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 13 which explores Grave of Saints.


 

“The more humans coveted, the more blinded they became as to what truly mattered. And that is why I pity the fools called humans.”

Out of Majula’s two remaining paths, it’s really time we looked at the most devious one that starts at the lip of the town’s ominous pit. It’s a long way down to the two adjoining alcoves leading onwards and making this even more problematic are the enticing collectibles that FromSoftware has intermittently placed atop the pit’s unstable wooden outcrops.

Indeed, my first memorable experience with this pit came from witnessing my headstrong brother repeatedly trying to get down there at the start of his game and gleefully watching the degradation of his character’s 3D model with every failed attempt! Dark Souls II might not have quite the same atmosphere that the first game did, but certain cameos like this pit are unmistakably “Souls” in how they look and feel.

Out of the two proper methods for traversing this pit, the easiest one is to pay an NPC recruited in Earthen Peak to build you a customized ladder. A riskier alternative involves stacking equipment or spells that muffle fall damage before carefully dropping down onto the numerous wooden beams. The presence of a booby-trapped beam when combined with the game’s awkward jumping controls makes this option hazardous, but considering that Majula’s main bonfire resides almost adjacent to the pit, players are always guaranteed a quick retry if when they fall to their deaths. Players must also decide on how far they wish to drop because midway down is the entrance to an optional area called Grave of Saints.

Members of the nearby Rat King Covenant ply their trade here in what is actually one of two areas exclusively reserved for PvP gameplay involving their faction. In a reversal of the default invasion formula, Rat King devotees actually summon their victims rather than the other way around and as a result it gives the ‘Rats’ an opportunity to plan ambushes and rig their worlds with traps ready for any trespassers who might stumble in.

Regular players are given no indication of the danger they’re in upon entering Grave of Saints and it’s something that affords the area a sense of mystery. Being summoned to another players’ world still prompts a loading screen, but the effect that FromSoftware was shooting for still feels seamless enough.

Of course, that doesn’t stop many players from despising the Rat King covenant altogether. The giant rat enemies that live here will act passively towards covenant members, but they’ll happily swarm up on any intruders. If a player has to deal with multiple sets of gnashing teeth as well as an onslaught from a hostile human player, then things can end very badly for those who were just looking to explore.

Such questionable tactics combined with a lack of cooperative summoning in this area have led some unhappy players to nicknaming it the lair of the “troll covenant”! But is the situation really that severe? As tends to be the way with Dark Souls II, I find that my own personal answer lies somewhere in the middle of two extremes.

This covenant helps its participants create their very own fun house for other human players to battle their way through and that’s actually a pretty fun concept. In Grave of Saints specifically, the Rats have the option of lowering drawbridges to increase the number of enemies present in the world as well as pressing switches that create waterfalls of acid that will damage the equipment of anyone walking through them.

In the strictest sense, this is a very unique concept in Souls games as the advantage between two players here is always weighted in favour of the invader. Typically the PvP balancing is extremely volatile due to the wide range of areas and situations that any one invasion can take place in, but that’s rarely the case here. The Rats get plenty of backup to thwart their prey and even though the victims are rewarded for their success with a special item, a lot of players still take issue with the idea of even having a mismatch like this in the first place.

I agree that the gameplay is a bit suspect. I once spent a good deal of time in the Rat King covenant and often felt guilty for killing a player who hadn’t noticed the swarm of hostile enemies pouring into the sanctum from their hidden burrows. Your attitude towards the sometimes unpleasant nature of Dark Souls’ PvP is the deciding factor here and yet the thing that rankles me the most about the Rat King covenant isn’t directly related to gameplay at all, but more will be said on that topic in the upcoming Doors of Pharros episode.

A lot of what made Grave of Saints gruelling the first time through was this sense of the unknown. Without the knowledge of how the covenant actually worked or any familiarity with the area’s traps (who is to know that waterfall corrodes equipment?), this was once a legitimately dangerous place to go wandering into. When played offline or played alongside the presently diminished player population or at least with players who know everything about the area, however, Grave of Saints is as unassuming and unexciting as it gets. It’s as if FromSoftware really focused on first time players here as a lot of what made this place notable back when the game was released is barely recognisable now that the online player base has shrunk.

The World of Dark Souls II Royal Rat Vanguard

Royal Rat Vanguard

What keeps Grave of Saints from pure irrelevance in this regard though is the nearby battle with one of the Rat King’s lieutenants, the Royal Rat Vanguard. Whilst it might not be particularly memorable or creative, I do think that this boss receives more criticism than is warranted. The main gripe is obvious to anyone able to see the above screenshot; this boss re-uses a lot of assets that players have already seen up until this point.

However, that recycling doesn’t automatically make this a bad boss. In terms of gameplay there is a small puzzle here that adds a hint of nuance that most bosses in Dark Souls II couldn’t muster on their best day.

When the music starts there is no indication of where or what this boss even is and players must prepare themselves for the seemingly endless waves of rats that crawl into the arena from their burrows. The statues in this room prevent you from swinging your weapon in wide arcs and so too are you forced to carefully consider your position as the deluge of rodents can quite easily hamper your movement and see you surrounded. Clearing a room full of rats sounds so simple, but I’ve seen more than a few new players struggle with this scenario because of the heavy focus on positioning.

Once a set number of rats are killed, the health bar for the Royal Rat Vanguard appears on screen and players now wait to see what their real foe looks like. Only most players don’t notice any change whatsoever because the boss is merely a tougher rat whose only distinguishing mark is the tuft of hair that runs over its back. Thus players are challenged with defeating a boss that is carefully hidden among many similar looking enemies.

That itself is a wholly unique concept for a boss in Dark Souls II and it shouldn’t be discounted because of something as routine as asset recycling. I’ve heard many arguments for why this boss sucks, – including the always ironic argument of “it’s just lazy” – but the important thing to take away is that Royal Rat Vanguard isn’t a cakewalk and as one of the few solo only bosses in the game it feels well balanced with its bonfire checkpoint being practically adjacent to the boss room. No annoying treks back through the level here.

More to the point, this boss hits all the right notes with regards to theme. I mean, what else would you expect to find defending the Rat King other than an endless horde of his subjects!? The petulant monarch resides in the room directly following the boss and it’s here that players are given a chance to join the covenant and help protect the burrows from further intrusion. Players get to hear some flavourful tales from the king himself as he recounts the alliance he once held with the human world above and the inevitable treachery wrought upon him as that same truce crumbled. You’ve got to feel for the guy!

With a parting glance at a mysterious human skeleton hanging on the wall, players once again proceed downwards and rejoin the path that those who went right to the bottom of Majula’s pit will already be exploring.

 


Continue to Part 14 »