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 19 which explores Drangleic Castle.
“Brave Undead, seek the throne. Follow the symbol of the monarch, and do what must be done.”
The moment that players offer up their four Great Souls to the Shrine of Winter and begin their trek towards the distant Drangleic Castle is where Dark Souls II enters its second act. This is also around the time where, for me at least, the game starts to seriously lose momentum. That criticism will be an ongoing topic in the next several episodes of See Drangleic, so for now let’s consider the broad strokes of our story so far; the vague tales we’ve heard of Drangleic’s fall from grace and the withering state of its environs as we have witnessed them first-hand.
Suggesting that this is the point where the story threads start coming together would seem disingenuous to some players, mainly because of how deliberately ambiguous the narrative tends to be in these games. Nevertheless, important topics relating to King Vendrick and Queen Nashandra, Drangleic’s distant war with the giants, and the mysterious power of the presently vacant throne, will all be hot topics in the many NPCs discussions still left to come.
Of course if you’re playing the remastered release of Dark Souls II then you’ll already have met a crucial NPC in the form of Aldia; the eponymous Scholar of the First Sin himself. Once the final primal bonfire is lit, Aldia makes his dramatic entrance and from then on players will continue to encounter him as they progress through the second half of the game. The clue is in the name because Aldia is arguably the highlight of the remastered edition. Spouting his flowery monologues about the nature of undeath and the future of humanity, Aldia is evidently a character made in service to the game’s lore and atmosphere, which is a very good thing considering how those same aspects needed a little improvement.
Again, we’ll have more to say about Aldia later, so let’s instead turn our attention to the approaching Shrine of Winter and muse on how it resembles the door blocking access to the Kiln of the First Flame in Dark Souls. Both of these assets act as gateways that separate players from the final areas of their respective games and both demand the presence of several boss souls before they’ll open. Whereas the door in Dark Souls was a massive structure that came with its own awesome cutscene upon opening, the Shrine of Winter is of comparatively modest design, which might not be a huge problem if it weren’t for the clearly visible side entrance that’s blocked by a few waist-high columns.
The question of why our characters couldn’t just hop over those columns and skip out dozens of gameplay hours in the process is a ludonarrative debate that could go on until the stars burn out, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to call this sort of haphazard level design a severe immersion-breaking moment. If this were any other locked door in the game then it would be so much easier to forgive, but this is the Shrine of Winter; a structure that’s meant to awe players with a reverence for the progress they’ve made and the challenges still yet to come. The fact that players can clearly see another entrance right next to it reeks of oversight. FromSoftware sure didn’t make this mistake in Dark Souls or Dark Souls III, so to see it made here is very disappointing.
Drangleic Castle resides close by and the initial impression given off here is much better. That huge spire looks daunting from the outside and doubly nice are the rainy weather visuals, which now I think about it, are a rare sight for this series in general. Accessing the front gate is a pain due to the sheer number of enemies stationed outside, but once players do manage to gain entry, the hunt for King Vendrick can begin in earnest.
Drangleic Castle is not a particularly huge location, rather its geography is broken up into a maze of corridors and booby-trapped rooms that lead from its basement level and living quarters to the King’s Passage egress point that lies further in. This estate is a dreary place considering it was once inhabited by a king, and undead curse or no, it’s hard to feel satisfied with the rather bland furnishings inside the royal chambers. There is the odd flash of creativity, such as the painting of Queen Nashandra that curses those who gaze upon it, but overall this place is a boring one to fight through and there’s yet another meaningless boss encounter against two of the Dragonrider enemies that we first met all the way back at Heide’s Tower of Flame.
With its repeated music and repeated enemies, not to mention its excessive ease and uninteresting gimmick, you can comfortably rank the Twin Dragonriders among the most lacklustre bosses in the game. It will be a familiar criticism to the readers who have been following this blog series from the beginning, but I’d wager that it’s only now that the game’s pacing is put in serious jeopardy because of it.
To be clear: Drangleic Castle will be our ultimate destination and the terminus of our long journey. The final boss of Dark Souls II will be fought on this soil – or at least in a self-contained location within the castle walls – and with that prospect should come a certain momentum that urges players on towards the end goal. The Twin Dragonriders are the sort of late boss that you dread seeing, not just because they feel sort of irrelevant, but because they bring down the pace of the narrative and turn the should-be-awesome environment here into yet another place with enemies in it.
Similarly disappointing are the changes that FromSoftware made here for Scholar of the First Sin. Whilst a few encounters were tweaked to be a tad fairer, the problem I have is with their changes to the enemy pool.
Originally there was a high population of various soldiers prowling the castle, which was entirely appropriate considering the surroundings. However, in the remastered version you’ll re-encounter the same Manakins and Desert Sorceresses from Earthen Peak, a Gargoyle from Belfry Luna, and a couple of Old Knights from Heide’s Tower of Flame. They even added an Executioner’s Chariot in there!
It may not seem like a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but this grab bag approach to enemy placement doesn’t sit well with me. It makes the level resemble a fan-made mod at times with no proper justification given for why these same enemies are showing up so far away from their natural environment. The art styles clash, the tone is all over the place, and worse of all it robs Drangleic Castle of anything that might grant it a more unique sense of character.
Navigating this miserable estate is quite the effort then, but it’s not all doom and gloom because there’s still one boss left to tackle and it isn’t a total failure like the last one. So enters the Looking Glass Knight, previously known as the “Mirror Knight” during its appearance in a prior demo build. The atmosphere is much stronger than with previous boss battles as the aforementioned weather visuals are on full display here. Lightning strikes above the exposed arena; illuminating both the screen and the glistening armour of the imposing knight standing before us. It all looks pretty snazzy.
The battle itself is slightly less impressive, mainly due to the sluggishness of the boss itself. Its basic sword combos are pretty easy to block and as long as players keep to one side, that bulky mirror shield won’t come into play much because the boss doesn’t seem too interested in actually using it properly.
One noteworthy aspect of this fight is how it allows human invaders to join in the fray. This is a clear attempt by FromSoftware to repeat the mechanics of the Old Monk from Demon’s Souls which worked in a similar way. Human invaders in the nearby area have a chance to be summoned into another player’s instance where they’ll step out from the Looking Glass Knight’s shield to join the battle as a hostile phantasm. It’s a mechanic with superb potential – that FromSoftware would emulate again in a Dark Souls III expansion – and it’s one that typically generates a few gasps of amazement from the victim due to the seamless way in which it’s all handled.
Whether this is enough to name the Looking Glass Knight as a good boss is harder to say though. The battle remains fairly easy if no human invader takes part and in my experience, that tends to happen the vast majority of the time. Also, when you compare the complexity of attack patterns seen here to those of the Fume Knight boss from the Dark Souls II DLC, you can see how slow and unengaging the Looking Glass Knight really is.
The change in graphical fidelity from the demo version of Dark Souls II to the release version is also quite stark in this instance. The demo footage of the “Mirror Knight” looks pretty spectacular alongside some enhanced weather and shadows, so it’s once again hard not to feel a tinge of disappointment for what could have been.
With the level mostly wrapped up and King Vendrick still nowhere to be found, the second act of the game is now well under way. However, we’ll be taking a quick break from the main path in the next post where we’ll be investigating one of Drangleic’s most foreboding secret areas.
Continue to Part 20 »