Dark Souls 2 review
It’s remarkable to see the differences in marketing between the first Dark Souls and the sequel. The original flew mostly under the radar, anticipated by the few hardcore fans who had played Demon’s Souls. But something strange happened: Dark Souls, an obscure RPG built around being obtuse and difficult, was so bloody good that through word of mouth and critical acclaim the game blew up in popularity and became a big deal.
The difference in approach toward development of Dark Souls and its sequel is subtle, but important. The first was an attempt to create something new. Sure, it built on the foundations laid by Demon’s Souls, but took those ideas and created something incredible. Dark Souls II is a sequel: more of the same. It’s still excellent, but that lack of innovation – of soul – makes a significant difference.
Once again, it’s the story of a nameless warrior cursed by undeath, destined to gradually lose their sanity until they become a wandering, mindless Hollow. There’s a bit more explanation this time – an opening cut-scene actually offers some exposition – but the story is still largely left up to the player to discover. Although set in the same world, Dark Souls II takes place in a vastly different region to the first and has no direct links to the original game… or does it?
Fans of the original will feel immediately comfortable, as aside from a change in how jumping works (it’s still rubbish), gameplay is exactly the same. This is no bad thing, as Dark Souls controlled wonderfully, with one of the best melee combat systems in any game. In a game so difficult and reliant on careful reactions, precision control over your character is essential, and Dark Souls II delivers. Combat is still as smooth as ever, with each button press giving a single swing of your weapon. Mashing buttons will quickly get you killed, and even getting greedy and attacking one too many times can lead to massive punishment. Every weapon has unique attack animations and properties, making experimenting and finding the one for you a considerable task.
Of course, if melee isn’t your bag, you can opt to use a bow, crossbow or magic instead and fight from a distance. Magic again works similarly, with each spell having a limited number of uses that are recharged at bonfires – as such, even spell-slingers will likely need a melee weapon as backup. It’s entirely possible to have a combination of strength and magic power, and the freedom in how to create your play style is one of the best things about the series.
As before, you control how your stats grow, so creating a character based around any play style is entirely possible. Your initial choice of class is slightly more important than before, having a larger effect on your opening stats, but it’s still easy to spec your character as you like when levelling up, giving you time to figure out what works for you.
Just because you can play the game as you like doesn’t mean that doing so is simple. There are a vast number of stats, each affecting various things, and the huge amount of numbers can be overwhelming at first. Hitting Select on any screen lets you scroll through each stat and see exactly what it does, but the range of choice on offer when levelling up can still make deciding which stat to raise a tough decision. Dark Souls revolves around learning and mastering every aspect of the game, and this applies to the stats just as much. You might be confused at first, but you’ll come to learn exactly what they mean.
Our new setting of Drangleic is just as sparse and hostile as Lordran, but larger and more open to exploration. The world is still Metroidvania-inspired in design, with several large areas linking up in various ways that reveal themselves as you progress. While the first game followed an essentially linear, ‘correct’ path, Dark Souls II lets players visit multiple areas at once, all viable for completion at that point in time. There is still an ideal route through the game and a lot of areas will be too difficult early on, but having more of a choice to go elsewhere if you are struggling is welcome.
This emphasis on nipping about the world is apparent as soon as you realise you can warp between bonfires (only ones you’ve been to, mind) from the beginning of the game. Warping back to Majula – your homebase of sorts – is especially necessary, as unlike previously this is now the only place you can level up. Having to go back to base each time you want to level is irritating, even if it doesn’t take long. As a result, we tended to stockpile souls, waiting until the end of an area and then levelling up in bulk rather than doing it bit-by-bit. There’s also a blacksmith in Majula, allowing you to start upgrading items earlier, as well as a bunch of Covenants to join. This consolidation of services into the starting area is a simplification, certainly, but not one that necessarily makes the game much easier. There are still other blacksmiths, Covenants and merchants to find, and having a few dotted around Majula feels like an effort to introduce the player to these concepts early.
Dark Souls II is a pseudo-MMO in many ways. Play when connected to the net and you’ll see messages left by other players as well as ghostly apparitions of players in a similar place to you, in their own games. Players can summon others to help them if they are having trouble, but similarly, others can invade your game and attempt to kill you. The constant risk of having someone invade your game is a thrill, and From Software has attempted to get more players involved in PvP with an expanded focus on Covenants.
Covenants function in much the same way, although are slightly better explained. Your Covenant essentially determines your role in PvP combat, from invading and murdering other players to protecting those same players and taking down invaders. There are numerous twists on this idea – defending a particular area from invaders, for example. Fulfilling your Covenant’s tasks gains you devotion, levelling up your rank which will eventually grant cool rewards. With better defined Covenants, From Software has refined the concept, aiming to make it a more integral part of the game. That said, it can still be hard to understand without a guide.
A few things being better explained may dim the mysterious atmosphere slightly, but worry not, fans. Dark Souls II is just as hard as the first game, and even harder in some parts. Once again, it’s never unfair: the rules are clearly laid out, and if you die, it is because you made a mistake. Rushing through without paying close attention is the best way to get yourself killed, and often one mistake is the difference between life and death. If this all sounds like too much hard work, perhaps Dark Souls isn’t for you, but for gamers who like overcoming seemingly impossible challenges and gradually learning a game inside-out, it’s safe to say that there is no series that does it better.
Players still start off as a human, reverting to Hollow form when killed. What this means has changed, however. Being Hollow no longer makes you immune to invasion, and each subsequent death as a Hollow lowers your maximum health slightly, a mechanic similar to that of Demon’s Souls. The Humanity resource no longer exists, so to regain human form a player must now use a Human Effigy item, of which there are a limited number. It’s a far more punishing system, with each death only making your next try more difficult. A ring that limits the amount your max health can drop by is crucial – make sure you find one.
Mostly, Dark Souls II is exactly what we expected – more Dark Souls, with a new world to explore but few gameplay changes. Far be it from us to complain about more of one of the best games of the generation, but Dark Souls II can’t help but feel slightly less special as a result. You can’t shake that feeling that this is a game built to recapture past glories. The world doesn’t feel quite as mysterious, the mood isn’t quite as bleak, the monster design not quite as terrifying, and nothing is as amazing or surprising as the first time. It’s a standard issue with sequels, and it’s not enough of an issue to stop us loving Dark Souls II, but it’s always there, in the back of your mind.
Otherwise, Dark Souls II is outstanding, still a world better than most games and a worthy successor to a game that was, essentially, impossible to follow. Once again, finishing the game once is only the beginning, and New Game+ now does more than simply up the difficulty via numbers: new enemy spawns and different encounters now change things up more, making the experience less familiar. Add in PvP that is so good that many players focus entirely on it, and you’ve got another wonderful RPG from From Software that seems destined to eat up another few hundred hours of our time. It’s not quite as good, but it’s still excellent.
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