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 4 which explores Heide’s Tower of Flame.
“I’d heard awful rumours about this place and I’m afraid they were all true. The king; gone, the earth; ravaged. The burden on the people weighs heavy.”
The kingdom of Lordran from the first Dark Souls is a work of art so intricate and fascinatingly connected that it’s easier to look past where its encounter design sometimes punishes and frustrates. The way in which its locations open up as players inch forward in search of shortcuts is likewise integral to its gameplay loop. It’s a place that has inspired many a soulslike since and with good reason considering its often genius design and equally beautiful geography.
The kingdom of Drangleic is uncommonly looked upon with the same reverence and whether that’s because of an intrinsic lack of balance or atmosphere is going to depend on who you ask. One of the more common complaints that people aim at Drangleic, however, is how its geography “doesn’t make sense” when compared to that of Lordran. This is actually quite true; the fashion in which players get from location A to location B in Drangleic doesn’t always follow spacial logic and you need only look at Heide’s Tower of Flame for a perfect example of that.
Stand atop the highest perch in Majula and you’ll be able to see quite far into the distance. You can spot the fort and huge statues that we visited earlier in the Forest of Fallen Giants and likewise can you see Heide’s Tower of Flame; it’s huge spire lit up like a lighthouse amidst the sunken debris of its surrounding cathedrals. In a Souls game it tends to be the way that if you can see it, you can get to it and the effect is rarely anything but spellbinding.
Strangely though, heading through the tunnel towards Heide’s Tower of Flame only takes a few minutes at best. How is that possible considering how far away it looks to be from Majula? You’ll come across numerous other examples later in the game where the geography of Drangleic threatens to “make no sense” and coming to terms with this facet of Dark Souls II may be important for those whose immersion rests on it.
Creating a vast and connected world like Lordran was a huge accomplishment, so did FromSoftware really buckle at the challenge in their second game and resort to “lazy game design” in order to solve the puzzle that would become Drangleic? I think that part of the curious geography in Dark Souls II is mainly due to its world’s immense size. Drangleic is a massive place, much bigger than Lordran and even bigger than Lothric from Dark Souls III. Surely creating the sort of pliable world akin to Lordran would have been a herculean task for any developer, especially one stretched thin and likely working to a tight budget. And yet at no point do I assume that FromSoftware didn’t have good reason for building what they did in the way that they did.
As our real life lore enthusiasts often stress, time is convoluted in these games and it’s a facet that’s frequently backed up by the characters we meet in Dark Souls II. Drangleic is a kingdom lost in time with tales of the kingdoms before it already slipping in the minds of the inhabitants. If the geography doesn’t make sense here, then surely this dreamlike quality to our surroundings – which not to spoil things, will be actual dreams further down the line – explains it?
Is the Heide’s Tower of Flame that we see from Majula truly the same one that we enter when walking through a supposedly magical tunnel that you can’t see from the shoreline? The spatial distortion hypothesis certainly won’t satisfy everyone, but it’s reasonable to believe that FromSoftware were only able to build a huge world here without the added requirement of battering it into perfect symmetry. Now, whether the world ever needed to be this big in the first place is still a very good question, but for now we should probably just focus on Heide’s Tower of Flame.
The reason for my tangent there is simply because this area is quite small and there won’t be as many interesting things to say about it when compared with the other sights in Drangleic. Heide’s Tower of Flame is where players get their first taste of fighting giant enemies amidst some rather precarious walkways, so it’s a place that teaches you a lot about positioning if nothing else. In terms of difficulty, battling huge knights is certainly a step up from squabbling with woodland zombies so in Earthworm Jim’s parlance you’ll definitely find this area to be the “stud” path to Forest of the Fallen Giant’s “wimp” alternative.
Fortunately new players won’t struggle half as much against the first area boss as they will the regular enemies. The Dragonrider is another armoured humanoid for players to chalk on their Dark Souls II bingo board, saved by a half interesting environmental concern that must be addressed if anyone hopes to fight him safely. Dragonrider stands upon a dias of sorts with the floor around him being a sheer drop into the water below. Players must raise the flooring around the boss by activating switches because blocking one of his speedy halberd thrusts will likely send you plummeting over the edge to your death. Once that’s accomplished, however, Dragonrider is another easy and promptly forgettable boss, no matter how sweet that red armour looks.
Continuing the streak of mediocre bosses is the one found in the bolt-on location called Cathedral of Blue. Other than the completely pointless boss battle that we’re about to discuss next, this church is too small to warrant much discussion. There are quite a few zones like this in Dark Souls II; little hideaways that are technically their own area, but are much too small or lacking in content to warrant saying much at all. As it is, the church here is merely a place to house the Blue Sentinels PVP Covenant and little else.
Before you can reach the Blue Sentinels though you must first go through Old Dragonslayer, who shares the same appearance as the popular Dragonslayer Ornstein boss from Dark Souls. Whether this is the same character or just an illogical reference to the first game is unclear, but it’s important to point out how lost ‘Dark Ornstein’ looks without his executioner friend in tow.
I’m not sure if the animation on Ornstein’s character model was always this suspect and maybe I just never noticed it due to how much him and Smough were kicking my ass at the time, but seeing Old Dragonslayer trotting into range for his next spear swing looks a lot more risible than FromSoftware could have intended. It’s not a particularly easy fight for newcomers, it just feels so uninspired; like it was placed here for reference purposes more than anything else. Having two bosses in an area already this small never seemed necessary to me either and why does the NPC who appears afterwards not mention the chaotic melee you just had in his church? It’s a bit silly.
One of the few things keeping the spectacle of this battle alive is its music, which might actually be the first essential piece of boss music that players will have heard up until now. It’s a shame that it was wasted on such an unnecessary cameo.
Whilst it’s not a bad area, Heide’s Tower of Flame is arguably one of the few locations where FromSoftware did more harm than good in Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin. In the remastered edition you’ll run into the Heide Knights here, who previously showed up everywhere in Drangleic except for the location that bears their name, which is all well and good on the surface of things. Once Dragonrider is slain though, the formerly passive Heide Knights immediately turn hostile causing the difficulty here to rise considerably. It does slightly mix up your second run through the level, but then you come to find a brand new dragon perched just outside the Cathedral of Blue.
Now why FromSoftware decide to spoil the appearance of dragons by adding one here is besides the point because the sheer number of enemies that you have to deal with already will completely tire you out by the time you reach it. The presence of a dragon right next to a boss who has “Dragonslayer” in his name is curious enough, but the real fault here is in turning away players from content they haven’t yet seen. The developers prepared a boss fight and then prefaced it with a powerful dragon enemy to ensure that most players would turn away and not see the boss until a point where they would vastly over-level the encounter. This is a perfect example of FromSoftware trying to fix something that wasn’t broken to begin with and it’s a rare miss for the Scholar of the First Sin edition, it has to be said.
Both this area and the Forest of Fallen Giants share the same crucial destination, only there is one more area that we need to visit along the waterways leading out of Heide’s Tower of Flame. This is a place where cursed undead await transport, not as passengers, but as prisoners.
Continue to Part 5 »