First things first: despite the point I?m going to attempt to make here, I want to say that I love Dark Souls 3, it?s a fantastic game that is leaps and bounds ahead of many of its competitors. It?s not going to sound that way when you?re reading this, but I do love it. After all, you only discipline the ones you love, right? This is just one opinion, and as far as role-playing games go, I believe that Dark Souls 3 is one that will definitely be remembered for years to come (I guess we?re waiting for the inevitable remaster now, aren?t we?). As of the time that this is published, I?m eagerly awaiting the release of the DLC. Also, there are some mild spoilers here, you?ve been warned.
Now that we?ve got that disclaimer out of the way, I?m going to make a statement here that will surely draw the ire of many Dark Souls fans. My argument is that Dark Souls 2 is a better installment of the Dark Souls franchise than Dark Souls 3. Not a better game in general, mind you, but a better Dark Souls sequel. Why, you ask? Oh I?m so glad you asked.
Where better else to start than the beginning? Dark Souls 3 is more recent, so let?s tackle it first. Dark Souls 3 starts you off in an area that is wholly separate from the rest of the game, the Cemetery of Ash. It?s an area that is entirely linear and basically goes nowhere important, beginning at one dead end and ending in the boss?s literal arena. In a way, it could be seen as a great example of and throwback to old school level design, it?s sort of like a level from a Super Nintendo game. ?Super Ghouls and Ghosts? comes to mind. Poor Arthur, he never stood a chance.
On your way to the end of this area, you stop at a cliffside and gaze across a chasm, lit by the morning sun, and see the Firelink Shrine in the distance, something that was also present in the first Dark Souls. Strangely, it looks?bigger than it did in that game, but it?s there. You?re probably wondering how you get there, which is another testament to From Software?s genius level design.
?Hello, is it me you?re, looking for??
Apart from its elegant simplicity, the purpose of this deceptively straightforward area is to give you a brief tutorial before tossing you into the lion?s den by having you first fight Iudex Gundyr, a giant knight-statue and a basic looking boss if there ever was one. When you?ve beaten him, which should be a piece of cake for a Dark Souls veteran (unfortunately a recurring theme among all the game?s bosses), you?re finally given access to the ancient Firelink Shrine that you saw from a distance, in all of its mysterious esoteric glory. It?s all smothered in gray, drab and yucky, and everything around it is depressing and aggressively dead. At this point, upon entering the shrine, you discover that the shrine is populated by a handful of friendly NPC?s who will fill your basic needs, and it?s implied that there is more to come seeing as the shrine itself is woefully empty. That?s it! You?re ready to begin your adventure, right?! So, where to, noble adventurer? Which direction should we set off in?
That?s right. You?re stranded at Firelink Shrine. Your only way out, to reach the game proper, is through the lone bonfire smack dab in the middle of it. In order to truly begin the meat of the game, you have to use the bonfire to teleport, and in doing this you enter what I?m going to call the ?true game world?, the part that you can walk back and forth through if you wanted. If you?ve played Dark Souls 3, then you?re already aware that the game is far more linear than the previous two titles, the structure of the world is like a tree almost, with one main trunk in the middle and many branches off to the sides. The game is separated into very clear cut levels, and even the menu which contains your teleportation options is separated in this fashion. You return to Firelink Shrine every so often to find that it has been restocked and filled with even more goodies to help you, and you?d have to be pretty careless to run out of any supplies, considering the NPCs being so easily accessible. Measure that against the first game?s philosophy of spreading things out and letting you wander aimlessly into the deepest bowels of Hell, like a complete noob.
Shown above: terrifying.
So, why is this is a big deal? Seems to me like that?s all awfully convenient, right? Well, the problem with Dark Souls 3 starts with the fact that it immediately invites you to do things that the first two games made you work for. In the first Dark Souls, friendly NPCs were spread few and far between, and teleporting between bonfires was a luxury that was afforded to you only once you beat Ornstein and Smough, unanimously known as one of the toughest boss fights in the trilogy. Beating them grants you the Lordvessel, an instrument that to some players leads you down a path towards a second half of Dark Souls that is inferior to the first half (I don?t agree, but that?s beside the point). In the second Dark Souls, the friendly NPCs are more prevalent but still distanced, and you?re granted the ability to teleport between bonfires at the onset of the game but only once you?ve found them, and not before you find the first one; the bonfires in Dark Souls 2 are not readily available, some of them are only accessible in the darndest of places, and you have to fight tooth and nail to earn the privilege of using them. From the moment you begin Dark Souls 2, you are inside the game?s world, and you only access the rest of it by ? you guessed it ? playing the game. Dark Souls 2 handily improves on the first game?s design without conceding on the theme of the series.
This is the first early indicator why Dark Souls 2 is a better sequel to the first game, which is a flawed masterpiece that will forever hold a special place in fans? hearts and gamers? memories. The second game, however, starts differently than the first and third games: you begin the game in an area that?s tucked away in a neat little corner of the game world called ?Things Betwixt?, an ominous and fairy tale sounding title. There is no grand entrance you need to make in order to find the rest of the world. You simply make a pit stop at the Fire Keeper?s Dwelling, then pass through an area that is totally optional and, to the observant gamer, a tutorial stage. Also, in this area, there?s a handful of hulking Cyclops beasts that are essentially late-game enemies, and two of them sit idly by at Ash Lake, an area that holds a juicy little secret. You can come back here at any time, and you do have a reason to return later on. By comparison, the beginning area of Dark Souls 3 is bereft of secrets, apart from the weird and unexplained return you make to it later that really makes no sense geographically speaking. Finally, at the end of a short cave you arrive in Majula, a peaceful abandoned village on the coast of the ocean. The ocean and the village, blanketed by the orange sun overhead, is an oddly beautiful place. From Majula, you have a few options of where to go next, albeit it?s likely you?ll find yourself taking on Heide?s Tower of Flame first. From one unique set piece to another, Dark Souls 2 has you wander over and under and across through a very open world set to the backdrop of another medieval fantasy tale, and all roads lead back to Majula, your quiet safe place by the beckoning ocean that is visible from many points. Like the ocean, the design of the game world in Dark Souls 2 may toss you to and fro, as you scramble from area to area. Sometimes you go under, you?re thinking about the fresh air and wondering if you?ll see the sun again. Sometimes you?re floating above, safe and treading, but there?s always the feeling that something evil lurks nearby?.you just can?t see it. Oh, and there?s also the teleporting, but you didn?t teleport to get to the world, did you? At least in the first two games, Firelink Shrine and Majula were just starting points, not ?safe zones? away from the game.
In Dark Souls 3, instead of giving you a host of exclusive areas with their own identities, you?re given a narrow tour of a city/kingdom?s countryside, through many graveyards, broken down villages, and fortified areas. It?s Fantasy Setting 101, nothing special at all. The bonfires are plentiful and most agreeable, and many of the game?s areas have conspicuous ?elevator shortcut to the end of the level? thingamajiggers. An elevator here and there is fine, but they don?t even attempt to hide it in Dark Souls 3, it?s in plain sight. At times you may go underground briefly or to a higher elevation, but these are things that you?ve seen before in the previous games, nothing original. Dark Souls 3 feels like a slight retread, and in lieu of risks it downplays the element of the gameplay that made the first two so special. Its final battle even ends in the exact same way as the first game, in the exact same location. To be fair, it?s consistent with the lore of the series, and it is a pretty darn satisfying moment, I just can?t help but wonder what other ideas were laid out on the table before they settled on that one.
Dark Souls 2 takes you to some dark places.
By comparison, Dark Souls 3?s little stunt in its own beginning seems a little like a missed opportunity, doesn?t it? Why does Firelink Shrine have to be disconnected? Sure, the first Dark Souls has the Undead Asylum which is also entirely separate from the game world, but it?s way more exciting and intricate than the Cemetery of Ash. Plus, you?re much more likely to return by hapless wandering to the Cemetery of Ash at a later time than you are to return to the Undead Asylum, whose returning form is a delicious hidden area for the curious and hard-working gamer. Dark Souls 3, by contrast, continues its tradition of linearity through and through, something you?ll find as you continue to play the game, though to its credit it does have you zig zag up and down in its many areas. It?s covenants are dastardly uninspired too, one or two of them feeling entirely useless to boot, and the first two games had covenants that were so well designed that you were likely to never find some of them without the aid of the internet. For example, Dark Souls 2 introduced the two covenants that went hand-in-hand: The Way of the Blue, and the Blue Sentinels. The Blue Sentinels are summoned automatically to help those who follow the Way of the Blue when they?re invaded by nefarious players, a multiplayer mechanic that I really wish I?d thought of, because it?s just so cool. Instead of coming up with its own original ideas, however, Dark Souls 3 merely copies the major covenants (Sun Bros, yeah!) from the first two games and adds in a few that are entirely forgettable and don?t add anything of value to the game?s multiplayer. Add that to the fact that the world of Dark Souls 3 is mostly uniform in appearance, with only a few genuine surprises sprinkled in, and you have a game that feels a little uncreative when juxtaposed with its predecessor. It?s worth noting that some people have pointed out that Dark Souls 3 even reuses some assets from Bloodborne, another IP that From Software released in 2015. I?ll confirm that, the gravestones, candles, and tombs look like they were ripped directly from Bloodborne, it was one of the first things I noticed.
For all it?s much ballyhooed pros and cons and criticisms upon release, compared to Dark Souls 3 which is a much safer game design-wise, Dark Souls 2 has a mystique to it that trumps the third game in every way. The story in Dark Souls 2 is a spin-off of sorts, giving you some insight into another part of the Dark Souls plane, where other important figures are playing real life chess and wargames, and echoes of the bloody past are splattered across every wall and floor, daring you to lay bare the unpublished tale. One moment in particular stands out to me in my mind. Near the end of the game, you find a ?boss? of sorts, King Vendrick, wandering around in a crypt, walking in circles. You?ve heard a lot about him throughout the game, he was a major player in this story. Now, you?ve stumbled upon the man himself, or what remains of him, he?s a mindless zombie. You don?t have to kill him, he?s not hostile. As a matter of fact, he doesn?t drop any loot either. Kill him though, and you earn an achievement. You also earn the bragging rights of killing the king, a poignant victory among a story with tangled Pyrrhic plot threads. I appreciate this encounter for its subtext, From Software knows how to stimulate a player?s imagination.
Dark Souls 3? It returns you to the plot of the first game: light the flame, save the world Ashen One. It?s heavily implied that Dark Souls 3 might even take place in Lordran, the first game?s setting, in a future version of it at least; if you recall the first game?s ending, you have the option of rekindling the flame, or letting the world slip into a Dark Age. The actual story of the series is quite interesting, but I won?t go into it here. The bosses in Dark Souls 3 are mostly mandatory, and the ones that are optional don?t feel at all optional in the greater context of the game, some of whom you may stumble upon regardless and not even realize they?re ?optional?.
So you see, Dark Souls 3 might rank as a better game in most people?s books, but for me, Dark Souls 2 expanded on the first game?s tradition of making you work for your success instead of immediately ushering you into a habit of laziness. They even one-upped the abused tradition of remasters by redoing all the enemies in the game and rearranging them, making ?Dark Souls 2: Scholar of the First Sin? an almost entirely different (and maybe better) game. And I hate to say it, but Dark Souls 3 was pretty easy, it plays footsie with the series? goal of being hardcore and difficult. There was only one or two points where I truly felt that the game challenged me. Otherwise, I was breezing through it, and my total playtime ended with over 30% less cumulative hours played than my initial playthrough of Dark Souls 2. I will admit that Dark Souls 3 has my favorite ending of the series though, it?s ?true? ending leaves the Ashen One and the Firekeeper in a favorable outcome. It really made me happy, that little shred of hope that it leaves you with, especially since I had kind of a crush on the Firekeeper.
Dark Souls 3 is a fantastic game, but Dark Souls 2 left an impression on me. I look forward to returning to its bizarro world of sweeping vistas and hallowed halls, glass knights, castles, rumors of war, dragon infested peaks, and rats. The ocean, its siren call begs you to go on an adventure, to witness its guilty shadows dance across the kingdom of Drangleic. Will you go?