The Bestest Best Worldbuilding Of 2014: Dark Souls 2

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.

Back to the complete bestest best PC games of 2014.

45 Comments

  1. Ramshackle Thoughts says:

    On a lore level, I agree completely. A fantastically crafted land of mystery.

    However, I can’t help but see ‘world-building’ and then remember that you go up an elevator in a stand-alone windmill and arrive in a volcano caldera….

    • GameCat says:

      Magical distortion of space-time.

    • Museli says:

      I find that it’s easier to be nice about the level design if you split it between micro and macro. On a macro scale, yes, there’s issues, like the transition you mention between Earthen Peak and Iron Keep, or how No Man’s Wharf manages to be so deep underground. On a micro level though, most of the individual levels are nicely designed and consistent in themselves, with all of the shortcuts, loops and hidden bits that you expect from the series.

      • Ramshackle Thoughts says:

        Oh, absolutely. Taken as a neat individual package, each stage is glorious. It just seems that the game is designed, like RPS says, around ‘remember to check your flavour text’ and ‘look closely at this, doesn’t it remind you of that thing from that other thing we did?’ – that they thought we wouldn’t notice these level issues is kinda baffling.

        Just a personal gripe though. Once you’ve noticed it, you can’t forget it’s there.

      • Catweasel says:

        I guess the big reason it’s hard for me to ignore the macro level problem is that I felt so impressed by how Dark Souls 1 did it. I always saw people talking about how challenging and fun it was, but when I started it I had no idea it was so well interconnected, I thought more people would be as impressed by that as I was.

        • pasports31 says:

          This was the biggest letdown, besides the lore (I thought Dark Souls 1’s lore was more interesting), to me. The interconnected design of DS1 is one of the biggest brilliances of the game. I really hope Bloodbourne gets back to that, as well as (if they make one) Dark Souls 3.

          • damoqles says:

            I can’t imagine the DaS series stopping any time too soon. Yes, From has Bloodborne now, but that’s (sadly) exclusive to an arguably small medium with a customer base that’s only a fraction of the base of Dark Souls, as the latter is or will be available on all the big consoles _and_ PC. The greater customer base is where the real money is.

    • scannerbarkly says:

      I actually logged in to say much the same thing. But honestly the Dark Souls 2 love this year simply escapes me. I adore the Souls series, have 1000+ hours easily across Demon’s and the original Dark. Dark Souls 2 just complete failed to grasp me. It’s a join the dots book compared to the epic sagas that came before it imho.

    • substationradio says:

      You travelled a long way from Earthen Peak to Iron Keep and died a lot and you just don’t remember what happened during that time, you simply forgot. Same between Heide’s Tower of Flame and No-Man’s Wharf, where you go deeper and deeper into the sea and come out at sea level. That’s my explanation anyway, you’re travelling incredible distances over potentially hundreds of years and just can’t remember everything you did or everywhere you went. You gotta really embrace the implications of being an immortal amnesiac who goes on quests simply because someone mentioned something to you.

      Dark Souls 1 is a mythic exploration of a single holy place, Dark Souls 2 is a Arthurian journey of absurd scales of time and space!

      • hexpile says:

        I hate this explanation and think it’s an insane way to write off something that doesn’t make sense.

        I’d rather NOT forget something that is vital to the world of Drangleic. If I died that many times, I’m sure I’d lose the ‘memory’ of things that happened BEFORE I had spent hundreds and hundreds of years in one area. That’s what happened to some of Drangleic’s inhabitants, anyways. If there really was an area that killed me thousands of times I’d rather experience that as a player, especially in a Souls game. Not experiencing your progression via striding repetition is absurd in a Souls game. It’s what would have made the journey between Earthen Peak and Iron Keep memorable. Instead, it’s the same ‘story’ as described by most players already. To make your point even less credible, the quick transition between EP/IK and HTF/NMW makes the journey feel easy. As if they were too lenient compared to more arduous areas; and we both know Drangleic is supposed to be a damning place with no rest.

        • HothMonster says:

          If you look at the world map you are traveling vast distances. There are even a few spots where once you transition areas if you turn around you can see where you came from far away in the distance. I took the opposite approach that the guy above you did and figured it was a long, boring, uneventful walk and now you are in a new place. I’d personally rather not have long ass hallways to run down every time I want to change locations no matter how scenic that hallway might be.

          They could smush all the places next to each other and try to make the transitions make sense but the wouldn’t. Or they could shorten the journey. They could have went the DS1 route and had little demons come pick you up and fly you into the distance but they just let you assume the distance was traveled.

  2. killias2 says:

    I’m not sure Dark Souls 2 deserves this commendation, in particular, but it is my hands down GOTY. I really didn’t think it would get any love here at RPS, and I’m psyched that it got some recognition. I guess I’m not sure what other game I’d give world-building to, but I think it’s just about the only element of DS2 that falls well short of DS1.

  3. brgillespie says:

    The fun was simply bullshitting online with fellow fans about the plotline or history of Drangleic. The story was a puzzle, and most everyone loves a puzzle.

    Once the puzzle is complete, however, I found the story to be uninteresting mumbo-jumbo full of names I can’t remember now. I typically see this from From Software in particular (they employ the same “pieces of the puzzle, let the fans connect them” style in their Armored Core series).

  4. derbefrier says:

    Dark Souls is one of the few worlds in recent memory that actually intrigued me. Most rpgs are so cliche ridden its usually not worth it to me too look to far past the main story line but the way Dark Souls presents itself it makes you want to know more. I love the way npcs all seem to be teetering on the brink of madness or have already been swallowed by it, a grim reminder of you eventual fate in this world. Its the slow discovery of it the draws me in. The elusivness of it that kept me interested. Its a truly great thing.

    Dark Souls 2 wasn’t as great as the first but even at its worst its still better than most so I think its a good pick.

  5. brgillespie says:

    For what it’s worth, I would vote for the Dragon Age universe. I find much more interesting the idea of a world in which mankind actually reached “Heaven” and then was cast down and cursed.

    Drangleic was essentially a powerful and decadent empire that suffered a series of cataclysms and fell into desolation. The end.

    But that’s my opinion! :)

    • killias2 says:

      I think you’re sort of missing the point of “Drangleic.” In fact, talking about “Drangleic” at all nearly misses the point. The area has been known by lots of names over long, long stretches of history. Drangleic is a microcosm of the Fire/Dark cycle that has been occurring ever since Dark Souls 1 and, arguably, since the original Souls were found and the Dragons destroyed. Ever person in it reflects the character of those who came before. Nashandra is the spawn of Manus (who has some relation with the Furtive Pygmy, though so do all humans). The Duke of Tseldora has some connection with the old Duke Seath the Scaleless (with many others in between, as suggested by Manscorpion Tark). The Iron King has some relationship with Gwyn, as well as Vendrick/Ivory King/Sunken King. There are also interesting puzzles, such as the fate of Aldia, the connection between the Ancient Dragon and Aldia/Emerald Herald/Tseldora, the relationship between Nashandra and Vendrick, the prize taken by Vendrick from the giants, etc.

      I like Dragon Age for what it is, but it’s largely a standard Tolkien universe with a dash of gritty realism taken from contemporary fantasy. Heck, even the gritty realism angle seems largely abandoned in DAI, though I guess I’m still pretty early in it. Dragon Age arguably builds more of a world than Dark Souls 1 or 2, but it feels pretty straightforward and cliched.

      • yogibbear says:

        Wow. Okay that settles it then. Dragon Age Universe is officially before Dark Souls Universe. Just need to kill some more Old Gods and the timelines will collide. What happens when there’s no more Blight? You get Dark Souls instead!

      • malkav11 says:

        The fact that Dark Souls (II?) has names like Manscorpion Tark in it cements it as best.

    • Makariel says:

      The world of Dragon Age doesn’t really feel believable to me anymore, and BW has some lessons to learn about how not build a world. For example when NPC that show up in two or more of the main games are pretty much unrecognizable (“Wait, you are WHO?!? What did they do to your face?!?”). Or when NPC show up that should be dead for some players since the first game, but the writers change their mind. Or when halfway realistic looking weapon and armor (Origins) get more and more outlandish in dimensions and design. And that’s just about consistency. Which is puzzling, since BW managed these aspects so much better in the Mass Effect series. I haven’t even started about how more lore doesn’t offset quality and how they fail to have any sense of mystery, since as soon as something shows up there’s a 2000 word lore-text for you to read. Good worldbuilding? Meh…

  6. Wagrid says:

    For me, the worldbuilding was the defining reason that DaSII was inferior to predecessors. In Dark Souls I there’s so much depth when you look deeper, same with Demon’s Souls. When you look deeper at Dark Souls II’s world you find. . . references to DaSI and absolutely nothing new beyond that.

    That said, I never played the DLC, but I heard that was a lot better in terms of fresh ideas. Still, in terms of world building I’d say pretty much every major RPG this year did a much better job.

    If I were to commend a game for world building it would probably be Banner Saga, for establishing such a deep and interesting (to me) world. I’d also give Dragon Age: Inquisition the nod, because it did such a great job of developing stuff that was established way back in Origins.

  7. fishyboy says:

    random question: how the hell did a dragon get in heide’s tower of flame?

    • pasports31 says:

      That’s a picture from Scholar of the First Sin, the upcoming “definitive” version of DS2 releasing in April, I believe. It’s going to include a new dlc pack, a new npc, reworked item descriptions, improved graphics, and new enemies/enemy placements. Apparently a dragon in Heide’s tower of flame is going to be one of the new placements.

      • damoqles says:

        I really hope they work on the unexpected variations and changes of design bits in NG+ and beyond, like altered and new enemy and item placements and behaviors, to make each NG+ cycle even more unique. They did a great job with the earlier areas and bosses in NG+ but there are so much more possibilities they could play with! Make the Covetous Demon sweat a sticky snail trail to spice up that fight. Introduce a new mimic type that attacks when a neighboring chest is opened. Drop a drake on the long staircase leading up to the Ancient Dragon when you’re walking back from him. Things like that.

        • pasports31 says:

          That’d be great. I’m really looking forward to the release, seeing what they have rolled up their sleeves.

  8. B.rake says:

    Love the ‘Worldbuilding’ award. Yet to play 2 but even if it’s an inferior iteration of Dark Souls, it’s easy to imagine how 2 could win. I think in the Blade Runner thread this week someone suggested the idea of a “Walking Simulator” mode for the Souls games – quite like the idea, of just walking around chatting with NPCS and reading item descriptions- but then again, the first Dark Souls is one of the few games I can think of where your gameplay progression (leveling, items, kindling, humanity) actually feels like an organic part of the worldbuilding.

  9. SlimShanks says:

    I seriously wonder if any game is ever going to recapture the magic of the first Dark Souls. It was just… sublime. I used to hang around invasion spots, mercilessly slaughtering sinners. I would scream, “the guilty pay the price!” at my screen every time, because I hated invaders so much. And that just felt like the most noble thing. I just can’t get invested in the world like that in the second game.
    Still, all story and lore aside, show me another game from this year with such entertaining melee combat. They may have taken away my BSS and my SKS, nerfed halberds into the ground, and trashed all the thrusting swords… and spears… and minimized stun locking… and made magic a requirement for PvP…but…umm…
    You know what, actually that game pisses me off. That’s why I’ve only played 200 hours of it so far. And why I’ll only buy all the dlc when it’s on sale…
    Dark Souls is like sex, or pizza. Even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good.

    • pasports31 says:

      Agreed, I’ve replayed DS1 over and over and over and over again. Watched lore videos/obsessed over the lore in general. I got completely absorbed in that gameworld like no other I’ve ever seen. The cohesive, interconnected design I think only contributed to this, as it made the world feel very “real” in a way the Demons Souls and DS2 worlds don’t due to their hub design. As much as I tried, I couldn’t quite get into the world of DS2. It was still overall good, but didn’t meet the lofty standards of its predecessor. I think part of this is that the lead designer left to work on Bloodbourne…I may unfortunately have to buy a PS4 just so I can play that game, haha.

  10. malkav11 says:

    I’ve heard Alien: Isolation is pretty excellent on this front as well. I haven’t started it yet, alas.

    • damoqles says:

      Yeah, Isolation has that System Shock 2 nature/quality to its world building (or, perhaps more accurately, level design, as the world itself is not really the developers’ creation).
      It is THE horror game of the year.

  11. Shooop says:

    I’m waiting until they’re done pumping out DLC and do something and do something about the bugs tied to the unlocked framerate.

    As of now they won’t even acknowledge those bugs.

  12. golem09 says:

    Articles like these and the holidays would probably make me finally buy the game at this point…
    if the “Dark Souls 2: Proper Edition” hadn’t been announced.

  13. joaorafaelrr says:

    Where i say to everybody in the world that i liked the way you start this shared information? :)

  14. ssh83 says:

    I’m pretty sure this is a joke… but then i read the comments… now i’m just questioning my sanity and if “World Building” means something completely different from what World Building meant when Minecraft was the best world building game. *shrugs*

    • B.rake says:

      I guess Minecraft would be a literal interpretation of ‘World-Building Game’. Here, the use of ‘Worldbuilding’ is in the sort of ‘meta’ sense- refers to the way Dark Souls ‘builds’ the world around itself/realizes its own setting- its usually used in reference to a work of fiction like a novel or a game’s creation of its own particular universe.

    • Hidden_7 says:

      Yeah, they mean different things. The ‘world-building’ meant here is such that Minecraft not only wouldn’t win, it wouldn’t even be considered since it doesn’t have any world-building of this type. Just like the world-building meant when referring to Minecraft (literally, you can build a world) is not found in Dark Souls.

      Difference between a really good fantasy/sci-fi novel and a crate of Lego bricks, pretty much.

      • B.rake says:

        Partly disagree – I kind of think any game could compete. Minecraft has a distinct world, in a way I think is uniquely applicable to videogames- they don’t evoke a rich history like in Dark Souls but the same elements- the aesthetics, mechanics and the way they inform player interactions – form a peculiar Minecraft-y vibe. Its amazing what people can accomplish with just a few pixels and sound effects, really (I can still recall what a distinct sense of place a game as simple as Berzerk gave me as a kid).

  15. fish99 says:

    Really enjoyed my two playthroughs of Dark Souls 2, but it’s obvious it was put together by Froms ‘B-Team’. The world is disjointed and the story a mess, and it lacks the oppressive atmosphere and challenge of the previous Souls games.

    It’s interesting to go back to Demon’s Souls and see how it’s consistently tougher on the player – only one checkpoint per boss, tons of enemies to fight through to reach the boss, no fixable rings, healing is ineffective and expensive, upgrades are expensive and the ores are rare, gear that needs repairing, tighter areas to fight in, much darker environments etc.

  16. Alien says:

    “Dark Souls II may not be the greatest Souls game ever made”

    May I ask:

    – What is the best Souls game? Demon’s Souls?
    – And which of the three (?) Souls games has the best atmosphere/immersion?

    Thanks!

    • fish99 says:

      Best atmosphere: Demon’s Souls. Best Souls game: Dark Souls. You should play both though.

      I guess if you don’t have a PS3 but do have a PC, then it’s an easy decision which to play (i.e. Dark Souls, and with the dsfix mod to make the game render at 1080p or above).

    • Volcanu says:

      I would say Dark Souls to both actually.

      Although Demon’s is brilliant too. I’d echo fish 99, if you can play both then do! Otherwise Dark Souls is the logical starting point. Dark Souls 2 is very, very good – but not quite up to the standards from a ‘world building/ atmosphere’ standpoint as the other two.

      Oh and play with a pad, the game wasn’t really designed for KB+M and most people dont get on well with those as controls.

  17. Rolento says:

    Loved it. The DLC is the icing on the cake.

    • markside says:

      Yeah, From Software really seem to flesh out some cool law stuff in their DLCs. Although, those invisible knights did make me want to scream.

  18. Uninteresting Curse File Implement says:

    What it lacked in atmosphere and variety, DS2 made up for with some good ol’ polish. God knows Dark1 and Demon’s could have used some!

    So while the game appeared a bit bland to me at first, eventually it turned out to be the most balanced, solid installment, with incredible multiplayer that’s not a pain in the ass for once. Much love. Definitely my Goty.