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For those with any knowledge of the Dark Souls universe, few would be quick to leap to the side of its second installment, Dark Souls 2. Without the input of series director Hidetaka Miyazaki, many complained that it was nothing more than a cheap rehash. Its bold, brave format and notoriously punishing gameplay were left mostly unchanged and, as a result, came across as stale, whilst its visuals were lost in a murky and, at times, just plain ugly design. I won’t argue with this sentiment – there’s only so much brown one person can endure. But there is something hidden beneath this haze and obscurity – a small glimmer of something rare that, given some attention, grows to be truly incandescent.
In a world, which can often feel like the nightmarish case of déjá vú, you begin as a lowly figure in a timeless land of perpetual apocalypse; a bearer of the undead curse. Those afflicted endure countless deaths over countless years,wasting away until you become ‘hollow;’ a shambling, rotten shell with no purpose or recollection of your former self.In an attempt to stave off such a pleasant retirement from existence you are inexplicably driven to seek out King Vendrick, the absentee ruler of Drangleic, in an attempt to break this curse.
Much like its predecessors and successor, you journey through the template of any Souls game; crumbling forts, haunted forests and forgotten pits which harbour ancient evils, in search of the king and hopefully some answers. Eventually, after besting countless impossible enemies and even harder bosses, from the peak of the tallest castle to the tunnels below, you reach the end of your prophecy and Vendrick stands before you.
Routine would dictate this to be the natural climax of the game -one final battle with the forgotten yet unrelenting monarch. However Dark Souls 2 decides to do away with format and instead, we are presented with Vendrick the hollow,oblivious to anyone or anything. Failing to conquer it in time, he locked himself away and succumbed to the undead curse. His armour and the sense of purpose that came with it lie discarded to one side. Vendrick is left with nothing but a loincloth, a meaningless crown and our sympathy. At this stage, it becomes upsettingly clear that the undead curse is something that is constantly returning. In the cyclical nature of this world, the banality of its many cursed histories has made time almost irrelevant. The most powerful figure in this land was left broken by this revelation and his shuffling corpse now acts as testament to the inevitable course of events, as they have happened and always will.
As cheery and jovial as this sentiment is, it acts as a catalyst for you to transcend above your set role and is perhaps the most shining example of Dark Souls 2’s unique character. As merely another lost soul driven to seek out some higher power, only to encounter its feeble remains is a cruel resignation to one’s own insignificance. However, this sobering truth is given great context in the form of a line towards the end of the game, after your encounter with Vendrick propels you to ascend to the throne he left idle: “The curse of life is the curse of want. And so you peer… into the fog, in hope of answers.”
This is the sentiment that truly encapsulates the downfall of Vendrick and many others series but has a particular meaning within the story line of Dark Souls 2, more so than any other game in the ‘Souls’ universe and, while viewed by many undead as the burden of greed at that, a great deal of introspective positivity can be gained from it.
In a more literal sense, this fog is in reference to the infamous fog doors that typically signals another punishing boss fight. The formula is painfully ingrained into the memory of any would-be champion: Fight demon with comically large weapon, you hit demon, demon hits harder, you are greeted with the informative blood-red message of ‘YOU DIED,’ repeat for x amount of hours, still, YOU DIED. You fight, learn, and pray something changes but still, YOU DIED. Finally, your pathetic attempts at self-defence transform into dazzling displays of determination and physicality, as you eventually stand victorious. Some players may choose to continue about their quest without ever looking back, but Dark Souls 2 offers you the unique option to reset bosses at harder difficulties, independent of the New Game+ mode. While it does seem like the pinnacle of masochism in video gaming, many are drawn to the desire to relive such memorable fights, to remember the risk and reward of conquering once impossible odds.
This “curse of life” is, quite simply, the drive of human endeavour. The drive to persevere and to accomplish that, which may seem insurmountable. It is the last thing that separates undead from hollow, hope from despair, life from death (or as close as you can get to that in this case). Dark Souls 2 drives us away from being simply a cog in the clockwork of this world and instead sets us on more of a journey of positive introspection. As a player in this world, you are as linked to this binary as the characters more than you may care to admit. While there is no definite ‘game over,’ your character can go hollow; by turning off the game, your character ceases to operate in that world. They can no longer strive to claim the kingship of Drangleic or best that boss which made you turn off the game in the first place. While you may not necessarily want to be so spiritually linked to a fictional being, to have them break from the tragic fable of Vendrick and rise to greatness, is by your hand. Their hope and even their humanity is driven by your “curse of want” so to speak.
I refuse to believe that any lesson learned from a video game is clichéd and Dark Souls 2 might just have thing or two to take in amidst the brilliant misery of it all. To be left discouraged by a world of repeating histories doesn’t necessarily mean your path should be set in stone. The end is never truly the end and, through some grit, the smallest spark can grow to the brightest flame; progress is the breaker of cycles and you can strike first. It is the spirit of something that, much like the game itself, transcends time. Although this version has you fighting giant rats in search of treasure so I guess it has that going for it too…