Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin is Unlike Anything Else

“I really liked Dark Souls… what other games out there are like it?”

It’s a question that eventually, inevitably pops up in online Dark Souls discussions everywhere. Given this week’s Xbox One release of Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin, I expect the suggestion threads to start anew, once folks get their hands dirty with the super-special-edition-plus-downloadable-content-and-enemy-rebalancing edition of developer From Software’s landmark action-role-playing game.

But today, I’m here to save you a lot of time and energy on the issue: Nothing else is like Dark Souls. Nothing.

I understand the impulse. “I quite enjoyed this experience, and I want more like it, so what other games can scratch that same itch?” people ask. And I watch as others try to fill in the blanks with other games – often very good games, make no mistake – that seem to cleave close to Dark Souls’ very hardcore narrative and gameplay sensibilities. But when you break down exactly what Dark Souls is, and how it uniquely fuses the things that make up this particular “is,” you’d be hard-pressed to find other games that (again, awesome as they may be on their own terms) achieve that specific alchemy.

Dark Souls II unfolds in a very dark fantasy world.

On one end of the swords-and-sorcery spectrum, we have high fantasy – characterized by grand good-versus-evil struggles, shining kingdoms, commonplace fantastical beings, and outlandish laws of physics and reality (think The Lord of the Rings, the amazing Dragon Age saga, or even your typical Dungeons & Dragons pen-and-paper campaign). At the other end, we have low fantasy – characterized by tense moral ambiguity, downplayed fantastical elements, and a much more grounded reality (think Game of Thrones, Conan the Barbarian, or perhaps Telltale Games’ recent The Wolf Among Us episodic adventure game).

Dark Souls takes the latter and pounds it into the ground with a sledgehammer.

Dark Souls II’s Drangleic is a decrepit, crumbling kingdom, populated by crestfallen residents and brimming with horrors around every turn. Where your typical fantasy RPG might present you with a down-on-their-luck non-player character whose fortunes turn after you finish the requisite side-quest, the equivalent character in Dark Souls II might be some filthy merchant who begs you not to abandon her, and lets out an unsettling cackle when you grace her with a purchase. But there’s nothing to be done for this character’s well-being; that’s just life in Drangleic.

The kingdom’s ruin is presented in very careful, painstaking detail, too. A moss-covered forest sanctuary entombs the hollow remains of majestic, long-dead giants; an abandoned and time-ravaged bastille houses Drangleic’s worst sinners; a desecrated shrine hides all manner of abominations among its waters. It’s a world that went to hell in a handbasket a long time ago, and you never lose sight of that fact. But the journey through Drangleic is punctuated with rare beauty: A high-rise catwalk in the Forest of Fallen Giants dead-ends in a gorgeous view of the sunset over a majestic ocean. A slight camera adjustment sees you staring at awe across the Lost Bastille’s haunting, moonlit sky. The critical path through the Shrine of Amana is lined with myriad sights of ethereal beauty. It is a miserable world, peppered with the sorts of “hope spots” that make you wonder exactly what this world lost so long ago.

Dark Souls II doesn’t just hand its narrative to you.

Every time a new Souls game comes out, I find myself asking a central, driving question as I slowly make my way through it: What happened here?

“Bearer of the curse…” says the mysterious Muse, the closest person you have to an ally in this game. “Seek souls. Larger, more powerful souls. Seek the King, that is the only way. Lest this land swallow you whole… as it has so many others.”

Putting aside the fact that you will hear this a lot (as you’ll repeatedly return to this NPC to spend your precious souls and level up), it’s about as clear and forthcoming as the game ever gets about exactly what’s transpiring in Drangleic. Dark Souls II is not about copious cut-scenes, tons of expositional dialogue, or a tidy and straightforward narrative. The world, its history, and its major players are cryptic cyphers that take effort to unravel; the bits and pieces that various characters supply are almost poetic in their delivery. Who is King Vendrick? What happened to all the dead giants in the forest? Why is Felkin the Outcast sitting in a chair, staring at the wall of a dark cavern like a lunatic? Is the Old Dragonslayer really who you think it is? What purpose do those creepy witches serve? Just why are you seeking these powerful souls, anyway?

Drangleic’s innumerable mysteries are presented in a minimalist way that inspires wonder and curiosity. And it’s no coincidence that Dark Souls II’s loading screens pass the time with slides showcasing various items’ descriptions and flavor text: The real key to understanding what happened here lies in reading and piecing together said descriptions. It’s an awesome narrative approach that I’ve never seen in any other series, and it’s central to what makes Dark Souls… well, Dark Souls.

Dark Souls II is challenging (but fair).

To give you a little peek behind the curtain, we really don’t like using the word “difficult” here on Xbox Wire. We prefer “challenging,” as the former carries a lot of negative connotations – and our goal is to make you walk away feeling positive, upbeat, and excited about the games we’re telling you about. “Difficult” tends to instill the impression that a game is somehow cheap, poorly balanced, or downright unfair, even if we don’t mean it to come across that way.

The very first achievement you’re likely to unlock in Dark Souls II is called “This Is Dark Souls.” It unlocks the first time that you die. This happens because From Software is telling you, point-blank, that this is what you’re getting yourself into – this game is difficult, and you are going to die a lot… so you’d better make peace with it. The game wears its challenge proudly on its sleeve.

This is all very true, and Dark Souls rightly gets talked about because of how tough it gets. But once you’ve dipped your toes in, once you’ve started to understand the mechanics of how combat works – and how incredibly important caution, patience, and observation are in this game – you start to perceive the challenge differently. It’s fair, and you will usually walk away from a difficult encounter with a greater understanding of how it works, and what you did wrong. When you finally conquer a challenge that previously seemed insurmountable, you do so having observed and understood the mechanics at play. You earned the victory over a powerful and deadly foe, because you are the more dangerous opponent. The sense of accomplishment in these cases is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in a game; it is a sense of mastery.

My big turning point – and one that I suspect a lot of Dark Souls II vets will aggressively nod their heads in agreement with – was the boss fight against the Ruin Sentinels. A towering, gilded spearman bears down on you as soon as you drop onto the arena’s first very narrow platform; fall to ground level, and two more Sentinels await to carry out a swift death sentence. At first, I struggled to survive against the first lone Sentinel’s powerful attacks, I repeatedly fell off the platform as I dodged those attacks, and I got thoroughly decimated by all three Sentinels at once. This is as far as I’m going to get, I thought.

Then, it clicked. I began to understand the cadence of the Ruin Sentinel’s attacks, and which way to dodge and roll. I learned how to negotiate the restrictive platform without falling off. Soon, I was able to drop the first Sentinel without a scratch on me. Below, a much larger arena offered me more room to dodge the remaining two Sentinels’ powerful spin attacks and shield throws. Two attempts later, I dropped them, too. Die, I told the screen as the “Victory Achieved” message popped up. I got you. I beat you.

Death is a teaching tool in Dark Souls: It teaches you not to take anything for granted, because all those souls you’ve collected (experience points and general currency) are at stake every time you die. And I’ll let you in on a little secret: The difficulty curve is relatively flat. The beginning of the game is the hardest, because you’re weak and (more importantly) you’re unfamiliar with the mechanics and the timings. As you learn more about how Dark Souls II works, those later areas and bosses start to fall a lot more quickly. It’s tough, but it’s fair, and it rewards patience and practice.

Dark Souls II’s unique multiplayer mechanics are vital.

The peculiar multiplayer aspect of Dark Souls seems like a little thing at first: Players can leave notes on the ground for one another, constructed from canned phrases and concepts, and you can also interact with fallen players’ bloodstains to observe ethereal reenactments of their last moments. But the atmosphere that this creates works very much in sync with the “forlorn, decrepit world” point that I made above, and it’s an undeniable part of the Dark Souls experience.

Essentially, it’s a bunch of other players telling each other “We are alone in this world, but we are alone together. Maybe this will help you, or maybe it won’t.”

And these messages are cryptic, as ever. “Lying in ambush ahead,” a message might say as you prepare to turn a corner. Or a secret door might be flagged by a message proclaiming “Illusionary wall ahead.” Maybe some miscreant leaves a note next to a certain-death plunge that says “Try jumping,” only to be countered by another charitable player’s “Beware of liar” warning just before it. Or, my favorite: a beautiful overlook earmarked by Dark Souls II’s ubiquitous “Praise the Sun!” arc words, or perhaps a simple message that just states “Hope.”

Sure, you can summon other players into your game to help against tough encounters (or to test your skills against, if you’re down for some player-versus-player combat), but this simple act of leaving messages – of saying I was here, and this is what I learned – is endemic to what makes the Dark Souls games so special.

Other games may be great at creating a sense of hopelessness and dread, at telling poetic and minimalist stories, at presenting harsh-but-fair challenges, and perhaps at hinting toward other players’ subjective victories and defeats. But Dark Souls is all of these things at once, and they feed on one another to create one of the most unique, most fulfilling fantasy RPGs ever conceived. Nothing else is like Dark Souls. Nothing.

Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin is now available on Xbox One, and it’s absolutely the best place to jump into this series. Play it; learn from it; keep at it. And don’t give up, because once you get over whatever your hump is (I’m telling you, those Ruin Sentinels…), and once everything clicks, you’ll have a gaming experience that will stay with you for a long, long time.