Expectations are a dangerous thing, especially in videogames, just ask the likes of Bungie or Valve. Bungie struggled to maintain the high standard set for themselves with Halo: Combat Evolved - the game that launched the original Xbox - famously revealing how after a year into development of Halo 2 they had to scrap their entire graphics engine as well as large sections of the game. As for Valve, after having released Half-Life 2 in November 2004 to universal acclaim, we're yet to hear any official news on the inevitable Half-Life 3, almost ten years on.
This year it was the turn of From Software to face that same level of expectation when they released Dark Souls II, the direct sequel to the critically acclaimed and much loved Dark Souls. Never considered a blockbuster title, the original Dark Souls was at first a cult hit that managed to steadily grow, both in reputation and sales, in the three years between its initial release and that of its sequel. In that time Dark Souls managed to amass a considerable and dedicated online community still actively discussing the game across popular websites such as YouTube, GameFAQs and Reddit. A community which was both fierce in its defense of the series and highly demanding on From Software to produce a game worthy of succeeding Dark Souls.
When Dark Souls II was eventually released in March of this year it received high scores from the vast majority of reviewers as well as praise from many well established Youtubers associated with the franchise, such as VaatiVidya and EpicNameBro (the latter was even asked to help contribute to the games official guide). And at first like many fans of the series I was more than content to delve into the next Souls game, but a few months down the line I can't seem to shake the nagging feeling that Dark Souls II isn't all I'd hoped it would be. Is it my fault for expecting too much, or did the game genuinely fail to deliver an experience on par with its predecessor?
The first thing I need to acknowledge in order to answer that, is that Dark Souls II is a technically better game. By which I mean it's more polished and refined than Dark Souls, as you'd generally expect from any sequel. Its textures are better, its physics more elegant (particularly when concerning the fabric of a characters armour), the lighting and weather effects are far more refined, and it generally runs more smoothly and consistently than Dark Souls ever did, as those who've endured Blighttown will attest to. Yet these improvements alone don't make a game great, they certainly help and can aid in attracting new fans to the series. But to be a truly great game Dark Souls II needed to do the unexpected, to take risks and surprise its audience, and unfortunately it failed to do so. Instead it feels as if one or two corners were cut, and that not enough passion and creativity was squeezed out of the development team at From Software.
In Dark Souls several key design choices helped to make the game stand out from its peers, the first of which is the layout of the game world. In Dark Souls the world of Lordran was expertly crafted to ensure that all areas of the game would fit together in a relative 3D space. This meant that not only did the game world make sense logically, it allowed for a player to run from the beginning to the end of the game without loading screens, which in turn helped create a greater sense of immersion. In Dark Souls if you descended deeper and deeper, then you'd slowly work your way down into the bowels of the world and discover hidden areas such as the hypnotic and eerily beautiful Ash Lake.
Compare this directly to Dark Souls II and you'll notice that quality of level design is missing from the world, one example is evident as you make your way to the top of a large windmill powered fortress called the Earthen Peak. After defeating the area boss you'll be ushered inside an elevator which then proceeds to journey upwards - at the top of a fortress - until eventually popping you outside an iron castle, partially submerged in lake of lava.
I remember playing Dark Souls for the first time and entering the counterweight elevator inside the Undead Parish, as it began to head down I realised how many souls I was carrying and began to worry about what might be waiting for me at the bottom. As the gate opened I tentatively edged forward, shield raised, before realising I had returned to Firelink Shrine (the area which serves as the games central hub and starting point). At first I was just mildly surprised, but as it dawned on me exactly how all the different areas interconnected and how well they had been woven together, I couldn't help but be impressed. After playing Dark Souls through countless times and discovering its secrets and shortcuts I can comfortably say it's the best 3D Castlevania game Konami never made.Again if you compare this attention to detail to Dark Souls II, it doesn't consistently hit the same heights that Dark Souls managed. Some sections of the game such as the pirate cove of No-Man's Wharf, with its ramshackle docks and creepy, light-averse monsters, certainly manage to recapture that feeling when looked at individually. However the route to No-Man's Wharf is through the beautiful glistening ruins of Heides Tower of Flame, the remains of a great religious acropolis which has long since crumbled into the sea. This leaves you feeling as if it's simply one stage bolted onto another, lacking that logical progression that was present within Dark Souls.
Another key aspect in which Dark Souls II fails to live up to the standards set by its predecessor is the games art design. As I've already said the game itself does look better, sharper and more polished, but unfortunately it seems to lack the atmosphere and tone that was so overpowering in the original. The melancholy world, slowly crumbling and collapsing is emphasized expertly by Dark Souls’ art style. Each area feels like an evolution of the last and every enemy and boss within those areas feels right in being there, nothing feels out of context.
Boss design also fails to be as inventive or as interesting, with one boss in particular feeling more than a little lazy. The Old Iron King for example, a gigantic winged demon, stands waist deep in lava and attempts to attack you while you stand on a small ledge. It's something all too common in videogames, to have to dodge a boss's attack, then whack away at the appendage that lingers for far longer than seems necessary. By the numbers, tried and tested, old hat, whatever you want to call it countless games have used the same design for boss fights and it's something that Souls games - a series built on outstanding and unusual bosses - should be doing better than. Dark Souls did have a similar boss of sorts, in the form of Ceaseless Discharge, but the game was clever enough to add a twist to the fight in which if you attempt to run from his near fatal attacks, he'll give chase, eventually lunge at you and fall into a chasm, insta-killing himself.
This inconsistency created by the mismatched design of individual areas and, generally speaking, the lack of unique and interesting boss fights results in Dark Souls II never managing to keep a clear and consistent tone throughout its world. The end result is a game that feels as if it's been created by a collection of good ideas rather than one singular and focused vision. It's by no means a bad way to design a game, and in fact occasionally managed to conceive areas that arguably eclipsed anything we saw in Dark Souls, Drangleic Castle and the Dragon Aerie for example. However without that single-minded vision that dictated the original, Dark Souls II fails to emphasize its tone and retain that atmosphere over the course of the game.
Another major aspect to the success of Dark Souls was its combat system. The game gave players a massive array of weapons to make use of from spears, clubs, whips and scythes, to every kind of sword you could imagine. Every one of those weapons had its own unique move-set, sometimes slightly different from a similar looking weapon and other times completely different. The end result of all this was a combat system in which there was never any collection of clearly superior weapons, the best weapon in the game was always the one you were most comfortable using. And in a game where player vs player (PvP) gameplay is ever present, this system allowed a variety in weapon selection that meant were you ever invaded - or spending time invading others for that matter - you'd never be sure what you'd be faced with.
Dark Souls II has attempted to build on this robust combat system by giving the player even more weapons to choose from, as well as implementing a dual-wielding system. However that same variety in move-sets is no longer there, too many weapons have the same attack patterns but differing stats, it may not sound like much but it actually renders several weapons effectively useless. Why use this particular greatsword at all when there's another greatsword with the exact same move-set and better stats? The dual-wielding system does attempt to remedy this as it allows you to enter a "power stance", which effectively grants you a unique move-set depending on whatever weapons you're wielding. However this comes at the expense of sacrificing a shield for the second weapon, and in any Souls game being completely dependent on dodging enemy attacks is a risky strategy.
The lack of variety in selecting an effective weapon has also affected the PvP combat in Dark Souls II. Some balancing patches have already been implemented, and more are scheduled to arrive in the near future, but at the moment PvP encounters are largely indistinguishable from one fight to the next. Weapons such as the Santier's spear, or Avelyn crossbow appear far too frequently because players are aware of the inherent advantage they have while wielding these weapons. This lack of variety needs to be addressed in more than just balancing patches, every weapon needs to feel unique and have its own benefits and drawbacks, otherwise why include it in the game at all.
These are Dark Souls II greatest shortcomings and had a little more effort been invested to ensure each weapon had its own place within the game, had the art style been more cohesive and consistent, and the design of the game world been more carefully thought out, then it could have been a truly special game. Despite the expanded development team and greater financial resources at its disposal, Dark Souls II unfortunately fell just short of the standard set by its predecessor. But that doesn't make it a failure, and in truth some additions such as dedicated servers make the game far less frustrating than Dark Souls ever was, especially for those players less proficient with the PvP aspect of the game. The new covenants that feature in Dark Souls II are truly ingenious, and more than a little devious. Each of them has a specific and clearly defined role within the context of the game, something which the original struggled to properly convey. For me Dark Souls II is a very good game and I'll thoroughly enjoy playing it, but it'll never be considered alongside games like Halo: Combat Evolved, Half-Life 2 or Resident Evil 4. That select group of games is one that only the original Dark Souls is worthy of being counted amongst.