We’re something under a week away from the release of Dark Souls 2. As I type this, many a streamer, leaked copy in hand, is already in the dire process of spoiling the game for others. Well, the console release, anyway. PC players are advised to wait a month before reading this post at 90% zoom with the font changed to Avant Garde and all the images run through a sharpen filter.
Meanwhile, the hype train runs rampant. Pre-order weapons, clothing deals, a car (?!). The odd news that Serafinowicz is on-board for voice acting is particularly strange. His uniquely quirky, stilted delivery will probably work a treat, but it’s still a really odd piece of marketing from a man who gets his biggest laughs selling gravy magazines and yelling at sulfur. Imagine the worst Guinness advert you’ve ever seen - now imagine it’s about a video game instead. And amidst all of this, no-one is really considering the fact that Namco Bandai are drastically misunderstanding this game. Or at best, considering and then immediately disregarding it. It’s just marketing, just the publisher, it’s not got anything to do with the actual game.
Counterpoint. Deus Ex Human Revolution. A good Deus Ex game - if your notion of Deus Ex is a wide variety of playstyles from which you exclusively select “stealth man” time and time again. Except for one thing, one thing that got absolutely lambasted by just about everyone - the bosses. Some idiots went far enough to pretend the concept of a “boss” is antirequisite to any sort of multiple approach gameplay, but the simple and plain truth is that the bosses, as implemented, were not very good on any level. Bad as characters, bad as encounters. The bosses were so wildly out of tune with the rest of the game that it’s no real surprise that they were outsourced to a different studio.
Why? Well, the commonly understood reason these days is that Square Enix took a long, envious look at Konami. Took a long glare at Metal Gear Solid and decided they wanted a little piece of the calorie mate. And what does everyone love about MGS? The bosses. The good ones like Vulcan Raven, even the bad ones (The Pain). So, they made the decision to have bosses, regardless of how they could possibly fit in the game. Think hard enough and this might also explain why being anything other than a stealthy, OCD-ridden Jensen gets you in a body bag quicker than you can lament over just what you did and didn’t ask for. A publisher that misunderstands a game has a lot more weight than you might think - do you really think developers are just chomping at the bit to crank out all those preorder weapons? That old Namco Bandai quote about chasing the Skyrim audience is sounding a lot more ferocious as days go by.
Hidetaka Miyazaki didn’t want to do a Dark Souls 2. Not yet anyway. So, out he goes - the creative director for Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, the man who speaks at length about his bizarre systems of ambiguity, community and anonymity, the man at the heart of it all is kicked out and summarily replaced with two fresh-faced new directors.
Dark Souls 2 will probably be a fairly hard game. It would be ridiculous for it not to be. It will also likely be a well-implemented difficulty, one that enriches most of the experience. It would be ridiculous and insulting to pretend that From Software somehow forgot how to make decent RPGs overnight, that Miyazaki was some form of load-bearing wall for the entire series. But, there is more to Dark Souls than difficulty and atmosphere. Subtlety, mystery, hostility. If all you want is a hard, fair game - play Ketsui. Play Alien Vendetta.
Voice chat will be in Dark Souls 2. As will ways to make summoning friends easier. Fast travel will always be available, and invasions are set up based on different metrics than character level (play time and total souls spent are the current favourites). These all seem like complete no-brainers, things that should have been around since the very start, and yet they weren’t. We’ve been through 2 games now, and it seemingly never once lit up in Miyazaki’s head to do these? As popular as it is to package game design as the result of technical constraints whenever convenient (titanfall only has 6v6?! fucking consoles!), These have been left out for a reason, and introducing such things under the banner of player-friendliness is missing the point in a series that won so many hearts based on its rebellious, mysterious, indifferent player hostility.
But the preorder bonus is only an early unlock! But you need a special ring equipped for voice chat! This is not an issue of game balance, this is an issue of design direction. People who play games are brought up and nurtured in worlds of perfect information, of value-adds and balance. It’s no wonder they have such an irritating tendency to take absolutely everything at face value.
Dark Souls told its story through not telling it. Tiny pieces of obscure, esoteric lore to be endlessly pondered and debated. A refreshing, community-driven alternative to the current AAA model. "[Dark Souls II] will be more straightforward and more understandable". That’s this sort of thing that’s in jeopardy here - the stuff between the lines, the stuff that you can’t explain with that microscopic focus on changing the backstab mechanics, tweaks to magic, etc.
Difficulty is a crucially important element of games. Difficulty is how decisions are given context, given weight - and rich, weighty decisions are what a game is. It’s how we are personally invested into a game and how we go to others for help. If this was the main thing Dark Souls had to teach us, we didn’t listen. We’re still drowning in pitifully easy garbage, still offered a million options to do the same dull thing, still being told to press C to crouch. And we still eat it up. Dark Souls, on the other hand, became a meme - a punchline, not a lesson.
And so, instead of demanding other games learn from Souls, we buckle in tight and demand sequel after sequel, thinking that somehow “decent difficult action RPG” is something that only From Software should have a monopoly on. Everything else, the subtler characteristics of the series, can go to hell for all we care. If Namco Bandai can keep fuelling our narcissism, as shown by screenshots of an empty Ornstein & Smough arena after the phantoms disappear, then that’s all that matters.
I will probably not be getting Dark Souls 2. If you want a good, competent, difficult RPG this year, it’s the one to get - no questions asked. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll get a little miffed and then try again when the big boss flattens you. But, if you want a Souls game, and properly understand what that means - this might fall a little flat for you. In the end, my desire to hit things with a sword and summarily be hit in a similar fashion doesn’t burn deeply enough in my heart that I’m willing to just meekly accept as they throw everything but that out of the window.
Score : 9/10. The best Souls game until Dark Souls 3.