Trial by bonfire: Dark Souls 2’s lack of direction is crippling
It is almost inconceivable to me that, while my GameZone colleague Andrew Clouther painstakingly details every last boss fight of Dark Souls 2 in addition to his full review, my first article discussing the game would be strictly critical. However, despite how immensely I, too, am enjoying my time in Drangleic, a pervasive flaw in the shield of FromSoftware’s follow-up title warrants the exception. And so, begrudgingly, I admit that Dark Souls 2 is not perfect, despite how fiercely my playtime says otherwise.
What does the Souls emblem, the very series, carry with it? Is it a fan base so thoroughly engrossed that they’ve made what was once a hidden gem a veritable cultural phenomenon? Or is it proof that video games, by design as an interactive medium, need not spoon-feed the player details and might instead leave discovery to natural gameplay decisions? There’s much to gush over in the Souls series, now three games strong, but from long-time veterans to intrepid newcomers, one overarching theme remains prominent, forever engrained in the battered minds and thumbs of its players. Souls games are about challenge.
...and praising the sun!
How that challenge is built, however, is a much broader subject. Again, there is no shortage of things to cite. Famously adaptive and intelligent A.I.; limitations applied to even the basest of resources which place great importance on every decision and purchase made; unforgiving and, at first glance, seemingly insurmountable boss enemies; palpable repercussions to every last death—the list goes on, and varies according to whom you ask. Ultimately, though, the inherent difficulty of Souls games is very simply crafted: by asking the player to meet unwavering expectations without the aid of a system—in this case, a system that laughs at and openly mocks their frustration and failures rather than coddles them with checkpoints and difficulty settings.
What that challenge is not, on the other hand, is one that must rely on the age-old hurdle of artificial difficulty. Retro in its roots, the term artificial difficulty refers to needless convolution that forces the player to backtrack, grind or essentially replay areas for the sole sake of progression—often a desperate attempt by developers to lengthen a game. For the most part, Souls games excel in avoiding this, but with its third outing, the problem has flared up like never before.
Of course, I’m not referring to the order in which Drangleic may or may not be explored. The open world of Dark Souls 2 allows players to set their own pace and conquer areas as they see fit, whether they are statistically prepared for them or not. Far from problematic, this one of the more charming aspects of the game, as it allows each playthrough to deviate from a connect-the-dots experience and instead form a more personal one. Besides, as the devs themselves have stated, if you’re good enough, you can tackle any area at any level.
Things become troublesome when those areas are deemed off-limits by another variable. The strength of your sword, the mettle of your armor, the dangers of the environment—all useless in the face of the almighty and actually insurmountable door. Ancient guardians, mighty kings, hordes of undead? No, your biggest enemy is a door. This tyrannical thing has littered Dark Souls 2 with its devilishly unmovable minions, and as a result, put the brakes on the allure of Drangleic and its many nooks and crannies.
Every door you encounter could lead the way to the next area, but without the right key, you’ll be left in the dark to rot in stagnation. It could also lead to an inconsequential chest, but you’ll never know until it’s opened. Your playtime will increase, but the game won’t change. You’ll spend hours scouring and re-scouring areas, hoping futilely to stumble over the subtle lever or secret door necessary to progress, but more often than not come up empty handed. And so, feeling defeated and fatigued in an unfamiliarly dull sense, you turn to walkthroughs and guides to point you in the right direction—to do the job the game failed utterly to do.
I’m going hollow just remembering it.
This is the problem with Dark Souls 2, and it’s a doozy. On more than one occasion, I and my equally Souls-headed GameZone coworkers were forced to consult one another in the hopes of finding the next step in the game. And we’re clearly not the only ones; NeoGAF, for example, is rife with forums and threads of users searching for their answer, the minutiae they failed to notice. Often, entire areas go unnoticed, and for the stupid reason of a key—which presents itself and appears as nothing more than your run-of-the-mill loot, not an incomparably valuable item—falling by the wayside as you, in your absolute hubris, try not to die.
"Wait ... where the hell am I?"
There is no map available to you. Item descriptions are novelties at best and outright worthless at worst. And most aggravatingly, unlike every other RPG ever—in which talking to a few villagers will yield a subtle hint as to where you should or could be headed—NPCs offer little to no advice and instead drone on about the hardships of their homeland. And for what? Is this a limitation? Is it a repercussion? Is it an expectation that the entire player base has failed to meet? Or is it slipshod design that frequently drags an otherwise exceptional game to the deepest pits of repetition?
It’s one thing to put the game in the player’s hands, but another to hide it in a dozen boxes miles apart with no apparent connection to one another. It’s fine to withhold a treasure chest from players until after they’ve flipped every rock, but another to place basic resources and activities—such as, you know, beating the game—behind invisible walls. Dark Souls 2 is a fantastic game, making it all the more unfortunate that there will almost certainly come a time when you feel as though you aren’t allowed to experience it. On the bright side, the descriptions and NPC hints suggested previously could both surely be added into the game. And brighter still, we’ve got you covered with Dark Souls 2 guides and walkthroughs galore.