GAME NAME: Dark Souls 2
DEVELOPER(S): From Software
PUBLISHER(S): Namco Bandai Games
PLATFORM(S): Xbox 360, PS3, PC
GENRE(S): Action, Adventure, RPG
RELEASE DATE(S): March 14th, 2014
Regardless of what you might think, Dark Souls 2 is not the antithesis of all things painless and effortless; it’s definitely beatable. However, gamers are an impatient breed, and so you should know one thing about the game above all else; patience and concise action is rewarded, while the converse will get you killed, a lot. I’m not saying quick responses and an accurate intuition won’t reward you with results, but for most gamers it will end in tears. So for as frustrated as you might feel, enduring through and assessing each situation should find you to the end.
That said, I want you to disregard everything I said above because Dark Souls 2 is a right pain in the ass and is designed from the ground up to be nothing short of a herculean task, an endeavour into the absurd. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fantastically rewarding if you’re able to muster up the required fortitude, but tedium and stress will undo most players.
Imagine a scenario where you’ve just encountered a powerful opponent for the first time. Not only does said opponent take around 5 minutes to kill, but he might drain you of a good portion of your healing items; fair enough, he’s a difficult opponent and that’s the point. Now imagine that you’re then supposed to leap over and otherwise hotfoot around a number of precarious sets of scaffolding, while also avoiding inaccessible archers firing upon you. And by the way, you’re also under the bombardment of zombies throwing explosives at you, as well as lacking any real way to keep you at full health thanks to that last tough enemy. It’s tough, certainly, but it’s by no means unfair. Unfortunately, however, once you get to where you’re supposed to be, there’s a rather annoyingly placed enemy right around the next corner who will leap at you the moment you’re within sight; you’re now dead. Guess what; you get to do that all over again, and with less health than the last time you attempted it. That sounds pretty gruelling, doesn’t it? What if I told you that something quite similar happens relatively early on in Dark Souls 2, only the scenario I presented to you above is toned down and less arduous than what actually occurs in-game.
Okay, so I’ve established that Dark Souls 2 is an unforgiving game, but you knew that before you read even a single line of this review. The real question is: Like with Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls before it, is the gameplay of Dark Souls 2 rewarding enough to warrant such a tumultuous experience. To that, I’d say a tentative yes.
So what is the game all about and why is immense frustration a worthwhile price to pay? Your goal, as a newly branded hollow (or undead) in the kingdom of Drangleic, is to collect as many souls as possible in the hopes of breaking your curse. For those vested veterans in the Souls series – not that any of you haven’t purchased the game already – imagine Dark Souls 2 as an amalgamation of the original Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls. Dark Souls 2, in much the same way the original game did, makes use of bonfires, relatively similar combat mechanics and a few of the same item progressions and choices. However, like in Demon Souls, dying not only returns you to a hollow state, but each death gradually lowers your maximum health pool, up to a minimum of 50% (although there is a rather nifty trinket that, if found, will improve that to 75%). Furthermore, while bonfires remain and provide largely the same effect – that is refreshing the player’s health and providing a means of quick travel while also respawning every enemy – you cannot level up at every bonfire. Instead, you must return to the original settlement of Majula in order to level up.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Souls series: Dying in Dark Souls 2 will mean less and less opportunity to screw up as your maximum health declines. That’s going to make it hard to keep a hold of your acquired souls, the game’s currency for virtually all progress. Worry not, however, because even if it sounds a little unfair for the game to get progressively more difficult as you die more and more often, there are ways to reverse your hollowfication as it were. The collection and careful use of human effigies is how you’ll keep yourself human. And becoming human is important if you want to keep invading players out. That’s right; if you thought Dark Souls 2 hadn’t shaken you free of your senses yet, wait until your maximum health is near its minimum only for you to be invaded by another player. Though there are benefits to defeating invading players.
Rather annoyingly, Dark Souls 2 has also taken to the practice of despawning a set of enemies once you’ve defeated them a number of times. The point of this is to prevent players from grinding particular areas for souls and items. The issue is that it makes recovering from deaths far more difficult – for those new to the series, dying once will place your collected souls at the area you died and dying a second time before collecting those same souls means you lose them permanently. The reason for the concern is that saving souls for a large purchase leaves you open to losing a great deal should you fail to collect them after dying a first time. That said, it shouldn’t be too difficult to gather new souls… unless the enemies you used to gather souls previously had despawned and were no longer available to you that is. You can see my worry; you should also be able to hear a nefarious chuckle from Dark Souls 2 right about now.
It may seem like I’m criticising Dark Souls 2 for being overly difficult, but I’m really not. I completely understand the game’s implied difficulty. It’s crafted for an older, more sturdy breed of gamer, but Dark Souls 2 does take it a little far sometimes, as I mentioned above. All in all, for a good majority of the time, the game really does give you access to everything you need to succeed. The reason you died was very likely your own damn fault; you should have blocked instead of trying to roll, and you didn’t pay enough attention to your health or your surroundings. Although the occasional enemy will catch you off guard, analysing an enemy’s attack pattern is key to successfully progressing through the game and it makes that possible in almost all encounters. That is, of course, if the fundamental mechanics of the game are up to snuff.
In terms of the basics, Dark Souls 2 does a fairly good job of nailing the mechanics of the game. Attacking, evading, defending, using items and the use of magic against enemies you might encounter are all relatively ergonomic to control and make use of. At times, a slightly bewitched camera will go off on its own mission and will result into you leaping to your death. Moreover, sometimes your character will react in ways you never intended, though the frequency isn’t all that often. All in all, the game feels a lot like Dark Souls 1 and is, for that reason, extremely difficult to describe. The gameplay is rather deep and requires you to play it in order to get the gist of any explanation I might offer. Suffice it to say, it’s rather solid and feels very weighty and rewarding.
Sometimes, however, Dark Souls 2 comes across as a little cheap, which is why I am giving it the “tentative” nod. Being surrounded by knights, one of which came out of nowhere and is now behind you, in a tight corridor where your large sword hits the wall a majority of the time, rending it useless, will in many cases annoy you. If you had some way of predicting the attack from behind, it might not have been so bad. To just have hidden enemies alone is frustrating enough, but From Software had to take it just one step further and develop Dark Souls 2 with a rather haphazard level design.
The issue is that while the game is more open to exploration, which is rather nice, it also gives you almost no clues as to where you’re supposed to go, what to expect next and so on. So expect areas to range wildly in difficulty, rather sporadic boss placement and many situations where you will die simply because you should not have been there. While learning through death is a interminable part of difficult games, it should not be the only way to gain information on an area, especially when dying is punished. A lack of transparency is okay, but not when that same theme is layered within a set of areas that are almost impossible to prepare for. That’s why Dark Souls 2 is, in many ways, more difficult that Dark Souls 1, because it’s cheaper.
Okay, so this review is going on for a lot longer than I anticipated. Let’s get down to some of the game’s other aspects then, shall we. Graphically, the game isn’t quite as impressive as it could be. It’s not unattractive per se, but I was expecting a little more je ne sais quois, perhaps unjustifiably so, from one of the last big games on a console generation that is close to bowing out of the industry. That said, in spite of the recent kerfuffle surrounding Dark Souls 2’s graphical downgrade – done so to improve the frame rates of the game on console – you should be more than pleased with the level of detail achieved. Although, my darker (PC elitist) half is rather happy that the PC version of the game, barring substandard performance, should now be the definitive version to beat.
At the end of the day, Dark Souls 2’s graphical prowess, or relative lack thereof, doesn’t really hurt the game’s aesthetic. Slight nerfs to lighting and lacking textures aside, it doesn’t harm the game’s foreboding feel. And short of being a Dark Souls 2 guru and all-round gaming god, every new corridor will feel tenuous, each new area daunting, and the game’s atmosphere is certainly a part of that. It’s function before form for Darks Souls 2; would you really have it any other way?
Beyond the excruciating difficulty, isn’t Dark Souls 2 supposed to have some sort of story you can follow? No seriously, I’m asking you guys because I paid very little attention to the game’s narrative past the first couple areas. The game’s story about a cursed soul overcoming fantastical trials and tribulations in search of salvation is about as generic as All-bran cereal and you’ll have heard it all before. Some of the voice acting may capture you once in a while, and the opening cinematic presentation for the game is rather stunning, but that’s about as deep as it gets. A lack of information about your surroundings also seems to have translated over to the world’s lore. Dark Souls 2 attempts to seed its narrative within the environment and tell a passive tale, through locales and characters you encounter, but the characters never really sell what they have to say and you’ll be much too worried about dying to notice a lot of the world. Perhaps a second playthrough will yield a better understanding of the game’s story, but they also say you can find gold at the end of a rainbow. There just might be, but it’s going to be one hell of an exercise to find it.
So how would I summarise Dark Souls 2? Well I wouldn’t. It’s a game too deep at times and messy at others for a review to properly encapsulate it as an experience, at least as far as I’m capable of writing. There a quite a few mechanics I haven’t mentioned, mostly because they will play no part in whether you play this game or not. What I will say that it’s incredibly rewarding for those few of you that mange to brave it to the end – I realise that it’s becoming a bit of a trope for any review concerning the Souls series to call it difficult but rewarding. I will say this, however, Dark Souls 2 is a bastard of a game and most that purchase it will never finish it. It’s also going to feel cheap at times and anyone lacking staying power should avoid this game like the plague. But for those few too invested in self-suffering and inflicting post-traumatic stress disorder upon yourself, welcome to Drangleic, otherwise known as hell.
Tl;dr: f%&k this game.