There’s a moment in Dark Souls II that is infamous among the fandom. It’s known simply as “The Elevator”.
At a roughly halfway through the game, at the end of an area called Earthen Peak, you enter a long elevator. This is immediately suspicious considering you are at the top of a very tall fortress (that literally has “peak” in its name), made worse because you then proceed to go up for a considerable amount of time, only to emerge at the Iron Keep, which is deep inside a volcano of some sort.
“Are we supposed to believe this is a, *snort*, MAGIC elevator or something?” you probably imagine me saying, but this was a big issue to many people playing a game where it’s possible to declare your allegiance to a talking rat. I include myself in that group, by the way, as pointing to The Elevator worked as a convenient shorthand for anyone that wanted a brief summation of why I didn’t like Dark Souls II. It was a damning condemnation of what was supposed to be a sequel to Dark Souls, a game that features one of the most thoughtfully crafted worlds in the whole of the medium.
If you buy-in to the myth of Hidetaka Miyazaki (and I mostly do), then you believe everything in the original Dark Souls has a purpose. It’s this intentionality that makes the Soulsborne series more than just that meat grinder of difficulty it’s reductively cited for. It’s a puzzle of sorts that keeps people sticking around long after they’ve mastered the mechanics of a particular encounter. It works because you can trust that everything follows an internal logic and, more importantly, that digging deeper will always offer some sort of revelation about the world.
This isn’t to say that Dark Souls II never does this, but it also ignores that promise often enough that you can never quite trust your own feelings about a situation. It’s why I’ve always been of the mind that Dark Souls II wasn’t remotely a bad game, but that it was a bad sequel to Dark Souls, and that putting it in the hands of a secondary team was a mistake. After my most recent time with the game, years after my last failed attempt at letting it grab me, I find myself less sure of that.
About a month ago, I finished Dark Souls II for the first time. I completed all the DLCs, joined every covenant, and finished as many NPC questlines as possible without driving myself mad. In short, I saw most everything Dark Souls II had to offer and, to my surprise, I didn’t regret it. Is it as good as the original? No, but I could say the same of Dark Souls III. Maybe saying that it isn’t comparable to one of my favorite game experiences of all time isn’t a fair way to evaluate it.
Dark Souls II is still a deeply flawed game in a lot of ways; encounters rely far too much on swarms of enemies that will chase you forever, the bosses are often bland and too frequent, and there are parts of the story that really only make sense if you assume that your character is frequently hallucinating. This was even worse before the Scholar of the First Sin update, which essentially remade the game, even going as far as to modify enemy placements and story details so they made more sense.
The elevator is still there, though I don’t mind it as much anymore. From Software themselves have said that moment was a mistake and remained as such for reasons of budget. I’m forced to think back to how many other games I’ve championed with far more egregious flaws and I can’t muster the energy to be upset by it anymore. It was clearly a game with a troubled development, and with that consideration, it’s a sort of miracle that DSII is as good as it is. In the past, I’ve taken this (perhaps misplaced) sense of pride in enjoying games that have significant issues; the Deadly Premonitions of the world that have something to offer, even if you have to do some work to find it. While I wouldn’t say those two games are comparable in terms of quality, Dark Souls II has occupied that space in my mind. It’s not a complete fumble of a beloved franchise as much as an underdog fighting under the weight of perhaps impossible expectations.
Perhaps a better point of comparison is Silent Hill 4, another maligned sequel in a franchise I love. Time has been kinder to The Room over the years, in part because the Western iterations that followed were so below the mark, but also because of how daring it actually was; attempting to stay true to a rigid list of prerequisites whilst still trying to form its own identity. Silent Hill 4 will long be remembered for a lot of unforgivable escort missions. It will, often in the same breath, be known for an ambitious concept that offered some of the more effective scares in the entire series. By that same token, Dark Souls II will likely always be known for that damn elevator, but, in time, perhaps we can also acknowledge how much it tried to craft its own story, stepping out of the looming shadow that is the Dark Souls 1 lore. Dark Souls II is a damn good game that offers a variation of gameplay builds and nonlinearity that lend themselves to frequent playthroughs, moreso than any other game of its type. Unlike the other games in the Soulsborne saga, it also presents a story of hope and a potential for change in the face of insurmountable odds, even if, again, it’s hidden behind a lot of frustration and heartache. In a lot of ways, that’s as true to Miyazaki’s core philosophy as any other game they‘ve produced, as he never intended for the games to simply be hard, but to be a journey that leads to a sense of revelation and accomplishment.
If I could describe my relationship with Dark Souls II in a word, it would be that – a journey. Parts of it are difficult, even sometimes maddening, but finally reaching the end of that journey, I no longer feel reason to regret it.