I was recently asked to name my favourite "red-headed stepchild" of a videogame, the game in a series which people complain about but which I love. I tried really hard not to be a parody of myself, but I couldn't resist talking about Dark Souls II.
Dark Souls is one of my favourite games of all time, as I've said ad nauseum. It wasn't just another Tolkienesque fantasy, but a theology unto itself. It was a creation myth tied to a deeply philosophical look at the world, with characters whose stories told relevant and adult moral messages. It was the perfect symbiosis of gameplay mechanics, visual design and writing to tell an impactful and memorable story.
That story was about the twilight of the world, and the endless cycle of desperately trying to keep the world kindled a little longer, or giving in and letting the lights go out.
It was the game that never needed a sequel- a single, contained volume that wraps itself up. Dark Souls III is the sequel a studio would want. All your favourite areas and characters are back! You thought the bosses were hard before? Now they're super hard! Vaguely philosophical endings are for pussies, this time it's definitely the end of the world! Who has time for the nuance of human relationships? Here, every character ends with a tragic mercy killing! CRY FOR ME!
Dark Souls II isn't that game. Very few locations and characters return from the first game. The sense of time passing is reinforced by worlds on top of worlds, a realistic approach to history that is full of holes and misinterpretations. The first game is referenced less directly, with spiritual successors to various characters and themes.
The original game's world is one of my favourite things about it: truly three dimensional design, looping around and back on itself so cleverly, full of ingenious shortcuts. This design works because of the mechanics of the game: the lack of warping and the scarcity of bonfires forcing the player to really learn the environments. They all feel real to me, and I know them better than my home town.
Great though it was, that was a trick that could only be pulled off once. Later games naturally used lots of quality of life improvements, with the ability to warp between bonfires and far more of them being the big difference. This removed the need for such a cleverly designed world, but it allows the game to send you on a longer, more quest-like journey. Visiting the corners of a continent is something satisfyingly different from the first game. The gaps in the journey, the jumps that Dark Souls II detractors are so keen to criticise, capture the main emotional hook of the game.
This game is all about the curse itself: characters losing themselves as they die and return again and again. The health bar mechanics are tied to this system, several characters' stories revolve around their own loss of memory, and all the biggest moments feature once-great powers reduced to nothing.
I'm not the first to mention this. In the Cane and Rinse episode about Dark Souls II, they talk about a listener's love of the character Lucatiel and how they spoke about their stepfather's alzheimers. The wonderful Soulsong Remember My Name is another exploration of this story.
Dark Souls was a game about death and rebirth, about the slow end of the world and about the pointless cycles of trying not to let it all end. Dark Souls II took into account the folly of following that story up, explored the emptiness of it all beautifully, and gave us dozens of new interesting characters, enemies, bosses and ideas. By its very nature, it will never be as memorable as the start or the end of the story, but it embraces that instead of fighting it.
Dark Souls III is fun, and there are some great moments of pathos there, but it feels very by-the-numbers "Souls Game". Dark Souls II already told us why we shouldn't do that, and did it while being a better game.