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.
In Dark Souls II the enemies stop respawning after I kill them enough times. I wasn’t keeping close track, but after killing the same skeleton zombie men a dozen or so times they stopped reappearing after my subsequent deaths. That might sound like a favor—these low-level enemies that wear me down but rarely kill me can no longer waste my time or my precious health meter. It’s actually a mighty strike against me, though—without those easily attained souls, collected multiple times through many lives, I rarely have enough money to make any substantial purchases. And when I lost 6000 or so souls through a stupid mistake, only to restart again and realize the pickings were now far less easy, I momentarily lost a bit of my motivation. Perhaps grinding was a problem in Dark Souls (although I fail to see how that could be too problematic in what was largely a single-player game), but this change is not one that I welcome.
(Also of note: The online servers were not up when I played the game for review. I didn’t make much use of the online bits of the other Souls games, other than the warning messages left on the ground by other players, so it wasn’t a big deal for me. Maybe it works. Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe one day I’ll find out.)
Why do I put myself through this, then? Why do I willingly play a game that doesn’t just make me want to break things, but that exists almost exclusively to make me want to break things? With Demon’s Souls it was the way the game flouted almost every trend of game development, creating a mystery by giving me nothing to work with and then beating my head in as often as it could. With Dark Souls it was the elaboration (perhaps even perfection) of that concept, with a seamlessly connected world that never let me escape the horror and pain.
With Dark Souls II it’s simply the return of something that I liked in the past. It doesn’t have that groundbreaking edge of the first two, but it recaptures everything else that I love about Dark Souls—the tension, the need for patience, the dependence upon skill, and the sublime satisfaction of completing something that provides deep and sustained frustration.
Above all it’s the purity of the idea, combined with the precise cycles of grace and terror that whir within. It sounded like bunk when Lou Reed bragged about the microtones buried within Metal Machine Music, but they’re definitely there, at least according to my ears, and the microtones within Dark Souls II are the sweetly stunning notes that make cracking its monolithic exterior so rewarding.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games section and reviews games for the Boston Herald. He really does like Metal Machine Music.