The curse the original Dark Souls just couldn’t entirely overcome emerged in the late-game. Though a landmark in a new wave of world design, the last few areas couldn’t rise to the quality of the rest of the game, serving as noticable bloat in a masterpiece. Dark Souls 2 did everything the first did for me, minus the infiltrated curse.
Naturally, then, I point towards this middle of the trilogy as being the absolute best of a legendary series, earmarked for comparisons that have sunk an entire post-launch genre.
Lords of the Fallen, Salt and Sanctuary, The Surge – none of the would-bes that came after ever held a candle to Dark Souls 2 for me. The mechanics were something simple enough to replicate as the entire Souls-Borne series made an artform of making simple seem complicated. That’s not where those games fell short, no. It’s the beating, multi-chambered heart found within that leaves the rest in the dust by comparison.
Dark Souls 2 starts off with a tiered mission just as the first, which breaks down to “survive and move ahead”. Of course, the beauty of a Dark Souls game is in the quality of what the game is telling you. On one level, there are enemies and traps begging you to halt and retreat, never to attempt another rush into their defenses. On the other level, you have NPCs and systems pushing you forward with whispers of hope that grow as you move forward.
To that end, I find the Emerald Herald endlessly fascinating. She’s your main point of contact and likely who you’ll speak to most as you play, therefore getting the most sense of who she is outside of just your keeper. As you step into Majula, the sun splashing against the waves and into your eyes for the first time, she’s likely glowering over a bonfire and speaks to you as if from a script. When you come back with her requested large souls, her voice still stands unwavered for the most part, unimpressed with your progress. It’s when you speak to her outside of Drangleic Castle – the first great gate of King Vendrick – that her hope seems to thicken. From then on, she presents hope in steady amounts for herself and you, she both terrifyingly close to sorrow as well as elation by the end.
One of the major differences that helps Dark Souls 2 feel like the pinnacle to me is that conveyance of hope. The game feels like that double-edged sword everyone that glances at a Souls game ignores – difficulty mixed with a way through. The first game depicts, to me, adversarial strength more so than hope. You’re facing down the goddamn gods themselves and giving them a mercy they didn’t know they craved. The third game has a lot of the same tones but focused on the world instead with every reality crashing in by the end of it all. Dark Souls 2 is a game about seeing a single ray of hope in the dark and achieving an impossible victory. That’s the ultimate in euphoric payoffs in my book.
The level design, and game itself, is far more sprawling than the others, to be sure. Fans of that quilted-together blanket of level geography may find themselves hungry for such at the ends of the levels as a fair amount just end. While the first game feels like a province, Dark Souls 2 feels like a full kingdom to me with the spreading nature of the world. There are many nooks and crannies on top of plenty of looping shortcuts, but they normally settle somewhere in the middle of only larger areas. This feels like more of a journey to find these hidden secrets by a few degrees, lending the player a better sense of how far down this bright world has fallen at all corners.
Dark Souls 2 also features the best overall tidbits of lore in the series. Lordran, Lothric, and Drangleic share a similar sentiment within the ruinous decay of a once-great empire, but only the latter really seems to fully grasp at something beyond just that core straw. Gwyn fell because of pride and holding back the extinguishing flame. All of the Dark Souls 3 lords followed an inverted route through the same hoolahoop, backing out of a pact out of pride and fear.
King Vendrick, ruler of a kingdom for many decades in peace, went the way of a Cold War gone wrong. His struggle seems noble and genuine, but he hears whispers through walls and within his own bed to the point where he is driven to an eternal recurrence. It’s as disturbing a fate as there can be in the Dark Souls world as it’s the exact journey as our main character, but ending in complete failure. And it breaks down so very many along the way, giving a better context for hollowification and its horrifying price than any of the other Souls.
This is also where the sense of cycles really kicked into gear. Going through Dark Souls 2 more than once will give you the ability to pick further at the ground, unearthing connections that make sense and yet retain a clever tint. With all of the DLC attachments lending a lot of context, and a subtle curveball that rewards your hope climatically, there’s just no topping what this entry means to the series as far as lore-facing inclusions.
A short retrospective as well, this is also the last time we saw armor upgrades in a From Software made Souls-like. To me, that became a pain in Dark Souls 3. It works for Bloodborne thanks to the pacing which was just above the line needed to keep the standard armor sets as just special-case uses; you were never supposed to stand your ground for long enough to be hit. Dark Souls 3 fell back below that standard, and 2 reminds me of how much I love this upgradable aspect.
You’re not just putting on a set of unmoving numbers. Life and meaningful upgrades can be slapped on with the plentiful titanite or other materials that could’ve, admittedly, used another outlet come late-game when your inventory overflows with the things. Still, the armor upgrades give players another avenue for upgrade – another ray of hope in dark times, if you will. It’s not a huge sore spot, but the sore is certainly large enough to feel relief in Dark Souls 2.
The closest I come to a minus when inside Drangelic is with the covenants and that system in general. If you’re going for specific rings or other tier rewards in the various branches, it can become a bit of a grind. Even in Scholar of the First Sin, you’re looking at hours in the bell towers or behind the huge sentries of Heide’s Tower. The payoff in souls can certainly be worth it, especially in conjunction with some soul-eating weaponry, but it’s remains a mountain to fully complete that journey.
Dark Souls 2 is a complete, massive tome of lore and gameplay at magnum opus heights. The world feels jagged and filled with the desperate pain of hopelessness that your lone light blinds. Inside this entire continent of both divine and devilish creation, I can stand with hope of my own that other people will see this game for the beacon of incandescence that it is to me.
Dark Souls 2 Score: