Dark Souls 2 is barely a week old at the time of writing, meaning eager Souls players are likely still in the process of becoming reacquainted with the series’ uncompromising difficulty. Uncompromising truly is the word for the game, because for all its cloaks and daggers, the archive of tricks that FromSoftware so gleefully employs to the detriment of the player’s blood pressure levels, the lynchpin of the challenge of Souls games is its refusal to let up. It is both relentless and stubborn, and rather than fall into what has become a disturbingly common trend in modern games and propose a lowered difficulty, the game purposely raises the bar with each failure by the player. FromSoftware doesn’t hold hands, but instead demands more out of the player.
Newer Souls fans may not know that they owe this trait not to Dark Souls but to the series’ progenitor, Demon’s Souls, in which the player existed in both body and soul form. The former offered all the tried-and-true benefits you’d expect—phantom summoning, most notably—while Soul form came prepackaged with a halved health bar. Until revived—even after retrieving your bloodstain—your maximum health is halved, a condition only slightly alleviated through equipping the much loved Cling Ring, which lessens the effects. This is to say nothing of Character and World Tendencies, which directly affected the toughness of enemies and the role of Black Phantom-form enemies, and become darker (read: worse) with each death.
The infamous Black Phantom trio of Demon's Souls World 1, Stage 4.
Losing half of your maximum health with every death is crippling, and places even greater importance on the caution and awareness of the player. It betters the medieval and methodical combat that the Souls games have polished by adding tangible repercussions to every fatal mistake. And yet, this penalty was entirely absent from the original Dark Souls. Improved enemy A.I. and level design more than made up for the gap created by the lack of a true death penalty—aside from losing all held Souls, of course—but deaths in Dark Souls did lose impact for lack of an immediate change on the game.
Today, though, all eyes are on Dark Souls 2 and what dubiousness it’s brought to the series. Interestingly, its answer to death is very much a hybridization of its predecessors. Given its canonical relation to the original, it’s no surprise to see that the process of Hollowing is still in place. This time around, however, it is no longer a black-and-white system of Hollow or not; every death in Dark Souls 2 robs the player of precious shreds of their humanity, cumulatively bringing them closer and closer to complete hollowing. As their condition worsens, peaking with the player’s flesh practically falling off, more and more of their maximum health is lost, regained only through the use of a Human Effigy which are notoriously scarce, especially in the early stages of the game (you know, where they’re most needed). The worst-case scenario in Dark Souls 2 is also having halved maximum health, although it takes 10 effigy-less deaths to reach that state.
At first glance, this system appears to be nothing more than a watered-down iteration of Demon’s Souls penalty system. “The same effect but spread across 10 deaths? Child’s play!” you may say. In a sense, you’d be right: a single death in Demon’s Souls does have a greater immediate impact than in Dark Souls 2. However, that’s approaching the situation on paper alone.
In practice, the multi-staged effect of Dark Souls 2 yields a much more nuanced effect. In the case of Demon’s Souls, as crippling as losing half of your health is—and it really, really is—there is also a degree of relief in knowing that your situation is now at its worst. It’s the bittersweet realization of knowing what you have to deal with and what meager tools are available to you, and that further deaths will not rob you of them. In the process of distributing halved hitpoints across multiple deaths, Dark Souls 2 has substituted that quasi-relief with yet more pressure on the player.
Pressure… hmm… what applies pressure…
It’s the difference between “Crap. I died. Well, I’ll just have to make due with half health.” and “I cannot afford to die again, or I will have to use my last Human Effigy.” It is a subtle effect on the player that creates another balance of allocation, not unlike the one between spending Souls on improving your character via levelling and your equipment via reinforcement. And it is one that is only able to exist thanks to the further improvements granted to the enemies and bosses of Dark Souls 2.
Of course, the effect is ultimately lost once the player reaches the dreaded ten death marker, though it is reset with the use of an Effigy. Moreover, Dark Souls 2 is not without a “Cling Ring” of its own: the Ring of Binding reduces the HP lost with each death. Regardless, dying in Dark Souls 2 once again places the player in a true rock-and-hard-place situation—one of many ways the game has improved upon the original.