Bearer of the curse, seek misery.
As she speaks to me, the ocean crashes upon the cliffs around Majula, the haven. I stand and stare into the distance. The bonfire behind me crackles, a candle of warmth encroached upon by the sea. Surrounding Majula is the misery she wants for me. A sunken ruin, a crumbling castle, a tower so distant that it seems only a vague shape. And the souls. I will lose them time and time again.
As she asks, I will seek misery.
The thing is, however, that the Dark Souls series is not actually about despair, but about hope. This giant bastard in front of me has eaten my face 9 times… but the 10th try will be its undoing. That bloody trap keeps knocking me off… but this time I dodged it. I used all of my health regen on this boss… but a link with another world gave me a sliver more, just what I needed to keep my face on my head. Praise the Sun.
Dark Souls, despite initial appearances, does not want to break your spirit, but to test it. And Dark Souls 2 asks you directly to seek misery, knowing full well that with the controller in hand, you’ve already made the choice. Seek misery, because hope is nothing if not contrasted with despair.
The changes from the original are small yet significant. The player can now switch between 3 weapons in each hand, a significant increase from the 2 provided by the original. From pure numbers alone, this provides the player with a lot more options in a fight. The player can now wear up to 4 stat-boosting/ability granting rings now, double that of the original
There are small changes to combat too. Unlike the original, where the left hand weapon could only be held defensively (swords, for example, were used only for parrying and blocking when held southpaw), DS2 allows the player to hold sharp objects in both hands and make stabby motions with both of them. The weapon in either hand can now be held two handed for stronger attacks – two handing a shield, for example, lets you whack people round the face with it, or use it to do a charging bash attack.
Healing is different too. The meagre 5 Estus flasks (healing potions, rechargeable at bonfires) given to you at the start of the original Dark Souls now seems excessively generous compared to the solitary Estus that DS2 gives you. Estus healing now carries on even through being hit, but only after taking damage – so if a hit would have killed you anyway, drinking like a fish won’t save you.
Lifestones can also be found around the place, another healing item – one that can be used in combat without being rooted to the spot. Unlike Estus, lifestones are one time use only items, and although one can move while using them (and even use them on ladders), it does mean lowering the shield for a moment. Often, it’s better to brave a fight out with no health, rather than try to heal and end up taking attacks from all angles.
Is DS2 harder than the original? Enemies will eventually disappear from areas if the player dies too many times there, making it somewhat easier to make it through problem areas. However, dying has a new penalty – the loss of the top end of your health bar. Die while human, and you of course lose your humanity. Die again, and you lose some of your maximum health capacity. Your skin turns green, and signs of rot and decay begin to appear on your body. Die again, lose more of your maximum health, and you appear to rot more again. Eventually, I ended up resurrecting with half of my maximum health and a body that looked like something blown into a tissue.
These subtle changes make the game different, for sure – but as to whether or not the game is more difficult than the original, I’m afraid I can’t definitively say either way. What is for certain is that the challenge of the original remains intact, albeit tweaked.
The fast travel system accessible at bonfires seemed to take some of the risk out of carrying souls – all one has to do is make it to a bonfire and then fast travel to the shop that’s carrying the item you need. Bit of a shame, I thought. Then four of the bastards cornered me and gave me a steel overdose. 2500 souls dropped. I resurrect at the bonfire, and find that the shopkeeper normally sitting nearby had buggered off anyway.
So, it may or may not be harder than the original – really, a few years must always pass before these things are fully worked out by players, and at this stage DS2 just hasn’t been played by anybody to the same extent as the original. The secrets and tricks haven’t been found yet – but when they are, and when the community has got together and fleshed out a wiki for the game, then the question of which game is actually harder can be approached.
Although the blind approach to DS2 is undoubtedly the best way to play (and, right now, there’s not much choice), it can cause some hair-tearing issues. I spent about 5 minutes picking out a moustache for my character, and a hairstyle to match. My bloke looked like a cross between a medieval knight and Arthur Shelby. Ok, I thought: that’s a moustache I’ll be happy to see for the rest of the game.
It was therefore a surprise to find that, sometime later, my character had inexplicably turned into a woman.
There is a reason for this (one which I won’t spoil for you), as confirmed by a google search later on – but as I’d been wearing a helmet, I hadn’t noticed it at the time. This is the sort of thing DS2 does to you – it is sometimes so obscure that you honestly don’t know whether you’ve fucked up or the game has.
However, this uncertainty, this madness, is part of why I love the series. The sweating and swearing that it inspires makes me love it. The best praise that I can give DS2 is that, unlike most games, I feel like I’m playing the fucking thing. I feel like my choices matter, whether or not I know what I’m choosing. When I win, I feel like I won. Not like the game took it easy on me, gave me a simple QTE… no, DS2 won’t insult me like that.
Directly after playing a bit of DS2, I tried out the new Lords of Shadow 2 demo. That there game is everything that DS2 is not. Primarily, that demo is utter shit, but apart from that… LoS2 gave me the powers of a superhuman vampire, and when I fought things, I felt weak. All of my flashy moves didn’t matter, especially as ridiculous god-combos look a little superfluous when used to bounce mere humans round the room. It was a case of more and more ‘so what’ piled up on top of a load of ‘who gives a shit’. Pretty colours, pretty empty.
DS2 gave me a sword and a shield, and told me to get my hands dirty. Every failure laid another step on the staircase to success. I died, I sweated, I swore, and I loved every minute of it.
And I’m still nowhere near done with it. I’m not calling this a full review, because there’s no way I’m going to cane through DS2 just in order to see the last boss and then write ‘very good, 8/10’. No, as I’m not getting paid for this one, I don’t feel bad in any way about taking my time and enjoying this game. I don’t want to run to the end just to say that I did, because I’m really enjoying the journey.
What I will say is this. Based on what I’ve played so far, DS2 is a worthy sequel, and looks amazing even on the consoles. Like Snake Eater before it, it’s probably the last great game that will be released for the current generation of consoles. And, like Snake Eater, it’s so damn pretty, and so damn good that occasionally you just have to stop, put the pad down, and stare and listen.
Seek misery, but praise the sun.