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Dark Souls II Second Opinion

Brad Gallaway's picture

Spiritual Salvation

Dark Souls 2 Review Screenshot

HIGH Conquering the Gargoyles on my own after countless defeats.

LOW Accidentally killing an NPC after 50 hours of trying to not kill NPCs.

WTF Why is it even possible to miss the tutorial area?

As a longtime follower of From Software's work in the gothic-survival-adventure genre that one might say King's Field and the Souls games fall into, it's always been an irritation that Dark Souls garnered so much praise and attention (it became an industry-wide descriptor!) while I see its predecessor, Demon's Souls, as the superior work.

I was disappointed with Dark for a number of reasons, primarily because its second half felt rushed and unfinished, but also because of several iffy experiments with the formula. This combination resulted in a very uneven, often unpleasant experience. Clearly, someone at From must have shared those feelings because Dark Souls II is a significant course correction away from Dark's template and back to Demon's. While I'm sure a portion of the fanbase is unhappy with this, for me it's like a wish being granted.

Kristin did a great job of outlining what makes this game so superb in her main review, and I agree with nearly all her points, especially when it comes to the increased accessibility. However, as she suggests, no one should mistake being accessible for being easy—removing arbitrary restrictions that don't enhance the experience isn't the same as dumbing it down. A huge example is the ability to respec.

The Souls games have never been overt (or even clear) about how their systems work, and in prior installments, people would have to start an all-new character if they made mistakes in allocating hard-won stat points. Considering how long and challenging these games are, it was an incredibly shortsighted decision not respectful of a player's time. Just adding this one thing in Dark Souls II eliminates needless rigidity, and it's smart to let players salvage a playthrough they might have messed up twenty hours before they grasped what Poise meant and how Covenants worked.

Another change that makes Dark Souls II a more approachable adventure is one that Kristin didn't mention—the philosophy of the level design. The tightly-interwoven, almost mazelike world of Dark Souls has been cast aside in favor of a hub system with branches extending outward from the center.

While Dark was able to pull off some neat topographical shortcuts that aren't possible in Dark Souls II, I think the trade-off was more than worth it. Not only does Drangleic make more sense conceptually, it's inherently more focused and supportive—once starting out on a given path, it's fairly easy to keep pushing forward without much danger of becoming frustratingly lost or wandering aimlessly. At the same time, the areas are open and rich enough to support plenty of exploration and backtracking, and the bonfire fast-traveling makes doing so a simple matter. If the player comes up against a boss that's too tough or they want to go back and search a promising nook in a ruin two areas back, they're free to jump around as they see fit.

Speaking of which, I must also recognize the beauty and appeal of Drangleic itself. From sinister forests and solemn marshes to crumbling castles and seas of molten rock, each area transitions smartly to the next, and the journey from the disgusting bowels of the earth to wind-swept peaks drenched in sunlight (and back again) is one that won't soon be forgotten. Of special note is the hub town of Majula, brilliantly designed as both a refuge from and the beginning of the game's horrors.

While each new locale remains as tricky and as deadly as they ever were, I adored the wide variety on display, and was glad to see that intensely dark areas occur only rarely. Crafting places that are difficult to see in takes no real skill, so From's designers flex considerable muscle by offering a full spectrum of environments. Of course, there are still creepy crypts and black holes to struggle through, but there are also plenty of well-lit areas where visibility isn't an issue. There's also a secondary benefit apart from the aesthetics—fighting in a wide-open wilderness space is totally different from close-quarters combat inside a castle, and the variation in tactics that occurs naturally in these environments was just as appreciated as their visuals.  

On the other hand, the developers stumbled a bit when pacing the adventure. The explorable geography is unbelievably huge, and there are a few sticking points when the player will likely find themselves unsure of how to advance. That's even truer in the endgame. The adventure builds towards an obvious goal, and then bizarrely deflates the dramatic build-up by continuing on for several more sections. Worse, it puts forth a confusing set of tasks and then goes out on a disappointingly flat anticlimax. To be clear, it's not that these sections are bad, but they seem more appropriate as optional side areas rather than sequences that should occur immediately before rolling credits.  

This strange stutter-stop at the end is my only major complaint, though. Despite the eleventh-hour oddness, Dark Souls II remains an incredible achievement from developers who had me genuinely concerned after their previous entry. Seeing them return to form on such an epic scale is a wonderful thing—not only did they correct what Dark got wrong, they delivered the most polished and accomplished Souls yet. It's rare to see a developer look honestly at their own work and then implement so many substantial structural changes, but that's exactly what From has done here, and Dark Souls II is absolutely better for it. Rating: 9 out of 10.

Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 75 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed5 hours of play were spent in online modes.

Category Tags
Platform(s): Xbox 360   PS3   PC  
Developer(s): From Software  
Publisher: Namco Bandai  
Series: Demon's Souls   Dark Souls  
Genre(s): Role-Playing   Adventure/Explore  
ESRB Rating: Teen (13+)  
Articles: Game Reviews  

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Still think there's some

Still think there's some massive double-standards in evidence over this title. Why does Arkham Origins get slated to high hell for being a copy & paste of Asylum and City, yet Dark Souls II is lauded for some in-game changes, but with the core game and design remaining essentially unchanged? Again, I would argue, it is purely because the Souls series is down with the gaming kids, so finding criticism with it is not in vogue atm.

You can list as many tweaks as you like - I can do the same for Origins, no less - but the UI is the same, the graphics engine is the same, and the gameplay is almost identical. It is Dark Souls 1.5, and I think that that needs highlighting.

Not going to argue with any of your other points as they may be entirely valid, but the omission of criticism where it is due is disappointing. On the other hand, I completely agree that Demon's Souls is much better than Dark Souls, and that it has largely been ignored by most gamers. Indeed, Demon's Souls is the bastion of this 'modern' genre; not Dark Souls. It would be nice if some gaming writers acknowledged this.

NB: I know you actually don't mind Arkham Origins Brad, but I am highlighting that game since it is particularly hated-on for diminishing returns.

Optional / Multi-path Progression

I think another great thing about Dark Souls 2 that doesn't get a mention is there are a few ways to progress to the end game.

Chatting to a friend the other day, he described how he had trouble with some of the bosses, and hasn't yet finished the game. He mentioned one called The Old Iron King... Of which I had absolutely no memory.

"You know, in The Iron Keep, with all the Lava and Stuff."
"Huh?"
"Huntsmans Copse? Harvest Valley?"
".....WHAT?!"

I somehow managed to finish the game, yet missed all these enormous locations!

It makes the game world feel more open and believable in it's structure, the fact that I hadn't stomped over every inch of it's land.

hub-based level design is better?

This is honestly the first review I've read that sees this aspect of Dark Souls II as an improvement rather than a step backward from the level design of its predecessor.

As an Xbox owner, I haven't had the chance to play Demon's Souls, but I can definitely say that the mazelike, interconnected, largely vertical world of Dark Souls was by far one of the game's highlights for me. It was a big part of what made the game feel like a contemporary Rogue-like, and was an utter joy to explore.

Haven't played Dark Souls II yet, but now I am even more curious to do so, so I can check out this different design approach for myself.

Crofto - Funny you bring up

Crofto - Funny you bring up Arkham Origins - I also saw that one as a reboot of sorts (Dark 1 was not great, and Arkham City blew) and I gave it a pretty favorable review except for the bugginess. ^_^

Anyhow, if you don't like Dark Souls 2 that's fine with me, but i don't see any need to criticize it - IMO it's a massive step up from Dark Souls 1, and takes a great formula and delivers an improved version of it brilliantly. I'm not saying I need a dozen more iterations by any means, but for me, Demon's was amazing but needed some work, Dark sucked, and now Dark 2 fixed everything. I'm good.

Optional - yeah, good point. In the early days of play, i was having CONSTANT discussions with friends where we would frequently have no idea of what the other was talking about. Pretty rare when that happens these days.

Lambonius - of course it's a taste thing and i often find that people who play Dark 1 first will prefer that since it was their first experience.

that aside, i do think Dark had some neat shortcuts and such, but i never liked the world design in general. some of it is mentioned in the review above, but mostly the world was so silly and nonsensical to me - so many powerful beings crammed sardine-style on top of each other in a small mountain was tough to swallow, and of course, it didn't help that large parts of the game felt unfinished to me.

for me, personally, this hub system is definitely the better design. it gives you direction and doesn't waste your time, but still plenty of places to explore. it was great in Demon's and it's still great in Dark 2, IMO.

I don't understand all the

I don't understand all the hype and high scores these games are getting.

First of all, i have not played Dark Souls II and i don't intend to. I have played the first though, and to me it is one of the most overrated games of all time. A game with serious design flaws, basic game design flaws, that got perfect and almost perfect scores from almost all professional critics and a small but vocal fanbase. So, since the sequel is similar, i suppose most of what was flawed with the original remains, and yet this gets a 9 from a critic i respect...

The biggest problem with the original Dark Souls was fundamental: It's so-called "difficulty", or more appropriate, trial and error (aka Dragon's Lair) gameplay.

There are three things a video game can tax from a player: reflexes, brainpower, and time. And of course each game demands an amount of all three, in different combinations. A good action game will mostly demand good reflexes and control skill from the player, and will reward him for them. A good strategy, puzzle or similar game will mostly demand from a player to use his brain and will reward him for it. And then we have the Asian school of gameplay, jrpgs, mmorpgs and the like, that will simply demand time wasted from a player and reward him for it, no good reflexes or intelligence required. A game that focuses mainly on using a players time, is bad gameplay design and boring. Dark Souls belongs in this category...

Games that just require a time investment are not fun, are not rewarding, and have no good gameplay. They are just time wasters and provide a false sense of achievement, because given time, every one and his dog is able to complete them. It is simply a matter of how much anyone values his time.

Dark Souls, if played with a walkthrough, is so easy it is insulting. This game's difficulty comes from being required to die in order to learn enemy patterns and traps and avoid them the next time. This is trial and error gameplay, and simply not fun. An obvious example is the first big enemy shortly after the beginning, that comes out unexpectedly and kills you the first time. The second or the third time you notice a door and avoid him. Of course a minority might have done this "right" the first time, but sooner or later you will die from such things, and be required to replay the same boring level until you find the "right" way to proceed... And this is especially bad since the levels reset after a death...

Another bad gameplay design element is the grinding. Grinding is another form of time-taxing gameplay design, and it is not fun at all. Enough said...

Also, the game suffers from poor controls and does a poor job explaining itself to the player in order to advance his hero properly. Add to all that some technical problems and call those "challenge" and you have Dark Souls...

I can certainly understand why some people may like this game, especially console gamers, since all they seem to get are handholding FPSs, TPSs and JRPGs these days. So when once in a while a game appears that is not a cakewalk, they overhype it to the sky. But this game is simply mediocre. You may like the sense of "overcoming the challenge", but if i want to spend time to overcome a BORING challenge, i can go to a university and gain another degree, not waste time learning an average BORING video game.

Take apart the false sense of challenge, and what remains? Poor graphics, sound, game engine, controls, lore, story. A mediocre game at best.

So from what i gather the sequel is more of the same, just a little more polished. So why it gets a 9 score and a recommendation? What am i missing here?

PS: I played the original on PC, with the latest patches.

PS2: Sorry for any mistakes, i am not a native english speaker.

@TemplarGR I'm interested in

@TemplarGR

I'm interested in what you find to be non "trial and error" gameplay in relation to Dark Souls. Doesn't every game involve some level of learning from mistakes?

You describe action games as rewarding "good reflexes and control skill." Isn't the player response of dodging, striking, blocking, and parrying exactly this? Dark souls certainly rewards the player for being an efficient combatant.

Next you describe brainpower. Perhaps, if you got frustrated and only used walkthroughs, you wouldn't have appreciated the puzzle of learning your opponents moves and being able to respond at the right moment with the right attack. I think most people who enjoyed this game liked figuring out their enemy's weakness and using that weakness to their advantage. Don't you think learning how to win a battle is a kind of puzzle in itself?

Next, you describe time. I wonder just how much of it you spent with this game. While it is possible to grind levels and gear, only the truly dedicated would bother doing this. You can play through the whole game without grinding at all, actually; you just have to play smart. Rest when you can, don't be impatient, learn from your mistakes, and you'll be fighting Gwyn in no time.

I agree that given enough time, anyone can do just about anything, but that could be said of literally all things that humans could do. Any game you admire could be finished by any creature given ample time, so I don't see how this is a rational criticism.

The time commitment you feel is so unreasonable only exists because of a lack of the reflexes and brainpower on your part you feel are so critical to game design. You're supposed to be learning from the game as you play it. You begin to see patterns between enemies and learn how to predict their movements and behaviors. Even the environment starts to telegraph things to you if you're observant and invested in what's going on.

In regard to your example with the very first boss monster in the prison, was it really such a penalty to be set back one room to try the encounter again? I realize that later on you risk repeating much larger sections from failure and that failure at some point is inevitable, but I don't think a loss of maybe thirty seconds is really so crushing. Later on, this loss of time becomes an investment that makes what you are doing feel perilous. It is, I would assume, an intentional design principle to add emotional weight to the player's experience. Having to repeat sections may be frustrating, but it encourages you to get better at the game, to try different strategies and approaches.

You talk of a "right" way for the game to be played. There are many, many different ways to approach any enemy. I can't speak for the magic system because I never played around with it, but I can say that every enemy can be defeated with almost any weapon. I'm not sure I understand your complaint; are you saying that because the game doesn't have wildly emergent gameplay it's bad? Very few do. You have to find an approach that works. Certainly with the first boss, there is a thing you really ought to do, but that is one instance compared to hundreds of interactions with enemies you'll have over the course of the game.

Any game, if played with a walkthrough, becomes tedious. I don't see how this is a legitimate complaint.

I had no problem learning the controls and enjoyed discovering new moves and experimenting with new attacks as I progressed. Did you not read the glowing text in the tutorial level?

"I can certainly understand why some people may like this game, especially console gamers, since all they seem to get are handholding FPSs, TPSs and JRPGs these days. So when once in a while a game appears that is not a cakewalk, they overhype it to the sky."

I play PC games. I play console games. I don't really care what the format is, a good game is just good. You appear to have come to Dark Souls with a preconceived notion of what it was and did everything in your power to reinforce that, ignoring obvious signs to the contrary. I can't make you like something and I don't really care whether or not you do, but insinuating that people who enjoyed this game aren't "hardcore" enough and that they're stupid and unskilled is silly and immature. You don't get a monopoly on deciding what is good and what isn't and your opinion doesn't entitle you to dump on people who disagree with you.

I disagree with quite a couple of points here...

to the extent that I wrote a third opinion on the Forums:
http://gamecritics.com/forums/showthread.php?t=25791

(plus many more thoughts in the forum thread to Dark Souls 2, which can be found here:
http://gamecritics.com/forums/showthread.php?t=20992&page=3
First 2 pages of the thread are mostly related to previews)

While Dark Souls 2 is still a good game, I don't think it's a notable improvement on the formula and also not a step back towards Demon's Souls. There are a number of annoying things where I found the new team noticed what elements fans liked of Demon's Souls, but not fully understood why they liked it and made it worse in the sequel.

As an example the step back to the Maiden in Black, I mean Emerald Herald as level-up device. I find the Emerald Herald irritating, while I was ok with the Maiden in Demon's Souls. Why? For the simple reason that I have to skip multiple lines of endless repeating monologue before I can get to the level-up part, while the Maiden was also reciting the same monologue but did so in the background, not interfering with me trying to play the game. And why this excruciating exposition dump the first time you see her? Previous Souls games might have been a bit less forthcoming with information about what to do, but outright saying you need to kill enemies for souls and find 4 enemies with really big souls to get to the next level is not good storytelling.

I also don't like what they did to parrying and riposte. It doesn't make much sense to me why I would have to wait for an odd second and a half before I am allowed to start a riposte. Previous Souls' games were giving at least the feeling that the fights are 'realistic' to a certain extent. Dark Souls 2 throws many of those elements out of the window to make it more like any other video game with oversized swords. And don't get me started on the world design. There are already a number of videos that show the difference between the world map of Dark Souls 1 and 2 as seen with a map viewer (the thread in the forums links to one), and while the world of Dark Souls 1 makes use of 3-dimensions and fits together, most of Dark Souls 2 is in about the same plane and some areas actually overlap! I have to say I wasn't entirely surprised by that, since there were a number of occasions while playing where I found the geography wouldn't make sense. Worst offender being the transition from Earthen Peak to the Iron Keep.

Well, I don't want to repeat myself too much, hence I just refer to the Forums for further points ;-)

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