Dark Souls II Review
It’s hard to mention either Demon’s Souls, or its successor Dark Souls, without the words ‘difficult’ and ‘frustrating’ springing to mind.
However, laborious qualities aside, the highly rewarding nature and sense of achievement that conquering the challenges on offer by these games can’t be understated. These tests have always been something that series veterans have somewhat lauded, especially over those that can’t rise to the challenge.
During development of Dark Souls II it was revealed that the aim was to make the title ‘more accessible’ — this rang a lot of alarm bells for the franchise faithful. So, does this ‘approachable’ move mean that the game is easier, or does Dark Souls II retain the same ‘soul’ of its predecessors?
Unlike most other big-budget games, Dark Souls II does not hold your hand. There is an incredibly brief tutorial section simply telling players the actions, alongside going up against a few basic test enemies.
Players are dropped into the hostile world with the goal of finding a cure for their undead state. It’s a very basic premise that doesn’t flesh itself out too much as you play but rather your trials and tribulations in reaching this goal creating the stories. Aside from the initial discovery of the coastal sun-drenched hub area of Majula, the world of Drangleic is yours to explore from the offset, ready for you to pillage for souls. These ‘souls’ form the games main currency and are used to level-up your stats as well as to buy weapons and armour.
Numerous branching paths lead to unknown areas, and it’s your job to go off and explore — some regions may seem far beyond your ability, but this is a central hook of the game. No place seems too far out of reach, for long as skills are levelled up, weapons and armour are acquired and tactics for dealing with each of the adversaries are developed and perfected.
From Software has a knack for putting players in their place and really testing their mettle. This is a game that punishes the over-confident, and develops patience and talent to a degree that very few other titles can match. Undoubtedly this is balancing is something that will put many players off, but that’s fine — this is by no means a game for everyone.
This is further solidified by the loss of valuable souls everytime the player dies. Although these souls can be retrieved by returning to your point of death, this is only possible one time per death. Die a second time before reaching them and the souls are gone for good. As cruel as it may seem this is a staple of the franchise and aims to increase the tension and carelessness, something it does incredibly well.
Combat in Dark Souls II is almost a carbon copy of the original, with a mix of physical action and magic. The careful management of stamina is still very much the focus, with every attack, dodge or block taking up valuable portions of this important commodity. While stamina does refill, it requires a brief step away from directly attacking — resulting in encounters seeing plenty of back and forth, often being the only way to succeed. To the untrained eye this may feel like a very slow way to progress but when even the weakest of enemies can, at first, take sizeable chunks of your health with a single strike, this measured tactic is necessary.
Another staple of the franchise comes in the form of bonfires. These lightly scattered havens of safety allow players to restore their health and refill their ever precious health vials. Key changes in this iteration are the ability to fast travel between any previously found bonfires, something that wasn’t available until roughly half way through the first Dark Souls. While this may seem controversial to veterans, the change seems to account for the fact that stats can only be upgraded in the hub area Majula, as opposed to at any bonfire. It’s not a gamebreaker by any means as the more daring among us can still adventure in any direction to their hearts content.
The other two key adjustments that we’d be amiss to not mention is lifegems and the penalty of being ‘hollow’. Traditionally the limited estus flasks were the only way to heal, outside of magic, but these useful gems allow a faster way to to restore health. On the less positive side however these don’t refill the health bar as fast as the flasks so careful management of both methods is a must. The good thing about Dark Souls II is that you can make it as hard as you like and even with these gems you are certainly not in for an easy ride.
In an attempt to seemingly balance out the tweaks, there is an actual punishment for dying far greater than Dark Souls. Whenever you die you automatically look even more undead and disturbing, however in a hark back to Demons Souls, the cap of your health bar is also reduced. Every subsequent time you die it goes down even more, up to 50% of your usual maximum health, until you can turn human again through scarce items. Even more reasons to stay careful and alive, as if there weren’t enough already.
Enemies in this game are just as grotesque and inventive as you’d expect from the minds at From Software. It’s not just their looks that impress but the variety in attacks. Big hulking beasts with large powerful sword swings mix among sneaky enemies that parry and look for clear openings to chip away at your health. The boss fights too are as epic as ever, with foes that tower over your character and those that charge towards you with reckless abandon.
If the boss fights are proving too much for you then you may get some help from the ever-entertaining multiplayer. Players can interact with each other in a number of unique ways, including putting down summon points so players can call upon others to help them out in combat, albeit for a limited amount of time. If they are feeling a little less kind it is also possible to invade other worlds and take others on for bragging rights. You can also leave messages for others, warning them of an ambush, in addition to letting others know where players have perished.
All those put off by the aim to make Dark Souls II more accessible need not worry, this is still cut from the same cloth as its predecessors.
You will fail again and again leaving only the most determined of gamers willing to get back up and learn from their mistakes. Is it the best game of the series? That is something that will undoubtedly come down to personal preference for long time fans but the penalties for dying do feel far more severe here, and at times a little unfair. It’s very clear that the developers have tried to create the ideal middle point between Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls.
Dark Souls II succeeds in providing the same sort of tense, challenging, but ultimately rewarding experience that the franchise has become known for.