A death tally in excess of 300 might suggest otherwise, but Dark Souls II is not a difficult game. Nor was its predecessor, nor the PS3-exclusive Demon’s Souls. Yes, this is a game in which you die an awful lot, where tutorials are scant, and mistakes are both inevitable and severely punished. But the Souls games’ difficulty level has been overstated.
It’s odd, given that we tend to overlook difficulty in many other kinds of game. Spin out on the final corner in a racer and you’ll lose the lead, forcing you to repeat the previous five or ten minutes of play. You realise your mistake immediately – that you took the wrong line, or were going too fast – and restart, better prepared for the challenge ahead than you were last time around. The parallels are obvious.
In fact, mastering Dark Souls is a lot like learning to drive a car. Both have core mechanics – accelerate, brake and shift gear, or attack, block and evasive roll – that are easily learned and quickly become muscle memory. The hard part comes in applying those skills in a world full of other people, requiring a mixture of awareness and anticipation, and an ability to predict what they’re going to do next, whether it’s the axe-wielding Hollow around the corner or the SUV in the adjacent lane. The same applies to fighting games: you can know all the 20-hit combos and have the frame data committed to memory, but you’re all but certain to lose unless you pay heed to what your opponent is doing.
That’s an appropriate comparison, because Dark Souls II is, in many ways, the purest fighting game. With no elaborate combo strings, there’s none of the barrier that prevents new Street Fighter players, for example, from taking on the world’s best. Whether facing off against Dark Souls II’s lowest-ranked grunt or the final boss, all the tools you need are a button press away.
Furthermore, the Souls series gives players a spread of options like few other games. Ryu will always be Ryu, but if you’re struggling against a boss in Drangleic, Lordran or Boletaria, a different approach can be adopted with just a few menu screens. You can switch to a spear and attack with your shield up, get out a halberd and give yourself greater range, or whip out a greatsword to maximise your damage output. If you’re struggling at close quarters, you can fight from range with sorcery or pyromancy, or put on heavy armour to mitigate the impact of mistakes. On your travels, you’ll amass all kinds of items, and chances are the answer to your struggle is waiting in the inventory screen.
Dark Souls II gives you even more options, in fact, with the new ability to respec your character using the Soul Vessel item. It’s a rare find – we had just three of them by the end – but it’s a key change, especially bearing in mind how many players abandoned their first Dark Souls save after realising they’d raised the wrong stats at the wrong times and levelled themselves into a corner. You’re never forced to respec, but you’ll be tempted to, especially during one mid-game run of areas that is seemingly designed to mock those who said the first game’s Resistance stat was pointless. We resisted, but did restyle ourselves as a hybrid Strength and Intelligence character before embarking on New Game Plus, which is where Dark Souls II really gets hard.
And this freedom affords such flexibility that you can make the game harder, if you so choose. If Dark Souls really was the hardest game on the market, why would so many players complete the Soul Level 1 run, which involves starting out as a Pyromancer and never levelling up? Why is YouTube full of playthroughs of characters wearing only a loincloth, or completing the game without resting at a single bonfire? How is it possible that the 100 per cent boss speedrun world record stands at an hour and 21 minutes? It’s because, in its vanilla form, Dark Souls isn’t hard.
What it is, however, is impenetrable. Tutorials explain the battle mechanics, but not how to battle, which is a bit like giving you a driving licence after your third lesson. You’re told nothing about how to manage your Stamina meter, which governs how much you can attack, block, dodge and run, making it the game’s most precious resource. There are no audiologs, either, so piecing together Dark Souls’ opaque lore means poring over item descriptions, reading Reddit posts, and watching YouTube videos, and even then you suspect you’re some way from the real story. FromSoftware seemingly takes no greater pleasure than dropping the player in a sprawling world and letting them feel their way through it with the bare minimum of help. Early on in Dark Souls II, one NPC gives you the key to a Majula house, which he says contains a map of Drangleic. Your heart only leaves your mouth when you go there and find nothing of the sort: it’s just one of many ways in which this game playfully pokes the seasoned Souls player. Of course there’s no map. This is Dark Souls.
It’s become something of a badge of honour, this delight in the opaque. The Souls games are positioned as an antidote to the modern game design consensus, to big-budget games whose makers’ obsession with keeping the disc in the tray means games have never been so fatuous, so facile. And there’s merit to that. But there’s a big difference between hardcore and just plain hard. Candy Crush Saga is every bit as punishing as this, yet it is played by tens of millions every day. Until the conversation around Dark Souls shifts focus to its true strengths, it will forever remain in its niche, starved of the wider recognition it so deserves.