In Dark Souls 1, I never really felt safe in the Firelink Shrine.
From the moment I was dropped unceremoniously next to the bonfire by a massive crow, Firelink Shrine felt like a place I was in not because it was in the centre of the world, but because it was the only spot that was free of enemies within a 30 second walk in any direction. Firelink Shrine scared me. It was dark, there was weird snoring coming from the pool in its centre, and that weird cleric off to the side was always cackling evilly. But, it conveniently connected three totally different areas that required totally different skill levels to conquer. Of course, that meant me, a first-time player, had a ⅔ chance of walking into an army of giant skeletons, or falling into an abyss full of untouchable ghosts. Firelink wasn’t a base of operation, or a home, or even a hub world. It was the scary gate to an open world full of horrors that would chew your face off and have your hands for dessert.
Dark Souls 2, on the other hand, tries to make me feel as safe as possible at any given moment. Every bonfire is just a loading screen’s worth of fast travel away from beautiful, seaside Majula, a magical town without an enemy in sight. Majula is not only home to every NPC you “save” over the course of the game, but also a handy-dandy covenant manager, level-up mistress, and merchants and blacksmiths galore. It’s bright and gorgeous, with probably the nicest fictional sunset I’ve ever seen outside of an anime ending credits sequence. Plus, like Firelink before it, Majula also connects to at least two other locations right off the bat, and more as you explore. Of course, unlike Firelink, those two areas are actually both fairly manageable your first time through. Even though speedrunners and high-level DS1 players found more efficient paths, the Undead Burg was usually your first stop after Firelink. Majula on the other hand hooks you up with the Forest of Fallen Giants, a fairly simple beginners area, and Heide’s Tower of Flame, which is patrolled by seven-foot-tall Knights who wield greatswords twice their size and make you turn around screaming “nope” all the way back to the bonfire.
But Heide’s is manageable for a player who’s quick enough on their feet to dance around the lumbering knights. As a bonus, it's also home to some items that could make the early game much friendlier for a first-time player. Emphasizing that, both Heide’s and the easier forest loop around to the same end location after a while, merely approaching it from different ends.
But the way from Majula to Heide’s doesn’t feel terribly organic. The path is through a tunnel that goes through some sewers before spilling out to a beautiful ruin floating in the ocean. You can’t see Majula past the high cliffs, and you definitely can’t see the underground catacombs that Heide’s will lead you to by the end. It’s a distinct shift from DS1, which delighted in showing you what was coming, only to pull the rug out from underneath just before you got there. You see the foot of the Undead Burg’s drake long before you see the drake itself, and the first bell is visible from the moment you walk into the city. The world doesn’t only let you go anywhere, but it’s willing to show you everything, almost as if to say “you see that belltower? It’s not just scenery, you can climb it.”
That’s part of what made DS1’s open world so enticing. Everything was not only interconnected, but also visible from anywhere else. Everything fit together and became accessible in logical ways. The Valley of Drakes opens up to the Darkroot Garden, which leads to a backdoor into the Undead Parish, giving a smart player a quick shortcut up to the first bell. Learning the world and its labyrinthine connections was as much of a strategy as learning how to fight.
But I still haven’t gotten that feeling from DS2 yet. Sure, it took a few months and constant speedrunning to find out how to best use DS1’s dense, tightly wound world to avoid challenges and run through the world without a care, but the evidence was there from the beginning. Everything up until Anor Londo was deeply and intricately connected in a way that made sense- in a way that made Lordran feel like a real world. DS2’s Drangleic feels more like Peach’s Castle from Mario 64 than anything else.
It’s classic hub and spokes design. Majula branches into three or four areas as the game goes on, each in turn then branches out again. Some of these branches intersect, but nothing ever winds back into Majula. Peach’s Castle opened up into dozens of areas, including new floors of the castle when it came time to open up a few more levels. Of course, Drangleic is a little bit more open and intricate than that, but it’s the same basic design philosophy. Lordran was tightly wound to the point where some levels suffered from having to fit back together into a greater whole, but it led to a dense, cohesive world. Each of Drangleic’s areas are vast in scope and feel like fantastically designed individual challenges, but never quite come together as a single unit. I know that Majula and Heide’s are both by the sea, but I honestly couldn’t place them on a map for you.
The problem is only exacerbated by fast travel, which DS2 gives you from the word go. You’ll need it, because areas are much bigger and getting between them would be a pain without it, but I get the sense that the chicken came before the egg here. DS1 gave you fast travel as a reward for finishing half the main game and making it to Anor Londo, the bottleneck-y, hyper-linear, vipers nest of an endgame. Fast travel was meant to be freeing and empowering, giving you control over this world that you’d been struggling to navigate for the last thirty hours. The designers may have reacted so positively to it, they gave it to you at the beginning this time, which made them able to make much more compartmentalized levels. It all smacks a little bit of Demon’s Souls, the predecessor to the Dark Souls series, but since I haven’t played a lot of Demon’s I can’t really speak to that.
I’m not sure if that really matters in terms of designing an open world though. It’s nice that DS1 is a tightly wound coil of a world, endlessly circling back into itself again and again, but DS2 features such incredibly different areas, all with fantastic, individual designs. At the end of the Heide’s/Forest loop, you’ll find an area called the Lost Bastille, which can be approached from whichever entrance you happen to find first. It’s a beautifully designed level that is challenging both forwards and back, and has a sort of high road/low road balance that makes it super fascinating to explore over and over. But, you get there through what basically amounts to warping. The Lost Bastille doesn’t really feel like it’s part of the same world as Heide’s and Majula, but if it had to open to those, I can’t imagine it would have the same scope or style. It looks nothing like the rest of Dragnleic, which is great and refreshing, but stops it from feeling like it’s as real a world as Lordran.
Then again, DS1 started extremely open before completely bottlenecking you towards the middle chunk of the game, and DS2 shows no signs of slowing down the rate it gives me new areas to explore. A big part of what made DS1 so open was also the master key, which opened almost every door in the game, and was available on the character creation screen. There’s no item like that anywhere in DS2, as if to say off the bat that you aren’t going to get to dictate your movements through the world as easily this time around. It leads to DS2 being a much more directed game, with more set pieces and planned ambushes. It’s a great game, but I’m not sure if it really uses the open world concept quite as effectively.
It’s interesting, however, to see DS2 take a much more classic stance on open world design, drawing directly from Super Mario 64, the granddaddy of 3D sandbox games. The world is huge, but it is it really a world? Or just a collection of levels hidden behind paintings?
Actually, DS1 had a world hidden in a painting as well, so it tried that too. Nevermind, Dark Souls 2 sucks, everyone go home and play Mario.