People joke about the Citizen Kane of games, but what’s the Dark Souls of movies? Or literature, or music? What piece of work in any other medium has worked so hard and for so long to alienate and brutalize its audience? Finnegans Wake is massive and daunting but too whimsical to be hostile. Many films aim to degrade the viewer, from art like Pasolini’s Salò to cheapo exploitation flicks, but few of them eat up an amount of time inordinate for that medium. Dark Souls lurches on for dozens of hours, forcing all but the most talented of players to retread the same turf repeatedly. The closest comparison I can think of is that Dark Souls is the Metal Machine Music of games, unrelentingly antagonizing its audience in the name of a higher truth. And like Metal Machine Music, there’s an almost inexplicable beauty to the drone of Dark Souls and its brand new sequel.
Dark Souls II hews closely to the first game’s template. When it starts it’s essentially the Souls of old: I’m a shambling, hollowed-out man-thing with a broken sword dumped in a mysterious, open-ended world with almost no guidance whatsoever. My path through this desiccated nightmare of Gothic architecture is my own to forge, with no blinking arrows or glittering breadcrumbs, and only rare and often hard to find bonfires acting as brief respites from my constant suffering. These bonfires refill my health and act as waypoints that I can start from when I die. I restart at these bonfires a lot.
Like Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls before it, Dark Souls II is a checklist of ways to punish the player. Health is minimal and enemies hit hard. Even the weakest foe quickly kills me when I don’t properly time my blocks or attacks. Monsters emerge from shadowy corners, often attacking in groups, and booby traps abound. These creatures respawn when I die, making me fight the same battles again as I try to reach the site of my death and venture ever forward. There’s a stamina bar that wears down whenever I run, dodge, attack or block a blow—once that bar hits zero I’m defenseless for a brief moment before it starts to refill. Just holding up my shield, which I do all the time, impacts the stamina bar, greatly reducing its regeneration speed. I hurt when I fall and die when I fall too far. I stumble through this game assuming anything and everything can and will kill me on sight. Is that just a wall up ahead or a wall-like monster that will kill me for the tenth time this hour?
The cruelest trick of all involves the souls of the title. I collect souls whenever I kill a monster. (It’s just a little thing I like to do.) With these souls I can increase my stats, reinforce my weapons, buy new gear and marginally improve my almost non-existent chance of survival just a tiny little bit. When I die, I lose those souls. I can recover them if I touch my own bloodstain before I die again, but they are gone forever if I die before recovering them. No new armor, no new arrows, no magical rings from the talking cat saleslady that hangs out in one of the few safe zones in the entire game. Few moments in games sting more than losing thousands upon thousands of souls because I made a stupid mistake against an asshole skeleton.
None of this should be new information for those who have played Dark Souls. This is all total percent Dark Souls so far. There’s at least one crucial change in Dark Souls II that has surprisingly deep consequences for how a player as untalented as myself approaches the game, though.