Victory through death
HIGH The tiny details, like how my character slouches when tired and out of breath after a harrowing fight
LOW Trying for the umpteenth time to lead an NPC to a boss fight, only to watch her charge off and kill a monster halfway across the zone.
WTF 50 hours played online, and not a single invader trying to kill me?
Six years after Demon's Souls and three years after Dark Souls, From Software has finally returned with Dark Souls II.
This third game in the series promised that players would die again and again in a land larger than Dark Souls' Lordran, while being more accessible to newcomers and offering enhanced replay value. While the fanbase worried itself over the game being "dumbed down" for a less-hardcore audience, make no mistake—Dark Souls II remains a difficult game, and like its predecessors, is one that rewards patience, perseverance, and skill.
Set an unknown period of time after the last campaign, Dark Souls II puts players in the boots of an Undead human who's been cursed with a ‘Darksign' and doomed to wander while they gradually wither away. Rumors of a cure lure the player to the distant land of Drangleic. This was once a shining kingdom, but now lies ravaged by age, giants, and an influx of other Undead. After (literally!) falling into this decrepit Shangri-La, the player is set loose upon a truly epic journey.
The basics of Dark Souls II remain the same as they were in the last two iterations. ‘Souls' are game's currency gathered by slaying foes, and they're used to level up and purchase goods from various merchants and blacksmiths. Bonfires still serve as checkpoints throughout the levels. Resting at them gives access to the fast travel system, repairs all equipped armor and weapons, and respawns all nearby enemies.
The third-person combat is swift and lethal, with enemies (or the player!) dying in a few swipes of a sword, or one well-timed spell. Blocking with shields or dodging away requires careful attention to the stamina bar, and a careless player without stamina is a player wide open to any number of counterattacks.
The environments are impressive, and built to inspire fear and awe. The entire game exudes a sense of ineluctable decay and futile despair that can be fought against, but never defeated.
Yawning chasms and sheer cliffs make footing treacherous and invite unexpected falls. Monsters lurk around blind corners, ready to take the overeager by violent surprise. At one point I found myself deep within the bowels of the earth, navigating shoddily-constructed wooden walkways with my sword out and my torch lit, surrounded by nothing but darkness, silence, and bloodstains. The crushing isolation was so overwhelming that I cheered aloud when I spotted a glimpse of light cast by something other than my torch. At other times, I found myself pausing to marvel at towering ruins, wondering what had happened to the once-mighty civilizations that had constructed such beautiful buildings and left them to rot and crumble.
However, putting the bleakness of the setting aside, Dark Souls II is by far the most accessible of the three Souls games. For example, the bonfires are now more frequent. Also, the game keeps track of repeated deaths in the same area, and will gradually begin to remove enemies after a number of respawns, allowing for faster progress back to the point of death. A retooling of the equipment system coupled with the ability to respec stats allows for greater versatility in character builds and fighting styles, giving players the ability to try new tactics against bosses that may have stymied them in the earlier, stricter games.
This new quality is one of the best things about Dark Souls II—for every obstacle presented, From has provided players the tools to deal with it as they see fit, and by doing so, has made it possible for anyone determined enough to finish the game. For every difficult boss met or enemy-infested location traversed, online or off, the player is able to decide when and how much help to seek in order to overcome obstacles. Of course, anyone coming to a Souls game can expect to die constantly. That hasn't changed. But the payoff for such perseverance? Intense fights, stunning vistas, intriguing lore, countless secrets to unravel, and a New Game+ that changes the fight mechanics of bosses, and grants the player new items unobtainable in the first playthrough.
While the changes made to Dark Souls II are absolutely for the better, I was concerned about the way this sequel would handle my favorite part—the multiplayer system.
Allowing other players to summon me to fight invaders or defeat bosses was one of the most enjoyable parts of Demon's Souls, but the shift from dedicated servers to a peer-to-peer system caused me endless frustration in Dark Souls. This not only caused frequent failures to connect with other players, but also resulted in such lag-induced wonders like being backstabbed by an opponent directly in front of me. It got so bad that after my thirty-ninth "Summoning Failed" message in a row, I actually quit Dark Souls in disgust, and didn't return to it for almost a year.
Happily, Dark Souls II returns to the dedicated server system with much better results. Connecting with others online is now easy and reliable, and some well-needed tweaks to combat (like a stamina-draining bash attack and a rolling attack to close long distances) means that fights no longer automatically devolve into who can backstab whom first, although that's still an option. Players are now also able to chat, although series fans may not be interested in that. I did not enable it in my settings, and I didn't encounter anyone who did.
While the newfound accessibility and polish in Dark Souls II is greatly appreciated, it still has a few faults. For example, sound de-sync issues were common during my time with the game, with effects being audible almost a full second after the action that produced them, besides other issues like icons not loading when I opened my inventory, unusually long load times (15-20 seconds when fast traveling), and a long pause when using a particular bonfire as the menu loads. From what I've researched, these irritants seem to appear most commonly on the retail PS3 version of the game, and From has started releasing patches that have corrected (or aim to correct) several of these issues. Digital PS3 copies and Xbox 360 copies installed to hard drives do not appear to have the same problems.
FromSoft also seems to have developed a love of "brawl" bosses, where the player is dumped into a large mass of lesser enemies, and winning the fight is as simple as unleashing one's area of attack spell or weapon. There's nothing deeply strategic about these slugfests, and victory felt less like an achievement, and more like a checkmark.
My last issue is one of personal preference, but given my love of multiplayer, one I feel should be mentioned. Not once in the fifty hours I played online was my game invaded by another player, outside of two specific PvP zones, and for much of the time, I forgot that I even could be invaded. Whether this lack of PVP aggression was because people weren't in my level range (the game manages these to prevent lopsided matchups) or due to some other reason was maddeningly unclear. By New Game+ this issue seemed to resolve itself and invasions became frequent, but for a PVP lover like myself, it was disappointing to get through the campaign without being challenged by others.
The problems I've noted here are relatively small ones, though, and in most respects, Dark Souls II is a shining example of what a sequel should be—It's a work which builds upon the foundation set by its forebears and creates something that's superior in almost every respect. As a title that miraculously manages to be accessible to newcomers, challenging to veterans, rewarding to explorers, detail-rich for the lore-lovers, and able to be completed by the dedicated, Dark Souls II is an intriguing, well-designed title that should not be missed.
Welcome to Drangleic. Prepare to die… Again.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail and reviewed on the Playstation 3. Approximately 50 hours of play were devoted to the game, and the game was completed once. Approximately 15 hours were spent engaging in multiplayer specific activities (invasions, co-op, etc).
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains Blood and Gore, Mild Language, Partial Nudity, and Violence. This is a game about a zombie fighting other zombies of various levels of decay, as well as some pretty creepy giant monsters. Also there are some scantily dressed women. And some scantily dressed men.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Players: Subtitles are available for all spoken dialogue, and all enemies visually telegraph attacks. However, be aware that many hazards and enemies out of sight are often detected by sound cues which do not have visual representation onscreen. As such, players with hearing impairments will be caught off-guard frequently, and sometimes be at a disadvantage when exploring dark corridors or places with a limited field of vision.