Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Dark Souls 2, Part 1: Plot and Themes

Dark Souls II is a tough game to talk about. It's an incredibly entertaining game, it has a world-class core gameplay loop that rivals Halo and FIFA and Civilization, and it has a ton of content to discover with a lot of unique ways to experience it. It's an easy contender for game of the year. The only trouble is that it's a sequel to Dark Souls, easily one of the best games of the generation, and to Demon's Souls, one of the most influential games of the generation, and it doesn't match up to their standards. Even the reviewers who are disappointed with Dark Souls 2 (DS2 for short) struggle to explain how a game that is so consistently satisfying and engaging can be a missed opportunity. It's like listening to the lackluster sophomore album by your favorite band. I'm left being very thankful that I have a wonderful new game, but wishing that there won't be a Dark Souls 3, that this team can stretch their wings and invent something new and fresh.

Much has been made of the switch to a new leadership team for the sequel, and the sudden transformation of a niche development studio into a hyped AAA release with a big marketing campaign, and there is a pervasive sense in the game itself that DS2 is trying to prove that it's still a Souls game. There are entirely too many callbacks to the previous game, to the point where the game might actually have been better without them.

Let's take one example as a case study. Everyone loved Havel the Rock, an NPC from DS1 who has no actual dialogue, because he was intimidating, unique and expert players could challenge him almost immediately. You can get his stone armor for yourself in a spooky chapel's undercroft, after a harrowing fight with a Mimic. In the sequel, Havel's gear is placed behind a similar forbidding door, but it's inside a pot in a level with no thematic connection to Havel and enemies that largely ignore the armor's defenses. You get the sense in a lot of these circumstances that the designers made a memorable treasure room, then later someone else came in and evenly distributed high-level equipment among all the treasure rooms. This is the sort of thing I'd expect from any competently made video game. I hold Souls games to a higher standard: every single item is supposed to be placed with care, to have significance for the lore and usefulness for the gameplay in equal measure. Souls games are supposed to be works of art, where nothing is out of place, so a petty critique like this becomes magnified in importance. Over and over, people say that the moment they came to love Dark Souls was when they realized the world was subtly interconnected, that you could look out from a clifftop and see the other end of the world and the entire team was creating a giant jigsaw puzzle. When you're held to that standard, even a good experience will fall short.

The plot of DS2 is the chief element that suffers from holding too tightly to the initial version. After reading every item description and listening to all the dialogue, I was still unclear as to what the main villain's motivations were, what my chief ally's motivations were, and why I was going along with any of it, but I had almost a dozen items in my inventory whose main purpose was to say, "Remember how cool this was when you found it last time?" The main issue, I think, is that they created an expensive introductory cutscene and tutorial level based around an initial goal - curing the curse of the Undead, which causes people to revive after death but slowly go mad from the experience - and couldn't bear to throw it away when the plot of the actual game went in an entirely different direction. After twenty minutes of being conditioned to care about the curse, the second person you talk to will mention offhand that the curse cannot be cured, and for the rest of the game everyone is talking about tracking down and eventually replacing the missing King of the land, which is the same goal you had in DS1.

There is a heavy emphasis on the themes of cycles, futility, memory and forgetfulness, and basically going through the motions of accomplishing a quest "without really knowing why". This despair not only clashes tonally with a game whose combat, system and level design is more welcoming than it's ever been, but leaves the story with nowhere to really go. The ending cutscene tells you that you have a choice, but unlike the previous games, there is only one ending. You are not rewarded for questioning the stereotypical "good guy" characters, for recognizing the traitor in your ranks before they can wreak havoc, or for killing your allies in a frenzied lust for power - both of which were the most memorable parts of Demons' Souls and Dark Souls. Instead, you are rewarded for doing exactly what the Emerald Herald tells you at all times, because the plot explicitly tells you that your choices are irrelevant. By the end of the game, you have vanquished the most powerful beings in the realm in glorious fashion, but you have not changed anything for the better or worse, because the cycle cannot be broken. Tugging at my heart strings this time was not poor Anastacia who begged me "Link the fire, so I can finally die a human"; it was Lucatiel, who slowly lost her memory. I wish I could cleanse the curse for you, Lucatiel. I can build a kingdom atop the ruins of the old one, but it won't bring your brother back. So why bother?

So the overall storyline is unsatisfying, but the game encourages you to ignore it anyway. You can wander about finishing things up after "finishing" the game, and the New Game Plus mode is tons of fun with a lot of creative ways to make the experience harder, besides just making all the enemies hit harder. PvP has been wildly improved, the game systems have been tweaked for easy experimentation, and you can even respec or change your gender without having to spend 20 hours building an entirely new character. Basically, it's easier than ever to have fun, and the hub world fills up with people who are generally pretty nice to you and owe you a favor. Life is pretty good in Drangleic, considering all the murderous undead wandering about, so it's a shame that the story tries to contradict that at every turn.

Personal Experience: By now I've hunted down all the achievements in Dark Souls 2 on the Xbox, and I'm halfway done with doing the same on the recently released PC version, so I've played a good bit of the game. I have yet to do much serious PvP, and I fear that I may have to start an entirely new character to do so for the last achievements, but I've done a lot of exploration and plot speculation. Even after 3 complete play throughs, I'm still discovering new hidden areas, marveling at the gorgeous PC vistas, and basically having a great time. Challenging myself by doing a different style feels tough but fair, which is a good long-term sign; I only had to summon help for a couple fights with my shieldless double rapier build, mostly to protect Benhart and Lucatiel while I advanced their storylines.

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