Retreating from Drangleic... for now.
A couple of weeks back, I started Dark Souls 2. Roughly this time last year, I took the first game off the shelf and began the slow, weirdly pleasurable agony of pulling myself forward through it. That game saw progress granted inch by painful inch, with the grind and seemingly endless supply of "You Died" screens offset by moments of wonder - whether it was opening up a new shortcut that would allow you to navigate areas of the world in moments, or defeating a boss who had battered you into submission multiple times. I wrote about it a lot at the time, and by the time I finally reached the end I'd fallen absolutely head-over-heels in love with this prickly, strange little game. It played by its own rules, forcing me to approach it on its own terms. It seemed to make it intentionally difficult for me to love it - but by the end that was where I was. I knew every inch of that game; every enemy, every attack pattern, every shortcut. I'm replaying it now, on and off, on my Nintendo Switch. It's my third run through, and stepping through the screen into Lordran feels like going home. So, given how hard it was to get through that first game, I can't help but wonder why I'm finding the sheer difficulty of the second one so off-putting.
I died within five minutes of starting Dark Souls 2 - which didn't exactly come as a shock. You soon get very accustomed to seeing those two little red words splashed across the middle of the screen, and if you're new to the series you also soon come to understand that those deaths are a critical part of the game. Through dying, you learn. Everything that this game has to teach you, it does via your demise. You respawn at the nearest bonfire, and you go again. Sometimes in the same direction, sometimes you'll try a different one. The whole forward momentum of the game is driven by this cautious, probing exploration - inching forward with a shield in one hand, a sword in the other and with every footstep a measured exercise in caution. You'll try one direction and get so far and then die. You'll try again and head in the same direction, but this time maybe you'll approach an enemy differently and progress a little further. Maybe you'll make a silly mistake or get caught out by a trap you failed to spot (and miraculously avoided) the first time through. Maybe you'll find the next bonfire - and therefore the next spot on the map that you can branch your exploration out from. Death is the trigger to all of those turning cogs though - your doorway into the game.
It struck me as odd then, or perhaps a little sadistic, that Dark Souls 2 punishes you for death in a couple of ways that the first game didn't. Firstly, each time you die you respawn with a bit less health. Die enough times, and you'll be respawning with only 50% of your full health unless you consume an item called a Human Effigy - which returns your humanity and your ability to re-fill your health bar. If you've run out of them... well, tough. It reminds me a bit of being cursed in the first game - except that wasn't a constant state and you could cure it. Secondly, you can only kill most enemies a certain number of times before they cease spawning - again, unless you consume a specific item. This is ostensibly to prevent people from farming early areas of the game to level up and become over powered for the later parts of the game. It also means though, that for someone as frankly bad at the game as I am and for whom over-levelling is a tried and tested strategy, that the one successful route I can usually rely on has the door that leads to it firmly closed. The game also throttles the amount of health re-gen you have in the early game, by forcing you to find items in the world to craft Estus Flasks with.
To be clear, I didn't expect Dark Souls 2 to be easy - but the extra mechanics added to layer on additional difficulty over and above that which is inherent to the game have proved too much for me right now. Where the first game felt hard but fair, Dark Souls 2 feels... mean. Where the first game felt as though the developer had a wry grin on their face as they added each trap and murderous enemy to the game, this one feels more as though the intent is to make players suffer, rather than kick themselves and laugh at their own hubris. As though the developers really zeroed in on the whole "players love our game because it's hard" and forgot about all the other things that we loved about it. Its fairness, its predictability, its interconnected world. Those things all feel as though they've taken a back seat in the sequel.
At the same time though, I think part of my reaction to Dark Souls 2 is my own fault. My first experience of it has been with the "Scholar of the First Sin" edition - which apparently adds very difficult enemies to the beginning of the game (which is something I didn't realise). However, I also think that 2020 as a whole is partly to blame for my inability to get along with this game. Put simply, I'm not in the same place that I was this time last year - mentally or physically. It's been a hard year for all of us - and while the end of 2019 saw me looking for a challenge, the end of 2020 sees me looking for the polar opposite. When simply dragging my ass out of bed in the morning can feel like facing Ornstein & Smough, I'm not going to beat myself up for hunting out the gaming equivalent of comfort food - and Dark Souls 2 simply isn't it. I'll return to this one, and I'm not going to allow myself to feel bad about it. This isn't defeat, it's a retreat. I retreated from the first one multiple times before I finally fought my way through it; I'm optimistic that my experience of the second one will ultimately turn out to be similar. But... yeah. 2020 hasn't been the year for hard games. Not for me, anyway.