Don't Fear Dark Souls' More Accessible Sequel
Tom Mc Shea hypothesizes how Dark Souls II could retain the series' punishing appeal while welcoming in new players.
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Moments after Dark Souls II was officially revealed, anxiety spread from the fear that it would tarnish the legacy started by its predecessors. When the new director had the gall to say Dark Souls II would be "more straightforward and more understandable," it was like being impaled by the sword of the corrupted Knight Artorias. Was it possible that the esteemed Souls franchise could turn its back on the legions of followers who slayed every damned beast, even when hope of survival was no more than a dwindling flicker? It's a terrifying thought, as nerve-racking as any confrontation in the previous games, but one that may have been exaggerated. Dark Souls isn't as inaccessible as the popular belief holds, and with only a few modest tweaks, it could be more palatable while still retaining its punishing nature.
The bewilderment inherent to Dark Souls has been overstated, at least to some extent. As you stagger through the Undead Asylum (ostensibly the tutorial area), messages etched on the ground guide you toward your first major fight. Information detailing basic and advanced combat mechanics is spelled out, and there are notes on how campfires offer a respite from the ever-present hostility. Once the Asylum Demon falls to your blade, you're whisked to the Firelink Shrine, where a paranoid survivor explains the quest you now face. Two bells reside in Lordran--one down in the merciless depths, the other near the heavens--and upon ringing both, your path to salvation opens. Through short dialogue and nonintrusive messages, you understand your immediate goal and the means by which you must accomplish it, which is more than enough to set you on your way.
Although Dark Souls cloaks itself in a mysterious shroud, lore pertinent to your journey enlightens dutiful adventurers. Those who would rather join forces with another player than venture forth alone can find out how to accomplish that task after meeting Solaire before you encounter the first fire-breathing drake. For those who fancy fire-based magic, Laurentius expounds upon the mystical pyromancy, so long as you discover the storeroom where he is imprisoned. Other information is dispensed through item descriptions. Unlike other role-playing games, where a staggering amount of unnecessary text makes reading a chore, the few words that accompany the tools you acquire in Dark Souls can mean the difference between life and death. "This lantern alights the Tomb of the Giants," succintly sums up where and why to use the skull lantern.
Dark Souls could be more palatable while still retaining its punishing nature.
However, even information as obvious as this is delivered in a clouded way that makes discovering the truth an achievement. In hindsight, reading what makes the skull lantern special seems like a no-brainer, but considering that you can't pause in Dark Souls, and there are monsters continually fiending for your flesh, its understandable that someone wouldn't read that description. And it's that obfuscation that makes Dark Souls so difficult for newcomers. Dark Souls is a brilliant game where every inch of progress is earned and every discovery is monumental, but the inherent appeal wouldn't dissolve if certain aspects were explained more clearly.
For instance, upgrading your gear is one of the most important steps for survival. But the manner in which you go through this process is so convoluted that only the most determined individuals (or those willing to read a walkthrough) can figure out how to accomplish this typical endeavor. This needs to change. Terms such as "ParamBonus" hint at but don't fully explain their significance, and it wouldn't detract at all from the core appeal to explain these aspects through optional overlays in the menu. Furthermore, Dark Souls relied on various hidden embers (that must be delivered to specific blacksmiths) to upgrade your weapons and armor beyond a certain point. Burying such a necessary element deep within the expansive and dangerous world erected a pointless barrier that prevented many people from obtaining success. Cleaning up the upgrade system would let more people enjoy the Dark Souls experience without diluting what makes the franchise special.
As important as upgrades are, many people don't even reach the point where that's a serious concern. Rather, it's the perceived difficulty that cuts playtimes short, or steers people completely away from the get-go. Dark Souls can be difficult, but it's not the moment-to-moment combat that's so deflating. Instead, it's the extreme punishment an unexpected death brings. In Dark Souls, if you die, not only do you get sent back to the previous checkpoint (which could be quite a distance, especially if you move cautiously), but you lose all of the souls you've collected in the process. Now, the latter aspect is handled in such an expert manner that to tinker with that would destroy much of the fundamental appeal. Being fearful of death is paramount to what makes Dark Souls tick, so there has to be sufficient punishment to make you move carefully.
However, the first aspect of the death process could be tweaked. One of the most memorable moments in Dark Souls happens when you encounter Seath the Scaleless for the first time. It's a fight that's impossible to be victorious in, and you find quickly enough that you're no match for this albino monster. However, there's a twist you discover after you awaken from death. Instead of being sent to the beginning of Duke's Archives, you're crammed in a jail cell elsewhere in the area. Gone is the repetition of having to replay the same section over and over again. Instead, you venture forth in a new locale, with creepy monsters and eerie music streaming from an unseen phonograph keeping you company.
Being fearful of death is paramount to what makes Dark Souls tick, so there has to be sufficient punishment to make you move carefully.
If Dark Souls II could use this encounter as a blueprint for how to handle death, it would be able to retain the challenge that makes the game eminently rewarding, while avoiding the drudgery of repeatedly playing the same battles. Unfortunately, because you need to retrace your steps to recover your lost souls, simply making you respawn at a random campfire each time would destroy the intricate web From Software has weaved, but there is one solution that builds on this idea.
What if Dark Souls II borrowed a page from roguelikes? When you die and get sent back to the campfire in Dark Souls, everything goes back to exactly how it was beforehand. That means the enemies stand in the same place as before, ready to pounce when you walk past that statue or slither up this staircase. It's because of that predictability that you eventually learn how to overcome the many dangers that face you, but it also can create a feeling of deja vu that can be stifling to some. If enemies were placed in random positions, no longer would you feel suffocated by performing the same actions more than once, and even expert players would have to venture forth in a cautious, death-awaits manner.
This would be a drastic change from how Demon's Souls and Dark Souls unfolded, but it's not like the franchise has played it safe. Dark Souls implemented an expansive overworld, after all, a sharp contrast from the level-based affairs of its predecessor, so shifting how death is handled would be in line with how From Software is willing to reinvent its cherished child. Now, if such a system were implemented, the checkpoints would have to be more forgiving. No one would want to trudge through the same expanse to reach the boss if random enemies could fell you with a surprise attack, so bonfires would have to be located closer to bosses for this to work. But in the rest of the world, this unpredictability would alleviate the repetition of replaying identical sections until you perfect them, which could make the game seem less exhausting for those scared to enter.
It's too early to tell what From Software has planned for the next iteration in the Dark Souls series, but there's no reason to be afraid that the core appeal will be destroyed. Dark Souls did a masterful job of communicating important information in an unobtrusive way, but there were still a wealth of imperative aspects left unexplained. Detailing what the role of humanity is, or how to kindle a bonfire, would crack open the door to a wider audience without alienating those who already love the franchise, and unexpected changes could delight in exciting ways, just like the transition to an open world did. Dark Souls is brilliant because of its intricate combat, incredible level design, moody atmosphere, and unending sense of accomplishment. To deliver those ideals to more people could only have positive reverberations industry-wide.