Despite being lucky enough to have received Dark Souls to play early, I was still late to the party. It was hard – brutally so, some would say – and I was put off. I could immediately see why it was so beloved, however, and I wanted to play more, but time makes fools of us all, and I got lost in another game, in another time.
History, it seems, has a funny way of repeating itself.
Dark Souls II already feels different, though. A more connected world, a stronger frame-rate (though my journey is young, so time will tell), and more up to date visuals mean that I feel my time may have come. But it’s that world that might just be the star of the show.
From the moment you take control, you feel a part of something. The opening cutscene belies the grainy, almost janky feeling of the first game – there’s definitely a sense that there’s a larger budget this time around. Ludicrous, haggered old crones mock you relentlessly, before making you name your character, then build yourself anew.
People have told me that Dark Souls had a story; that it was hidden in the world; that extensive play would cause the narrative to reveal itself to me. Maybe I didn’t play it for long enough (I tried, I really did), or maybe it’s just not there for me, but Dark Souls II shows it a little more.
Sure, there are distinct areas to explore, but the freedom of exploration is a large part of the huge fear instilled within you as you do so. In my first moments with this new world, I ignored the white mist. Somewhere along the way I had grown to assume that it meant a boss battle, or a hard enemy would lurk behind it, but unbeknownst to me, these particular white mists hide tutorial areas, and weaker enemies.
But I ignored them, and forged onwards, picking up trinkets from the dead that littered the way. Then I encountered my first enemy. And you know, I’d been wondering where the enemies were until then. Just as I felt cocky, a huge knight lumbered into view and I panicked. I forgot how to heal and I couldn’t even remember if there was a block button. Somehow I came out the victor, and the cockiness came back.
For about five seconds, that is.
Another gigantic knight was around the corner; instead of a sword he had a mace that was easily bigger than my character. He ended me. I swore profusely, and not for the last time,.
I never felt as though Dark Souls allowed me to explore, and find my own way like this. By the time I finally decided to actually play the bloody game, there were numerous tutorials, wikis and guides available, and the temptation to ask for advice, or use those guides, was too much. I wasn’t really playing Dark Souls, I was just playing a guide.
In the review environment, certain games can be a nightmare. Horrific puzzles that you can’t look up on the internet are a games writer’s natural enemy. Dark Souls II should be one of those games. It should be a veritable monster to write about: how the hell can you take on a game like this alone, in such a closed environment without the help from the vast (and lovely) community.
Instead, it’s strangely refreshing. I know nothing about what will be around the next corner. I don’t know ideal builds, routes, farming areas, or grinding sections. It’s just my dude and his swords against everything this game has to offer.
So many games hold your hand, or commit the ultimate sin of showing you something cool in a cutscene that you never actually get to do. Dark Souls is the antithesis of all of that. It doesn’t hold your hand, it doesn’t take liberties with your time by letting you see things you could never actually do – it wants you to explore, it wants you to respect it, and in turn it respects you back.
But back to my hero, I managed to not only slay those giant knights, but meet one of the bosses of the area, who swiftly handed me my arse in such a manner that showed me I could defeat him, but not yet. My struggle continued, but not before I discovered an entirely new area, with much easier grunt-type enemies, allowing me to level up and fight a resting warrior, killing him and nicking his sword. His sword that I couldn’t use yet, because I didn’t have the requisite skills.
What all this has taught me is that I made a huge mistake with Dark Souls by waiting until it was too late to experience it fresh. I won’t make that mistake again. I’m damn well playing it this time, and I cannot wait to see what the community makes of it, and the resultant speed runs that come from it. Dark Souls II feels harder that before in some ways, but also friendlier due to the open-nature of the world. Go Beyond Death, they say? I may just do that, over and over again.