I think most players would agree that Dark Souls II is not a strict upgrade over its predecessor. A lot of things were enhanced and improved, but the cases where this sequel sometimes falls short (visuals, soul memory, boss battles, level design) are certainly severe enough to warrant criticism and debate. Does this make Dark Souls II a lamentable disappointment or a stain on the Souls legacy? No.
Dark Souls II, released as it was during an awkward year where a new generation of console graphics loomed, doesn’t possess the same potency as the first, but it’s still a very generous game. I see it as a sequel that keeps odd company. Deus Ex: Invisible War is a perfect counterpart that, no matter how streamlined and quietly enjoyable, could never meet the expectations of those who played its exemplary prequel. You might also consider Civilization: Beyond Earth; a mediocre sequel that is nevertheless unfairly criticized for the people who worked on it.
Criticism of studio “B-teams” is sadly getting more and more popular, and the Souls franchise is hardly a stranger to such auteurism bias seeing as its chief visionary, Hidetaka Miyazaki, only acted as a supervisor on the second entry. Do we really need to remind ourselves that video games are made by people?
After exploring every location that Drangleic has to its name, I can certainly see where some the common criticisms of Dark Souls II are warranted. The quality of gameplay past the Shrine of Winter is extremely uneven, and the stress that comes from learning some of the game’s intrinsic systems, like the ones governing soul memory and adaptability frames, should not have been issues at all.
But if nostalgic feelings over the first Dark Souls are colouring people’s opinion of the second, then it’s curious to think that a wider reappraisal could be imminent. Dark Souls: Remastered was clearly intended to be a working replacement for a previously botched PC port of Dark Souls, not as some grand re-imagining with new content and enhanced systems. However, this hasn’t stopped its user response on Steam from slipping into the “Mixed” category. A very dispiriting outcome considering a miserable spin-off like Fallout Tactics, for example, can achieve “Very Positive” without breaking a sweat.
I often talk about nostalgia in video gaming, and I’m sure it’s no secret that many players have equally strong feelings about their first contact with Dark Souls. It’s a series that can deliver a potent first time experience, and there are times where sequels to such beloved games can suffer unduly in people’s affections. There will be those who criticize Dark Souls: Remastered over a perceived lack of value or similar fringe concerns, and that’s fine, but for those who look at the user numbers for the re-release and come away wondering where its audience has gone, the answer is simple; they’ve probably moved on.
Dark Souls: Remastered is still Dark Souls, no matter how you choose to look at, and I think some people have been rattled by what they’ve seen without their nostalgia goggles on. Dark Souls is like Dark Souls II in a lot of ways; both games have their problems, their annoyances, and other design related foibles. This is why I’m starting to wonder if the stigma surrounding Dark Souls II might start to diminish, not because of reappraisals like mine (which actually had a tendency to be quite negative at times), but mainly because the first Dark Souls is now being viewed through a more critical lens, in spite of its continued brilliance.
And when you consider everything that Dark Souls II improved, you should at least recognize it as a worthy sequel, if not a particularly stellar one. The brilliant dual wield mechanics, the potent poison/bleed equipment, and the expansion of the durability system. The more navigable menus, the useful character statistics, faster sprinting, bonfire ascetics, crossbow aiming, bulk item consumption, and easier access to the fun Chameleon spell. The addition of character respecs, cloth physics, and a tremendous variety of brand new weapons to offer untold replay value. The extra ring slots to make character builds more complex and satisfying, the balancing of backstab animations, the ability to invade hollowed players, and of course: fast climbing of ladders!
Whatever the future holds for the series from here, I think we can agree that Drangleic has a place in the world that Miyazaki created, and whether people continue to love or hate it, I think Lord Aldia puts it best:
“Life is brilliant. Beautiful. It enchants us, to the point of obsession.”