In the centre of Melbourne stands a malevolent tower. For a hundred years this nine-storey pile dominated Swanston Street. Its purpose? The creation of ammunition. Tons of deadly lead shot poured from its mouth every day, ready to maim and kill.
Some say a hero rose from the city to vanquish the demon building. Others say lead shot became obsolete. However it happened, a generation ago a team of town planners encircled the beast with a labyrinthine shopping centre and imprisoned it beneath a glass cone. Now the tower peers threateningly at the world’s most livable city* through the bars of its cage.
Balanced dizzyingly on the loftiest ranks of Melbourne Central is a nest of cinemas. Having just finished watching Pompeii 3D, alone**, I emerge from the darkness and walk towards an escalator. I’m within the glass cone; nothing but empty air separates me from the tower. Its dozens of hollow eyes follow my progress. Why is it watching me? I soon find out. The escalator is broken and barricaded. I can see no other way down. Dim corridors stretch in both directions. I can feel the tower’s mirth at my predicament. I am cold, exposed, and at the mercy of a sinister colossus.
It’s exactly like playing Dark Souls.
Fortunately, I’m a Dark Souls veteran, so I know inventory management is crucial. I check my backpack and arrange my quick slots. In case I take some damage, I equip a flask of crystalline liquid from distant Mount Franklin, and I check to make sure my cotton and denim armour wont impede my rolling.
I do a quick count of the souls in my possession: one.
I pick a direction and walk, scanning the carpet for traps. I give prostrate bodies in my path a wide berth in case they spring to life and attack. “Pace yourself,” I say, “it’s going to be a long descent.”
The descent is my favourite thing about the Souls games. Every time you think you’ve reached the bottom, there’s a something much worse right beneath your feet. In Dark Souls, you move from a crappy, broken old castle to the even crappier, zombie ridden parish beneath. Beneath the parish, you find a plague infested sewer. Beneath the sewer is a dungeon full of tortured ghouls. You emerge from the bottom of the dungeon into a depressing zombie slum called Blight Town, which is built above a poisonous lake. A cave leads you under the lake to the realm of the spider queen. She guards the entrance to a hellish plane of demons. Eventually you reach the abyss - a place of total blackness. By the time you get there, the sewer’s sounding pretty good.
I’m exploring the Nando’s bathroom in the hopes of finding a bonfire to save my progress. No luck. Other players have inscribed messages on the walls; most of them are unhelpful so I move on. Further down the corridor I spot a hideous creature in the distance. I approach slowly, ready to turn and run.
The creature is an enormous groaning mass composed entirely of schoolgirls, many of them still wearing tattered old uniforms and carrying tattered old iPhone 4s. It stands motionless in front of a set of impressive silver doors. It hasn’t noticed me. As a Dark Souls veteran, I have heard of this monster and I know its name: The Excursion.
What could this vile aberration be guarding behind those doors? A boss fight? Treasure? Some magical armour? I cross my fingers for a suit of dex-build-friendly chainmail and sneak close. My heart jumps when I realise the doors are a fully functional lift.
Unfortunately, my searches of the circular chests dotted around this area have yielded no weapons, only empty popcorn buckets and used tissues, nothing that could threaten The Excursion. Worse still, my magic attacks aren’t working at all - I must be out of charges. Time to break out the evasion skills.
To improve my reflexes, I take a suck on the Boost Juice I purchased from a consumables vendor earlier. There’s a chime and the silver doors slide open. I sprint from my hiding place, squeezing past the front of the creature and into the open lift. The Excursion is enraged. It follows me into the lift, shrieking and waving its many iPhone 4s. I stab the lift button in desperation but the doors won’t close. Arms reach out for me. I press myself against the back wall, waiting to be torn to pieces.
In the Souls games, the physical descent is accompanied by an ever-deepening horror. Every boss in Demon's Souls and Dark Souls feels more macabre and more cruel than the last. There is endless creativity in the designs and mechanics. Four spectral kings surround you in the dark. A giant butterfly blasts you with beams of moonlight and a wolf wields a scimitar like a dog with a stick. A tall knight hunts you in the halls. He’ll kill you in one hit - but only if you make a noise. It was a memorable moment when I realised he was blind.
This is the area where Dark Souls 2 is lacking. The game is as haunting, beautiful, tough and fair as its predecessors. It has a lot of bosses. Some of them are pretty cool, but most of them are variations on the big-scary-knight theme. No matter the boss’s shape, the tactics are identical: circle around, dodge the big hit, whack the boss, repeat. By the end of my first play-through I was 1-shotting everything. That’s not good for a Souls title.
Dark Souls 2 is still great. It’s a hell of a journey, and the mechanics have all improved since the last game. Even the samey-ness of the bosses is a temporary problem. Once you’ve finished your first playthrough and begin the second and subsequent adventures, some of the biggest nasties gain creative extra abilities they ought have had all along. It’s just a shame you can’t experience both types of descent, for the first time, in all their glory, together.
Having somehow survived the lift ride (praise the sun!) I am standing at the foot of the shot tower. Its square silhouette would look right at home in Majula or the Undead Burg. I shudder at the evil it contains. I consider climbing the monster’s ancient stairs, finding its dark heart and ending its menace forever, but the way is blocked. A leather merchant by the name of RM Williams has set up shop in the tower’s base. He offers me fine boots.
I check my soul count. Damn, still just one.
Though I have reached the ground, my descent is not complete. Looking over a railing I see a set of cruel machinery laid out below. Iron bars obstruct most of the passage, with access possible only through narrow gantries. These are blocked by heavy metal blades, which part briefly when a Myki card is applied to a nearby panel, then smash together to trap the slow and the unready. Snarling giants in long woollen armour guard the vile contraption.
With no choice, I board the escalator to face this latest danger. I know I must overcome the killer device to descend yet further, into a land of dark tunnels, and board a train to Frankston.
Who knows what horrors await me there.
- Andrew Masters
* I'm sure Sydney's nice too.
Screen Play readers can submit articles and game reviews for consideration in Your Turn and Your Review using the email address SPYourTurn@gmail.com. The best blog post published on Screen Play between 1 March and 31 March 2014, as judged by James Dominguez, will win a PS Vita handheld console from Sony Computer Entertainment Australia. This is a wi-fi unit, and has a recommended retail price of $349. The winner will be announced in the first week of April. Only Australian residents are eligible and the judge's decision is final.
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