To say that I was excited before I sat down to play Dark Souls II is a bit of an understatement. I’ve lost countless hours to both Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls, and the chance to dive further into what’s quickly becoming my favorite gaming franchise of all time wasn’t something I was going to pass up. I was ready for every test, every trap, and every trick that they could possibly throw at me. I expected nothing less than to come in an already grizzled warrior and be able to continue to absolutely slaughter everything in my way. Yet, within the first few minutes, I was sat on by a giant cyclotpic hippo beast and died almost instantly. I was greeted by the familiar “You Died” message along with a new trophy simply entitled “Welcome to Dark Souls.” Now that my review time with Dark Souls II has come to an end, one thing I can say for sure is that the gods did not look favorably upon my hubris.
While growing up, I was told that when there’s an elephant in the room you should introduce it. As such, I’ll admit the following: I was among many who were concerned over the initial reports that Dark Souls II was being made more accessible. Those words usually mean that core mechanics will be dumbed down or that the difficulty will be lowered, allowing more people to join in on the experience. Apparently From Software does not define “accessible” the same way. There’s no other way to say this; Dark Souls II is brutally difficult in the same way that the original and Demon’s Souls were. You will die often, and usually in embarrassing ways. The game is in no way impossible, and with enough time, patience, and practice you’ll be able to overcome anything it throws at you. However, expect a bit of a learning curve, even for those of you who have already cut your teeth in battle.
It’s difficult to discuss the story in Dark Souls II simply because it’s told in such a discrete method. Very little is actually ever laid out for you. Instead, you will be expected to connect the dots through conversations with NPCs, item descriptions and by generally just paying attention to what’s going on around you. While you are definitely the focal point of this story, there’s a much larger world that surrounds you and you are simply playing a role, albeit a massive one. I personally find this to be an absolutely brilliant way of laying out the narrative. I still have debates over what exactly happened in the original Dark Souls, let alone the specifics of its characters and their intentions, and Dark Souls II looks like it’ll spark the same level of discourse.
This sequel sometimes feels like a “best of” compilation, combing traits from Demon’s Souls and the original Dark Souls into one challenging package. The Estus Flask has its triumphant return, but it’s joined by life gems which offer a bit of gradual healing over time and can be picked up from corpses. Dual-wielding weapons finally feels like a viable option, however it was never something I was willing to give up my shield for. If you are the type of player who relies heavily on quick rolls and being able to dodge your opponents’ attacks, as opposed to attempting to parry their blows, then this might be a great option for you. Still, there’s a massive amount of risk/reward calculating that you’ll have to take into account.
Another thing that immediately stood out to me was that the roll-time invincibility frames were reduced, and the window to successfully get a backstab was drastically diminished. While these were small annoyances during PVE gameplay, it should make PVP fights more interesting as a lot of the “cheesier” methods of backstab fishing simply won’t work.
Conversely, one small change that was very welcome was the ability to use more than one item from a stack at a time. Eventually, I found myself swimming with souls of a nameless soldier, whereas previously I would’ve had to have almost mashed the use button in order to get through a large stack. Now, I can simply select how many of them I’d like to consume right from the menu, killing what is essentially useless downtime. It’s definitely a minor change, but it stands as an example of the fact that From Software was looking to refine an already stellar experience for gamers as opposed to trying to reinvent the wheel.
Dark Souls II also does a great job of keeping you on edge. Fairly early into the game, I found myself exploring a ruined castle and after trying to get a better angle to take out a particularly annoying foe, I heard an earth shattering crash behind me. I turned around just in time to find an absolutely massive foe charging at me with a giant sword, though he ended up missing me by mere inches with a gigantic uppercut swing. I managed to escape using my patented scream-like-a-little-girl-and-run strategy (something I encourage you to use), thinking that I’d come back better prepared. After another few embarrassing deaths, I returned and was ready to take on the enemy I had since named “Silver Hulk,” only to find that he wasn’t coming back. I did everything I could think of to trigger his reappearance, but he never popped back up. Fast forward a few hours and I find him waiting for me as an area boss. It may not be the most subtle foreshadowing I have ever seen, but my god did it work.
Visually, Dark Souls II is far from visually stunning. The opening cutscene is nothing short of outstanding, showing an incredible attention to detail and an expert touch for bringing the story to life on your screen. However, its in-game visuals don’t quite achieve the same heights. I don’t mean this as a knock on the game, as it’s imperative that we remember that this is running on hardware that is pushing eight years old. But given that we’re able to see games on the new generation of consoles and the incredible visuals that PC titles have been able to show in recent memory, these just don’t hold up.
Both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of the game are running at 720p, and there are a decent amount of clipping issues to be found. However, these complaints are extremely minor and had this not been a critical review, it’s not something I would have even bothered to mention. Even with its hardware limitations, the game manages to create landscapes that left us speechless right up until the point we got stabbed in the back..
The original Dark Souls put on a master class when it came to telling a story through audio alone, and Dark Souls II runs with that torch perfectly. Normally I would talk about the soaring soundtracks that reach deep into your soul and truly make you feel like a hero, or build up the tension to a fever pitch, but Dark Souls II doesn’t do that. Instead, what this game offers is near silence, choosing to let you hear every step you take as you delve deeper and deeper into the unknown, forcing you to hear the scratching and grating of an unseen foe dragging its blade across the nearby stone floors. There is music to be found as well, namely during boss battles and when you return to Majula, and it does a fantastic job of conveying the emotion for you.
One minor change that is really unsettling to me is that enemies seem to just stop spawning at a given point. I haven’t been able to exactly figure out what triggers this, but my best guess is that after you kill it so many times it’ll simply cease popping up. I imagine that this mechanic was put into place to keep players engaged after dying for the nth time at the hands of a boss, in order to make the voyage back a bit easier, but it also removes the ability to farm areas for souls should you find the spot just too tough. There’s probably more in play here than I’ve been able to see so far, as is often the case with this series, but I imagine this will upset a few of the hardcore fans.
In the end, Dark Souls II is exactly what I wanted: more Dark Souls. The gameplay is just as challenging as it was in its predecessor, and the story puts on a clinic as to how to create a depressingly futile environment that offers just enough hope to keep you coming back. I’ll probably lose countless hours to the game, just as I have with the previous titles, but I’m not sure if there’s enough here to win over fans who are turned off by the experience.
If you’re even a casual fan of the Souls franchise, though, this is an absolutely stellar game that is demanding of your attention. Conversely, for those of you who are just dipping your toes into the series, I think this is a fantastic way to do so. Remember, this isn’t a game that you can rush through initially, and it’s one that will punish you for your mistakes. Every death you incur is a result of you doing something wrong, but with enough time and practice you’ll be able to overcome everything being thrown at you.
Just remember, the single most important thing you can do to ensure your survival is to remember how you died the last time around.
This review is based on a PS3 copy of the game, which was given to us for review purposes.