Welcome to See Drangleic, an episodic playthrough journal exploring the world of Dark Souls II. Be sure to check out the introduction post first if you haven’t already, otherwise continue reading for Part 24 which explores Dragon Aerie and Dragon Shrine.
“Bearer of the curse. Long have I awaited one such as you, one who might shatter the shackles of fate. One who can set me free.”
From the gleaming cathedral spires that make up Anor Londo in Dark Souls to the moonlit radiance of Central Irithyll in Dark Souls III, this franchise is known for its “gorgeous views”. And accompanying those famous examples is our current location in Dark Souls II called the Dragon Aerie which is easily the most visually impressive locale we’ll see all game. After several back-to-back levels full of angular corridors and gloomy underground grottos, Dragon Aerie is a revitalising ray of sun-scorched brilliance; a messy canyon trek featuring strange rocks, interactive ropeslides, and draconic lifeforms that fly inauspiciously over our heads. This is a very rare place in the Souls universe, a place that feels as precarious as much as it feels occupied.
The welcome impact of how lovely everything looks should not be undervalued, especially since I’m about to tell you why I abhor this place. If Dragon Aerie is the highest point that Dark Souls II reaches in terms of graphics, I’d argue it’s the lowest it stoops in terms of gameplay. That may seem unlikely when hearing of the bland Aldia’s Keep or the sheer frustration encountered in Shrine of Amana, but playing through Dragon Aerie is a similarly underwhelming experience that squanders some genuinely good ideas.
A level with verticality is something that should be celebrated, but this is a desirable facet of the Dragon Aerie that is never used for any meaningful purpose. The circuitous design already makes it hard to see which path leads forwards and in more than one instance, dropping down onto an item-strewn ledge presents no method of return other than using an item to teleport back to the nearest bonfire.
Also consider that the most abundant type of enemy here are those exploding mummies from Sinner’s Rise, so as well as feeling repetitive, there are no real opportunities for using the terrain to your advantage. You simply rush down those mobs as quickly as possible or be forced to start over when a corrosive blast either breaks all of your equipment or sends you falling to your doom. The exploding enemies only ever cause frustration and dealing with their stun-locking attacks alongside the presence of more Guardian Dragons somehow makes things worse.
The idea is that players can bypass these lesser dragons as long as they don’t anger them by breaking the blue eggs that lie strewn about their nest. That’s not a horrible idea, but the fragile eggs are deliberately placed in your way more than once, so the likelihood that players are going to harmlessly tiptoe around instead of rolling straight through them is hilariously slim. Even then the dragons are so weak and easy to escape that it really doesn’t matter one way or another.
Another strange caveat concerns the shortcut at the beginning of the level. In the vanilla build this involves lowering a ladder from above the bonfire, but in the remastered version the shortcut is available immediately which not only allows you to work through the level in reverse, it also enables you to skip it entirely! Did FromSoftware decide they disliked this place as much I did? Hmm…
Crossing the final drawbridge brings us to our true destination, the Dragon Shrine, which thankfully improves on what came before it. This outdoor jaunt is also very short and yet the concentration of combat encounters is much higher as players clash swords with the massive Drakekeepers and their lithe Dragon Knight cousins. These regular enemies are perhaps the strongest of their kind, but considering the late hour in which they’re encountered, I don’t take issue with them like some other players do.
Scholar of the First Sin toned the difficulty down by making the native Dragon Knights passive to lone players as long as they do not flee from any of the central combat zones. They even perform bowing gestures to the player, which is a pretty cool touch.
Players meet the Ancient Dragon at the end of the Dragon Shrine whereupon they’re gifted an important item called the Ashen Mist Heart. This marks the end of the linear path that began following the Shrine of Winter and it will be up to the players to decide where they should travel to next.
Attacking the beastie is also an option, though it’s one that many players will regret. When compared to the pathetic Guardian Dragon, this Ancient Dragon is the real deal. Its flame breath is the most common attack that players must survive and the immolating force is enough to instantly disintegrate most characters. Manoeuvrability is essential for avoiding these searing flames and so a common course of action here is to strip your character down to their underpants in order to maximise movement speed!
This boss is too powerful for players to get cute with and so adopting a cheesy strategy that exploits the creature’s disappointingly limited set of animations is the only reliable way of beating it. Cooperative summoning is ill-advised due to the boss’s steep health scaling and the return bonfire run is also quite treacherous. These qualities result in a battle that is pretty high on spectacle, albeit long-winded and mostly unsatisfying, especially for weaker players who haven’t cooked up a perfect combination of equipment and stats.
Whether we choose to slay the dragon or not though, our next destination remains the same. With the Ashen Mist Heart we can now enter the memories of the dead tress in the Forest of Fallen Giants and with that move on to the penultimate encounter before the finale.
Continue to Part 25 »