Developer: From Software
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Much like when you meet someone you haven’t seen for ten years, there’s a familiar yet oddly different feel for Dark Souls II. You know it’s the same person, but time has changed them and it’s up to you to figure out if their new quirks are worth your time and energy. Of course, in real life your old friend won’t brutally murder you time and time again in an effort to give you the knowledge of how to defeat them, but I think it’s a decent metaphor in the case of From Software’s sequel.
Just about, anyway. But then that’s very Dark Souls in and of itself – just about scraping by to victory. In fact, writing this review has been in keeping with playing it - I scrapped everything I had written twice before getting it right and proclaiming myself the victor. Take that, words and opinion!
If I’m completely honest, I really do not think that, for the most part, Dark Souls II will be changing opinions on From Software’s game design. If you hated Dark Souls, considering it cheap and broken, you’re almost certainly going to remain on that side of the fence, but the new tutorial section that I call Newbie Canyon helps matters in a very Dark Souls manner that, at the very least, is a damn sight better than the Undead Asylum.
That’s not the only change though, with several gameplay mechanics revamped this time around. The biggest one is the addition of Majula - a settlement that acts much like the central hub in Demon’s Souls – where the player will return to regular to prepare for their next excursion into battle. Providing a main place of respite improves the flow of the game, as well as allowing the sprawling land of Drangleic to spread out in many directions instead of overlapping each other like in Lordran. Taking this approach has provided the developers enough space for various different types of environments compared to the mainly grey and dark locales in Dark Souls, with effective transitions from dark to light, from castles to forests, and also presenting the player with many breath-taking vistas similar to the first time you enter Anor Londo.
Of course, the beauty around you is very much ripped away when the enemies begin to strike and the deaths begin to stack up, and so I should probably get back to the whole gameplay aspect. You see, for every improvement From Software have provided such as slicker movement controls and increased item slots, there has been a concession to fiendishly difficult devilry made elsewhere. Diminishing the player’s health upon death is the most notable, but while it may seem unfair to begin with I felt it made sense the further I got into the game. Lifegems – a new item that gives healing over time – gradually go from seemingly overpower to much-needed necessity, while Human Effigies which provide humanity at any time (changed from being a bonfire-only thing) are relatively rare. This could prove most frustrating for veterans of Dark Souls, as it becomes an item so rare that it gates out features that were perhaps previously taken for granted, such as summoning phantoms for help.
However, the issue is exacerbated by another new feature – limited respawns of enemies. Eventually the game will remove foes completely should you defeat them enough, meaning farming souls and items is not possible in the long run. Of course, this could be the developer’s way of pushing the player into replaying the game, but there are ways to get around these issues. However, in true Dark Souls fashion, that’s for the player to discover…
Or for them to Google. Whatever.
From a technical standpoint, Dark Souls II is once again an absolute mixed bag. While it has moments of absolute beauty thanks to its art design, there are moments where the game suffers from a graphical aspect – an issue I am hoping is resolved on the PC version – but it in no way makes the game unplayable or ugly. Hit detection, on the other hand, is my biggest bug bear. I lost count of the number of times I thought I would be safe, only for a spell to go through a wall and hit me, while the invisible wall issue from Dark Souls made sniping with my bow even more troublesome than before. It will be interesting to see if these issues are finally addressed when From Software move on from last gen hardware, but while it is disappointing that the issues are still present, the only comfort I can provide is that it’s no worse than Dark Souls’ foibles.
It’s a shame this is the case, because in terms of the animations of enemies and NPCs, the stiffness from previous games has been reduced quite significantly. I found that as a result, interactions with the characters you come across are much more natural (in a Dark Souls way, of course) and helped with the overall immersion.
While isolation has always been a strong aspect of the Souls games, Dark Souls II is perhaps the most connected of the series. Player messages return with improved flexibility in what can be left for others to read, while the increased number of covenants to join (and other ways to assist / face off against other players) means there is more choice for the player in both a PvP and role-playing standpoint. Bloodstains provide helpful hints of how someone died before you, but I found the real-time ghosts of players currently in-game, tackling the same foes and obstacles that I was, to be the best encouragement for the difficult path that lay before me.
Oh yes – Dark Souls II is most definitely a challenge most bastardly, with From Software pulling out all the stops to trick and troll the community. Hidden enemies, new traps, and boss fights will, if not prepared for correctly, punish you into a sobbing heap in the corner of the room. Even the section of gameplay I experience during the Network Test proved not only challenging in a brand new way, but it appears there were some brand new surprises waiting for me, and were very happy to make me pay the iron price for my hubris.
However, beyond the screams of disbelief over being smote into a bloody pump for the tenth time, the moments my other half has had to calm me down after proclaiming “I just can’t see how to do this” (which in fairness is a role reversal from her time playing many a game in the past) is a game that once again can instil a feeling of great accomplishment from overcoming a foe. Some 65 hours after I started my journey in Drangleic I have finished my first run, but I know I’m not done. There are hidden bosses to find, other optional ones to take down, and that’s not even taking the New Game + into consideration. Hell, that’s not taking the other classes into account, or the various covenants (some of which provide unique content), or the PvP aspect that can mix things up at a moment’s notice as someone comes to murder you. When it boils down to it, From Software have managed to create a new experience that Souls fans will relish, providing they are, as the tagline goes, prepared to die again.
And again. And again.
- An expansive and varied world to explore.
- Slicker controls improve combat and traversal.
- Changes to core mechanics make for a better & more interesting game…
- … but said changes will throw (and possibly frustrate) Souls’ veterans initially.
- Hit detection is still as buggy as ever.
- Graphical concessions are disappointing, despite other improvements.
The Short Version:
It won’t convert those who despise the Souls series, but the journey through the stunning lands of Drangleic is, for the most part, everything fans could have hoped for in a sequel. With fresh challenges, dastardly traps, and murderous invaders waiting at every corner, the sense of discovery and accomplishment is there for the taking… providing you’re patient and brave enough to overcome it. The Iron Price of gaming is back, and it demands that you die.