From Software struck gold with Demon’s Souls, the 2009 dark fantasy RPG that would eventually spawn a franchise–as well as a much-needed name change. It was critically acclaimed for its unforgiving nature, beautifully realized world and innovative multiplayer. It should have become a cult hit; a critical darling with a steep learning curve that seemed destined to be embraced by a loving, albeit small, community of diehard fans. Instead, its sequel saw similar reviews and significantly better sales.
This week saw the release of Dark Souls II — find out if it continues this series’ success in my review.
I feel like I should start off a review of a game like this with a disclaimer, of sorts.
For the unfamiliar, like its predecessors, Dark Souls II is a very difficult game. It’s challenging not only in terms of its combat or because of the unpredictability of the enemies it throws at you, but because of a handful of systems that have been woven into each other, gracefully, if not mercifully, to make this a difficult game to sit through.
And much like its predecessors, if you’re willing to let it teach you, it can also become one of the most rewarding gaming experiences you’ll ever have.
Unfortunately, its world may prove too harsh for some. This is a game that doesn’t rely on the annoying hand-holding that so many other modern AAA games employ. Instead, it teaches its players to adapt, mostly through death, to overcome. Believe me, you will die, and you will die often. If that doesn’t sound like something you’d like to endure, this might not be the game for you.
If you’re patient, you’ll soon realize that every seemingly malicious decision on the designers’ part was made to make this game truly unforgettable.
There’s a lot to love about Dark Souls II, from the systems that have been intricately tied into each other to the way it practically forces you to explore its world. With so many linear games inundating retail shelves everyday, it’s nice to play one that wants you to shy away from the beaten path, for that’s where its treasures lie. It’s often the more dangerous path that reaps the greatest rewards.
If hidden loot doesn’t serve as significant enough motivation for you, it’s gorgeous world should do the trick. There’s an impressive attention to detail that permeates every environment. The only thing that holds it back would be the technical limitations of the platforms. This series is beginning to show its age, and that fact isn’t aided by the impressions made by the still very new next-gen consoles.
But visuals aren’t everything, and I doubt you’ll care about murky textures when a giant monster is trying its best to tear you apart. Death is something that has to be embraced in this series. I went through one controller–almost two–while I was working on my Demon’s Souls review. It takes some getting used to, sure, but it’s a part of the game. Everything wants to kill you, so it’s up to you to make that as difficult a feat as possible.
Thankfully, there are tools in place to help, and most of them revolve around this game’s incredibly innovative multiplayer. One of which is the clever ability to write messages that show up in other players’ worlds. If there’s a trap or a particularly tough fight ahead, you can let others know by scrawling it on the floor. These player-written warnings have saved my life more than a few times. A warning: not every player has good intentions. Some may fool other players with false messages. Be wary.
If you need something a bit more substantial than that, you can always call upon other players by summoning them into your world. If a boss refuses to die, getting a few friends to help take it down is almost always an option. Though, like every facet of this game, this too, comes with a darker purpose. If your world is open to aid, it’s also open to invasion. If a malevolent player wants to take a break from their world to wreak havoc in yours, they can choose to temporarily invade another world with the singular goal of eliminating its player.
For fans of the series who are more interested in knowing what’s been changed, Dark Souls 2 has seen a number of tweaks, all of which I’m happy to say have positive effects on the experience as a whole.
One fundamental difference is player health. In the previous game, if you were hurt, consuming an Estus Flask would remedy the situation. Now, Estus Flasks take a backseat to Lifegems, which gradually replenish your health. Estus Flasks are still in the game, and those too have seen tweaks. Now they can be improved by collecting shard fragments that increase the number of times they can heal with each use.
Humanity is no longer measured by a numeric rating. When your character dies, they become Hallowed. Each death from there on reduces the character’s maximum health, with the maximum reduction resting at 50%. The only way to reverse this is by consuming a rare Human Effigy, which grants Humanity after being burned at a bonfire.
The classes have been refined, resulting in the removal of the Hunter, Pyromancer, Thief, and Wanderer. We’re left with the Warrior, Knight, Swordsman, Bandit, Cleric, Sorcerer, Explorer, and Deprived — the basic, no-frills class. It’s still a well-rounded cast, though as a former Pyromancer in Dark Souls, there is a fireball shaped hole in my heart this time around.
While there are likely to be “Dark Souls 1.5” jokes to be made about this entry, Dark Souls 2 does more than enough to warrant another trip to its twisted world. It takes everything the last two games did well and does all of it better. The controls, character customization, world, and enemies are more polished, deep, and thoughtful. This is a game that’s about defeat as much as it is triumph, and it favors those who seek exploration, discovery, and horror, all of which can be found here in equal amounts.
The Final Word: Don’t let its last-gen exclusivity fool you — Dark Souls II is a masterpiece. It’s beautiful, horrifying, unforgiving, and is easily one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had during my gaming career. Just make sure you know going in that this is going to hurt.