Dark Souls 2 is to other video games what university is to elementary school. In most games the player’s hand is held tightly as they are guided from one sanitized experience to another. The game acts as a patient, kind teacher to the gurgling child player. These games — much like Grade 2 — take place in safe, clearly defined worlds with low expectations and few consequences for failure. They are cheerful, pleasant and relaxing. They are easy.
Dark Souls 2 is different. There is no hand to hold, no kind teacher to explain the rules and guide you on your way. As with a university class, Dark Souls 2 will not cater to your ability or lack thereof — you must face its challenges on its terms, not yours. A massive, unforgivingly complex world laid is out before you, one that demands perfection and brutally punishes even the smallest mistakes. One that provides an almost insurmountable challenge and rewards you with an almost incomparable feeling of accomplishment.
But, like a university course, you aren’t the only one facing this challenge. There is an entire community of people struggling alongside you, and this community truly makes the Dark Souls franchise unlike anything else that has come before it.
The third entry in From Software’s infamously difficult series of games — following the first Dark Souls and its spiritual predecessor, Demon’s Souls — Dark Souls 2 is an action role-playing game that focuses on combat and character building. The core of the game tasks the player with exploring sprawling, dilapidated environments filled with aggressive enemies and hidden treasure, with the ultimate goal of finding and conquering the area’s boss. These encounters with bosses are frequent, numerous and mark some of the game’s most difficult and rewarding challenges.
You will die on the way. You will die often. Death resets the enemies in the area and sends the player back to the nearest bonfire, the Dark Souls equivalent of a checkpoint. The player’s accumulated souls — which are gained from killing enemies and used to buy items and strengthen your character — are also dropped upon death and their maximum health is decreased by a sliver. These punishments can be overcome, or even reversed entirely, but they are harsh nonetheless.
But while the monsters and maniacs that populate the world of Dark Souls 2 account for much of the game’s difficulty, oftentimes the world itself will be your greatest enemy. The way forward can often be unclear or confusing, with key items and passages hidden away in dark corners and hidden rooms. Even the game’s plot is maze-like and scattered, requiring players to stitch together tidbits of information from fleeting conversations with enigmatic characters. This would be frustrating, and potentially game-ruining, if not for the most important parts of the series: other players.
Your world in Dark Souls 2 is inextricably linked to the worlds of other players — you can see the ghostly forms of other characters going about their business, touch bloodstains to witness the seconds leading up to their deaths and read short messages they have left on the ground. These messages can range from helpful to malicious, pointing out traps or leading you directly into them.
There are also more direct ways to help or hinder other players. Summoning signs can be used to bring players into your world to help deal with challenging enemies or bosses, and this jolly co-operation is rewarded with extra souls and items. More unscrupulous players can instead choose to invade the worlds of others as a phantom, looking to hunt down and kill the host to steal their souls. These interactions are governed through covenants, groups that players can join to take on the roles of saviours or marauders.
The game’s difficulty and interconnectedness creates an experience that is difficult to quantify or explain, a feeling of comradery and accomplishment that completes an already engaging game. Dark Souls 2 is difficult, but it is also very fair — when you die it is because you swung when you should have blocked, or you bit off more than you could chew. But when you do succeed in bringing down one of the game’s awe-inspiring bosses, either by yourself or with a couple of helpful strangers, you will feel like a fucking god. You will feel a sense of accomplishment as both an individual and as a part of a larger community. You will feel like you are a part of something bigger than yourself.
Like finishing a degree, completing Dark Souls 2 takes an immense amount of time, hard work and patience. But the rewards are all the greater for it. You will come out the other side having experienced a game that is truly special — just be prepared to stumble along the way.