Many fervent Dark Souls fans have written off Dark Souls 2 as an accident. But, in the words of Bob Ross who'd no doubt look over Medula with a tear in his eye, the sun setting over an endless sea, bathing the ruins of a once proud civilisation in golden light: it's a happy accident.
Dark Souls 2 has all the 'serious' series staples, of course. There are ruined castles, dead kings, piles of lore implying terrible histories of avarice and sorrow. But in contrast with those expectations, Dark Souls 2 folds in endless absurdity, humour, and creativity, particularly in its boss design. This is a grim fantasy world, but it's one that never takes itself too seriously, which is why I remember more of Dark Souls 2 beat-by-beat than any other game in the series.
There's the Executioner's Chariot boss, a horseman led by spectral horses that races around a coliseum. He's the kind of bad guy 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 modeller was hungover that morning or something. The Demon of Song is a huge, blind frog that pukes out the desiccated face of a corpse the size of a party van and waves around two weird stick figure arms like whips.
There's a massive spider boss whose ass is just another spider. You fight a dragon in a big, ramshackle bird cage. The Skeleton Lords boss is a cage match with dozens of skeletons, some wielding scimitars and scythes, while Bonewheels pinball around the arena. When I think about it too hard, I can almost hear the designer's lips curl up in a malicious smile. They knew the reputation those things had in the first game. They knew about our trauma.
The Smelter Demon's face puckers like an asshole propped on top of the comically large pauldrons of a Warhammer orc. Mytha, The Baneful Queen is a Medusa analogue that throws her disembodied head at you like a petrify-inducing hand grenade. Royal Rat Authority is a buff, towering rat that cuts the silhouette of a direwolf, and functions as a cheeky visual nod to Dark Souls' infamous sword-wielding wolf, Sif. Remember that handsome guy? Well, now he's covered in shit. But you only fight the Authority after earning the right in combat, by defeating a tiny swarm of much cuter mice called the Royal Rat Vanguard. We're only inches away from grimdark Redwall fan fiction 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. It's also where some of the best Souls level designs conceits are tested and, sadly, left behind. You'll pass through the level going one way, then again after unfreezing enemies and pathways, transforming the whole scene on the fly. And hidden within those new pathways are Loyce Knights, some undead fighters that'll come in handy very shortly.
Because next up is the expansion's final boss, which might qualify as the most metal shit From Software has ever done. Pass through the fog gate and you drop hundreds of feet into a swirling, fiery chaos dimension, with up to seven Loyce Knight comrades at your side. What follows is an arena fight, team deathmatch, in hell. Total chaos.
The anything-goes nature of Dark Souls 2's fantasy imagery means it brushes up against familiarity more often. The game's pants ripped and its Dungeons and Dragons are showing, but frankly it couldn't care less. It's straight up exhibitionism, playing the Grim Fantasy role so fast and loose that it almost feels like a goofy dungeon master is making up Dark Souls 2 on the fly, imagining wild, surprising monsters that force a wry grin at the end of every surprised scream. From Software has made more cohesive worlds, but none so unreservedly fun.