A finely tuned challenge that will kill you.
I was on a small rickety bridge in a low lit cave when I saw a bright blue light coming from a mangled body lying on a platform just to the edge of a cliff. It was an item, something I wanted to add to my inventory to hopefully help me survive this place. I crossed the bridge and moved away from the edge of the cliff to put some space in between me and the bottomless pit. I initiated a run and at the edge of the cliff jumped towards the platform with all my strength. I fell just short of the platform and watched my character fall into the darkness of the pit until he was seen no more. “You Died” appeared on the screen with that always familiar sound. At the bottom of the screen, an achievement popped up saying “Welcome to Dark Souls.” My face cracked a smile. It’s been a while, old friend.
As someone who has played From Software’s Souls series numerous times, Dark Souls II was always going to be something I couldn’t wait to get my hands on. The paragraph above is just one of many times “You Died” appeared on my screen while playing, and each time came with sadness, frustration and determination. Of course, that never stopped me from pressing on and after numerous hours, victory was achieved, and it never felt more satisfying.
Taking place in Drangleic, a cursed land where hollowed creatures and men roam practically everywhere, the player arrives seeking a way to restore their humanity and reverse the curse that has them going hollow before they become one of the forever cursed that inhabit the land.
Yep. It’s Dark Souls.
Players of the Souls series will be in somewhat familiar territory. Killing enemies produces souls that can be used to purchase items and equipment, but are also used to level up their characters. Dying will force the character to drop their collected souls and the player will then have to make it back to where they died without dying again to collect them. Stamina management is still of the utmost importance, and knowing when to dodge, block and attack can be either a saving grace or a death sentence.
There are also many changes to the game mechanics as well. The life replenishing Estus Flask now only begins with one single charge and must be upgraded using estus shards found throughout the land. A new consumable healing item known as life gems are faster to use, but restore health at a very slow rate compared to a swig of the flask. Players can now warp to any visited bonfire they have lit when resting right from the beginning.
On the subject of bonfires, leveling up no longer happens at them. Players must warp back to the hub area and talk to a guide to do so – much like the Maiden in Black from Demon’s Souls. Weapons and shields now have a more fragile feel to them. A meter will slowly go down representing the durability of the item in question. If it drains completely, it breaks and becomes almost unusable. Resting at bonfires restores this meter.
Players can now have up to three weapons and shields equipped at a time and switch them out on the fly using the D-pad. Keep in mind, the more that is equipped, the more weight is put on the character so they may not be as mobile.
Half health is NOT a walk in the park.
One of the biggest changes, and the one that will be a thorn in everyone’s side, is the death penalty. In a variation of Demon’s Souls, the character slowly becomes more and more hollow with each death. This means the character will lose a fragment of their maximum health with each dying breath. This continues until the bar is cut in half. The only way to remove this is by restoring humanity using a very rare item called a human effigy, and when I say rare, I mean expect to find maybe seven or eight in the first nine hours of the game.
The combat is another balancing act. Losing all of one’s stamina will now stagger the player leaving them open for a free attack. Players must compensate for their attacks both in what it hits as well as animations. Getting in for a hit and making it out without trading blows is more difficult now while rolling out-of-the-way allows for some invincibility that was there in the first two games. Enemies, even very early on, feel more aggressive and more intelligent with their attacks. The backstab attack now has a smaller window for initiation and can be interrupted during the beginning of the animation.
While the game may seem like an even more difficult version of Dark Souls, it actually feels more accessible earlier on than the previous game. Bonfires are more plentiful and are closer together. Adjustments to the inventory and equipment menus allow for easier and faster equipping and sorting, and the giant character sheet full of stats and icons is now explained clearly as to what each does and what it may affect when leveling up. Also, when leveling, it took fewer souls to begin climbing up the soul level charts and allocating points into the stats I wanted. Dark Souls II is a balancing act. From Software decided to change-up a few things and in the process had to accommodate for those changes. It could have been disastrous, but they made it work almost flawlessly. Coming from a Souls player, this is quite the statement.
You want to farm souls? That’s cute, but no.
To compensate for these changes, other things had to be changed. An example would be the fact that after killing the same enemies over and over again, they eventually stop respawning. This is to keep players from power leveling and farming souls. To make things even more challenging, when killing a boss while summoned into another player’s game, players will gain souls for the kill but won’t have their humanity restored.
Upgrading weapons isn’t the easy task of buying up as many upgrading components as I wanted like in Dark Souls. Vendors and blacksmiths have a finite amount to sell and after that is gone, it’s up to the player to find more around the world.
Sorceries and magic in general is still very useful but not the overly powerful things they were in the previous games. Using pyromancies and sorceries now takes up a significant amount of stamina, so spamming Heavy Soul Arrow won’t work all the time now, but on the same balancing act, early on, I found numerous items that restored the charges to my magic attacks.
Covenants make their return in Dark Souls II as well, this time being explained a little more clearly. They are also introduced very early on and allow the player to play the game in numerous ways. Some may help me defeat PvP invaders while other will have me being summoned to other people’s games to kill them when they try to enter certain areas. It adds yet another level to an already sprawling game.
Of course, the online multiplayer is here and more helpful/devastating as ever. When in human form, players will see summon signs on the ground, usually in front of boss fight doors. They can touch these and summon players into their game to help them clear out an area and defeat a boss. Up to two phantoms can be summoned at a time. PvP is another aspect that returns, where players wanting to get their jollies invade other players’ games as enemies to kill them and take their souls. With my wonderful luck, I always seemed to get invaded at the worst possible times.
It plays almost like a puzzle game. Trying to figure out where to go or what to do in a certain situation or fight is part of the fun. Trial and error is part of the game play and that may not be for everyone. Punishments for failing are another thing that can discourage players into giving up, but the rewarding feeling of finally making it past that one difficult boss outweighs all the disappointments.
Visually, the game is very impressive. The hub world of Majula is a beautiful, run down village overlooking a coast that gives off a peaceful yet somber vibe, while travelling to other places will lead the player to a broken down, flooded Anor Londo looking area full of giant platforms and even bigger knights looking for my head. The fact that something looking like this is running on now nine-year old hardware is impressive. The lighting is especially effective in areas. While using a torch to lit my way in a dark cave or prison I couldn’t help but to stop and look around for a second.
Dark Souls II is not for everyone. That’s a given. It’s a difficult road full of unknown areas, and dangerous paths with devastating consequences. Gamers that don’t like the series are confused as to why someone like me would ever love a game like this, and honestly, it’s very difficult to explain. The sense of accomplishment when making past a tough part, or the “ah, ha!” moments I get when finally finding a shortcut to a previously visited area make me forget about all the anguish and rage I had not even 20 minutes ago during an encounter with some difficult enemies. Lovers of this series know exactly what I’m talking about.
The upgrades to both accessibility and understanding of both mechanics and menus help ease players into the world of Drangleic and slowly wrap their twisted arms with an evil and tormented embrace that will either break them down or harden them to press on to the end. Fans of the series will be in heaven with Dark Souls II, newcomers will be in hell, but for all the right reasons. It has surpassed all my expectations from Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls and has easily become one of my favorite games of last generation. If you have any interest in playing this game after reading this review, do yourself a favor and get it now. If you allow yourself to be enthralled with its atmosphere and game play you’ll become an avid fan just like me. Welcome to Dark Souls.
Review copy of game provided by publisher. Primary play on Xbox 360.