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 1 featuring the gloomy tutorial area, Things Betwixt.
“All people come here for the same reason; to break the curse. You’re no different I should think…”
You are of the undead. An auger of darkness and Bearer of the Curse. An unfortunate lost soul branded with the Darksign; an unholy geas that robs you of your rightful death and will one day ensure your bleak future as a mindless “hollow” being. The Darksign forces you to wander the land seeking souls; a source of raw energy that every living being covets and the fuel that will keep you from going hollow a bit longer for you to try and rid yourself of this affliction. The memories of your former life have all since melted away and it is now that an irresistible urge has drawn you to a mysterious land called Drangleic; a kingdom that remains destroyed by the undead curse, but a place rife with many powerful souls for a warrior brave enough to claim them.
This is a basic synopsis of the story in Dark Souls II and already you can see how it’s a more personal affair than that of its prequel. In this game your character’s history is a tad more central to the plot and much like many of the NPCs you’ll encounter in Drangelic, you’re seeking something that matters a great deal to you. Dark Souls II feels more distinct from its sister games because of this, though it still features many of the trappings that we’ve come to expect from the series as a whole.
Drangleic is a ruined kingdom just like Lordran and you can fully expect to hear familiar tales of monarchs and heroes who were brought down by a cruel mixture of fate and their own hubris. What’s interesting about the Souls games is the way in which they present their world because it’s a presentation unlike almost any other video game or media property you’d care to imagine. All of the most important events in these kingdoms’ history happened before you got there, and there are times where you’ll feel like an archaeologist, digging up memories from a broken world and piecing together what exactly brought about its downfall.
This sense of adventure is alive and well in Dark Souls II and the journey begins in Things Betwixt; a typical Souls tutorial area that paints the broad strokes of your role whilst also giving you opportunity to learn the controls and combat rhythms that you must master if you hold any hope of reaching the end. Things Betwixt or “Things Between” as we might choose to interpret, is exactly that; a collection of oddities in a space between the world of your former life and the kingdom of Drangleic which your character has been so mysteriously drawn to.
From the rather wonderful opening cutscene to your touchdown in the foreboding forest of this strange new land, exists a surprising early problem: the default character model is male. The Souls games always involve the player creating their own character, male or female, from a robust creation suite before the game begins, though for some reason Dark Souls II eschews this approach and actually insists on a few scenes of expositionary dialogue before creation is handed over to the player. The freestyle nature of character creation is troublesome when you’ve got a pre-rendered cutscene to work with and indeed, the opening cutscene presents our character as a tragic male figure who has lost the memories of his wife and child and has come to Drangleic via a giant swirly portal thing, which is all well and good, assuming we actually want to be a male character.
This isn’t just a remark on sexism either because hilariously, when prompted to declare who we were during character creation, you’re freely able to alter your gender and select your name and so on. Assuming you choose to be female at this point- did you character just forget which gender they were on the way here? Assumedly they did, but why would this physically turn you into someone of the opposite gender? It’s an awkward piece of storytelling easily batted away by claims of time distortion and magic spells and whatnot, but I don’t personally see a reason why character creation couldn’t have happened first just like all the other games in the series. It’s a worrying start to a trend of Dark Souls II attempting to fix things that aren’t broken, but more on that some other time.
The main attraction in Things Betwixt is a hut containing four female NPCs who act as our early guides to the starting area. Together with her retired sisters, Morrel and Griant, and their servant Milibeth, an elderly ex-firekeeper named Strowen greets the Bearer of the Curse in the same way that Souls games usually greet new players; with gentle derision and a bit of sass. Whilst the enigmatic old folks laugh at how utterly screwed we are, they still agree to lend a hand by teaching us the value of Human Effigies (the vital ‘humanity’ items of Dark Souls II) and they’ll even help you respec your character should you bring them a special item later in the game. After leaving the warmth of their fireplace, players begin their march towards Drangleic proper and descend into a hostile forest filled with “imported” hollows just like them.
It’s worth noting here that Dark Souls II has arguably the best rendition of the series’ infamous Deprived starting class. Whereas Dark Souls 1&3 were at least nice enough to gift such characters a club and piece of rotten wood supposedly passing for a shield, Dark Souls II gives you precisely sod all. That’s the real Deprived experience if you ask me and there’s a certain satisfaction to be found in starting out by beating mindless zombies to death with your bare fists! The real reason for why this is, however, is that Dark Souls II is the only game in the franchise that doesn’t feature a boss at the end of its tutorial zone. It’s perfectly acceptable to just run past everything here if you don’t want the practice and thus you’ll find starting new games is a touch faster here than it is in other Souls titles.
Things Betwixt doesn’t have the momentum that you’d expect from the series’ typical starting areas because of this. It still accomplishes its job of introducing the player to the basics reasonably well whilst reserving room for the odd surprise like the recurring birds’ nest that trades items and a gender-bending coffin, which is really weird now that I think about it.
You can also run into a duo of infamously powerful ogre enemies in Things Betwixt, though this setup was apparently deemed too unfair at such an early stage and in Scholar of the First Sin the area in question was walled off until the player secures an item for gaining access. Other than several easy combat encounters against generic humanoid enemies and a few interactive sconces that would have once taught the importance of lighting your way, there’s not much else to say about this small location.
As we walk beneath the gloomy canopy of otherworldly trees we get a glimpse of sunlight for the first time and cross dimensions into a small shanty near the coast…
Continue to Part 2 »