Note: This is an article in a series dissecting the good, bad, and horrid of Dark Souls 2. Rebuttals to the arguments presented here will come in future articles, but feel free to disagree in the comments below. These opinions are my own, and are informed by others as little as possible.
Last time we discussed why the bosses make Dark Souls 2 suck, and while one aspect of a game does not a failure make, multiples certainly might. To that end, let’s look at why the map design of Dark Souls 2 is utter trash, and how it affects the flow of the game (trashily).
No one likes a fork in the road
One of the original Dark Souls’s best qualities was the cyclical nature of its world map. Starting from Firelink Shrine, you rarely, if ever, had to visit the same location more than twice. Indeed, unless you wanted to take a look at the stock of those merchants that flocked to it, you needn’t have come back to Firelink even once to progress the game. In short, everywhere linked to everywhere else, and the world felt real, connected.
Dark Souls 2 does away with that connectivity, for the most part. Instead, you start at Majula and expand outwards, upwards, sidewards, and downwards. However, instead of simply walking to your next destination, you more than likely have to head back to Majula, as every path simply ends, lacking any connection to another. Sure, you can teleport through bonfires from the start, but when the world is, essentially, a series of spider-leg paths that have a single sunlit vertex, there’s no sense of cohesion to it. It ceases to be a world at all, becoming merely a set of roadways that, again likely enough, end in a boss fight or two and nothing else.
That these needs be the case is a sad state, as one of the key selling points of the original Dark Souls was that sense of cohesion. Not just given by the map design, but also by the subtle direction every area gave players. You might not know exactly where you’re going or why, but you could rely on the environment to at least give you an idea of where you needed to be. If you ended up at Darkroot Basin out of the Undead Burg and found yourself outclassed, it was clear why. Dark Souls 2, by contrast, has no clear markings of where you need to go. Even the NPCs give little in the way of guidance, saying only, “Seek the King” or “There’s a forest there. Go look at it.”
Uncertain paths, uncertain players
If players don’t have a sense of where they need to go, they’ll never learn why they need to go there. As far as the player is concerned, the Pit in Majula might simply be a giant troll by the developers. “That pit’s got treasure in it,” you say. “But you die when you try to get it. Every. Single. Time.” What incentive other than that treasure exists to go looking? None, really, and even with Gilligan’s dialogue saying there might be something down there, the early frustration might make some players simply put the game down altogether.
This is not, of course, saying that entire areas of the map are prohibitive in their design. Black Gulch, for example, is essentially a giant poison pit, and the deadliness of poison in DS2 is scary enough without making it nigh inevitable. On a personal note, I remember making it through the Gutter and arriving at Black Gulch, then saying “Nope, not doing this. Nope nope nope.” I warped out shortly thereafter. At the same time, I knew I would probably have to go through it to progress the game. I didn’t nope any less, but I sighed and ground my teeth, becuase, unlike almost any location in Dark Souls 1, I truly did not want to ever have to come back there. I hated Blighttown, to be sure, and Lost Izalith was tedious, and the Catacombs were annoying, but none gave me the aversion of Black Gulch.
A difficult game should do the exact opposite of what I’ve just described. Instead of making players grind their teeth because they physically do not want to play an area, you should make them feel like they’ve conquered something when they complete it. The Tome of the Giants was the latter. I hate the dark in large part because my vision sucks, but the sheer relief and exhilaration of getting to that first bonfire is unlike most other feelings in gaming. Getting through Black Gulch just makes me angry.
I could go on about these kinds of choices, but if you’ve played Dark Souls 2, you can fill in your own grievances. Anything from the windmill in Earthen Peak to the “kill these enemies every time you face the boss” in Iron Keep, there are any number of locations where it’s neither fun or rewarding to complete. This does not even account for the strange area transitions between poison and lava, night and day, dark and light, and at the risk of waxing angry, I’ll end the article here.
Next time we’re talking about characters, and why they suck.