The cursed are drawn to Drangleic, like a moth to a flame. They desperately seek to dispel their ailment. No one wishes to be undead. No one wishes to eventually turn hollow. This was my plight as I plunged into the dark chasm, into the world of Dark Souls 2.
The First Steps
After plummeting through the darkness I awoke in a dark cave. A beam of light cut through the dark. Far in front of me a large nook begged me to approach; I knew which way to travel. Running through head-high grass, I came upon a rickety rope bridge. Unexpectedly, beyond it rested a wooden hut and not a hoard of monsters patiently waiting for me. The lack of danger was far more unnerving than any ambush could be. I opened the door.
A cutscene began, unusual for a title in the Souls series. I was greeted by three hags, firekeepers of old, basking in the warmth of their fireplace. They were expecting me. They spoke of how all undead travel to Drangleic seeking a cure for the curse. How they never succeed. They laughed at my optimism. When they asked if I could remember my name, the game seamlessly transitioned to an input screen. They then asked me to stare deep into a human effigy of myself and so began the game’s customisation. Greater variety is offered than in previous Souls titles; I put a tattoo of a bird on my face.
Beyond the hut, I was introduced to the game through a (skippable) tutorial segment. A brutal introduction was ditched in favour of easing the player into the game. Gravestones jutted out of the ground explaining how to perform each action. Each was immediately followed by a scenario where I could sample my newfound knowledge. Uncharacteristically, the tutorial wasn’t bookended by a devastating boss battle. Instead, the cavern mouth opened wide to the beautiful Majula, the hub of Dark Souls 2.
A Hollow Respite
Majula is a seaside haven, blanketed in orange sunlight. A great monolith accompanies the town’s cliff edge. Upon approaching it I stumbled upon a bonfire, the series’ signature resting spot. Accompanying it was a pensive woman who stares at the horizon, the Emerald Herald. Like the Maiden in Black in Demons’ Souls, you can pay her souls to level up. As a kind gift she presents you with a singular Estus Flask, the series titular healing item. These can be replenished by resting at bonfires but doing so also revives all enemies in the area. Presenting the Emerald Herald with Estus Shards, I found two during my three-hour preview, increases your flask count by 1. As a result, a greater emphasis is placed on using lifegems, consumables that slowly regenerate your health.
I took the time to speak to her and listen to each and every possible thread of conversation that she was happy to spout. She explained that there was a king to appease, four special souls to find. Similar story beats found in previous titles. Interestingly, she went on to explain about each and every path that lead from Majula. For example, the giant well that sat in the centre of Majula could only be traversed upon finding a specific ladder. I explored heavily and found that all areas that lead from Majula were blocked by a certain mechanism. All areas but one, The Forest of Fallen Giants.
The original Dark Souls offered players the choice of which path they explored from the game’s hub, Firelink Shrine. Little indication was given as to which way was the ‘right’ way to go. Technically, you could choose to fight your way through the skeleton-ridden graveyard and travel deep into the Catacombs or instead carefully explore New Londo, taking time to avoid the many invulnerable ghosts that inhabit it, but this isn’t recommended. The cliff side path that lead to the Undead Burg was the most beginner-friendly and had the easiest difficulty curve. Only through trial and error could this be discovered.
Dark Souls 2 offers no such frustrating hardships for beginners. The linearity forced upon the player harkens back to Demons’ Souls, Dark Souls’ spiritual prequel. The hub of Demons’ Souls was The Nexus. Upon entering it you have only one option; to proceed into the Boletarian Palace. Majula offered me no choice but to enter The Forest of Fallen Giants. And so I did.
Beauty and Death
A shallow blue river cuts through a luscious overgrown rocky area. The overwhelming bright green is a great contrast to the many dark and dingy environments in Dark Souls. A few hollows, undead who have turned insane, attack but are easily dealt with. I soon come across an interesting combat situation. After climbing a ladder, I entered an arena like room. Hollows attacked from multiple angles while a soldier fired arrows from above. Care and attention was needed to dispatch these foes, sloppiness usually leads to death. Then I was faced with a choice. A large and armoured soldier sat against the large tree in the centre of the room. He does not aggro nor can you talk to him. I attacked him dealing measly damage. He slowly stood up, indifferent to my swings. Menacing. After a couple of careful backstabs he died and dropped his sword. I equipped it and breathed a sigh of relief, the risk paid off.
The level design of The Forest of Fallen Giants is brilliant. The castle that looms over the forest is home to the area’s main bonfire. From here you travel down a ladder deep into the castle. Multiple locked doors guide you to the one eventual correct path. Upon emerging outside there’s a path that leads towards the castle ramparts, while the rest of the area holds many enemies. Half attack with arrows, all are intimidating. The path is the quick dash away from danger. Straying from the path leads to a plethora of rewards, and a cave.
I haphazardly dashed into the cave and narrowly missed being squashed by a boulder in a cross-junction. Ironically, had I been walking and not paid attention it most certainly would have killed me. I climbed the hill that it rolled down and reached a crazy cartographer. He babbled. He has lost his memory. He once came to find a cure to his curse but most certainly doesn’t realise it. He handed me a key to his mansion in Majula, one of few structures there, and then went back to work. My curiosity got the better of me. “Where did that boulder go?” I thought to myself. As it turns out, at the bottom of that path was simply a bottomless pit, which I discovered upon falling down it.
Respawning at the bonfire, I headed to the ramparts. My path was blocked by wooden blockades that oddly faced the wrong way. They could be destroyed with one swing of my sword. The two hollows in my way were also facing the wrong way and were ripe for backstabbing. I thought nothing of it. A high wall followed my right. When I reached the corner to turn past the wall I was oblivious to the solider upon it and the many explosive barrels next to me. The hollow threw a firebomb, everything exploded, and I swiftly died. To my amazement, the wall adjacent to the barrels collapsed, revealing my bonfire. My death had surprisingly created a shortcut within the level. I promptly picked up my souls, which you drop upon death but can recover if you reach your corpse before dying again, and soldiered on.
A slight digression; I knew which way to travel but wasn’t contempt with the smug look that I like to imagine materialised on the firebombing hollow. From the bonfire, I jumped through the freshly made hole and followed the high wall back in the opposite direction. The blockades now actually blocked me and those two pesky hollows eagerly watched me approach.
After dealing with them, I climbed a ladder adjoined to the high wall, which I had totally missed the first time. The wall turned out to be more of a rooftop plateau. I killed my nemesis hollow. Standing in the centre of the plateau I stood in awe as a large hawk flew overhead, carrying a towering knight in his talons. The hawk made a pass around a tower in the distance then flew straight back, dropping the knight next to me. Strangely floating above ground, like an ice-skating magician, the knight glided towards me. He killed me in one hit. Strictly speaking it was a two hit combo. I didn’t try again.
Progressing further into the castle I happened upon a friendly NPC, Mild-Mannered Pate, voiced by Peter Serafinowicz. He warned me about the many dangers ahead. There were many dangers indeed:
1. I walked through an archway triggering a gate to close behind me and was forced to fight my way past about 10 hollows.
2. I entered a room that had five wooden constructs. They began to move. They turned out to be giant crossbows. Noticing this, I made a reactionary dodge roll and narrowly avoided being punctured to death.
3. A turtle-shaped soldier guarded a doorway and was surrounded by explosive barrels. As I challenged him to combat, a firebomb flew through the sky and detonated the entire area. He died, but so did I.
Although that last death may have seen unfair, it was in fact the very opposite. It taught me the exact manner in which I could proceed with ease. I returned to turtle-bro and threw a firebomb of my own. Everything exploded and he died. The die and retry cycle of Dark Souls is ever present in this sequel.
Soon after I happened upon a crystal lizard, a recurring enemy in the series, which scampers away from you in fear before vanishing into the ether. If you can kill it before it has a chance to run then it will drop many rare crafting materials. A risk / reward scenario presented itself. My instincts got the better of me and I ran after him, grabbing the attention of multiple soldiers. I didn’t die but I failed to kill the lizard. Maybe next time.
With the fantastic twisting and turning level design that empowers Dark Souls 2, my path lead me to a lift and a one way door, which I could open from this side, near the main bonfire. After refreshing my Estus Flask at the bonfire I descended into the depths of the ruinous castle and reached the game’s first boss battle, The Last Giant.
The Last Giant is a lumbering black humanoid figure. In place of a face there’s a gaping hole. A large rock pierces his middle, perhaps a harrowing reminder of a previous battle. After all, he is the last giant. Who are the others and what happened to them? I don’t know but I sure want to. He swings his mighty arms and stamps with his feet. He appears simple. He is. As a result, his attacks are powerful. He can potentially kill with one attack, can definitely kill with two. Halfway through the fight he pulls the rock from his body and wields it as a club, extending his range. With such power, blocking is ineffective. I resorted to a series of careful rolls, hoping to not be hit.
Drangleic Ever Expands
Upon felling The Last Giant I was granted with a key that opened many of the locked doors in the area. The Forest of Fall Giants suddenly acts as a hub of its own right, like roots of a tree spreading in sporadic directions. While many locked doors simply lead to items, I followed the path of one to a whole new section and another bonfire. I hit a hurdle. I couldn’t figure out how to proceed. Fortunately, fast travel is possible between all previously visited bonfires from the get go. In Dark Souls it was possible to warp to a collection of bonfires but this was a gift granted halfway through the game. Giving players the ability to do so from the start of Dark Souls 2 could be seen as destroying the necessity to backtrack but the choice is always there for those who prefer the long walk back.
Lenigrast is a blacksmith that works in Majula but has mistakenly locked himself out of his house and misplaced his key. Upon my travels I acquired his key and unlocked his studio. From that point onward, the combination of bonfire warping, Lenigrast and the Emerald Herald meant that from any bonfire it is possible to head straight back to Majula to level up or forge equipment. The parallels between Dark Souls 2 and Demons’ Souls seemed to grow ever more the further I proceeded within the world of Drangleic, providing a new experience to those who missed Demons’ Souls while inflicting a joyful dose of nostalgia upon those who had braved the land of Boletaria.
Dark Souls 2 presents many interesting design choices that are apparent in the minute-to-minute gameplay that benefit the experience as a whole. It also pulls elements from past games, combining the open world of Dark Souls and the hub-like nature of Demons’ Souls, as well as many of their finer nuances. Dark Souls 2 draws from previous titles while feeling new; an accomplishment that will entice newcomers while leaving series’ veterans salivating for its release next month.