no hand-holding in the telling of the tale and the weird undead fantasy that is the series’ hallmark still has the power to shock and thrill.
RPS chum Rich Stanton has written about the real world locations ‘quoted’ in the original game, and that kind of analysis goes some way toward explaining how the series’ designs remain sensible even as they approach surreality. Drangleic is firmly entrenched in my memory and for all the talk of its difficulty, the repeated deaths and diversions serve to reinforce a sense of place as much as they provide an actual challenge.
Consider the fleeting glimpses that recent Call of Duty games allow of their intricately constructed environments. The rush to the next cutscene or scripted event doesn’t allow the player to construct an idea of the world or its geography. The hours you can spend in the depths of Dark Souls II are an essential part of its art. It invites you to visit, then to stay a while, and eventually to become trapped as you attempt to understand.
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