Peter [Parrish]: Now that Tim and I have both finished Dark Souls 2, it’s only right to decide which of the original and sequel is the better game. Nothing has meaning unless it is being ruthlessly graded and categorised, so in this battle of FromSoftware’s Dark Souls titles there can only be one triumphant winner and one pathetic loser who may as well not even have been created.
That’s crazy nonsense talk of course. Both of the games are spectacular in their own way and, in leaving a mark on the cultural discourse of the medium, achieve what few other titles do. The two Dark Souls games are somewhat different however, and these differences in design invite some discussion. THERE WILL BE SPOILERS IN THIS ARTICLE. Just so everyone is clear on that.
Originally, I was kind of hoping that Tim was going to lean slightly towards preferring Dark Souls 2 and myself towards the first game. As it turns out, I think we both favour Dark Souls a little more than its follow-up. We’re not excising Demon’s Souls from history by the way, it’s just that I’ve not managed to play that one.
Anyway, Tim, during the first few days or so you were preferring Dark Souls 2, but then gradually changed your mind. I have a theory that this is because the game shows a lot of its mechanical and, if you like, “gamey” improvements up front, but don’t let that colour your answer. How was it winning you over in preference to Dark Souls and what changed?
Tim [McDonald]: I remain surprised that you haven’t played Demon’s Souls, you know. Considering how much you appear to love the Dark Souls games, I figured you’d have committed heresy and bought a cheap second-hand PS3 by now. You really would like it.
Initially, I did indeed like Dark Souls 2 a bit more than its predecessor. A lot of that, I think, was down to the PC port actually being really rather good. It looked nice; it ran well; the controls seemed tighter; the combat felt faster-paced and a bit smoother. In short, it felt like a significantly more polished and less clunky experience. That’s not to say that the original was clunky (because it wasn’t) but my initial impressions were really, really positive.
Some of it was likely also down to a bit of a tone change. Dark Souls had some glorious vistas, but the early game areas of Dark Souls 2 – Things Betwixt, Majula, the Forest of Sleeping Giants, and the Tower of Heide – are all utterly gorgeous, spectacular areas that feel huge. The Undead Asylum, Firelink Shrine, and the Undead Burg, conversely, are narrow and grey. Wonderfully designed (and you can probably argue better designed, too) but not hugely impressive from an art standpoint, barring a few rewarding locations. Honestly, I don’t think I really went “ooh, that’s pretty” until maybe Darkroot Garden, or perhaps a few later bits of the Undead Peter Parrish. Whether that’s a good thing or not is debatable, because having Gorgeous View Ahead as a reward was quite nice, but Dark Souls 2 certainly set out to impress from the off.
And, yes, some of it was likely down to the change in mechanics that made things a bit simpler. I liked that I could write messages from the menu without having to find an orange soapstone. I liked that durability replenished immediately at bonfires, so I didn’t have to remember to check my weapons and armour regularly. I was more wary of a few other changes, and my opinion changed quite a bit as I played on, but we’re talking initial impressions for now.
Before we get onto the other, more controversial changes, I want to ask you what your initial impressions were. I don’t think you ever compared the two until you’d actually finished both, so I’m curious as to whether you preferred Dark Souls right the way through or if your opinions flip-flopped like mine.
Peter: I have nowhere to put a PS3, so I guess for Demon’s Souls I’ll have to rely on the impossible situation of Sony saying “oh go on then, do a Director’s Cut version for all platforms.” Yeah … not going to happen.
Here’s the problem with answering your question: I’d already seen (or read about) some of the opening areas of Dark Souls 2 because publishers are bastards and like to ruin everything, even for games that would benefit from secrecy. So the comparison is very difficult, because I went into Dark Souls totally blind. Those early areas in 2 are pretty nice looking (Heide’s especially, I think Forest of Fallen Giants looks a bit washed-out at times,) but I think in spite of how grey it is I liked the grim, oppressive feeling of the Undead Burg and the Undead Me. It reflected the bleak tone the game was trying to create.
To an extent that’s true with Dark Souls 2 as well. There, it seems they’re trying to build a more varied set of levels from the outset, I guess to make your journey feel more wide-ranging, maybe? Dark Souls is “you are trapped in this place, find some bells if you can” for quite a long time. In Dark Souls 2 it’s more “seek the four Ancient Souls – they could be anywhere, go look!”
Mechanically, yes, Dark Souls 2 on PC is better than the first (even with Durante’s title-saving mod.) The user interface is less terrible, and you have all these nice quality of life changes like being able to shimmy quickly up a ladder and pop multiple souls at once. I’m not sure I’d go along with combat being “smoother” though, especially while your character’s Agility rating is low in Dark Souls 2. The animation in the first Dark Souls was just about perfect, and although it’s very good here it does have a habit of looking a bit strange against the ground textures. Like your character is kind of drifting over the surface. I got used to that, but for a while watching my chap run up hill was an odd experience.
Tim: Yeah, tonally speaking the earlier areas of Dark Souls (assuming you weren’t a lunatic who went straight for the Catacombs or New Londo Ruins, in which case, YOU probably DIED) were fantastic. They were bleak, and grey, and washed out, and horrible. They indicated exactly what sort of world this was, and that was important. But! The fact that it worked incredibly well for establishing setting and atmosphere doesn’t mean that they weren’t fairly generic grey fantasy areas – at least on first appearance.
Compare the start of Dark Souls to the bit in Dark Souls 2 where you leave Things Betwixt, and just see this beautiful shining light and this golden, open, plains area overlooking the sea, though. It would’ve meant a lot more had Things Betwixt not been an insultingly easy tutorial area – easier by far then the Undead Asylum – but the jarring dissonance between the cramped black area full of bottomless pits you just went through added a sense of genuine relief. And then, because it’s Dark Souls, muted terror. I mean, something’s going to be fatal.
I didn’t have the same problem as you, though. Barring two trailers I watched and one brief experience in the closed beta, I knew basically nothing about Dark Souls 2 going into it. All of those early game areas were completely new to me, and it was nice to have a wholly different opening experience to that of the first game. If it had just been a washed-out grey stone facade, I’d likely have just thought “Yes, I’ve been here before.”
I suppose we’re running into two problems here – would we think differently if we’d played Dark Souls 2 first? And would you think differently if you’d gone into Dark Souls 2 blind, but had seen most of the opening areas of the first game? Alas, this is a question that science cannot answer! Unless you consent to me bashing you about the head with a hammer in an attempt to induce retrograde amnesia. And let’s face it: for the opportunity to experience Dark Souls for the first time again, I’d hope you’d be up for that.
Peter: It’s possible that may also cost me the hand-eye coordination needed for Dark Souls, so I’m not sure I want to risk it.
Here’s where I think the sequel makes a mistake though: bonfire warping. In Dark Souls it was a feeling of immense triumph to place the Lord Vessel and be able to warp around the place. However, like activating a cheat code, it also sparked a slight downward curve in the game. Some of the absolute greatest moments in Dark Souls are finding things like the elevator down from the first Blacksmith to Firelink Shrine after struggling and battling your way that far. Suddenly you have easy access to your hub area and a guy who can upgrade your stuff. It’s amazing!
Dark Souls 2 allows you to warp from the very start, so it doesn’t even attempt anything like that. Somewhere like The Gutter can’t compete with Blighttown, because you’re not trapped there. You can leave whenever you fancy. And although some levels have handy shortcuts, none of them are really quite as rewarding as the ones from Dark Souls which give you such a sense of relief as well as making you marvel at the world lay-out. When you finally emerge from Blighttown via the water-wheel exit and discover that it comes out at Valley of the Drakes and can wrap back to Darkroot Garden, your mind should be blown. The sequel has a lot going for it, but it doesn’t have that.
Tim: Bonfire warping is something I feel very conflicted about. On the one hand, you’re right: Dark Souls felt far more oppressive and lethal because it didn’t have it. Going into Blighttown or the Tomb of the Giants was a genuine risk because you’d have to actually fight your way out (and, in the case of the latter, find your way out) if it proved too much of a nightmare. Likewise, if you got all the way down there, died repeatedly, and decided you wanted to try somewhere else, you’d have to trudge a long way back to find another area to visit. I wholeheartedly agree that Dark Souls went downhill pretty fast as soon as you got the Lordvessel, but then, Dark Souls was built around not being able to teleport.
But… well, it’s almost a quality-of-life addition, here. It means you never really have to use the words “trudge” when talking about Dark Souls 2, unless it’s a long way from bonfire to nineteenth boss attempt. What the game loses in atmosphere and trepidation, it gains in being a lot less irritating, and Dark Souls 2 was built around the continual teleporting. Each stretch, from bonfire to bonfire, felt like a level in its own right. I guess there’s something of Demon’s Souls in that, but then, you never played that game. It’s a weird trade-off that makes it feel a bit more “game-y” at the expense of losing some of its atmosphere and world building. The question is whether or not that convenience – which arguably makes it a better “game,” but a less threatening and bleak experience – was a worthwhile trade.
Peter: I don’t think it is! But I like suffering and struggle, it makes the eventual victory more rewarding.
Dark Souls 2 has quite a lot of “videogame sequel” changes. You’ve got more stuff in general; more armour sets, more sorcery options, more (meaningful) Covenants. There’s also more point to New Game Plus because it has additional items and changes to bosses, like Flexile Sentry getting a couple of vicious little helpers. It ties in with the game’s over-arching cyclical themes as well. That’s all positive, I approve of all of those expansive changes, but it’s all a bit conservative. It’s the predictable thing to do in a sequel – add more things – and Dark Souls should strive to go beyond that.
Having multiplayer options that actually work is a huge plus point in Dark Souls 2‘s favour though. Yes, PvP is still laggy (and with the kind of precision involved may always be so to some degree,) but I love that you now have a couple of dedicated PvP Danger Zones (the Rat Covenant and Bellends.) Co-op is more reliable than its ever been and remains an absolute delight. It’s a shame that the Blue Sentinel idea doesn’t really seem to be working as it should, because the idea of an anti-invasion police force is pretty good. Problem is, when newbies are wearing their Blue ring of protection they’re not all that likely to be invaded, and by the time they might be, they’ll be in other (more interesting) Covenants.
Adding breadth doesn’t work quite so well for the individual levels, because you get this kind of disparate effect that I never felt with Dark Souls. There, everything fit together more or less in a way that made internal sense. With the sequel I get less of a sense of place and more of a feeling that the designers said “okay, let’s do a forest level now.” Nowhere is as shitty as Lost Izalith though, so I’m grateful for that.
Somewhat ironically, I’d probably recommend the sequel over the first one just for how much more refined the technical areas are. It would be difficult to go back to the terrible (maybe non-existent on PC with the whole Games for Windows Live situation) multiplayer and rubbish UI of Dark Souls, I can’t deny that.
Tim: I’d largely agree with basically everything you just said, which is sort of annoying because it doesn’t make for an exciting conversation. I’m genuinely undecided on the Bonfire travel thing – mostly because Dark Souls 2 without it would be a very different game, with an entirely different set of design challenges. It’s a fundamental part of the level design. I guess I’d prefer it if it removed Bonfire travel until later in the game, again? But only if there were more shortcuts and interlinking areas, and… yes, well, you see the problem.
I really like most of the level design, and I really like a lot of the nods to Dark Souls (and Demon’s Souls, for that matter, but we’re not talking about that). I kept finding myself comparing bits of Dark Souls 2 to bits of the original – the first big courtyard area in the Iron Keep made me think a lot of Anor Londo, for instance, though not as much as the Tower of Heide (which is probably the most obvious nod in the game – not least because of the bosses!) The Gutter is an utterly horrifying cross between Blighttown and The Catacombs. Brightstone Cove Tseldora is just like I have no idea because I didn’t go there at all on my playthrough. Fuck spiders.
The multiplayer actually working is marvellous, although that might contribute a little to my feeling that the original game was harder. I went through Dark Souls with absolutely no physical co-op, partly out of sheer stubbornness, and partly because the netcode was more like notcode. Dark Souls 2, though? I summoned people for a fair few boss fights, and then went back and assisted others with more. It was fun! It was a little easy – and a little embarrassing when I summoned two phantoms, went through the bowing rigmarole, wandered into the boss arena, and immediately died – but fun anyway! I love the PvP zones, too; I had a great time becoming a Bellend and then murdering people who were simply trying to get to the end of an interesting new area.
Do you know what I really don’t like about the game, though? The story. That might seem odd and petty, because that’s something that barely matters in the wider context of the game, but when I realised where it was going I was genuinely disappointed. I love the little lore nods, and the hints at the terrible things that led up to the current state of affairs, and the individual bits of history you can guess at when exploring areas. I look forward to the massive, overarching theories people will build out of two item descriptions and a piece of scenery. I just really, really wish they’d gone in a different direction for the main plot than they actually did. I like the cyclical nature, but I hate the fact that it is – and I can’t go into any real specifics without spoiling, but consider this a fairly large spoiler anyway – essentially a rehash of the first game’s plot. Surely there’s more than one interesting story that can be carved out of this game world?
But for all of that, and for all of the mixed feelings I have about almost every decision they made about the game, and for all the things I wish they’d done differently or wish they’d played a little less safe, it’s still a bloody fabulous game. The warping means there’s less of a sense of place, sure, and barring a few areas there isn’t much sense of progression – most of what leads on from Huntsman’s Copse feels pretty organic and natural, but the rest not so much – but that barely matters when the actual raw game is as good as it is. I haven’t started New Game Plus yet because right now I’m more interested in trying an entirely different playstyle, and there aren’t many games that really make that a feasible option while simultaneously making New Game Plus so enticing.
In fact, I want to go and play it right now.
Peter: In that case I’ll let you do that by wrapping this up.
Yes, the story. I’m actually not sure how I feel about it yet. It does have some strong themes, but they’re quite familiar at this point. I have a sneaking suspicion I’ll be more impressed by it once 5,000 new, hidden pieces of lore have been uncovered. When I came to Dark Souls on PC, a lot of that background stuff had already been discovered and speculated upon, which is another slightly unfair advantage it had over the sequel.
I do like a lot of the individual NPCs though. There’s maybe no-one quite as hilarious as Solaire, but I have much affection for Shalquoir, Crestfallen Warrior 2.0, Benhart, Licia and the chap who sells you ladders. Lucatiel’s plot line is a pretty harrowing, if lightly sketched in that Souls way, picture Alzheimer’s or general memory loss. There’s plenty of good stuff there again. A quick mention of the soundtrack too which has come under some criticism but which I think, again, is the equal of Dark Souls’.
Considering this sequel had a brand new director (not unlike Majora’s Mask after Ocarina of Time) plus a fair few other new FromSoftware team members, and considering my expectations after Dark Souls would be almost impossible to meet, I think it’s an absolutely outstanding effort.
But the first game does feel like something you only get once a decade or so. It’s a unique experience, whereas Dark Souls 2 feels to me like an iteration (again, I haven’t played Demon’s so perhaps Demon’s to Dark felt like this for some too.) It’s a hell of a strong iteration, but that, to me, is always going to be inherently less impressive than creating something truly isolated and special.