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Dark Souls 2's Greatest Strength Is The Way It Abandons Soulsborne Norms

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The dreamworld of Dark Souls 2 is uniquely broken, illogical, and elegiac.

​​Dark Souls 2 is celebrating its 10-year anniversary today, March 11, 2024. Below, we look back at how the unexpected sequel broke with traditions to stand as one of the most unusual Soulsbornes from the studio that created the genre.

Dark Souls 2 has, since shortly after release, been an odd duck in the franchise. It is the only From Software game in the Souls lineage that Hidetaka Miyazaki did not direct. Bloodborne, which came out the following year, stole its thunder (though it is hard to argue unfairly). By the time Dark Souls 3 rolled around, its predecessor's reception had distinctly cooled. It often, though not always, fills out the bottom of "Every Souls Game Ranked" lists. However, if you push past your assumptions of what a Souls game must be, Dark Souls 2 offers an elegiac and illogical sense of place, in contrast to the tightly constructed ruins of other FromSoft games. Dark Souls 2's plentiful pleasures derive from the ways it is most distinct from its predecessors.

To talk about those pleasures, it is best to start at the beginning. All of the Souls games (plus Elden Ring) start with a cinematic that sets the stakes. Although most of their runtime is about the dead or dying gods and kings that once ruled the world you are about to enter, the player-character is usually introduced. You are one of the corralled undead, an unkindled, or a tarnished. Even if your character is from a distant land, you occupy a specific textual place in the world. There is a prophecy, or a religious order, that involves you. The path to a throne is laid out before.

DS2, in contrast, barely introduces its overarching plot, only naming an ancient king and his kingdom: Drangleic. The opening cutscene focuses on being a kind of tone poem. The player, rather than a footnote in a history of gods and kingdoms, is the principal subject. You are cursed, have lost everything, and have made your way to Drangleic to forsake your curse. Your cause is not noble; you are not tied to anyone else. You are descending to a world of death, to free yourself from this accursed life.

This gives Dark Souls 2 a metafictional quality. If you wanted to be glib about it, you could call it an isekai. It doesn't step out of the fourth wall or, directly anyway, implicate the player. Instead, DS2 hovers in a melancholic desperation. You, like some many others in Drangleic, are looking to restore yourself. But this land's ancient history is like quicksand. It pulls you in. The more you resist or fight, the more it tightens its hold on you. Every Souls game is bleak, but DS2 languishes in it. While one can find nobility in linking the flame or braving the dark, it is hard to find any triumph in DS2's endings. Take an empty throne and imprison yourself or wonder about the endless world again. It's a horrible dream, but not quite a nightmare.

In some ways, DS2 treads similar thematic ground to Dark Souls 3, except even further in the cycle of flame. Worlds and time are compressed. The cycle of prior games has now occurred so many times that the world stretches at the seams and there are forgotten gaps. In Dark Souls 3 there are recognizable places still, though corrupted or built over. In Dark Souls 2, there are only ever echoes.

In Dark Souls, Blighttown is below the sewers of the Undead Burg. It literally undergirds them. It is the world below the world. Replay Dark Souls 1 and you'll enjoy the simple and profound delight of its legible world. Dark Souls 2 does completely abandon this idea in some sense. The purest example of this is the oft-cited elevator at the top of a windmill, which leads to a lava-drenched mountain. The Gutter is DS2's Blighttown equivalent, but it does not map easily into the world. You can see Blighttown's struts ascend into the earth that upholds The Burg. The Gutter is in a void, completely dark, not visibly connected to any other place in the world. Like the games before it, DS2 has plenty of concrete story, but what is most haunting about it is its gaps. You cannot map Drangleic, not in the way you can Lordric or even The Lands Between. It is not a comprehensible landscape--parts of it are even cloaked in dreams or memories. It is a psychic world, not a material one.

Still, DS2's most memorable location is Majula, the seaside town that acts as a hub. It is one of the first places you find, emerging from the dark of the games' first areas. As you find and help characters in the world, they'll make their way back there. Majula is in perpetual sunset, the light yellows the waves and jutting, spear-like rocks off the shore. Mejula's theme is plaintive and bare, buffeted by long stretches of hum or silence. Majula is one of a very few places in DS2 that you can really call safe, but you can feel its light fade. One wonders when that sun will finally lower on the horizon and what will be waiting in the dark.

Majula is the game’s friendliest location, but you will find other companions and shelters out in the world. One of them, Lucatiel, is the soul of DS2, though your encounters with her are fleeting. Her story is not unconventional within Souls. Plenty come to Drangleic or The Lands Between or Lordric to seek a cure for some curse or disease. Plenty find madness or obsession on the way: Solaire, Blaidd, the franchise's various Onion Knights--the list goes on. Lucatiel sticks in my mind, not so much because she is unique, but because she is a peer: an equal.

She, like you, came from somewhere else. She, like you, seeks to end her curse. She, like you, loses her mind in this forgotten, dream world. Her history is distant and diffused and she loses more of it every day. Lucatiel's tragedy is utterly mundane: wanting something so bad and losing yourself to find it. Discussions of how Dark Souls is "about" mental illness or how it helps "overcome" depression strike me as shallow and silly. But Dark Souls 2 really is about being a broken person, and it captures the indescribable lightness of finding someone like you.

Dark Souls 2 will not be forgotten. It has now garnered plenty of passionate defenders. It was certainly never really loathed, at least in the aggregate. I only worry that games won’t steal from it, the way they’ve stolen from Souls generally. I want more dream worlds, more impossible places. But whatever the future holds, Dark Souls 2 remains. While it concerns many insatiable desires, it can sate me on its own terms, in its own time.

Grace Benfell on Google+

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