I was originally going to leave this review to the wayside; the existence of Elden Ring has been taking up all my time recently, but in my mind I believed that the previous several FromSoftware games had come out "fairly recently." Unfortunately for me, Dark Souls 3 came out in 2016, which was six entire years ago, back when I first started college. So, armed with the knowledge that the passage of time cannot and will never stop, I've decided that Dark Souls 2 and Dark Souls 3 are now just old enough to qualify for my sort of review. I'll be reviewing them as a pair, because these games are such fundamental opposites that they need to be explained in relativity to each other. And before you ask, no, I don't prefer Dark Souls 3.

See, Dark Souls 2 is the sort of game that stands on its own from the rest of the Dark Souls series. It was so standalone that a lot of people got extremely angry over it. They also got mad over the healing system being changed, the fast travel system being changed, the difficulty curve being slightly different, the stat spread being tweaked, and the game just generally being different from the first one. And even if you asked me at the time, I would have said that a lot of the criticism aimed at Dark Souls 2 was unfounded. But that same criticism did hit on a very important point, which is that Dark Souls 2 was an underdog game. It was developed under very tight conditions by a team that wasn't entirely prepared for the task, and the scope of the game had to be reduced significantly from the design documents. Many of the game's ideas are represented in a half-finished form, like the torches being ruined by the cut down lighting engine or the fact that the game was apparently supposed to be an open world— or so the rumors go.

Dark Souls the Third, on the other hand, is a finished game. I say that with quite a bit of weighty emphasis. It was made by Dark Souls' original development team and had what I can only describe as a "big chunky budget" that led to it having a lot of fully realized ideas compared to Dark Souls 2's untapped potential. It's just, well, that all those fully realized ideas didn't really mean anything because they weren't very good ideas. Simplify the canon by almost entirely removing the previous game's contributions to the lore. Put the final conclusion to the series in the DLC. Alter a lot of the existing lore to be more literal so that said final conclusion can make any amount of sense. Remove poise as it previously existed. Prevent the player from upgrading their armor, so that all endgame players are wearing the same fancy superhero knight outfit. Paint the entire game various shades of grey, brown, and orange. For every good idea Dark Souls 2 introduced to the series that got cut short, Dark Souls 3 was willing to replace it with a slightly worse idea. Powerstancing became the twin weapons, and so on. And by the end of Dark Souls 3, I wanted nothing more than to stop playing and go start a new character in the previous game in the series. That's never, ever a good sign.

These two games are the prime example of a rule of game development previously demonstrated by the Legend of Zelda series: a game that is built around the creators' limitations is defined by its ingenuity, but a game that is built in spite of the creators' limitations is defined by those same limitations. Wind Waker and Twilight Princess are both amazing games, but Wind Waker is considered superior because it leans into the limitations that define it. Long loading times became the sprawling depth of its seas, and graphical walls necessitated its unique and timeless art style. The twin Dark Souls sequels have the same effect; Dark Souls 2 is the superior game to Dark Souls 3 because regardless of how tight its limitations were, it is a game that approached those problems with a sense of purpose. The tighter controls, the more methodical combat, the leaner level design— all of these things lend Dark Souls 2 its charm. And that's just the nail in the coffin, isn't it. Dark Souls 3 doesn't really have any charm. It's a bland cookie-cutter sequel that somehow manages to feel both "less than the sum of its parts" and "way too many new ideas," fearing its own limitations like a teenager covering bad acne with the wrong shade of foundation.

And the best part of writing this review all these years later is that now, Elden Ring exists. And because Elden Ring exists, we now know that Dark Souls 2 won. Sure, the game still has the FP system, and the game engine leans a bit more threeward, but everything that Dark Souls 2 introduced is there. The torch is actually important now, when areas are pitch black and wholly atmospheric. Poise is back. Fast travel is even more freeform and convenient. Even minute details, like the collection of universal unlock items that let the player slip into little side areas or the huge branching paths that loop back on themselves to give the player room to explore. And let's not forget that Elden Ring is the promise of Dark Souls 2 being a massive open world game made consummate— in every sense, the black sheep of the series proving that it could have been better than its siblings if only it had more room to grow.

In other words, it's no surprise that I'm going to give Dark Souls 2 a higher score than Dark Souls 3. But in this case, I want to knuckle down on what the weight of those numbers truly means. Dark Souls 2, for all its minute flaws, is more meaningful than its sister sequel. When I give it a high number, it means that the weight of its world, story, atmosphere, game feel— all of it— amounts to more than Dark Souls 3's equivalents. What I mean to say is, a lot of the game sphere considers Dark Souls 2 a sinkhole of lost potential; combing over it like an archaeological site, praising its ideas while damning it for never fully realizing them. I want to take a different stance. Dark Souls 2 is, in totality, a better game than Dark Souls 3. Not in spite of its limitations, but because of them. Dark Souls 3 had the space to be whatever it wanted to be. It could have damn well been an interesting open world game, or a complex continuation of the dynamics between the two previous installments of the story, or any other number of things, but it was decided that it was going to instead be mediocre. Fresh in the broadest stroke of the word, infused with ideas, but without any original vision to call its own— and that is far more of an insult than any unfinished mechanic could ever be.

Dark Souls 2 - 13/15 - Gold Queen

Dark Souls 3 - 7/15 - Black Pawn

Thanks for reading.