I’ve (almost) beaten the game–just have to finish one more boss and then I can face the last one! However, the more I play it the less impressive it seems to me compared to Demon’s and Dark Souls I. Some of this might be familiar to you, as I’ve mentioned some of these critiques elsewhere (such as on GameFAQs or my other gaming forums), but collecting them in one place might be useful.
The first flaw of the game that’s becoming more apparent in my mind is that for all of Drangleic’s size, it doesn’t seem very well put together, particularly in comparison with its predecessors. In Demon’s Souls, the “world,” was divided into independent sections that could each be warped through from a central “Nexus” outside of it. Since each part of the world was independent, it didn’t matter how coherently it was put together. In Dark Souls 1, the whole world was interconnected, but it was connected in a way that made sense. If you ventured to the highest point in Lordran, you could see the lower portions, and if you went to the lowest point you’d find out the whole world was resting on top of a giant tree, which is actually pretty cool.
On the other hand, the topography of Drangleic makes little sense, though the individual levels may be pretty and well put together. For instance, there’s an area called Heide’s Tower of Flame that’s apparently just at sea level. At the end of it, though, you take an elevator a very long way down, and when you exit the elevator, you come to No Man’s Wharf, which is…at sea level again, despite being *under* the half-submerged Tower of Flame. Another example is when you finish the Harvest Valley, which is a rocky-poison filled area with windmills, and then take an elevator up to the Iron Keep, which is a castle set into a volcano. You never see a volcano or even a large mountain anywhere while traveling through the Harvest Valley. It’s a small nitpick, but takes away some of the immersion (i.e reminds me I’m playing a videogame rather than being absorbed into a fantasy world), which is somewhat important for me in the Souls games.
My immersion is further hindered by the lack of memorable music, which I mentioned in my previous post. Though at the time I thought it was no big deal, now really starting to tell for me. Some of my greatest pleasures in the previous games were listening to the Nexus and Firelink Shrine themes, and some of the boss battles, particularly Flamelurker and False King (in Demon’s Souls) along with Gwyn (in Dark Souls) had excellent music which really deepened my enjoyment of those fights. So far, the lack of really catchy or even decent music is keeping me from getting as attached to the “home base” areas or as excited about the boss fights, which is making me a little less fond of this game.
Lastly, I’m starting to think some of the levels aren’t as involving or well-planned as I’d originally thought, especially compared to their predecessors in Dark Souls. My favorite area of the entire series was “Anor Londo,” a great cathedral-city you enter about midway through Dark Souls I. I consider it a triumph of game design–from the sheer beauty of the alabaster Gothic buildings to the placement of puzzles and enemies, I could spend years in there and not get bored. On the other hand, while some parts of Dark Souls II come close to it in terms of beauty, none match it in terms of content and intriguing, compelling layout and enemy placement. The areas which come closest to looking as nice as Anor Londo did–namely Heide’s Tower of Flame and the Dragon Aerie–are each nowhere near as large and have fewer enemies. Anor Londo was filled with Gargoyles, Armored Giants, Silver Knights, and Painting Guardians. It also had several different zones to traverse (an initial keep area, then a small cathedral, then a barracks/residence interior, then a massive cathedral) On the other hand, Heide’s Tower just has a few varieties of Old Knights and the Dragon Aerie has a few Priestesses and Drakekeepers (which are pretty much just upgraded Old Knights) along with the human enemies at the end, and neither had any distinct zones; it was easy enough to just get from one end to another very quickly. In general, Dark Souls II seems to have very many areas, but all of which are somewhat smaller than the ones in Dark Souls and have less diversity in terms of both inhabitants and stage layout itself. This results in Dark Souls II having more content overall, but I find I can’t immerse myself–lose myself in the glory of the architecture, area layout, and monsters–within many smaller areas, while I could do what with fewer but individually larger levels in the original Dark Souls.
Perhaps I’m a bit of an oddity–I doubt that many people would be that concerned about “immersion” in a fantasy videogame. Still, looking back on my life and the sorts of games I’ve played, immersion seems to be the most salient characteristic of the games I remember most fondly on a personal, emotional level. For instance, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night really drew me in with two things: Its beautiful, highly-detailed world and its wonderful music. I felt a real sense of accomplishment progressing from area to area when each of them was so large and had an expansive design that featured many different places to go within the context of a single kind of architecture (Gothic for the “chapel” area, an underwater cave for the “buried lake” area, etc). The incredibly evocative music drew me in even further, allowing me to leave my mundane life further behind and making me feel as if I were a part of a truly amazing, magical in-game world.
I’ve gotten the same feeling from a couple of other games, like Shadow of the Colossus, whose incredibly beautiful levels combined with outstanding music allowed me to lose myself in their worlds. Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls gave me that same experience too. But Dark Souls II…it has its moments, but it’s just not doing it for me to the same extent the other games were.
So while I am enjoying Dark Souls II–don’t take this entry to mean I don’t like it at all!–I don’t think it can be my favorite in the series so far. It may well be my least favorite, all in all. I think I like Dark Souls the best, with Demon’s Souls coming in a close second. Dark Souls, IMO, had the best balance of level design and world design along with competent music (Demon’s Souls was better on that front). Hmm…I’ve heard the director of Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, Miyazaki, wasn’t working on Dark Souls II. Maybe it would have been better if he was…
But we can never know for sure, I suppose.