Narrator: it did not.
The Duke’s Archives is by far the best level in Dark Souls post-Anor Londo. It might be one of the best levels in the game — that perfect, warren-like set of passageways and shortcuts and cutbacks that just comes together so beautifully. It being self-contained may also have something to do with it; like the Painted World, which is much more explicit about its sequesteredness. Coming back to it after playing the other Fromsoft games, the first bit also has a bit of a Hypogean Gaol feel — actually, the slimy, grabby snake-monsters that follow that part have more than a little of a Bloodborne vibe as well. Whch brings me to the best part of every Fromsoft game — the DLC.
I have very strong opinions on Fromsoft DLC — basically that, with basically no exceptions (I don’t love Crown of the Sunken King or Ashes of Ariandel, but they’re still great), they’re the best parts of each game. They have the best, most interesting bosses; the most satisfying fights; the most engaging level design; the most creative aesthetics. Artorias of the Abyss bears this out. It’s the best part of Dark Souls, and going from the mess that is New Londo and Izalith to it is what really sends this game out on a high note.
This time however, it’s also making me think about Bloodborne, because having now played BB twice and knowing that the original DS1 team made it, AotA can’t help but feel like a prototype for it.
Lengthy Dark Souls/AotA/Bloodborne-y thoughts, basically a blog post, I apologize; also lots of spoilers
This is probably most obvious in the enemy design and aesthetics. The Oolacile Residents with their bloated heads and mutated red eyes; the Oolacile Sorceresses with their thorny catalysts and purplish faces; the chained prisoner miniboss with its body almost subsumed by metal — there’s a level of body horror being experimented with here that goes beyond anything else the game does. Zombies are one thing; these are angled in that Lovecraftian direction that we know they later went into full-force.
But the world and level design bears that out too. The Royal Wood is a fairly standard wide-open level, with a carefully telegraphed path through it signaled by flowers and the bluish tendrils of the Abyss, but it uses the template of Darkroot Garden to create the kind of hub around Artorias’s arena that reminds me intensely of Bloodborne’s level layout. Even more so in Oolacile and the Chasm of the Abyss: a level that emphasizes verticality, descent, in a way that shrinks the overall sense of Dark Souls’'s world into a microcosm. It’s eerily reminiscent of the Fishing Hamlet, with its rooftops and hidden caves beneath; it just ends with a different kind of ocean.
It also resolves one of the major issues in Dark Souls’s second half — enemy placement. Specifically, enemies you can see from miles away, usually in a crowd of several identical ones, waiting patiently to be awakened by the player’s approach. For a game that tries to play down its gameyness, this is one of DS1’s few real failures — and something that is hid more and more successfully in the subsequent games. The classic example is the Demon Ruins and Lost Izalith, with a bunch of Taurus and Capra and Bounding Demons seemingly Ctrl+C-Ctrl+V’d across the map. But it bears out elsewhere, like just above Crystal Cave by the Duke’s Archive bonfire, or in the painting room of Anor Londo. AotA still has this issue somewhat, but in the Royal Wood most of the enemies are gardeners wielding farm tools — and a lot of them are actually active, moving around in their little rhythms, tending ceaselessly to trees and flowerbeds. This is Bloodborne — this is what that game does with motion, paths, enemy routines to make Yharnam feel less constructed and more organic.
And the boss fights — there’s a manticore-like creature that’s a fun beast fight; a frenetic knight in armor who has the kind of buff/second phase transition several BB bosses have; a hidden dragon in the tradition of optional encounters; and Manus, a sort of middle ground between the series’ more humanoid and more beast-ish battles.
Except unlike the beast fights in the main game — where they’re typically slow and lumbering and wield AOE as their main weapon, these beast fights are quick and precise. Artorias as well; he’s unique in DS1 because he’s the only fight in which I have trouble stopping to heal. Basically every other (single) fight in the game, and even some of the multi-boss ones, gives you fairly generous healing windows if you know where to look for them. With Artorias, it feels like you need to be frame-perfect to take even one swig of Estus. The combat speed pushes the limit of what DS1’s system can do — and feels more of a kind with Lady Maria (or Sir Alonne or the Abyss Watchers or Slave Knight Gael or any of the fast humanoid fights that come later in the series). It’s so finely tuned though that it makes for an utterly exhilarating fight. It was the first boss in the series that I beat and wanted to fight again immediately afterwards. That’s a short list — Lady Maria, Fume Knight, Slave Knight Gael, all of which feel built from his formula.
(I haven’t even brought up Manus yet, who also feels like a prototype for nimble beast bosses like Ludwig, Vicar Amelia, and the Blood-Starved Beast.)
In any case, Dark Souls is good, and its DLC is a fascinating window into what later Soulsborne games become. I just have Manus and Kalameet left to finish up (well and the Gaping Dragon, who I skipped, and Gwyndolin, and Stray Demon), then Imma go get Solaire and give Gwyn a very stern talking to. Hopefully he sees the error of his ways.