Victory through death

Dark Souls II Review Screenshot

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. Rating: 9 out of 10


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.

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Brad Gallaway
Brad Gallaway
6 years ago

If someone asked me randomly for a recommend, I would 100% tell them to go with Dark Souls 2 before Dark Souls. Relatively easier, more logical, more polished, and smoother for most players overall.

Matt
Matt
6 years ago

Great review. I was a bit wary of the game in the first few hours, but everything feels like butter now. I did have one non- NPC (a grey one) invade my game near the bell, but I guess that was just because of that particular covenant.

CGFan
CGFan
6 years ago

What game would you guys say is better, 1 or 2? I still haven’t even finished 1 yet.

Skybane
Skybane
6 years ago

Good review. I have out in just over 80 hours and almost finished first playthrough. Planning on going for the second soon. Anyway, to Crofto… The criticisms you make are strange to me. The UI for instance. One thing you can say about it, is that it works. Certainly better than the ridiculous list you get in a game like Skyrim. Or something like Borderlands where it just isn’t laid out well at all. It isn’t particularly attractive, but I don’t see how it affects gameplay. I have never had an issue finding the information I needed. It just needs… Read more »

forestofmirrors
forestofmirrors
6 years ago

The great irony concerning invasions in Dark Souls II is that a great many people were worried, pre-release, when it became known that you could be invaded regardless of whether you were hollow or human, or had killed the area boss. Come release, a large portion of the community now complains that invasions are practically non-existent until New Game+. It’s kind of sad, since From actually included two intertwined covenants to help players overcome the added challenge of what was supposed to be constant invasions. Excellent review, by the way. One massive issue I have with the game that a… Read more »

Li-Ion
Li-Ion
6 years ago

Hi! [quote=Crofto]I think the argument against the poor UI doesn’t really fly. Saying it’s ‘serviceable so all is good’ doesn’t counter the fact that it’s blocky and archaic. Not hard for a developer to improve, either. No excuses.[/quote] It’s been improved since Dark Souls, DaS UI has been improved since Demon’s Souls. Gradual improvement, not a revolution, but who expects a revolution from a numbered sequel? [quote]That From Software are still pumping titles out on the same tech and making a profit is cool, I guess. Not my idea of design innovation, though.[/quote] I rather have “PS2 era” graphics than… Read more »

Brad Gallaway
Brad Gallaway
6 years ago

Hey Crofto. Just chipping in with my own .02 here… As far as the UI goes, i’m not sure that it being blocky or unimaginative would be one of my issues. sounds more like a taste thing. as for me, i wish they’d be more consistent about giving vital info on each screen, giving equip comparisons when shopping, etc. that can definitely be improved, but the hassle is pretty minor. the gameplay slow and sluggish? it’s intentional and strategic. certain animations can be sped up with stats, and it’s all about executing the system in a purposeful way. very similar… Read more »

Crofto
Crofto
6 years ago

Hey guys. I think the argument against the poor UI doesn’t really fly. Saying it’s ‘serviceable so all is good’ doesn’t counter the fact that it’s blocky and archaic. Not hard for a developer to improve, either. No excuses. As for the framerate. I feel happy that some players can play the game without technical flaws, but that is not my experience of these games. The engine feels dated, akin to late PS2-era. That From Software are still pumping titles out on the same tech and making a profit is cool, I guess. Not my idea of design innovation, though.… Read more »

Skybane
Skybane
6 years ago

Well, I guess there are just some opinionated details being argued over then. I’ve seen games that try to make their UI more “up to date” and the end up failing. Having a UI that works is important, and their UI does. It sounds like you just don’t care for the way it looks, which is fine. Funny enough I hate Armored Core’s UI, which is similar to this… Now the engine I get where you are coming from, but not in regards to DS2. I had more trouble with Dragons Dogma or Skyrim than this. I can’t say the… Read more »

Crofto
Crofto
6 years ago

I admire your passion for the game, but am inclined to disagree with the overall praise. I certainly wouldn’t claim the game is ‘well-designed’ on the whole. I find it amusing how certain games are criticized for barely changing their formulas. Call of Duty is a game that this criticism is often leveled at, for example. Yet, for me, Dark Souls I and II have barely improved since Demon’s Souls. Worse yet, it is in basic areas wherein little-to-no effort has been made, by From Software, to advance forward. The UI, for a start, is repulsive, and archaic. It is… Read more »