Why the Opening Levels of Dark Souls II are So Good
“One day you will stand before its decrepit gate, without really knowing why.”
The opening hours of a game, especially one you might take 50 or 60 hours to complete, are important for establishing tone and playstyle and generally making a big impression on the audience. I recently had a hankering for Dark Souls’ first sequel, and started playing it again on its challenging and rewarding New Game+ mode. The story makes an indelible mark as it gets going.
Firstly, rather than awakening in a cell or just popping open the lid of your coffin, Dark Souls II finds your character given somewhat more personal stakes. In a simply incredible opening cinematic, you see your character with a family, branded with the curse of undeath. Where the original game’s introductory cutscene presented a cast of immortals and established grand stakes, this sequel picks up with an undead being wandering the woods, searching for answers to their cruel circumstances. An indeterminate amount of time later, they have roamed to the austere northern land of Drangleic to stand at the lip of a dark, raging whirlpool. In a moment reminiscent of Soul Reaver they pitch forward, plunging into the frothing depths.
You gain control in the opening area, Things Betwixt, having firstly seen some sort of background to your character and secondly the dramatic way they have arrived. While the first and third games cast you as an undead who may become chosen, II provides a tiny glimpse as to who you already were. This is a story about decaying memories, and this set-up makes it all the more effective by giving you a life to have lost in the first place.
In a clever touch, you control your Bearer of the Curse before ever accessing the character creation screen. Everyone starts Dark Souls II just controlling a dead thing, a figure wrapped in rotting garments. The first time I played the game I was actually disturbed at the idea of what was beneath the cowl and wraps and didn’t dare take them off to see. You have to walk a short way to the Firekeeper’s Dwelling and endure their judgment before personalising your avatar. You aren’t just designing a character — in the game’s language, you are remembering who you were. This is a story about losing your identity, and you’re reminded of that as you type a name, not the right one but one that comes to mind, into the text field. All you have to go on are a few images from that opening cinematic, melting in your mind’s eye as you try to recall their context.
Things Betwixt itself is a gloomy series of caves near a subterranean lake, inhabited by other foreign undead who have come in search of a cure for the curse. It is mysterious, and in keeping with the game’s feeling of crossing far greater distances than you seem to be, you emerge from a cave mouth what feels like a long way from the Firekeepers and their cryptic promises.
You walk along a sun-bathed coastline to what I think is the most beautiful location in the series — Majula, a ramshackle coastal town that will serve as your home base and safe haven. In the warm sun the dilapidated buildings seem inviting, the music chimes beatifically, and walking up and lighting the bonfire to then spot the Emerald Herald looking out to the sea must be an all-time moment in video games. Very quickly after starting the game you’ve been presented with a dire and morose background story for your character, then deposited in sumptuous surroundings — Dark Souls II’s balance of triumph and horror, majesty and bleakness is contained in this short journey to the hub area.
“Bearer of the curse…
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.”
Dark Souls II puts a number of its most arresting locales right upfront, which is part of why I feel this game opens so strongly. Although you should probably travel first to the Forest of Fallen Giants, you are likely to wander out of Majula and over to Heide’s Tower of Flame, where — much like in Dark Souls’ skeleton-infested graveyard, also adjacent to your safe haven — you will run up against some daunting foes. Unlike the graveyard however, which led you into the dark of the Catacombs, the Heide’s Tower environs are a scenic series of walkways between ruins crumbling into sun-dappled waters, as majestic to behold as their guardians’ attacks are punishing. With persistence and patience, you may be able to make it past the gigantic Old Knights and to a boss fight with the Dragonrider for a significant early bounty of souls and an alternate route to a major early location.
The route you are meant to take is a path leading out of Majula that I always have to check twice for even now, down to the Forest of Fallen Giants. You’ve been told you came to this land seeking a cure for the undead curse — and yet the Emerald Herald first tells you to seek out King Vendrick. The Forest is the site of the battleground where Vendrick fought the Giants, and is a more sprawling introductory level than the Undead Burg. It features wider spaces, allowing enemies to notice you and gang up unlike the chess-like strategic positioning of enemies in the Burg that encouraged an order-of-operations approach. It is a more forgiving combat tutorial than Heide’s Tower as it provides wide areas in which to fight and reposition compared to Heide’s tight walkways and small platforms. Highlights include the moment where you walk up an immense sword to stand in the orange glow of the sky, or the sudden first arrival of the Pursuer — a recurring boss who does not have the respect to wait patiently for you behind foggy white light but rather appears and attacks when he wants.
The final area in what I feel is the opening movement of Dark Souls II’s foreboding opera is the Lost Bastille. Beginning the original game locked in a cell in the Undead Asylum, imprisoned just for being dead, is a masterstroke — enigmatic, creepy, unjust. In Dark Souls II however, you will seek out the prison of the dead yourself. For those still wondering why their character has been tasked with locating a king after coming to Drangleic to cure a curse, the pieces should now start falling into place. Vendrick, waging war against undeath itself, had all those afflicted banished to the Lost Bastille, left chained in fear and misery while he began a war that would undo him. And whereas the original game began with you locked up in the heart of such a place, now you must seek out the Bastille’s most high security location and confront its inhabitant, the architect of a sin so profound they have been confined in solitude offshore of the main compound.
While it boasts another immense map with multiple routes of ingress, is visually impressive with more stunning skyboxes, and has important merchants and NPCs to track down, the best thing about the Lost Bastille is that it is where the Bearer of the Curse starts the detective work proper of uncovering what happened in Drangleic, and how a king obsessed with ending the curse disappeared and left his kingdom damned and dying.
A flash of ingenuity that I think this game doesn’t get enough credit for is the decision to set it countless thousands of years, even eons after Dark Souls. Is Lordran far below Drangleic, under the antediluvian ruins of many other dead civilisations? How much time has even passed, and does it matter when even the avatar we control is an unreliable narrator? The mysteries that swirl enjoyably round this story and your place in it are rarefied by this distance, and by the deft set-up accomplished in the game’s opening hours and areas. An even more impressive achievement, considering the issues faced in production for Dark Souls II which Yui Tanimura has spoken about, to have created such a brilliantly structured opening act both narratively and in terms of the gameplay itself.
So play this game, and let yourself get absorbed in its sombre, delightful opening passages and everything that comes after.