If you were to go by the usual word of mouth, advertorial material, and preview images of YouTube "Let's Play" videos with the uploaders' faces contorted in obnoxious faux-anger, you might come to believe that the defining quality of From Software's Souls games is their difficulty. It's hard to understand why exactly this became the common talking point. Somehow, though, it took hold (as this article on Kotaku opines: "The expansion levels may be the most difficult—and therefore, by Souls standards, the most fun—of any content this series has offered"). Bandai Namco decided to latch onto it as a selling point also, with efforts such as the "Prepare to Die" subtitle for the PC port of Dark Souls, and thus tapped into the cringe-worthy history of videogames being advertised as a sort of performance-based Boys' Club. It's hard to forget, for example, the television commercial for The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time, wherein text ultimately asks the viewer, "Willst thou soar? Or willst thou suck?"; this was, in fact, a toned down version of the original trailer's text: "Willst thou get the girl? Or play like one?" It's also hard to forget the hundreds of magazine and television ads from the 90s depicting some boy engaging a game and emerging from the trial with masochistic, frazzle-haired glee. Today, these ads are amusing for their crude and contrived schlockiness, but they're also painful for their exclusivist tones.
Dark Souls was released at a point where Demon's Souls was still niche enough for its design to carry on a tone of integrity, largely safe from fetishization and groan-worthy affect, and headed by a team that seemed to care most of all about creating a fascinating, interlaced universe. Dark Souls 2 (whose development was handled by a team different from that of Dark's) was where the Boys' "It's so hard, anyone who plays it will grow hair on their chest" Club attitude made an indelible, permeating mark, and no time was wasted in getting this across. A character not a few minutes into the game states, "You'll lose your souls... All of them. Over and over again"; your first death nets you an achievement called "This is Dark Souls"; the hub of your journeys, a seaside village, geographically culminates with a monument tracking the total deaths of all players online, and is also the site for a covenant which, once joined, makes it impossible for the player to receive assistance (this effect is never explained to the player, who might go on and assume that they are having chronically bad luck with spotting helpers). Even the "tutorial" area plays up this necrophiliac angle. Dark Souls' equivalent had a single major enemy in the form of the Asylum Demon; Dark Souls 2's has three, two of which can converge on the player at once, and all possessing an instant-kill attack (with terrible hit detection).
All of this is not to say that Dark Souls 2's problem was that it was excessively difficult; it was just misguided. As subject matter and a consequence, death had always been somewhat important to the Souls games. Certainly, there was some devilish glee in touches like the blunt, grayed-out "YOU DIED" failure screen; and yet it's hard to argue that it was ever a thing unto itself. It was, rather, one method of emphasizing the worlds' sublimity. Dark Souls 2 misunderstood this. In its fetishization, it disconnected death from the game's internal world and made it a meta-reference to the simplistic external characterizations of the games as soul-crushing battlegrounds for pain-lovers. Around every few turns was the invisible, grinning query of the developers: "Hard enough for ya?"
Few moments illustrated this divide more blatantly than the boss fight with the Belfry Gargoyles, an amped up reference to a similar fight against multiple opponents in the prequel. When Dark Souls' and Demon's Souls' boss fights with multiple opponents worked, it was due to differentiation in enemies' movesets, correspondingly designed arenas, and/or the opponents' numbers generally being limited to two. Accordingly, in Dark Souls, after the player had whittled off enough health from one gargoyle (whose hazardous tail could be cut off), another appeared with a reduced lifebar, no tail, the inability to fly, and a unique fire-breathing attack. Moreover, the rooftop was large enough to accommodate extensive evasive strategies. In Dark Souls 2's gargoyle fight, the player can be swarmed with up to five gargoyles at once. None of their tails can be lopped off, each is identically capable, and the rooftop's surface area has been reduced. This is a challenging fight. It is also attritional, overcrowded, and antithetical to what the mechanics naturally support.
Something which made Dark Souls so remarkable was that it established an enormous, interconnected, 3D world at an extant time when those same descriptors would connote an "emergent" looseness to the design -- and it instead referred to an older, tighter type of approach that involved specific sequences of specifically situated, opponent-based challenges. More remarkable was that its places could be imaginatively invested in without hitting early stumbling blocks of disbelief (because, in the end, these stumbling blocks will always be in videogames -- at least until the medium can simulate reality's innumerable complexities), and that the player's opponents fit into this believability without being obviously designed, or "videogamey." The level design's confrontations clearly had been calculated to work contextually, locationally, yet the world did not feel like it existed purely for the benefit of those confrontations. Also significant was that Dark Souls devoted ample parts of its world to introversion, where difficulty or combative events were intensely minimized to draw out the environments' emotional qualities and the isolation of the player's character. Most memorable of all among these parts were the Great Hollow and Ash Lake: the woodily ribboned interior of a colossal, superannuated tree, and a subterranean body of blackish water with gray peninsulas.
In a phrase, Dark Souls was a game about the details, large and small. Smallest of all were touches such as the ladder that lead down from a sewer to Blighttown, a sickly suspended maze of the underworld, being a combination of two ladders: an industrial metal one that cut off halfway, and another linking to it made of rotting wood and rope. These sorts of details reinforced the environments' thematic traits, but they also were historically suggestive: with the metal ladder's abbreviation, something clearly was meant to be kept out of reach -- something that, apparently, made an effort to resurface because of the attached ladder. A more noticeable touch was the blue lights that appeared along walls in the Tomb of the Giants when the player used a lantern. Like the ladder, these lights had two effects: as unexplainable natural phenomena, they endowed the Tomb with even more mystery, and they were arranged to lead players along the intended path. Largest and most talked about was the entire land of Lordran: geographically coherent, full of smart loop-arounds and shortcuts that fleshed out your surroundings, and spotted by landmarks that bred anticipation and, in retrospect, gave a better sense of how far and by which directions you had traveled.
Dark Souls 2, as a world, is a kind of tracing of the prequel: generalities are carried over while arrangements and subtleties have been lost. The concept of Blighttown (modeled on Demon's Souls' Valley of Defilement) returns in the form of the Gutter. Much of the thrill of braving the Valley and Blighttown came from navigating their cluttered and irregular spaces. But the Gutter, excepting several diversions, is full of cube-like level design: rooms with clearly delineated boundaries, minimal detritus, and high ceilings. In the game's loftiest environment of the Dragon Aerie, the Undead Citizen/Rupturing Hollow is brought back -- an enemy tied to dark prisonic places, yet reused simply because its main method of attack sends the player flying, and, in this case, possibly off a bridge. The commonly cited Shrine of Winter necessitates that, in order to pass through it, the player defeats four of the most powerful beings in the land, or acquire one-million souls; the neighboring impediment that requires passage through the Shrine, however, is a hip-high pile of rubble. Broadest of all was Drangleic's organization, full of distracting, abrupt environmental transitions (e.g., the method of reaching the Iron Keep from the Earthen Peak, or that of reaching the Dragon Aerie from Aldia's Keep) and conflicting geographies (e.g., the apparent distance from Majula to Heide's Tower of Flame versus the actual distance, or the disparate sea levels between Heide's Tower and No-Man's Wharf).
Who knows what happened with Dark Souls 2? Videogame development is a hush-hush subject, and the levels of secrecy are only heightened with Japanese companies; and so it is conceivable that we simply will never know if Dark Souls 2 suffered from a lacking unity in its team's vision, an oversized game world, a misunderstanding of priorities, or any other number of complications. It's quite clear that the game underwent a number of major changes, as evidenced by, for example, an early version of the Iron Keep seeming to have much stronger theming as an industrial site, or armory, than the final version, where the environment is a string of mostly purposeless rooms peppered with igneous traps. It's important to remember that videogame development is headed by people, and at this point (as an industry requiring prohibitive expenses to participate in, mainstream-wise) is always a rushed process in order to compete with rival companies, meet players' unreasonable expectations of a new series entry every couple years, or secure more sales during a window of high consumer activity. This is said only because such admittances are not mentioned often enough. It's easy to get lost amid criticisms and to forget the sleep-deprived hands behind the architecture. And yet, all we ever have are the results, and these have to be assessed for what (we think) they are.
Crown of the Sunken King is the first of Dark Souls 2's DLC trilogy, and it is, in my opinion, the best of the bunch. This is in spite of it being the most conservative with its enemy design and having one of the absolute worst gauntlets in the series that leads to a miserable, infuriating boss. Beginning with Demon's Souls, one of the hallmarks of the Souls games has been thorough subjunctive-divulgent environmental design, where the grandeur, strangeness, or strange-grandness of a place has compelled back-and-forth speculation and exploration. And slowly but surely, each environment has yielded -- substantiated -- its baroque anatomy. A hallmark equal to this has been a concern for some degree of verisimilitude, or believability, as mentioned several paragraphs ago.
At their best, these hallmarks combined and yielded level design of unusual quality and formal context. In Demon's Souls' first world, the Boletarian Palace, the player was faced with an enormous fortified wall. Instead of passing through its central portal, the player scaled either side of the wall, carved their way through its interiors and extremities, and, at one end, found a mechanism to raise the portal's gate. Besides being a little subversive, this route was overflowing with details intended to inspire enthusiastic belief in Demon's' world: refectories with dining tables and beds, carts holding consumables, a wall-walk that sported trebuchets (and a storage room next to that for projectiles), wooden structures built in place of degraded stonework, and so on. Rather than a stony maze with apposite ornaments thrown in, the Boletarian Palace felt like a castle first and foremost, with encounter design that naturally tapped into its abundance of nooks, sharp angles, and verticalities.
As simply as I can put it, using another example from Demon's: what made exploring the first part of the Tower of Latria -- a labyrinthine prison -- most exciting was that it was built as a labyrinthine prison, and that the encounter design played into its dark corners, constricting spaces, and falsely lulling repetitions. Although Dark Souls 2's Lost Bastille is among the game's more arresting environments for its relatively digressive layout -- and I can't deny the appeal of a moonlit fort next to the sea --, its design philosophy is pretty nearly the opposite of Latria's: it purports to be a prison, but this is not expressed by its meandering outdoor paths and clusters of vacuous, box-like interiors that seem to exist just to pad out the area's size and store crates/barrels. In fact, if it weren't for several celled chambers and the area's name, it would be hard to guess what the Bastille is even trying to be. It's caught in a spot of thematic conceit detached from structural explication.
Shulva, Sanctum City is Crown of the Sunken King's main environment, and it has several advantages over the subsequent DLC. The first is a more interestingly realized macro structure. Crown of the Old Iron King's Brume Tower is made up of several self-sufficient towers that are bridged by massive chain-links. Since the towers don't have much to do with each another, and since their bases are out of reach, what matters is the interiors; unfortunately, these are arbitrary jumbles of fragmented non-places that don't really cohere into anything. Crown of the Ivory King's Frozen Eleum Loyce is a snow-spotted meandering complex. Its sole structural quirk is that it is simply large. In this case, the retort might be that we should forego concerns about macro structure and instead adopt a more discrete set of expectations, but (as I will explain in the second article) Eleum Loyce has the most generic spatial usage of the DLC trio. Both of these places have lacking arcs of progression.
For a better developed arc, we could look at the Oolacile Township in Dark Souls' own DLC. What interested me about the Township was that it bared so much of itself right away -- think of standing atop a hill and looking down on a village below -- and then reversed the effect with a hook-shaped main path that curled back around close to the start, but much further below, allowing one to look up and be stared down by giant, austere walls of stone, punctured by dark windows. The descent itself was distinct, and continued into a dungeon and chasm. It was a nice, if more linear and forthright than usual, continuation of the original game's theme of compounding verticality.
Shulva has a few things going on. For one, in terms of the macro structure, a lot of it takes place around a triune of superstructures which are close enough to one another to avoid the disconnected feel of Iron King's towers. The first is a central temple, built on a natural, stalagmitic foundation. The other two are subsidiary pagodas with particularly accessible tiers. Large structures like these help to spatially contextualize your overall progress, the earliest of which takes place in a circuitous thicket of paths and small interiors that have you looping and poking around. I used the example of the Township in part because I think Shulva has a comparable set up. A lot of what you go on to explore, at least externally, is shown beforehand, and the spaciousness that makes this set up possible helps to give the general route you take a sectional, progressive feel. What's also similar to the Township is the eventual accessibility of the temple's foundation. This accessibility emphasizes the vertical distance of your travels and the temple's physical presence as an object, a terra forma.
Another advantage is that the environment's partially sepulchral theme makes it easier to accept architectural oddities in the central temple; practicality, while still a concern, is not paramount here. Curiosities and abstractions have more leeway, and although the trap-filled temple is more of a modern fantasy than anything corresponding to genuine building practices, its pervasiveness is something that Sunken King can draw on. Brume Tower seems to be -- or wants to be -- a site of former industry, and Eleum Loyce is a stronghold snaking through mostly cutoff residential zones, but both suffer in the way the Lost Bastille does (perhaps more so; in appearance, the Lost Bastille is closer to the doom-browed tenor of the Souls universe than "iron-fire tower" or "blue-skied snowfort"). In fact, Brume Tower and Eleum Loyce handle thematic contextualization so poorly that I'm compelled to say that a lot of Sunken King's effective handlings come from the theme's leniences rather than from any extra effort of the developers.
Then there is the central temple, or Dragon's Sanctum. Similar to the great church of Anor Londo in Dark Souls, it's the remotest and largest structure we can see -- qualities that suggest a special, perhaps climactic, significance. It's worth mentioning here, for comparative purposes, that Ivory King also has a paramount building in the shape of the Grand Cathedral, but that its contributions are limited to housing a Lore Dispenser (listened to from a dais) and leading directly to the DLC's main boss (for some reason, there's a neatly laid out pit to the underworld out back). The most obvious difference between the Grand Cathedral and the Dragon's Sanctum is that the latter is a multifaceted environment unto itself. But it also does a couple of appreciable things to buttress its allure. You only gain initial access to the temple on its side, so you're left wondering about how and when its front staircase will factor into your travels -- so close, and yet, is it a way out, or a way in? On top of this, near the temple's rear exit, you're allowed a view over some railing of a high and deep vertical chamber (see the third image above). On its own, this might just be a restricted site for the sake of ambience, but it's complemented by a sung, disembodied melody. Somehow, this is important, and here your mind might turn again to speculations of imminence.
Each episode of DLC has an element of environmental interaction that affects one or more enemy types. In Ivory King, it's a snowstorm that can be abated, unfreezing some golems and changing the behavior of an assassin-type; in Old Iron King, it's small, destructible sculptures called Ashen Idols which improve the defenses of nearby humanoids; and in Sunken King, it's breakable sarcophagi that materialize ghostly knights, who can then be physically damaged. It's evident that From, to an extent, realized the mechanics' limits (which were already showing their wear by the end of Dark Souls), and made an attempt to put circumstantial twists on otherwise uninteresting enemies. Again, in this area, Sunken King does it best. With Ivory King, the golems are simply added to a bunch of enemies crowding box-rooms, and the assassins -- during the snowstorm, they don't attack; after, they'll follow you from a distance for a backstab -- can still be killed before they even get up; and with Old Iron King, the method of engagement is awkwardly exploitative: you kite enemies away from the Ashen Idol, run back to it, and then hope the invincibility frame where your insert a rod to destroy the Idol happens before four undead axe-wielders converge on your person with mad swipes.
First, the Sanctum Knights play upon the appearance of the phantoms of other players you see while playing online, and will no doubt (and surely are supposed to) lead some people to think that that indeed is what they are; this also has the possible ensuing effect of making the sudden sight of an actual phantom player -- say, rounding a bend towards your character -- briefly alarming. Second, there are two ways to encounter the Knights. Ideally, you'll initially contend with a pair in a room close to the Sanctum's side entrance that holds their sarcophagi. Less ideally, you'll bypass or ignore this room, fall from a staircase that can't be gotten back to, and go down a path where several Knights lie in wait, with their sarcophagi stored away in an upper-level chamber (itself guarded by more Knights).
There's tension in this latter iteration no matter what -- you're being forced to navigate and evade trailing threats -- and it's tension informed by precise levels of environmental knowledge (of course, if the player is willing to experiment, waste a lot of curatives, and doesn't mind attrition, they can enchant their weapon(s) or cast magic, since both hurt the Knights a bit, but there's little reason to have this devil-may-care attitude one's first time through a Souls environment). If you've visited the first room, you know the procedure but not the location of the sarcophagi. If you haven't, you're dashing to safety and juggling guesses on how to make the Knights manageable. It's a neat little puzzle, and, small as it is, it involves you with the level design in a way that Old Iron King's/Ivory King's ideas don't.
And, overall, Shulva and the Dragon's Sanctum are just more interesting to look at than Brume Tower and Eleum Loyce. So much of the scenery of the latter two revolves around spartan stonework, and although that can be appealing, it needs level design of substance and purpose -- something which the Boletarian Palace draws upon for its sternfaced beauty -- more than ever to survive, and neither has it. Even with my love of the winter season and snowy videogame environments, Eleum Loyce was a bore. Shulva/Dragon's Sanctum are also characterized by a kind of restraint, but it's in a mode that we don't often see in the Souls games, which are essentially romantic bricolages of pre-industrial, European architecture. Now and then, Dark Souls veered from this pattern, and it did this to make a narrative point -- expressively varied, but always about displacing the player somehow. Blighttown was not just disquieting because of its splintering arrangement, raw-skinned inhabitants, or cramped, underlit spots; it was also because the architecture's appearance itself was a crooked-minded, yet anonymous, departure from what came before. Likewise, there was a drama to descending into Lordran's underside through the Demon Ruins and Lost Izalith not just because you were going further away from the overworld, but also because the architecture was losing its European traits in favor of Asian -- more accurately, Hindu -- ones.
Sunken King taps into this precedent with reference to Lost Izalith. It's not as impressive as it was in Dark Souls' instances -- Dark Souls 2's sites lack the general aesthetic unity of the first game, making contrasts not as eye-catching; and Shulva exists on its own, so whatever contrasts it offers are between itself and Drangleic as a whole, rather than between itself and interrelating areas -- but the distinction in some form is there, and I like the idea of Dark Souls' world associating vertical extent with architectural modes (as long as there are only two games, anyway; any more, and that association risks treading into charmless predictability).
There's a significant flaw to be mentioned in this context, though, and it is that Sunken King's environment has almost no visual development to speak of. Even in the case of Lost Izalith -- one of Dark Souls' places that suffered from inadequate development time -- there was a marked progression from a molten zone studded with one-room temples to a fully built environment that piled on its forms to the point of a delicious, syrup-dark grotesqueness. Shulva, by comparison, feels trapped in a median, and never quite deviates from its green-stoned, blind-niched, colonette-and-linteled plainness aside from several nondescript (and inexplicably well-lit) cavernous routes, the pleasant but forgettable stalagmitic ground floor, and a boss room. If stylistic reserve is used as an establishing environmental principle, it needs some kind of intervention, permutation, optic obscurity, or hard-working level design to escape the pallid clutch of tedium when tedium is not the apparent goal. It's nice that the aforementioned vertical chamber is seen before it's accessible, and that it's paired with tempting, diegetic music; it would have been nicer if it didn't look the same as anywhere else.
It's hard to overstate this criticism. One of the joys of returning to a place in Demon's Souls' and Dark Souls' is picking up on new details in the environment's level and visual design. These personal discoveries enrich the place as a historical site and a creative act (as a virtual space made by the developers), and the revisits happen partly because the setting is suggestively fecund enough to begin with. Five or six playthroughs later, I still feel a surge of enthusiasm before entering Demon's Souls' worlds. Aside from several relative values, most of which have already been listed, Sunken King's level design isn't inventive enough to prompt wanderlust returns. This leaves the visual design to take over, and it simply isn't equipped to give much away; more boringly, it doesn't withhold much, either. There's a difference between absence and hiddenness, between an empty well and one with sable water at its bottom. Try to get anywhere with Sunken King's details; try to incorporate them into a narrative; try to shape them into a rich atmosphere for the mind. You can't.
Sunken King also struggles with verisimilitude. Players will come across parts in Shulva where glowing rods, stuck in the ground, can be hit with offensive attacks to raise and lower small towers, or extract a couple of ledges along buildings' sides. Earlier on and very briefly, a couple of towers can be raised to block the arrows of sniping enemies, or be used to kite closer enemies around. Overall, their use is to grant access to marginal paths and items. In effect, they offer some verticality and light platforming. For example, you can step on top of the second tower as it’s rising from the level below and, at its apex, perform a running jump to a nearby stationary tower for an item. The towers' most appreciable application is in leading to Shulva's second bonfire, set at the top of the first pagoda. Dark Souls 2's main change to bonfires -- making every one of them a warp point -- was at least an opportunity for the designers to get subversive with their placement. This opportunity was mostly unfulfilled, or done so in the wrong ways -- there was a surplus of bonfires (sometimes making shortcuts moot, such as the one between the Dragon Aerie and Dragon Shrine), and a few were put too close to respawning enemies -- so it's unusual and nice that Shulva asks the player to explore a bit more to find the second bonfire, rather than expectedly setting it along the main path.
The problems the rods and elevator-towers run into is that they aren’t interesting enough elements on their own to cover up their comical-absurd qualities, and that the Souls series has set a precedent for interactive details that are contextually grounded. When I came across the rods, the questioning process did not end at “Which tower does this rod affect?”; it continued on to “Why on earth would anyone have designed switches that only activate when attacked?”, and “Why would a sequence of elevator-towers have been built across a chasm to reach an upper floor?” This is the same sort of question I was asking myself when navigating Metroid Prime 3: Corruption’s first environment, which asked me to believe that an inhabited space station’s doors were opened with gunfire. Corruption’s designers assumed that this would be okay because gunfire-activated doors were, by then, a staple of the series. What they failed to understand was that, in many previous cases, gunfire-activated doors weren’t necessary to begin with. Think back to the doors in Super Metroid’s first environment -- also a human space station -- with doors that automatically opened and closed; think even of the majority of standard doors in the 2D games, where load-masking is not an issue. This is a case of “tradition” shouting down, or being outright unaware of, context.
Shulva’s rods and towers also come from unawareness, but, here, it’s a case of interactive iteration muddying context, or interactive iteration for the sake of itself. This is another way of saying that the rods are hit-activated so that the developers could hide them around the environment, and, in several cases, require long-range attacks. From Software could have somewhat solved this by making the rods used as Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls’ levers and switches were -- as objects that prompted a button press, whereupon the character would pull or push on the object --, letting the hit-activation be a secondary means of operation, and embellished the environment to make the rods seem as if they were dislocated from more sensible locations. It still would’ve been a little silly and strained, but it would’ve cohered better. It also might’ve made the rods more interesting -- first encountered as button prompts and later requiring experimentation for players to realize their alternate operation.
What’s bothersome about the towers and ledges fits into the broader problem of Shulva not feeling like a convincingly ruined city -- something that it purports to be -- on even the most basic level. I need to bring the Oolacile Township up again because it’s similarly themed, yet its straightforward attempts at explicating this go far beyond Shulva’s. What makes the Township work is its thoroughness in depicting non-interactive sites and its evocation of prior inhabitance. We see the thoroughness in details such as all of the clusters of buildings we can’t visit, the lopsided and unintentionally sunken buildings (N.B.: the Township has been sinking into an inky reservoir), and makeshift structures put in place of missing original sections. And we see its evocation of prior inhabitance in the architectural forms and furnishings: a kind of elevated agora with colonnades, stoa, and public and private spaces set off to the side; and a large building below that may have been a dining hall or general gathering place, spotted with fireplaces, tables, and chairs. These are simple design choices that shouldn’t need much praising. Set against Shulva, though, they seem brilliant.
The only spot in Shulva that’s willing to give a tactile sense of ruin is the tilted, partly geologic hallway that you pass through to enter the city. This hallway could have a primer for things to come -- aslant structures, appropriated wreckage, and surprising overlappings between built and natural forms. Instead, Shulva sticks a bunch of nondescript box-rooms together, tidily breaks off a few staircases and pillars, lays down some cracked textures, and calls the job done. This is unmindful design, and it leaves Shulva as a city and site of ruin in name only. Practically nothing about Shulva’s presentation communicates that it suffered a catastrophe. In fact, most of its layout seems to be as it ever was. Wreckage is mere trimming. There is a hemmed-in, fearful neatness to the place that’s reminiscent of the Gutter's conservativeness, and it only highlights in brighter neon the weirdness of raising a tower that has no points of entry and no use as an elevator (it’s there to support an item-bearing corpse); or of triggering a ledge that leads you to a perfectly outlined dead-end with a rod sprouting from its floor.
Worsening all of this are the interiors that never grow out of being bare boxes with no implicit practical or symbolic purpose. You’ll scale a few staircases in one of these interiors and come out on top to find an equally bare summit that, like the aforementioned tower, exists to support a corpse. What these design decisions ultimately do is make Shulva feel like an ahistorical game world with matching wallpaper. You’re not exploring a place; you’re exploring a place about a place -- a tidy theme park. The game eventually puts a bunch of vases in one of the rooms as a slight attempt at historicity, but by then the gesture is too little, too late. It’s overridden, anyway, by the perfectly square hole in a corner of the room. This hole is not a believable feature of the architecture, nor a result of damage; it’s there because an enemy is in another corner of the room. In other words, a designer put the hole there so that, were one to be sneak-attacked with their back turned, they might fall through the hole to a level below. This is an example of one’s awareness of the designer’s hand clashing with the world’s integrity, rather than reciprocally enhancing it.
These failures have the effect of wrapping back around to the macro structure’s supposed successes and bending them into hypotheticals. Exploring Shulva may well feel distinct from exploring the Dragon’s Sanctum, but that distinction can’t blossom into something fulfilling and provocative when all you’re navigating is pretense given form. What’s frustrating about this is that the developers could have foregone labeling Shulva as a ruined metropolis and painted it as an exclusively sacred site. Under this light, the architecture’s apparent deficiencies and absurdities could have been worked with and presented as the way a bygone civilization kept others out and protected the central temple (and arguing that this is the case simply isn’t supportable; the main route to the central temple is fairly straightforward, and almost all of Shulva’s oddities are tangential to its organization).
This isn’t just an issue of believability, though. Architecture is bound to encounter design here, and the Souls games’ fundamental mechanics aren’t dynamic enough to keep combat against A.I. enemies interesting when the level design pulls back. Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls are not characterized by “brutal” enemy placement; they’re characterized by enemies with several quirks being set in places that play upon those quirks, making for memorable, atmospheric clashes. The challenge is an organic result. With the upcoming release of Scholar of the First Sin, it is clearer than ever that Dark Souls 2’s developers have a deep misunderstanding of this principle, and prefer to believe that what the games need is more enemies taking up space and clamoring after the player. I can’t help but look at these developments and sense a clammy air of desperation -- as if the designers are using a paper-thin slice of butter to cover a piece of stale toast. On one hand, they’re dealing with grayed mechanics; on the other, though, their solutions are often antithetical to the problems.
Shulva’s fews interiors boil down to either housing an ambush by one or two undead knights, or a bunch of corrosive eggs and several also-corrosive insects. Neither of these designs quite work. Ambushes need some sort of noticeable complication in the level geometry to be engaging (Demon’s Souls’ first part of the Valley of Defilement is a good example of this, where footing is unstable and askew, and visibility is poor); otherwise, they risk feeling like what they literally are: the game throwing enemies at you. This is what the knight ambushes feel like here. It’s even less exciting because the undead knights’ behavior offers nothing new. All they have is an incredible hardiness that makes them next to impossible to stagger unless hit several times with an enormous weapon. On top of this, the DLC has been marketed by Bandai Namco as being for adepts -- people who already know to be cautious when entering an enclosed environment. When that enclosed environment is painfully simplistic, there’s little room to play with that expectation.
The interiors housing the eggs and insects fare worse: the threat is clear and rooted to the spot before you’ve even entered the space, and there’s nothing pressuring you to enter, either. Given the choice to walk into an obviously dangerous and cluttered space, or take out the visible targets with projectiles, there’s no good reason not to do the latter (at least on your first time through). A better application of the insects would have been sticking them to the undersides of ledges near sheer drops, or onto the bottoms of the walkways that bridge the pagodas, and having them crawl out onto the structures’ upper sides. This type of encounter would be spatially distinct and use the insects’ ability to cling to any surface; plus, the insects’ weakness and their precarious placement would complement one another.
It would be nice if Shulva’s strugglings ended at its interiors, since they make up a minority of the environment, but its exteriors are where Sunken King’s tedium sets in hard. To its ostensible credit, From has taken several measures to meets its intended audience of experienced players head-on in the DLC trilogy (such as the aforementioned environmental-circumstantial elements, among others that will be discussed), but Shulva’s exteriors typify the main and least interesting way the developers have approached this task: lining up groups of tall, absurdly sturdy, weapon-wielding humanoids who collectively aggro and have no defined integration in the level design. This challenge is one of density and quantity, and it cultures nothing but performative attrition and disenchantment with the game’s world.
It’s easy now to look back at Dark Souls’ first proper environment, the Undead Burg, and label it as beginner-chaffe -- a quasi-tutorial with stakes higher than the actual tutorial, the Undead Asylum. It’s an understandable impulse! It’s also overly simplistic. The Burg is a full-bodied microcosm of Dark Souls iterative, site-specific enemy placement. Because I’m critiquing Sunken King from the perspective of my initial experience, I think it’s useful to review the Burg’s encounter structure along its primary route from an equal perspective. In my opinion, that initial experience is the one that matters most, and laying out the Burg’s distinct progressions will be a useful illustrative reference for future write-ups.
I. A pair of weapon-wielding undead grunts greet the player in a small but workable space. They serve as a pure introduction to the Burg’s predominant enemy type: slightly unpredictable due to a leaping attack, reactive to the player’s strikes, and otherwise disinclined to resort to fast movements.
II. One grunt stands with his back to a fatal drop and hurls firebombs at the player; another, with a weapon, stands inside the entrance to an interior to the left. Observant players will note the latter and have to decide which to attack first, or whether to back away. Going after one target with tunnel vision exposes the player’s back to the other.
III. A thin path and short staircase lead to a large, open square with some small palisades. Two weapon-wielding grunts will make for the player from a distance while a new enemy -- an armored undead archer -- shoots crossbow darts from an elevated position. The player can advance to deal with the pair in a more open space, but this exposes them to the periodic darts; it also alerts another grunt behind one of the palisades. Alternately, the player can retreat and fight the pair in the spot before the square, avoiding the darts’ reach, but the space they’ll be fighting in is constricted.
IV. The player has to cross a narrow bridge to enter a dark, enclosed space. Two grunts hurl firebombs from currently inaccessible elevations onto the bridge at regular intervals. If the player has a bow, they might take this pair out. If not, they’ll need to make a timely traversal. On the bridge’s other side, a couple of axe-wielding undeads lie in wait at a distance. Here, the player might be compelled to backtrack, but they’ll need to mind the firebombs. If they don’t and continue on, an undead knight wielding a sword opens a door to the enclosure’s left and enters a couple of seconds later. The dynamic becomes about taking out at least one of the axe-wielders before the threat grows into a trio. It’s important to note that the grunts and armored undead are visible prior to crossing the bridge. This is not a middle-fingering trap.
V. Past an ascending staircase is a trio of grunts, arranged so that the one in the back hurls firebombs and the two in front advance with weapons. By now, the player is somewhat accustomed to their behaviors, but the arrangement is new. Do you try to run past the advancers into an open space and attack the firebomber first to get rid of the projectile threat, or do you take it slow and pick off whoever’s coming your way? If you do the latter, the staircase offers minimal side movement; and there is a ladder to the right leading to a building’s roof and a spot of tactical elevation, but you might draw the attention of an undead who was firebombing the bridge.
VI. Close to the upper Burg’s end, a staircase descends and leads to two undead knights, with another -- a slow, defensive variant that wields a spear -- to the right. The player might hang around on the staircase and consider their options, but they’ll be struck in the back by an dart. This will be their fault, though: the arrow comes from an archer standing atop a turret that can be scaled right before the staircase, and the encounters have been prodding the player all along to be thorough in their surveys. This set-up’s possibilities are too numerous to include in a bullet point, so suffice it to say that it’s distinguished largely by the new combination of enemies, two of whom -- the archer and the spear-wielder -- offer leniency (the archer is segregated to a tower; the spear-wielder is slow and defensive) and further variety to the interaction.
VII. An undead knight stands behind a barrel at the top of a staircase, and will push it down once the player ascends far enough. This is a weak finish to the environment, more akin to a set-up you might see in Dark Souls 2, but I’m including it for thoroughness. The barrel offers no particularly useful lesson or satisfaction; it’s a goofy sort of obstacle that never appears again, and only seems to exist to screw the player over if they run past the knights and up the stairs. There is no other place in the game that locks the player into certain harm if they take an evasive approach. Worse, even if you take care of the knights and snipe the barrel-pushing knight at your leisure from the steps’ bottom, the barrel will still somehow ignite and roll down.
Dark Souls’ encounter structure is generally based around quick, spatial-combative scuffles that are periodically broken up by more powerful and/or sturdier enemies. This is hugely important to the pacing: it facilitates tangible progress and textures your interactive timeline by letting the structure breathe in different ways. This design philosophy is crucial to a place like the Undead Parish being interesting, and its absence is why Shulva’s exterior structure -- almost exclusively devoted to sturdy, strong, and tall soldiers -- suffocates, and why its interactive timeline is rendered as flat. Those quick clashes are also important because they tend to involve enemies who are physically repelled by your attacks. This allows for moments that contrast against others by your avatar’s efforts and their visible effect in real-time. Like the God of War-type games, combat in Sunken King’s Shulva loses its possibilities for contrast and impact when close to all enemies are mobile, nearly-unflinching iron walls. This isn’t just exhaustive; it’s boring. And it’s especially irritating because Shulva’s soldiers don’t have any persuasive visual or narrative justification for their tremendous hardiness: they are minimally armored, not that tall, and have no “elite” lineage. Like the square hole in the room, the soldiers only underline affectational factors external to the game -- From’s attempt to make the DLC hard.
Ironically, Shulva is not particularly hard. I wager that most returning players won’t feel challenged until they reach the Dragon’s Sanctum. Some people might mess up a jump or a roll off of a tower and fall into a pit during a diversion, but with easily contested interior schemes, little to no subversiveness in its exterior, and predictable enemies, it’s arguable that Shulva doesn’t even succeed at being challenging in a reductive, brute force sense. All the stranger is that Shulva starts off with its densest and most imposing set-up: an archer (N.B.: archers can switch to a sword when the situation demands) set behind two rushing, mace-wielding soldiers, with three more archers and another mace-wielder right after. With scant cover, the possible use of towers as obstructions (the only time they can be used this way!), and limited space to walk, this actually could have been an interesting set-up; but considering the enemies’ hardiness and number, and players’ current inexperience with the rods’ and towers’ use, most people are bound to just keep drawing the advancing enemies back to a choke point close to the first bonfire to fight in a shielded, narrow spot. Even with its deficiencies, this feels like a piece of level design that should be near the end of a route.
There's little else to say about Shulva. The designers do strive for some dynamism on the path running alongside the towers which lead to the second bonfire. Several far-seeing archers make the player dodge or block their arrows while advancing and encountering a couple of initially prostrate, but nevertheless suspect, soldiers. Although it's a fine concept, the generic terrain and dearth of anything that might otherwise mix the variables up dampens the situation. Reduced to its bare minimum, and with unimaginative enemy traits, this sort of challenge isn't interesting anymore. Perhaps the most successful encounter, if only for how spatially concentrated it is, is right before the Dragon's Sanctum, on a narrow bridge that links the central temple's side entrance to Shulva. Two lance-wielding soldiers are in the way and rush at you. This assault pushes you back towards a small, thin web of platforms and stairs; or, rather, this is what will happen if you return this way later. The soldiers are killed the first time by a passerby dragon who torches the bridge. The rest of Shulva's schemes play out with the industrial roteness of Konami's exploration-based Castlevania titles, where enemies seem to be used at regular intervals simply to take up space, as if they were items being stocked on store shelves.
Sunken King's best ideas are found in the Dragon's Sanctum. Besides the Sanctum Knights and their sarcophagi, two situations in particular stand out. The first is in a small, rectangular room to the left of, and a level below, a dead-end hallway that's occupied by a handful of soldiers, some prostrate. Shallow recesses in the chamber's lefthand wall can be used as limited cover. It's gotten to by a small, descending staircase, destroyed near its bottom. Dropping down means that there's no way back -- at that time, anyway. Facing you are a magic-using priestess near the room's end and a soldier near its middle. From has tweaked the Sanctum's soldiers to have a poisonous haze surrounding their bodies. This is an appreciable change: zoning becomes a more defined element, since hanging around a soldier's body makes you open to getting poisoned yourself.
This set-up can basically be experienced two ways. In one, which is arguably the result of foolhardiness or inattention, you'll commit to the chamber and, besides the default soldier and sorcerer, have to also contend with two more soldiers who drop from the level above and join the fray. In the other, you'll have explored the premises, reduced the threat, and can more ably make for the switch-activated portal at the end, behind the priestess, without having to worry about a trio of soldiers. What makes this interesting to me isn't so much the possibility for two kinds of experiences as it is the usage of two less typical enemies that complement one another: one that is aggressive, physical, and dangerous to get close to, and another that is passive and utilizes projectiles different from arrows -- a difference that can create tension as you advance and perhaps take cover in the wall's slight recesses.
If there're anything to criticize about this situation, it's the destroyed staircase's architectural justifiability and the severity of the punishment for not being thorough. Dark Souls also had parts where an elevation could be surmounted, if only the Chosen Undead remembered that arms and hands can do other things. What separates those moments from seemingly similar moments in Dark Souls 2 is that almost none of them involved an explicit funneling of the player through a new route once they'd dropped to a level below (two exceptions come to mind: the corbel-steps the player descends to acquire the Dragonslayer Greatbow in Anor Londo, and the minor plateau in the Catacombs, close to a Black Knight, that looks out on the area patrolled by Bonewheel Skeletons). The difference between these moments is how much the topography controls your immediate agency, what you're faced with, and how that shapes your environmental consciousness. With this room in the Dragon's Sanctum, you're in direct peril; that immediacy, I think, puts a heightened demand on the entrapment's visual justification. Of course, ideally, there will always be good justification. And concerning the punishment's severity, it just seems overly cruel to push that many poison-clouded soldiers onto a player. Their hardiness already conflicts with group-based schemes, and this is the kind of game where the difference between one and two enemies is significant (compare Dark Souls' duo boss, Ornstein and Smough, to the fight with an isolated Ornstein in Dark Souls 2).
The other situation that stands out is a fall into a chamber full of the corrosive eggs and insects from before. The room itself is not terribly different from those in Shulva; it's just larger. But instead of walking into a space at your own leisure with most of the threats visible beforehand, here, you drop down from a hole that lets you see very little prior to your descent. Once you've landed, and taken some damage from the fall, the circumstances are shakier. You have to think on your feet: what are the threats? how many are there? where are they? and should you heal yourself right away, or run somewhere first? This sort of situation, where you're thrust into a space, plays upon the eggs' and insects' strengths -- as route-obstructors and weak but winged threats, respectively -- much better than situations where you're given a great deal of preparative leeway. What I'm not sure about is the lead-up to the hole. Rather than being trap set for careless players, the hole is exactly at the end of a side path, and is in fact guarded by one of the insects. It's a strange role-reversal: amidst other material that goes too far in its obstacles or penalties, the designers made a pitfall into an option. I suppose, in one sense, that that is respectable; but it also seems to tie into the weird, atmospherically flattening cleanliness that the other floor-hole fits into.
"Unfulfilling" is the best way to describe the rest of the Dragon's Sanctum. The aforementioned chamber is beneath a small network of stark, slim, and high-walled passages that, in terms of spatial geometry, feels different from anything else in Dark Souls 2 -- closer to several of Demon's Souls' sections -- and is one of the more interesting zones in Sunken King to move through. The starkness here seems especially conducive and relevant to maze-like level design, and the narrowness effective in reshaping encounter dynamics by constricting your evasive capabilities. It's unfortunate, then, that the network doesn't dare to meander more than would be polite (and there is a glaring "theme park" moment where you'll divert and reach a dead-end with a recess on its side that perfectly fits a corpse) or allow for any disorientation. And aside from the insect, the only enemies you'll find are three poisonous soldiers who're assigned to a hall more spacious than any other in the network. Considerately, just one soldier advances when you've entered the hall, but the wider space diminishes this encounter's possibilities; and the other two sold