Review: Dark Souls II
As I look into the haunting black void that forms the gaping head of The Last Giant, the first boss encounter proper of Dark Souls II, the sweat-riddled pressure starts to kick in. Its tree-like colossal body is supported by monstrously long limbs that stride around the small arena I’m using for combat as one of Tolkien’s great Ents might. If the Ents were born in the dreams of a long afflicted opium addict, that is. It strikes slowly but with immense power by using a frontal strike with its massive branch arms, but its lanky form allows a more agile player like mine to flit between its legs quite easily and into the safer territory of its rear. Its great legs form a clear target for an attack and with a click of the right-stick I’m locked on and striking with a careful reservation. One strike, followed by a fear-driven backtrack manoeuvre is the name of the game here; since my lightly-armoured but swift character would be immediately crunched like a packet of biscuits should I fall under the weight of The Last Giant’s hulking attacks.
But it’s looking good: my strategy seems to be working, the monster’s health is gradually depleting and I’m using my characters attributes to the best of their ability. ‘I will fell this mighty beast!’ I think to myself in appropriate grandiose character, but that is when my own assurance becomes my great undoing. A cocky third swing of my sword in an attempt to finish The Last Giant leaves me with a depleted stamina gauge and thus no way to successfully defend against an attack with my shield. The Giant lifts its trunk-like legs and smashes it down on to the skull of my player, leaving me with nothing but the sour taste of defeat in my mouth. Dead. Game over. Try again next time, pal.
Except in Dark Souls II death does not mean game over, but rather it is the next step on your path to success and thus the achievement of blissful victory over your own mistakes. The original Dark Souls and its precursor Demon’s Souls are games sadly defined by their reputation for difficulty – often putting off players with the impression that they are some kind of sadist nightmare where you are constantly punished in an unfair arena of defeat. The more accurate and fair way to describe them is as challenging. Dark Souls II, like its predecessors, operates in a completely different realm of gameplay to titles of a similar ilk. Yes it’s an RPG with a bit of action, but every aspect bearing even a passing resemblance to something like Skyrim has its own very unique and often very demanding set of rules.
Stamina, a major factor in ruling combat, is affected by how much you attack and only recovers quickly if you aren’t holding up your shield; while healing yourself or attacking takes a precise amount of time to perform – leaving a careless player open to an enemy offensive if attempted with poor timing. Likewise, something as genre standard as levelling up is not simply a case of ‘more XP equals more power’, but rather it’s about exploiting which attributes to develop in order to make the best of your character and battle strategy. Do you increase stamina by putting points into Endurance in order to allow more movement in battle? Or develop Intelligence to create a Sorcerer powerful in ranged combat?
Dark Souls II is therefore not difficult for the sake of it, but instead it challenges the player to understand and adhere to its very specific rules of gameplay. These rules are regularly in stark contrast to other experiences and standards the player has come to expect from an RPG. Sometimes it does push the patience of a player to the limits of sanity and for the uninitiated the first ten hours can be a real slog getting to grips with the key concepts of the game. Resting to heal at checkpoint bonfires will respawn all enemies in the area; while death results in you losing all current souls gathered (which act as experience points for levelling). The player has one chance to reclaim these lost souls by returning to their place of death and touching a blood stain – but die again and they are gone forever. This is explained from the very start though, and one of the things that Dark Souls II does much better than previously is explain its central ideas.
‘Accessibility’, while originally feared to mean a toning down in the challenge, was a key word when the game was first announced and its ethos is noticeable and altogether welcome. Religious Covenants which act as a key component in multiplayer were previously criticised for their often confusing and abstract integration into the game; often being located in less obvious and odd locations. In Dark Souls II you can easily join three from the starting location – which is fantastic, as its multiplayer is one of the most original and unique experiences currently available in the genre. There’s your standard PvP machismo of course, but things like leaving messages to help and hinder each other, the jolly co-operation of The Warriors of Sunlight ‘bro-op’ and a multitude of subtle ways to affect the worlds of other players provide some fascinating methods of interaction. Additionally, the ability to fast travel with bonfires from the very beginning makes things altogether less daunting – if you’re having trouble with a real bastard of a boss, then it’s now much easier to explore somewhere else while you build up the self-esteem to nervously try again.
Difficulty in Dark Souls II therefore comes down to how patient you are at working out a strategy. Every creature and monster in its world and every disturbing boss abomination that terrifyingly confronts you will die if you take the time and concentration to work out how they tick. The trouble is, it’s sometimes not so clear what the correct approach is. By the standard set across its many boss fights, the aforementioned Last Giant is a walk in the park – and in some cases it can be more about taking down an opponent as swiftly as you can, rather than exercising caution. And the overwhelming feeling of triumph when you do finally take down a boss provides an immense satisfaction of achievement unrivalled in other titles. Your fist will feel sore from all the air pumping. If you can put the investment into the world of Dark Souls II you’ll be glad you did, especially considering that the same amount of exquisite game design put into the intricate combat mechanics is also invested into the environment, story and its themes.
Drangleic replaces Lordran as the setting and mostly features a brighter locale. You’ll find none of the haunting screams of The Tower of Latria here, but it’s a different take and a refreshing one at that. The Shaded Woods use a gloomy fog to hide threatening spirits of dead warriors, while No Man’s Wharf is an exemplification in how well the new lighting system of Dark Souls II works. Dense shadows hide gangling demons, forcing the player to seek shelter in the saving orange glow of nearby fires. Bonfires now allow you to kindle your own torches which can be held instead of a shield or sword – which gives the player an interesting choice between utilising light or defending yourself. Equally, one of the most beautiful things about Dark Souls II is how effectively the core gaming experience combines with the minimalist story in order to emphasise certain thematic elements. Every time you die an extra percentage of your maximum health is removed until you restore yourself to a human state using an item called a human effigy. It nicely reflects how your own character is desperately striving to retain their humanity as a measure to avoid gradually losing their mind and turning into one of the hollow undead (a kind of dribbling zombie state characterised by insanity). Similarly, while The Last Giant might ultimately be a foe to overcome, you can’t help but feel a kind of solemn respect for this great creature, the last of its kind, as you slowly take its life away.
Ultimately Dark Souls II doesn’t reinvent the formula that has been formed across the previous Souls’ games. However, what it does do is refine them into the most accessible and most defined exemplification of the series’ strengths so far. Some fans may argue that elements like the ability to fast travel from the beginning takes away the characteristic isolated feeling of the previous games – and they’d be correct. Fast travel is handy but you don’t quite develop the same relationship with the world of Drangleic as you did with Lordran; due to the fact you aren’t forced to explore its nooks and crannies in the same intimate way. Is it as good as Dark Souls? No, but then Dark Souls is quite possibly one of the best games ever made (I’m serious).
To sum up
Dark Souls II then, is a more than worthy successor that has the best iteration of its multiplayer elements yet and makes everything about its dark, mysterious and often insane world a lot more understandable. It’s definitely not easier, but it makes its experience easier to understand and appreciate for those less inclined to devote themselves. Which is a great thing because Dark Souls II and the whole series deserves its recognition as some of the most innovative and incredible RPG’s ever made. Praise the Sun.
Dark Souls II is out now on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.