This is a column by Kat Bailey dedicated to the analysis of the once beloved Japanese RPG sub-genre. Tune in every Wednesday for thoughts on white-haired villains, giant robots, Infinity+1 swords, and everything else the wonderful world of JRPGs has to offer.
It was a cult hit. It had currency among the so-called hardcore gamer. Other publishers simply had to have it. In the end, it was Namco Bandai that came away with the right to publish more From Software titles in the series across multiple platforms, thanks to the minor name change from Demon's Souls to Dark Souls.
Fast-forward to 2012, and Dark Souls 2 has enough cachet to warrant a debut trailer at the Spike Video Game Awards. Namco Bandai is cashing in on the success of Dark Souls and fans have a bona fide franchise on their hands.
Of course, if anyone knows franchises, it's Namco Bandai. This is the company that owns Gundam – a franchise that has gotten two video game adaptations per year since 1986 – as well as a slew of other prominent anime properties. It's the same outfit that puts out a new "Tales of" game every single year (sometimes more than one), to say nothing of what they've done to Soul Calibur and Tekken. Namco Bandai is an old hand at this, to say the least.
Developer From Software, meanwhile, is no stranger to franchises. This is the studio, after all, that is responsible for Armored Core, which has seen the release of many, many full-priced expansion packs over the years. From Software isn't afraid to be quirky (see: Metal Wolf Chaos), but they know where the money is. I'm sure they'll be more than happy to churn out Dark Souls games for as long as the series remains popular.
So now we're getting the third "Souls" game in five years. Not quite an annual franchise, but From Software is certainly putting these games out at a good clip. Series director Hidetaka Miyazaki is out, with Tomohiro Shibuya and Yui Tanimura taking his place. Shibuya has said that Dark Souls 2 will be "more straightforward and more understandable," which has resulted in a wave of hand-wringing among franchise fanatics.
The fear, I think, is that Dark Souls 2 is moving toward appeasing mainstream audiences and losing some of what made it so special in the first place. It's a valid concern, especially considering the venue the game was announced at. But being more straight-forward is not a bad thing. Both Demon's Souls and Dark Souls, if you'll recall, featured some pretty obtuse level design (screw Blighttown, seriously). There's a middle ground that can be reached here.
What actually worries me is the fact that Dark Souls just keeps getting bigger and bigger. In noting Shibuya's comment about accessibility, Edge indirectly gave voice to those fears by suggesting that "we can surely agree that we would all like to see Dark Souls attain as great a presence as The Elder Scrolls."
Well no. Not really.
This isn't a matter of "it's cool, now it sucks." It's more that I prefer a Dark Souls that isn't bound by the expectations that follow a massive AAA venture like Elder Scrolls. I also don't want to see Dark Souls dramatically overreach and become something akin to the Tales series. Remember how the Tales games used to be a charming cult hit? And remember how Namco Bandai tried to turn it into the next Final Fantasy? I don't want that.
See what originally drew me to Dark Souls was not its setpieces, or its graphics, or anything else that is typically associated with a "AAA" franchise. What originally drew me to Demon's Souls were the emotions that it was capable of generating in me. I would turn a corner and see an incredible castle in the distance. Or maybe a massive boss five times as powerful that I couldn't even stay on my feet while fighting him. With each challenge I managed to overcome, I felt a rush of triumph and excitement. Will a series that is essentially mass-produced be able to retain that same emotional impact? I don't know.
I guess all I want from Dark Souls 2 is for it not to fall prey to the temptation of being "a franchise," even as From Software keeps pushing out more sequels. If From Software ever thinks to itself: "This would be a neat idea, but it'll be too hard or confusing," then everything is lost. If it ever thinks: "How can we make this more epic?" We're lost. And if it thinks: "Hey, let's be like Elder Scrolls," well, you get the point.
The good news is that From Software has always marched more or less to the beat of its own drum. It may not always make good games, but it does make interesting games. Even the half-baked Steel Battalion was interesting in its own right. So long as From retains that sense of self and avoids trying to be something it isn't, I think Dark Souls 2 will be all right.
Kat Bailey is a freelance writer based out of San Francisco, California. Her work has been featured on multiple outlets, including GamesRadar, Official Xbox Magazine, gamesTM, and GameSpot. You can follow her on Twitter at @the_katbot.