In today’s modern videogame landscape delivering on the hype train that has snowballed for months is near impossible. That is if your goal is to make everyone happy. With the PR machine relentlessly psyching up the masses as inevitable deadlines stir up feelings of dread rather than elation. Developers who are pushing deadlines beyond their capacity deliver less and less with each new AAA release. No Man’s Sky, Destiny, Jurassic World: Evolution, Sea of Thieves, Battlefront I/II are just a few recent games that have all been found wanting at release.
Nonetheless what about the other ones, the games that delivered but in all the wrong ways? Few games have had as much scrutiny levelled at them as Dark Souls II. The release of Dark Souls Remastered to Switch and PS4 and Xbox’s short lived player base now dwindling months later, I thought I would take a closer look at ‘Sunken King’ that is Dark Souls II. A game that was expected to fail before it had even begun.
WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
Around the middle of 2012, less than a year after the initial release of Dark Souls. At the 10th annual VGAs FromSoftware announced Dark Souls 2 much to the fevering of fans. Fans were unsettled as news came that Miyazaki would not be directing the sequel, and only filling a supervisory role. The reason for this being that just a few months prior to the VGA announcement Sony had approached Miyazaki to direct an exclusive game for the 8th generation of Playstation consoles. This would later be revealed as the game ‘Bloodborne’.
With that knowledge in hand, the development of Dark Souls 2 ploughed ahead; for better or worse this game would become a reality. The battle to release the game and do its predecessor proud was off to a rocky start as people began to speculate that the Dark Souls 2 Development team was missing more key members than just Miyazaki. Although the full extent of the team was unknown during the development, not long after release (and once disillusionment had set in) a NeoGAF post posted by a now banned user (unrelated reason), ‘Psycho_Mantis’ from Apr 4th 2014 compiled a full list of the teams that worked on both demon Souls and Dark Souls. “Psycho_Mantis” speculated that the team directed by Tomohiro Shibuya and Yul Tanimura was in fact passing the torch to the lower ranking developers from the previous entry.
But, in a design interview featuring the director Yu Tanimura as well as artists Daisuke Satake, Masanao Katayana, Hiroaki Tomoari, Kota Tonaki and Shin Ou, it’s made quite clear that not only did so few people work on the previous entry, some of the design work wasn’t even done in house:
“Katayama: Yes, it’s just Mr Satake and I that worked on the previous game isn’t it. I only joined from the latter half of the first Dark Souls but here I was involved right from the early concept stages. Once we entered the main stage of development I worked with Mr Satake and Mr Tonaki, mainly on the characters.”
“Satake: With this project we actually relied quite heavily on out of house artists, although that did mean we spent a lot of time checking their designs. We also had the in-house artists supervise creation of the 3d models rather than just working on 2d images. We made and remade things countless times during this project…”
This is not a damning insight of the state of the game in any case. The capability of the team developing Dark Souls II could not be judged based on rankings within a hierarchy. Not to mention that Miyazaki himself handed the reigns to the franchise over himself. The Promotional material leading up to its release showed great promise and felt true to the world that came before. But this did not stop the internet from sinking its teeth in come launch day as the initial reviews varied drastically from success to abysmal imitation.
As I sat down to begin again my foray back into the world of Dark Souls II, I had recently cleared ‘Dark Souls: Remastered’. Reaching NG+++ on multiple character builds as is appropriate for any Souls playthrough. I had a clear idea of what exactly, for me, made this game great, not perfect mind you (somehow infinite backstab is still a thing) but despite its flaws, a great game. As I put out of my mind my initial feeling when ‘Dark Souls II’ released in March 2014.
I quickly resigned this game to be one of the weaker entries to the series. Back then I wasn’t sure exactly what it was that irked me about it. On my newest play through however it was quite clear. The world building is altogether lacklustre. The game begins with redundant exposition that serves neither old or new fans to the series. We’re introduced to the world by a disembodied female voice. Vague Expositions are thrown out almost randomly that only a veteran Soul’s player sees as tongue in cheek references. But for new fans the concepts are intangible and bear no weight:
“Your past. Your future. Your very light. None will have meaning, and you won’t even care. By then, you’ll be something other than human. A thing that feeds on souls. A Hollow”
While it may set an ambient moody atmosphere, and Vets of the series may understand that reference. It fails to explain the plot or lore in any meaningful way. This storytelling carries through for a substantial portion of the opening half of the game. You find you run into dead end areas and are forced to backtrack or fast travel to the next location (a proponent I originally disliked for its lazy implementation).
Juxtapose Dark Souls II’s opening cinematic with the opening cinematic from Dark Souls I and you are left wondering what happened to the vivid world Myizaki created two years before? In Dark Souls I we open on a scene where we see Gods battling Dragons for rule of the land. It’s this scale and scope of narrative that enthralled me when I first began my Souls journey. And all of this is blatantly absent from its successor in place of a barer bones meta jab ‘This is Dark Souls, it’s dark and you will die’.
In the aforementioned design interview, Yu Tanimura explains further about the suspected issues in development the team had to deal with;
“Tanimura: Yes, this game actually went through quite a troubled development process. Due to a number of factors we were actually forced to re-think the entire game midway into development. We really had to go back to the drawing board and think once more about what a Dark Souls game should be… but it did of course create a problem. We had to decide what to do with the designs and maps that had been created up to that point.”
It’s understandable, then, to see how the game took its final form. Many gameplay elements have been drastically changed from DS1 but feel incomplete. The changes to poison, stat investment, thresholds and how stamina management decides who wins or loses in PvP. The game is smoother to play, rolling and attacking is faster but the combat happens slower. The number of I-frames your roll has is close to none unless you spend several levels investing in a new stat adaptability. (20 points being the minimum to get back to DS1 levels of i-Frames). These changes give this entry an odd unfamiliarity to the franchise. As if you’re playing an imitation or cheap knock-off.
It’s not until you start making progress through the mis-matched locals of the game that you start to see the real issue at play, the boss fights. It’s here that the game fails to recapture what was Dark Souls greatest experience. At first, they seem to be much harder in difficulty which is always welcome quality in Dark Souls. It doesn’t take long to figure out that every encounter has some cheap gimmick. Each one making the fight less than an even battle. Whether it’s the raising extra platforms to extend the tiny boss arena, burning down Mytha the Baneful Queen’s windmill, setting light to the Lost Sinners boss arena dispelling his fog of war or summoning friends to counter the many uncreative gank squads that litter boss fights as a substitute for unimaginative combat.
NUMBERS DON’T LIE
It is hard to reconcile that this game is cut from the same cloth as Dark Souls I. I would wager the amount of cloth that was cut is questionable. There is no denying that overall the game looks like Dark Souls and for the most part plays like Dark Souls. However, even on my revisit to Drangliec despite the differences I found it oddly more charming than my original foray. Many players still praise this entry’s new take on old systems and mechanics, but the sheer numbers speak for themselves. In a presentation by FROM SOFTWARE back in 2015 reported by Famitsu, they presented the sales numbers of both DS1 and DS2 respectively.
“Dark Souls has sold – 2,828,000 units worldwide
Dark Souls: PTD has sold – 2,765,000 units worldwide
Dark Souls 2 has sold – 2,311,000 units worldwide
Dark Souls 2: SoTFS has sold 600,000 units worldwide”
The numbers are very telling of the reception Dark Souls 2 received upon release. Dark Souls: Prepare to Die edition sold nearly as many copies as Dark Souls 2 and Dark Souls 2: Scholar of The First Sin put together. The initial game it seems selling well only due to the solid repertoire of its predecessor and effective marketing campaign. After initial reviews filtered in and the reception became cold. The re-release of DS2 as Scholar of The First Sin shows its poor reception hit home with many fans. It sold nearly 4 times less than the original release. Opinions have always been subjective but hard sale numbers tell a clear story. I am inclined to agree with them.
As the fire fades on my return through Drangliec, seeing Dark Souls II with fresh eyes. All the improvements made in the Scholar of the First Sin edition does for the most part present itself as a Souls game with its aesthetics and character designs. There are brief moments of engrossing lore that had me encapsulated but it was far too fleeting to be worth noting. It’s a Souls game that I have no doubt but this entry for me at least, rings hollow.