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Despite its 2011 release date, I din’t actually pick up the original Dark Souls until it went on sale for $5 on Xbox Live a few months back and after playing it, I can honestly say without any hesitation that it is easily one of my top five games of all time. That’s a pretty bold statement, so let me explain. Like any passionate Nintendo fan, I grew up loving games from The Legend of Zelda series, specifically Ocarina of Time. I remember jumping out of the car as a kid every day after school and bursting into my room where I’d slap my Ocarina of Time cartridge into my N64. You want to know why I was so excited to play that game? Because I was excited to go on an adventure – to get lost in a land of mystery, the very same reason I felt compelled to play Dark Souls each day after getting off work over the past few months. What Ocarina of Time did for me in my childhood, Dark Souls has done for me in my adulthood.
It was only a few weeks a go that I actually completed From Software’s first game and as soon as I had the chance, I picked up Dark Souls 2 – because that’s what you do after you put over 100 hours into a game, you buy the sequel. What I failed to realize until after I started playing, however, is that Hidetaka Miyazaki, director of Demon Souls and Dark Souls, had stepped down from his role during the development of Dark Souls 2 to focus more on the game’s multiplayer component. What concerned me about this right off the bat was the fact that Miyazaki had been in charge of approving concept designs for previous installments in the Souls series, meaning he acted as the primary source of direction for the visual depiction of each game. Sure enough, his lack of direction cracked through the thin, albeit resplendent, surface of Dark Souls 2 early on, as I could tell shortly after beginning to play that the land of Drangleic lacked the same sense of continuity found in Dark Souls‘ Lordran. In fact, the world of Dark Souls alone is what allows it to surpass the likes of its successor in almost all categories, the most important of which being fluidity of design.
You’re probably asking yourself, “What does he mean by fluidity of design?” Well, let me explain. When breaking down the main components of what makes Dark Souls so unique, we first must start with the tools used to construct its world. From the Undead Asylum, to Firelink Shrine, to the Undead Parish, all the way to Anor Londo and beyond, Dark Souls‘ world feels connected despite its vast array of locations, with a labyrinth of tunnels and passageways all interconnecting with one another. While each location acts as a “level” of sorts, never once did I feel as though I was progressing through successive stages. Rather, I felt as though I was traversing a living, breathing world full of mystery and danger. And seeing as Lordran is a land of Giants, every location exudes a sense of grandeur, making the player feel small and helpless…but that’s the beauty of it. You are a measly, helpless hollow who must overcome trials and nightmares far greater than your own persona in a land starved for nourishment, a land of death and desolation. Again, what makes this work so well is the connected nature of each of the game’s locations. Together, they combine to paint an intricately detailed landscape with elements that complement one another and somehow meld together in terms of design, despite changes in locale (e.g. Undead Parish and Anor Londo).
Still, in order to fully grasp the game’s sense of continuity, we must look at its creatures, all of which (aside from hollow soldiers and Darkroot Garden bandits) feel very rooted in classically-styled fantasy. And yet, hydras, golems and dragons somehow end up meshing well alongside the likes of Sif, a giant wolf, and Ornstein and Smough, Anor Londo’s golden-cloaked bosses. This odd mix of fictional and familiar organic beings acts as a catalyst for the world of Dark Souls through which lore and questions are spawned (see video below) in a much more refined way than Dark Souls 2. With that lore comes an added layer of depth to the game. It is a layer that does in fact exist in Dark Souls 2 as well, but doesn’t carry over quite as well due to a lack of direction from Miyazaki.
Now, this is where things start to get dicey because I’m about to make some pretty polarizing statements. To begin, the ability to fast-travel in Dark Souls 2 from the very beginning of the game is a detriment that pushes against one of the staples of the series, exploration. While Dark Souls feels connected and fluid, Dark Souls 2 feels disjointed and packaged into small, individualized levels. The feeling of grandeur and excitement when entering into a new area has been replaced by the all powerful “travel” mechanic that forces you to go back to Majula every time you want to level up. That, by the way, is another issue entirely though. What frustrates me most about the sectioning off of levels is that it diminishes the stakes of the game. Granted, Drangleic’s landscape is a bit more vast in scope compared to Lordran, but giving the player a fast-travel mechanic from the get go was a misinformed decision and one that only serves to underwrite the huge amount of work that went into creating the world of Dark Souls 2. Plus, with so many locations to warp to, hardly any of them become memorable, aside from Majula since it acts as a central hub. It’s almost as if each location was built as a “level” rather than a “location,” meaning placement of traps and enemies outweigh the overarching design of the world. As a fan of the original game, I was saddened to see how bland and uninspired many of the levels in Dark Souls 2 are, with many of them feeling much smaller in scale compared to the likes of Anor Londo or The Duke’s Archives in the previous game. And even though Dark Souls includes a fast-travel mechanic as well, it doesn’t allow the player to utilize it until halfway through the game, forcing anyone brave enough to endure the initial onslaught of baddies to venture from location to location on foot, soaking in the magical mysteries of the land as they progress.
Touching on enemies and bosses in Dark Souls 2, I found that many of them look rather odd and out of place, with some of them reflecting the classic vibe from the first game and others looking like rehashed World of Warcraft bosses (e.g. The Smelter Demon). This is where Miyazaki’s absence really became apparent to me. While working on previous titles, Miyazaki would meticulously look over every single design implemented within his games before giving concepts the “ok.” He knew what looked “good” and what would work well within the world of Dark Souls when placed alongside other creatures and geographical locations. Designs were simple, yet unique. Stylized, but with an added touch of elegance. It’s not that enemies and bosses necessarily look bad or completely out of place, but their bulky nature causes them to look over-exaggerated for the most part. Now, this is definitely an aesthetic issue and clearly belongs in the realm of opinion, but what I’m trying to convey is that Dark Souls 2‘s lack of direction from Miyazaki caused the game to take a turn away from its roots into a realm of high-fantasy. I’m going to keep going back to my main point – Dark Souls feels connected and together both in terms of location and its creatures, whereas Dark Souls 2 does not.
Possibly one of the most frustrating alterations made to Dark Souls 2, however, is the massive texture downgrade the game underwent between April 2013 and the game’s official release on March 11, 2014. As seen in the video below, Dark Souls 2 used to look much more like its predecessor, with dynamic lighting and more refined textures generating a more visually enticing game. Looks definitely aren’t everything, but the contrast between where Dark Souls 2 started and where it ended up is somewhat staggering. If upgraded textures would have meant frame rate drops similar to those in the first game, then it would have been worth the sacrifice in my opinion.
Alright, so at this point I’ve covered the overall layout of the game, the designs of the enemies and the drop in textures. Now, I’d like to focus on a core gameplay mechanic – the kick. Why the decision was made to remove the infamous kick mechanic from Dark Souls 2 is beyond me, but it’s a damn shame because its replacement, a heavy guard break attack, is completely buggy. Maybe it’s just my Xbox 360 or maybe the gods of video games just hate me, but I can’t for the life of me get it to work more that 40 percent of the time. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to guard break an enemy – completely unshielded I might add – only to have it negated by some magical source of sorcery spawned up from the omnipotent coding buried deep within the game. Clearly, this is a topic that frustrates me. As I’m sure it would anyone who wants to play a game with fluid combat mechanics. Dark Souls wasn’t perfect either, but at least you knew using the kick mechanic would work nearly 100 percent of the time. Anyway, on to the topic of hit boxes.
We’ve all been in a situation like this before: You’re standing face to face with a Silver Knight and just as he’s about to bring his sword down to strike, you quickly roll out of the way, successfully dodging the attack. Regardless of which game you’re playing, dodging is essential to the combat in Dark Souls. Unfortunately, I’ve noticed some major issues with the hit boxes in Dark Souls 2. Again, I’m not sure if it’s just me or if this is a widespread issue, but on numerous occasions I have been hit by enemy attacks either while rolling or without ever being touched by an enemy weapon. The only thing I can think of is that there are some major issues with the hit boxes in Dark Souls 2 that cause them to expand in certain situations. Regardless of what the issue is, it is an annoyance and a blight on the game’s combat system, especially since every hit counts. It’s bad enough that we have to deal with laggy PvP matches, but crappy hit detection in the primary game itself is just unacceptable.
Finally, other areas of the game induce mass hordes of enemies without much ability to draw them out individually, causing the players stamina bar to drain quickly. I’m all for a challenge, but not when it borders on unfair, a sentiment that I feel the developers were going for when they programmed the enemies in order to promote the idea of “difficulty” in Dark Souls 2. Where the original game required skill and careful precision while fighting enemies, the second requires ranged weapons to draw out enemies and sheer luck in regards to hit box detection while being swarmed by mass numbers of aggroed combatants.
There are many other aspects of Dark Souls that make it a better game than its sequel – weapon crafting, NPC progression and armor variation, to name a few – but what remains at the core of the original game’s success is its ability to captivate the player and draw him or her into a beautifully crafted fantasy landscape. While this can easily be said of Dark Souls, Dark Souls 2 feels like an unrefined collage of ideas pasted on top of one another without any uniform theme to hold them together.