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 10 which explores Harvest Valley.


 

“The place is nothing like I was told. All this poison, and you can’t get very far inside.”

Harvest Valley is one of the most unremarkable locations in Drangleic. Neither memorable enough to be considered good nor offensive enough to be considered bad, this noxious labour camp is just kinda “there”.

It ties in well from a thematic standpoint at least. After all, the materials that built Iron Keep had to come from somewhere and even now, under the gaze of their cruel overseers, you can still find undead slaves digging for ore amidst the ravaged earth. Their ceaseless toil clearly came at a price as the area has since become engulfed in toxic emissions that act as a prelude to the sort of danger that lies further afield.

The main quibble regarding Harvest Valley is it being so redundantly short. Pretty much the only mandatory obstacle that players need overcome is a locked gate with nearly every other hazard being freely avoidable by running past it. This open nature is one of the charms of these games of course (no key cards or enemy-locked doors, thankfully), but so much of its content is optional with that ever-present poison gas purposefully warding players away. It’s peculiar design.

Players will also meet a new NPC here called Stone Trader Chloanne. Aside from her crafting wares, the most notable aspect of this female merchant is her character model’s rather absurd cleavage. When considered alongside her suggestible dialogue – “Well, I’ve only one thing to provide, and we both know what that is! Heh heh…” – it’s no wonder that this NPC is often surrounded by puerile player messages such as “try thrusting”, or “amazing chest ahead”, or maybe even something bizarre like “woman ahead, therefore try man”!

Considering the otherwise immersive quality of the Dark Souls games (especially when playing online), it’s this tiresome quality that sometimes makes me wish I could turn the messages off altogether. Aside from the childish allusions that frequently rest near every female NPC in the game, the luminous orange glow of the soapstone messages can also spoil the world’s potential beauty. Landscapes don’t tend to look so impressive when you’ve got thirty or forty glowing orange lines plastered all over the ground. Who’d have thought?

That’s a one-sided argument though because of course there are times when the player messaging system is capable of delivering both helpful advice as well as the odd genuine, non-degrading, laugh. Ultimately their intention is to foster that feeling of togetherness as strangers from far off lands share their messages like pieces of parchment floating in ocean-bound bottles. “Fine work”, indeed!

Chloanne’s presence is quite welcome anyway, not just because of her fine voice work by actress Naomi McDonald, but also because Harvest Valley in general is quite thin on hospitable life. There are executioners and overseers roaming around as well as undead types wielding massive hammers. It’s nice how you can turn the poison against certain enemies here actually, though some players will likely not bother and simply steer well clear of anything that looks too green.

The Scholar of the First Sin edition attempts to sucker you into the poison caves with promises of more collectibles, which is funny, though it’s a shame that FromSoftware had to alter the enemy placements with foes taken from other nearby locations in Drangleic. It’s another quibble that makes Harvest Valley just that little less original than before and no amount of those extra pots that have been added everywhere will make a difference.

Also present here is a decaying Sunlight Alter that provides players with access to the Sunlight covenant that first featured in the original Dark Souls. FromSoftware obviously felt bound to include this co-op faction again due to its massive popularity, which is an interesting concession for a series that is not normally known for compromise. Some will see this as a blatant stab of unnecessary fan service whereas others, like me, probably wouldn’t consider the reference explicit enough to warrant much complaining.

A much more inflammatory subject regarding this game’s co-op scene is found in the concept of Soul Memory; a much derided system that governs player matchmaking. Soul Memory tries to ensure that players can only ever meet other players of a similar power level and it attempts this by keeping a tally of every soul (think: unit of XP) that players have acquired. Players whose Soul Memories match (within a certain percentage) are granted the opportunity to see each other’s summoning signs for co-op and PvP with the idea being that skilled players will not always be able to prey on much weaker players and so on.

FromSoftware had the best of intentions with this system, but unfortunately their execution was way off the mark. Soul Memory is serviceable in managing the curve of a lone player’s journey, but it’s absolutely horrible for anyone looking to play the game with a friend or two. This is because any cooperating players need to carefully manage their soul intake to ensure that their Soul Memory doesn’t mismatch as the game goes on, which is an awkward and highly tedious task at the best of times.

It’s also important to consider that Soul Memory was designed only to track the souls earned and not spent, meaning that a player who is really good at the game can rack up a high Soul Memory whilst systematically spending all of their earnings on character and weapon upgrades. A less skilled player though can still score a very high Soul Memory whilst accidentally losing all of their earnings through repeated deaths; something that is very common in any Souls game. Thus the entire point of the Soul Memory mechanic; to protect weaker players from overpowered invaders or twinks, can actually be proven to have the opposite effect!

The developer did patch in various pieces of equipment to help combat the problem with Soul Memory, but the overall system remains fairly shoddy today and is one of the biggest failings that any player can say about Dark Souls II as a complete experience.

The end of Harvest Valley comes when players enter the base of the giant windmill seen in the distance. With no boss battle or memorable section to conclude, arriving at the next location feels a little abrupt and it’s likely that some players won’t even notice the transition.

Nevertheless, the path ahead is a clear one, so in the next episode we’ll start our climb to the peak of, um, Earthen Peak!

 


Continue to Part 11 »