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Dark Souls 2 Is Still A Deeply Flawed Masterpiece

I love FromSoftware, really I do; don’t let the title mislead you. Let me establish myself for a moment – the Souls community is a very particular one. I have over 300 hundred hours logged in the original Dark Souls, over 190 hours in the sequel, and over 90 hours in Bloodborne. I’ve done SL1 runs and challenge runs; I have platinums in Dark Souls, Dark Souls 2, and Bloodborne. I’m not new to the series; I’m as masochistic as every other fan out there, I promise you. I shrieked like a little girl unwrapping presents on Christmas (a pony??) when Dark Souls 2 was announced a few years back at the VGAs. I stayed up until 4AM – twice – to play the beta. I took off release day to sink my teeth into the next glorious game FromSoftware had seen fit to bestow upon the world, but much to my chagrin problems crystallized immediately. A year later, Dark Souls 2 has come to the next generation of consoles with 60FPS, 1080p, and all the DLC included. I had hoped FromSoftware also internalized some of the feedback they received and made improvements; instead I found the problems with the game’s original release had not disappeared and if anything had only become more apparent. So, humor me, as I examine what’s wrong with a sequel to one of the greatest games ever made, a sequel which scores in the 80s and 90s on Metacritic.

Moves, controls, call them what you will, but the first problem with this game is in the fundamental way the player interacts with his or her character. Jump attacking and, to an admittedly lesser extent, guard breaking are challenges to pull off in their own right. Flick a stick forward; hit a trigger – no big deal, right? Well, not exactly. Many times you’ll find you press the physical buttons necessary to initiate a jump attack or a guard break and instead the game processes only the R1/L1/R2/L2 (RB/LB/RT/LT). Equip Ricard’s Rapier and every time you fail a jump attack that miserably long animation will follow. At best these maneuvers are somewhat unreliable, at worst, with the tiniest miscalculation of timing, they are absolutely unworkable.


Eventually you get used to the nuances of interaction and become more proficient. To be fair, the more ornate, dexterous movements (especially in PvE play) aren’t things you need to pull off all the time. Some things never do suck any less, and many of those things are instances of platforming. Dark Souls 2 has a torrid love affair with hiding objects. Remember that pit in Majula? That little item on the way to the The Gutter at the bottom of the pit, the one you have to jump to from right after the Rat King boss? The leap you have to make in Earthen Peak? Dark Souls 2 has a lot of these platforming moments that are so often infuriating. An enemy or boss besting you is an acceptable defeat, repeated attempts at retrieving an item are not. To a point, some tough platforming has always been part of FromSoftware’s mantra, but with an overhauled health system capping your max health with each death in a world where Human Effigies are somewhat less than plentiful, a sinking feeling bubbles up in your stomach every time an item is spotted off in the distance, perhaps so much so some players don’t even bother.

Backstabbing is different in Dark Souls 2 – that’s a conscious design choice on FromSoftware’s part. I loved backstabbing in the original Dark Souls, but I won’t begrudge the sequel for trying to establish its own nuanced and unique combat system. What I take issue with is the glitchy (or unpredictable) nature of the new backstab system. My character will, on occasion, smack an enemy in the back and begin the backstab animation only to have this animation interrupted by the very enemy I am attempting to backstab who breaks free and edges out an attack before the game registers any input from me.

Dark Souls is a franchise concerned almost solely with combat. You might expect combat to be as polished as can be, those times when you can get all the controls right and the mechanics to function, but Dark Souls 2 still has a problem with hitboxes. The problem may not be pervasive, no; however, succumbing to the Ancient Dragon’s AoE attack or after defeating the Lost Sinner’s pyromancers then getting clipped by a swing that really shouldn’t have hit you gets tiring. Getting stabbed by The Pursuer when you were nowhere near his blade is annoying. Taking damage from a stomp that failed to hit you is aggravating. Regularly throughout my time in Dark Souls 2 did arrows lodge themselves in the air next to a body part. Clearly there are ways to avoid these situations, but for a game that prides itself on its difficulty taking care so as not to give the game a chance to burn you with a glitchy hitbox is an unwanted burden.


Picture courtesy of YouTube user JerpDoesGames

These concerns aren’t gamebreaking, they’re not. No player has admitted total and complete defeat at the hands of a failed jump or unfortunate hitbox. The most serious issues in this game are unfortunately issues of game design. Dark Souls 2 has some of the worst areas of any FromSoftware game. Not necessarily boring looking areas, no – but areas that drive you crazy. The Black Gulch, Shrine of Amana, and Undead Crypt, the biggest offenders are there, and then we have smaller grievances like the irritating navigation of The Gutter or the tiresome No-Man’s Wharf. Particularly with the Scholar update, the Alonne Knights of the Iron Keep frustrated me far more than the Smelter Demon himself. The Iron Keep is a great example of an area that doesn’t work as well as it could. The Alonne Knights agro you from a distance and charge in; fighting more than one knight at once at a low enough level, especially in a Covenant of Champions run-through, isn’t fun. So thusly begins the tedious process of trying to individually duel every enemy. In the Dragon Shrine, the combatants that remain neutral until you attack them will follow you seemingly forever, across any sort of environment making the fighting of a required few at the same time quite an encumbrance. Now, the areas themselves aren’t always poorly constructed or uninteresting; enemies in Dark Souls 2 are just far more plentiful than in the original game. Too plentiful. Instead of building challenging experiences with single enemies Dark Souls 2  will throw a handful of undead mobs, a pyromancer or two, a ranged caster, and a red enemy at you – in addition to more frequent NPC invasions. Add in a bunch of tombstones you have to break with your weapon (which is always breaking itself) and the cover of darkness and you’ve got the Undead Crypt.


Bosses have always been central to a FromSoftware game. Bosses break up areas, herald progression, and have given the Souls franchise much of its reputation for being unflinchingly punishing. The sad thing is in Dark Souls 2 an overwhelming number of bosses are simple knights or warriors, of different builds and armors, but of relatively little variety. The Looking Glass Knight looks exceptional, but still is another knight. The player is treated to Dragonrider and then two more Dragonriders later. Fans of the series might tell you the aesthetic of a boss is not very important; still, we have problems. Attacks are more telegraphed than ever. Swings, stomps, bursts of magic, whatever attacks are directed at the player are often easy to see coming from miles away. Bosses like The Pursuer or the Smelter Demon are a rare breed of excellently designed enemies that can on their surface seem quite difficult, but reveal themselves to be easily managed once attack patterns are understood. Not one boss in Dark Souls 2 truly challenged me, not like Ornstein and Smough did my first time fighting them. Instead of Kalameet we get the Ancient Dragon, an enormous boss with fire breath attacks that will kill you instantly in around 80% of the area. Bosses like Dragonrider or the Prowling Magus and Congregation roll over and die. Dark Souls 2 tries to vary its boss fights, much like the Bed of Chaos fight in the first game, and some fights, like the Executioner’s Chariot, work better than others like the Rat King. For god sakes we have the Covetous Demon. So many bosses in Dark Souls 2 are either boring, easy, or both.


FromSoftware might not be a Bungie or Infinity Ward, even so cooperative play and PvP play are integral components of the overall experience. Soul Memory sounded good to me on paper. My SL1 character in the original Dark Souls could invade anyone he wanted. I could annihilate new players without blinking an eye, not necessarily because of skill, but because I had fully upgraded weapons and armors that other players didn’t have access to early game or at their level. In Dark Souls 2 the matchmaking system is moderated to be based off of the total number of souls received, supposedly matching your character with another player determined to be of a similar grade. What happens is players are forced to continuously level their characters far past soft caps and the point where the meat of the PvE experience can be said to be fun just to keep up with an increasing soul memory. Like me, if you choose not to continue to level (I’ve stayed at SL156) then eventually you will be paired with players who have upgraded their stats so heavily fights are no contest or in cooperative play you will do a negligible amount of damage compared to your companions. Dark Souls 2 simultaneously wants you to be frugal with your soul earnings while giving you the option to Bonfire Ascetic and kill bosses again or join other player’s games and help them fight bosses. Never in a FromSoftware title has walking around with souls in the late game felt so lamentable.

With questionable controls and game mechanics, poorly designed areas, uninspired boss design, and a troubling matchmaking system that encourages (perhaps even requires for people serious about PvP play) specific low soul memory builds, Dark Souls 2 presents as a game trying to improve on a formula that didn’t need changing. Dark Souls 2 is still not a bad game. Not at all, and on the PS4 and Xbox One it is at its best. Controls may feel wonky at times, but for the majority of your experience you make do. Glorious high resolution visuals and a steady 60FPS are a delight to behold. Scholar changes can admittedly sometimes feel cheap, but they almost always add new layers of challenge to old interactions. Bothersome areas don’t take away from the enjoyment of navigating the tremendous ones. Bosses might not be as tough, but Dark Souls 2 tries a lot of new and interesting things to keep its fights feeling fresh and interesting. The fact of the matter is Dark Souls 2 is a good game very much so because Dark Souls was an amazing game. Much like how Fallout: New Vegas is a good game very much so because Fallout 3 was an amazing game. Dark Souls 2 tries to change things to assert itself as a standalone title while staying true to fans, what it does is come off like a poor man’s version of a better game. Even so, a poor man’s version of something truly brilliant is still far better than many other offerings out there today.