Dark Souls II Review: Prepare To Die A Lot MoreFiled inside: Reviews
I have a tendency to judge how much I like a game by how infuriated I become when things inevitably go wrong at some point. If I end up losing a series of fighting game matches and I get so pissed off I can’t see straight, it’s a perfect sign that the game is a winner in my book.
Consider, then, the unfathomable stretches of rage I felt as I slowly and repeatedly fought my way through the dark corridors of the Lost Bastille, the dark, crowded trees in the Huntsman’s Copse, or the dark, gaping caverns of the Black Gulch (Get it? That game is pretty dark.) and you’d think that there was no game that could ever hope to compare to the glory of Dark Souls II. Never since my youth, back in the days of my elementary-school-attending, hard-as-Hell-NES-game playing days have I been so close to just trying to break stuff as I was while playing Dark Souls II. The odd thing is, however, I’m not sure.
See, the first Dark Souls holds a special place in my heart. I first picked the game up at a tough time in my life, and overcoming the challenges in the game became an allegory for my life. This was less so for Dark Souls II, and I’m not completely certain at this point how it’s affected my perceptions of the game. That being said, I can very objectively say that Dark Souls II is a phenomenal game.
Similar to the first game, you appear as a lost undead in a strange land, Drangleic. Many are drawn to this strange land, filled with dragons and monsters and all manner of other oddities. But many that end up there are also afflicted with a curse. Your goal, in the simplest possible words, is to collect souls and fight the curse.
Dark Souls II takes a similarly ethereal bent on their storytelling to the first game. You meet a lot of characters along the way, but none of them are utterly crucial to the overall narrative (if you could even say there is a narrative), and they all have sufficient personality to dissuade their immediate slaughter, whether that be for the useful services they provide, or simply as a means to prove to yourself that you’re not the cursed undead the game seems so intent on proving you to be.
There are some surprises along the way, but for the most part, I didn’t feel as connected to Drangleic as I did to Lordran. The world itself is rich and dense; to say it’s lacking would be a lie. Something about it was oddly disconnected, though. While there was certainly more to see, it seemed like a lot of it had less reason to be there. That being said, I haven’t been to every nook and cranny the world has to offer, and there is surely more to see. The potential is certainly there, and its uniquely challenging and rewarding to see it all unfold.The story boosts some interesting callbacks to the old game, and hints at the ways in which the game connects with its predecessor.
The iconic gameplay of the Souls series returns, and it brings with it some serious upgrades. This is the aspect of the game that has made the most leaps and bounds over its predecessor. The foundation is fundamentally identical: combat is a highly strategic affair, you attack your enemies with a wide variety of weapons, while carefully managing your stamina and your very, very limited pool of health. This time around, the number of weapon and shield combinations you can hold has been increased, granting a vastly enhanced variety in how you approach your enemies.
While the variety of movesets between different weapons within a category has been unfortunately reduced, the addition of a dual-wielding capability has been added, making an entirely new style of high-risk, high-reward combat available.
Many other tweaks have made combat notably more challenging than before, as well. Recovery from swung weapons is generally longer, requiring much more consideration to be made when you dedicate yourself to a swing. Heavier weapons no longer react as easily to lock-ons, instead swinging where you’re moving. Parrying windows are considerably smaller, and both backstabs and ripostes bear longer animations, and no longer render you invincible for the duration of the attack, there is no longer a valid strategy of backstabbing things while surrounded to systematically wipe out your foes.
The gameplay is well-tied to the story in some interesting ways, as well. There is a common theme among the undead: they die and are reborn in an endless cycle of psychological torment, eventually driving them to go hollow (see: full blown crazy). As you die, your maximum health is subtly reduced (eventually settling at about half), as a result of the curse. This affects your behavior as you become slowly less likely to explore, to take any risks. Everything becomes slowly more horrifying and dangerous, reducing you to a sniveling mess, a reclusive husk of your former self, less able and less dynamic: a hollow undead.
Now, where before you had a set of banked humanity you had collected in order to fight this so-called curse, you now carry human effigies in order to temporarily fight your curse and restore your health. Being hollow comes with fewer other penalties this time around, however. In the first game, being hollow essentially reduced you to an offline mode, making it all but impossible to summon allies or be invaded be those that would do you harm. This time around it prevents you from forcibly entering the worlds of others, but still allows for cooperation to a degree.
The multiplayer element this time around has been overhauled in quite a few ways, but the overall reaction has been mixed. The lands of Drangleic are fluid, shifting between dimensions and colliding with other versions of itself. This manifests as strange symbols that appear on the ground from those that desire to interact with beings from these other worlds. Basically, it allows you to summon random allies in a display of your continued humanity and philathropy, or initiate duels with others, be they honorable or not, or ever hunt and slay the guilty (or the innocent, if that’s your thing).
Like the first game, covenants have made a similar return, with a decidedly more blunt focus on varying forms of multiplayer. Many serve the same or similar purposes from other games, increased chances for co-op play, facilitating the invasion of other worlds for various nefarious purposes, and the like. Several of the covenants now create persistent PvP spaces, pulling you to the area when others trespass, or others to you should you reside there. There are a few missteps here and there. The Blue Sentinel covenant, for instance, is meant to invade the worlds of guilty players (those that invade and kill other, innocent players, for instance), almost identically to a covenant in the first game. In the same, vein, however, joining this group results in little-to-no invasion time.
Likewise, the addition of soul memory—a running count of all the souls you’ve collected throughout your time as that character—and the way it relates to multiplayer has made regular interaction difficult in some cases, sometimes even shutting you out of multiplayer in a given area for long periods of time. Many of the complaints of these complaints are somewhat relaxed once entering NG+, and it doesn’t mean that From Software doesn’t’ have a chance to make changes based on player feedback, but considering that several of the oversights from the first game were so easily repeated, we can’t know where things are going to go.
Speaking of tuning, the game could use a quite a bit of it. As before, all stat progression is left to the player (though a way to redistribute points used to level up has been a very welcome addition to the game), but it seems easier than every to create a build that won’t perform well in combat. Many of the players I’ve encountered that wished me dead could do so with considerable ease, often killing me with a single, quickly-cast and nigh unavoidable spell. I’m no master of killing other players, but the encounters I’ve had have either been with a similar player to myself, in which case we exchange a few blows, or with someone I am somehow grossly unable to even reach, and am given absolutely no chance to defeat.
Visually, the game has made quite a few improvements. Ragdoll physics of corpses has been removed, resulting in fewer comical dancing bodies. Many of the textures have been vastly improved, and the environments are sufficiently diverse and interesting. Cloth physics had been improved, and seeing your character’s clothing whipping about in the wind certainly adds a lot of character to the game. The biggest improvement comes in the lighting. The addition of torches allows for darker areas and other similar visual elements. Lighting the torch casts dancing shadows across your surroundings and your enemies, leading to some truly awesome and occasionally terrifying visuals.
My biggest issues with the game came down to a problem of motivation. Something about the game feels decidedly less compelling than it did the first time around. Dark Souls II is a well-crafted game, no denying that. But where the first game gave a distinct feeling of triumph and a strong sense of responsibility for your demise, this one has a much stronger scent of “that was bullsh*t” when things go badly. The fact that enemies stop respawning after they’ve been killed fifteen times feels more like a punishment for failure than a limiter on farming. Boss fights might have retained that whole sense of awe (mostly due to the size of some foes), but have distinctly less character and feel on the whole less memorable than before. It feels like Dark Souls gave up a part of that indescribable thing that made it so great to focus on gameplay, becoming technically better, but less fulfilling than before. It is distressing in some ways. I plan on spending more time with it, in the hopes that something with it will click and I’ll come to some understanding I previously lacked about the game and it will become the messiah it was made out to be. Until then, I still recommend it, but only if you’ve got a strong enough will to soldier through it, stronger than one you might have needed for the first game.
Grab Dark Souls II by From Software on PS3 or Xbox 360 (no next-gen on this one) for $59.99. You might also consider grabbing a yoga ball and a few thousand stress balls. Or do what I do: every time I die, do a set of exercises. You’ll be an olympic athlete in a matter of days, I guarantee it.