Slogging through the latest piece of DLC, I had to remind myself that I enjoyed Dark Souls II quite a bit when I first played it. I liked the improvements to online multiplayer, I loved the focus on traversing new and varied environments, and, despite some serious problems with the core mechanics, I found most of the enemy encounters fairly engaging. Crown of the Old Iron King, however, marks the end of my relationship with Dark Souls II. I simply can’t bring myself to play anymore and pray that Hidetaka Miyazaki’s return to the genre will rectify the numerous issues found in From Software’s latest.
It’s one thing to make a difficult game that breaks players and something entirely different to make you feel the joy of an earned victory.
To be fair, level design and variety are improved in the second episode of this DLC trilogy compared to the first. Shulva is impressive in terms of traps and environmental interaction, but the drab green tones lack any real individuality when compared with the rest of Drangleic. Brume Tower fairs quite a bit better in terms of memorability. Ash covers the world, evoking The Kiln of the First Flame in Lordran. Giant chains crisscross and connect the giant towers and allow for perilous traversal. The verticality is a welcome touch, as is the rather impressive elevator system players eventually bring to life. The level design on the whole feels more like Lordran, from the first Dark Souls. Clever shortcuts and bonfire placement is more fair than the hidden doors that permeated Shulva.
Unfortunately, enemy design and variety remains the greatest problem with Dark Souls II. Once again, you find yourself surrounded by undead enemies wielding giant weapons you can easily backstab into oblivion. Too many humanoid enemies with similar move patterns was probably the biggest complaint against the sequel when compared to the brilliantly varied horrors of the original game. The fact that From Software continues to struggle in this area is even more baffling considering we’ve seen incredibly original design in nine minutes of video released for Bloodborne. Whatever the key to the problem may be, I hope From Software starts listening to this criticism when it comes time for the inevitable Dark Souls III.
Enemy placement in the DLC ranges from difficult to maddening. Both pieces of released content are incredibly difficult compared to the main game, but balance and fairness has been lost in the process. Climbing down a ladder and running into an ambush isn’t challenging or surprising. It’s a “gotcha moment” that results in a death one has to experience in order to proceed. I found myself cheesing enemies with my bow instead of engaging them directly. Even the most impressive new enemy (a giant who spits lava from his shoulders) fell to a flurry of arrows without ever having a chance to attack me. The telltale signs of ambush are almost always present. The magic slinging enemy at the end of a hallway entices players to blindly run forward into a nasty trap. Where Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls were immersive struggles to survive, my sojourn through Drangleic is starting to feel more like a game rather than an experience. There was no trepidation or anxiety when I ran into a new enemy type, as the same approach dispatches nearly every would-be attacker.
The breaking point with Crown of the Old Iron King comes with the boss at the very end of the journey. I fought this giant knight wielding a huge sword (surprised?) close to forty times and failed every attempt. His attacks have a wickedly unpredictable range and can kill in one or two rapid strikes. Even with a greatshield and proper armor, I found myself stun-locked and killed time and time again. This boss forces you to rely on Dark Souls II’s unwieldy dodge mechanics. Perfect timing is practically mandatory, eliminating build variety for players and making life miserable for those who focus on ranged combat. Hard bosses are nothing new in the franchise, but something finally gave out here. My spirit broke and I felt helpless before this monstrosity. Even jolly cooperation proved futile, as bosses receive a large bonus to health and damage when you bring friends to the party. In nearly five years playing Souls games, this was the first time I stared at the screen and gave up without ever looking back. The difficulty and shoddy mechanics finally proved too much.
I have zero desire to return to Drangleic. I’ve had enough and don’t want to play anymore Dark Souls. Even at its most challenging and frustrating, I found myself returning to the previous games for “just one more try.” I knew I could do it. I knew I would eventually succeed. Most of this came as a result of strategy and wonderful balance on the part of the developers. Yes, The Penetrator was a nightmare for a melee-focused character exploring Boletaria, but a group of players could take him down with enough care and finesse. Here, however, things are different. The Fume Knight doesn’t fight fairly. He’s hard for the sake of being hard. The Souls series has never been about difficulty, despite what Namco Bandai may tell you in marketing material. It’s about triumph in the face of adversity. It’s one thing to make a difficult game that breaks players and something entirely different to make you feel the joy of an earned victory. From Software seems to have forgotten Miyazaki’s game design philosophy. I hope they take the time to remember it in the coming months.