Dark Souls II, of course, has all the basics of the “serious” series. There are castles in ruins, dead kings, a lot of traditions that involve terrible stories of greed and anguish. But contrary to those expectations, Dark Souls II leans toward the absurd, humor, and endless creativity, It’s a grim fantasy world, but it’s a world that never takes itself too seriously, which is why I remember Dark Souls II beat by beat more than any other game in the series. There’s the Executioner’s Chariot boss, a rider led by spectral horses that races around a coliseum. He’s the kind of villain you’d see painted in the window of a pop-up Halloween costume store. Scorpioness Najka is a scorpion centaur with two tails, because the character modeler was having a hangover that morning or something. The demon in the song is a huge blind frog that spews out the parched face of a corpse the size of a party van and waves two strange cane-shaped arms like whips.
There is a huge spider boss whose ass is just another spider. You fight a dragon in a large ruined bird cage. Boss Skeleton Lords is a caged match featuring dozens of skeletons, scimitars wielding scythes, while Bonewheels pinball around the arena. When I think about it too much, I can almost hear the creator’s lips curl into a mischievous smile. They knew the reputation these things had in the first game. They knew about our trauma. The face of the foundry demon crumbles like an idiot hovering over the big, comical shoulder pads of a Warhammer orc. Mytha, The Baneful Queen is a Medusa analog that throws her disembodied head at you like a petrification-inducing hand grenade. Royal Rat Authority is a powerful and imposing rat that cuts out the silhouette of a werewolf and works as a cheeky visual nod to Dark Souls’ infamous sword wolf, Sif. Do you remember this handsome boy? Well now he’s covered in shit. But you only fight the Authority after you gain the right to fight, defeating a much cuter little swarm of mice called the Royal Rat Vanguard. We’re just inches from Redwall’s sinister fanfiction here.
Then there’s the Crown of the Ivory King expansion, where you fight a dead king’s old pets, including an invisible snow tiger. This is also where some of Souls’ best level designs are tested and sadly left behind. You’ll cross the level one way and then again after unfreezing enemies and lanes, transforming the entire scene as you go. And hidden in these new ways are the Loyce Knights, undead fighters who will be useful very soon. Because the next step is the final boss of the expansion, which could be considered the most metallic shit that From Software has done. Pass through the Mist Gate and you’ll fall hundreds of feet into a swirling and fiery dimension of chaos, with up to seven fellow Loyce Knight at your side. What follows is Arena Fight, Team Deathmatch, Hell. Total chaos.
The all-in-one nature of Dark Souls II’s fantastic visuals means they get acquainted more often. The game’s pants have ripped and its dungeons and dragons are visible, but frankly, it doesn’t give a damn about that. It’s exhibitionism, playing the role of Grim Fantasy so fast and so freely that it almost feels like a The goofy dungeon master invents Dark Souls II on the fly, imagining wild and surprising monsters that force a wry smile at the end of each cry of surprise.