Dark Souls 2 is an odd one. I finished it for the first time last week, almost exactly a year after finished the first game and 3 months after Bloodborne. When the Dark Souls 2 first came out there were a lot of mixing opinions about it. The initial reception was crazed, with 9's and 10's being thrown at in the reviews. But over the coming months opinions changed, and people began to more critical of the game. Playing the 'Souls' games in this order has made the issues with sequel stand-out even more and its place in the series looks even stranger coming off the back of playing Bloodborne.
Before I go any further I should make it clear, Dark Souls 2 is not a bad game. A mediocre Souls game is still better than most games out there and I enjoyed the majority of the time I spent in Drangleic. The Souls series, much like Zelda, is one that has exceptionally high standards. There were things that the game did very well. First of all playing the PS4 port of the game it was nice to play a Souls game which didn't have a myriad of technical difficulties. There were no areas where the framerate bombed and the loading screens were of an acceptable length. It also polished up a lot of the finnickity menus that were in the original. But while the improved technical side of things of is obviously a plus there was something huge missing. And that was imagination.
Dark Souls and Bloodborne are consistently imaginative, every area, every enemy seems to be thought out with utmost care. There are never any areas that are bland or there is a key twist that changes an initially normal enemy it to something bizarre and off-the-wall. There are two main examples of how Dark Souls2 fails on this point. Dragons are an easily cliché enemy that fantasy games fall back on and Dark Souls 2 does this, notably in Aldia's Keep where hundreds of them fly around. You have to fight the Guardian Dragon as a boss fight (a pretty tame one as well) and also have the option of fighting the Ancient Dragon if you're an evil bastard. These are both just dragons with nothing remarkable about their appearance or their fighting style. This was not the case in its predecessor. Sure it had a couple a generic dragons thrown in as re-spawning enemies but it also featured the colossal Geiger-esque nightmare of the Gaping Dragon with it's split open spine made of teeth. It had the Undead Dragon, a once great being that had slowly rotted way leaving it unable to breath fire any more, only poison. And there is the Demon Ruins where the remains of hundreds of dragons lay frozen in time, so large their heads cannot even be seen. The game took this tired staple of the genre and reworked them into it its bleak world making the idea of dragons interesting again.
Darks Souls 2 also has a fight with a big spider about half-way through the game. It's a big ass spider, with legs and laser beams. Despite being actually one of the better boss fights in the game, the design of the Duke's Freja is pretty dull. It's just a big spider with lots of tiny spiders around it. Bloodborne has a fight with a massive a spider at a similar stage in the game but this time it's different. Instead of fighting in a nondescript cave, the fight takes place on top of a lake bathed in angelic moonlight after the player has jumped into the reflection of the moon in a illusionary lake. Rom itself is actually a man who tried to transform himself into a God and holds the key to enlightenment. His body has mutated into a chrysalis-like state and his appearance is pitiful. He doesn't attack, you attack him. Initially he doesn't even try to fight back, he tries to get away but can't. You almost feel sorry this abomination, it's look sad and there is no obvious reason for you to kill it, you just have to. He also has many little spiders helping and laser beams but its done in an altogether more interesting way with this emotive setting and build-up. It feels magical, which Dark Souls 2 never does.
The area design as well feels phoned-in. Clearly they needed to make sure the game was hard as that was a large part of the appeal of the first game. But instead of making it hard by making every fight feel like a game of chess waiting for the right moment to strike the game just throws loads of enemies at you at the same time. Sure, this makes the game difficult but as the enemy design and AI is uninspired it feels like more of a tedious slog through certain sections than a rewarding trial. This comes back to the boss fights in this game which are universally poor. Neither the design of the bosses nor the actual fight themselves are interesting, giving no sense of satisfaction when beating them. The majority of the fights are just men with a sword and shield, making them just like regular enemies but bigger and a larger health bar. It is also strange how the game rarely gives any bosses any 'second-phases' of the fight. This is a key feature of Souls boss fights were after losing roughly half their health the boss which switch tactics or change its fighting style. The most obvious example of this the fight with the Bell Gargoyles were a second Gargoyle appears after doing enough damage to the first one. I can't remember a boss fight having a twist like this in Dark Souls 2, which feels like incredibly lazy design.
On multiple occasions when going through areas for the first time I thought “ah, this one is the poison level”. Most RPGs have an area where you will be poisoned a lot and its normally a bit of chore to get through. Dark Souls has Blighttown, Bloodborne has the Forbidden Woods. But Dark Souls 2 seems to base all the levels around poison, clearly thinking that people just loooooved Blighttown so much they wanted half of the areas in this game to replicate it. Blighttown was by the far the most annoying section of the original game as it is at the apex of the point where are players are getting 'into' the game but haven't mastered it yet. But it just about gets away with it because the areas balance out. After making your arduous journey through Blighttown and making it back out into the open it feels amazing to be able to see the sky again, away from the swamps. It makes your experience feel like a journey, something which isn't the case in Dark Souls 2. This is partly down to the teleportation system, but also because there are few, if any, pretty environments to act as a contrast.
With Dark Souls 3 on the horizon I hope the new game learns from the mistakes of the predecessor. Already from the previews available it appears as if the game is going back to its roots and hopefully this will mean the imagination and creativity will come with it. Dark Souls 2 wasn't a bad game, but in this series anything short of a masterpiece is a disappointment.