Dark Souls 2 and Its DLC

I just finished all three of the Dark Souls 2 DLC's. That would be, Crown of the Iron King, Crown of the Sunken King, and Crown of the Ivory King. There are some high points in all three, some super low points, but over all, each one exemplifies the problems prominent in the base game in a condensed form. Namely, that the game was made by people who liked Dark Souls (DaS from hereon out), but didn't really understand what was so good about it.

With the development team of the original Dark Souls working on Bloodborne, some other people stepped up to fill the demand for a sequal to the iconic game. They turned out a product with some high points, a large number of perplexing design choices, and weak, by-the-numbers design, that ultimately fell short of the former glory of its predecessor.

To explain the biggest and most consistent problem, I'd like to pose a question: What is the one word that most people, even those that haven't played the game, would use to describe Dark Souls? My guess is that you, and most other people, would say "hard." DaS is known for being difficult. In an age of casual (not a deragatory term) games, difficulty sliders, and hand-holding tutorials, DaS proved that there is still a place for games that offer a consistent challenge. DaS does not have any difficulty levels. It's the same amount of hard for everyone. I myself used the words "Hard, but fair," to illustrate that although the game is difficult by modern standards, it is quite learnable, and stays away from the cheap, randomized instagibs that are sometimes associated with difficulty.

DaS2's biggest problem is that it's designers didn't understand that people loved the gameplay of DaS not because it was hard, but because it was a learnable challenge that was satisfying to overcome. Each time you cleared an area, you did so by your own wit, skill, and maybe a little luck. Through many deaths, you had learned the tactics and approaches necessary to claw past the obstacles in your way, and damn, did that feel good. But that's not the same as liking something because it is hard. Hell, E.T. for the Atari 2600 was hard, but it was hard because its game design was frustratingly bad. Sure, it's legendary for that, but that's not a goal to strive for.

Here's an example. Probably the most infamous boss fight in DaS is Orenstien and Smough (Fatty and Slim, Biggie Smalls, Snorlax and Pikachu, Laurel and Hardy, their nicknames are many). This is one of two times that you are pitted against two enemies in a boss fight (the first being the belfrey gargoyles, in which a second enemy with the same moveset you've already learned is introduced midway through the fight). The Super Londo Brothers are so difficult because they demand that you split your attention from the outset of the fight, and learn two very different movesets at the same time (until you down one, and must face the super-powered remaining enemy).

The third boss in DaS2 pits you against three enemies. There are in fact many multi-boss encounters in DaS2, often forcing veteran solo players to summon help just to pass the section. Some bosses come with swarms of enemies that pop up at intervals during the fight, evoking the feeling of "Adds" from MMORPG's. Because more is harder, and harder is better. Isn't it?

Furthermore, in DaS2 the consequences for death are strangely more severe (until you get multiple rings of life protection, anyway). In DaS, your punnishment was loss of progress, and potentially the loss of your accumulated souls, if you couldn't make it back to your bloodstain before dying again. DaS2 makes the perplexing decision of reducing your maximum health each each time you die, down to a maximum of half of your total life. This means that after each death, the area that killed you is more difficult, because you face it with less health. Because harder is better!(?) Furthermore, the more hollow you go (the more times you die and lose max health), the more likely you are to be invaded!(?) Because reasons? The only way to restore your max health is to use a Human Effigy (a limited item) to reverse hollowing. But you only have so many! And you can't farm them off enemies that have a chance to drop them because (here comes the dumbest thing ever, that's necessity of inclusion really should have been an indication that something was fundementally wrong with the gameplay loop)(Also, this needs bolds and italics) after being killed 12 times, enemies no longer respawn upon bonfire use.

DaS demanded that you learn to master the entire area between bonfires. DaS2 admits that for some areas, maybe you just want to make enough trips back and forth to empty the level forever. You no longer learn to overcome the challenge, you just beat it by attrition. Hit your face against a problem enough times, and you'll never have to learn to really deal with it. The fact that this was ever an option truly illustrates how much the people who made DaS2 didn't understand what was so wonderful about DaS.

DaS2 is a sequel. It's so much of a sequel that it hurts me. It has to be bigger, it has to be better, it has to me more over the top, it has to be harder, it has to include references to the original, everything is more, more, more! Two rings becomes four. Five item slots becomes ten. Greatswords beget Ultra Greatswords. More areas, more bosses, more enemies!

DaS2 is so preoccupied with topping and paying homage to it's predecessor (Look at Orenstien guys! Remember him? He's in this game too! We couldn't explain why if our lives depended on it!), that it can't be bothered with being its own great addition to the series. It feels like a fanfic game, trying to include all the things that video games have (lava level, poision level, boss castle, etc) but not really understanding or trying to make a cohesive whole out of them. Just stick it all in somewhere and hope. The truth is, the compact and intimate world design in DaS felt deeper than the tacked together disparate levels of the sequel. Bigger is not always better.

Sorry. So, the DLC's. If I could use one phrase to describe all three it would be "Swarms of powerful armored humanoids."

The DaS combat system thrives in encounters against a single powerful enemy, or 2-3 moderately powerful enemies, or 3-5 weak enemies. You are rewarded for a slow, careful approach to areas, dealing with enemies a few at a time in positions advantageous to you, not carving through swaths of enemies (as in spectacle fighters like Devil May Cry). You keep your shield up, and look for openings. You time your use of healing items carefully, as there is no pause button to save you.

DaS2, and its DLC to a far, far greater extent, thinks that sending 3-5 powerful enemies at you at a time makes for a compelling increase in difficulty. They swarm you with enemies that will hammer your shield into submission, or just guard-break you without bothering to deplete your stamina bar. They surround you and box you in, foiling your attempts to create distance to make the encounter managable. They punish you mercilessly for thinking you could make use of a weapon with fast attacks, but little poise damage.

The optimal way to clear the DLC's is to sprint by enemies without fighting them whenever you can, because you are not rewarded enough for fighting them. In situations where they box you in, the best "strategy" is to take the largest, heaviest weapon you can carry, capable of making sweeping attacks that can hit and stagger multiple opponents, and swing wildly until everything dies, simply accepting that you'll take some hits, then heal up and do it again. It's not the intelligent, slow, plodding pace of the original; it's a brawl. I find that I got no satisfaction from beating a boss, no sense of accomplishment, just a checkbox.

There came a time when the game was simply not fun to play, and this probably disappoints me more than anything else. The reason I love DaS so much (on top of all the other reasons) is that the gameplay is so precisely refined that it is nothing but a mechanical pleasure to play. I go back to the game time after time because long after I have seen everything the game has to show me, it's still pure joy to simply play it.

But long enough into playing DaS2, I just wanted to be done with it.