Review: Dark Souls II Is A Brutal But Rewarding Playground
The sequel to 'The Most Difficult Game On Earth'™ is finally out, and we're all chomping at the bit to chomp on some enemy's bit. Uhm. But is Dark Souls II a worthy successor or is it just more of the same? Then again, is more of the same not exactly what everyone wants anyway? Let's have a look, shall we?
- Worth The Time?Any RPG player would thoroughly enjoy this game, even if they didn't really enjoy playing through it.
- Things LovedThe more linear approach helps a lot; The improved levelling and stats make it easier on players; The world is immersive and intriguing and you will lose hours of your life to this game; The rewarding feeling is undeniable.
- Things HatedFarming can get annoying; The control system is still weird; The frame rate issues can be game-ruining; The difficulty is still not quite right.
- RecommendationYou already know whether or not you're going to buy Dark Souls II, so don't let me stop you. However for the rest of you, this is a tough and brutally difficult game that you will absolutely enjoy if you're willing to give it your time and patience. If you're not that into RPGs, however, you should probably give this one a miss.
- Name: Dark Souls II
- Genre: RPG
- Players: 1
- Multiplayer: Online
- Platforms: PC, PS3, Xbox 360
- Developer: From Software
- Publisher: Bandai Namco Games
- Price: R 699
- Reviewed On: PS3
The thing about the Dark Souls games is that they’re almost superfluous to review. I mean, anyone who actually enjoys the games is going to go out and buy it, even some of us who don’t, and the rest simply do not care enough. So who is this review for? Ideally, it would be for those few who are still in two minds about whether or not to make a purchase, however in this case it’s more likely that if such a person existed, they would want to know whether or not to make a purchase at this point in time as opposed to later.
Still, this being an RPG and a sequel to a game, and a game (I guess), there are quite a few talking points and so we’re going to use this review to try and hit every one of those in some semblance of an order. And we’re going to begin with the running joke for this series: You will die. A lot. Seriously, you should be ready and willing to constantly die, because progress in a Dark Souls game, even for some veterans, involves a lot of learning by death. It’s got so bad that even the prologue which should serve to introduce players to the game, just seems like the developers laughing at players; the message in this game is very clear: We made it really difficult, and you’re going to suffer and then thank us for making this game.
Bit of a dick move? You bet it is. But we’ll come back to that later. The question is, is Dark Souls II a bad game for it? Does it suffer from being the butt of its own running joke? I would say that it actually endures in spite of the running joke and no, it is absolutely not a bad game. In fact, it’s one of the more engrossing games that I’ve played in recent years.
Dark Souls II manages to, first and foremost, be an RPG. That means it has the expansive open world to run around in. That means it has the deep character creation system. That means it has the intriguing lore to carry its story. It might not sit on the level of Dragon Age or The Witcher with its ability to tell that story, but then, Dark Souls was never about being told things; other than of course being told that you’re going to die a lot. No, the game has a story that in fairness is more fleshed out and satisfying than its predecessor, but it’s never going to be an overpowering narrative, only another system that exists in the game alongside everything else.
Right from the tutorial segment of the game, which is basically just a sequence of caves that can be quite easily missed by players not paying attention — or: the ones who would need the tutorial segment — the game makes it clear that there are no world maps, no journals or codexes to help you along your way. You are entirely alone and it is up to you to sink or swim. In Dark Souls II the swimming part is at least made a little easier in a few ways. For one, the opening segment of the game involves a city called Majula, which forms the main hub for the rest of the game. This is where you’ll find various merchants, this is where you’ll abandon covenants and importantly, this is where you’ll come when you want to level up. To go with this change, and balance it out, is the ability to fast travel the moment you’ve unlocked a bonfire, which means that you can do so from the beginning of the game this time around.
A further change is that of the way the game world is designed. In Dark Souls, you had basically four directions you could go in, and it was a case of finding the right way each time, based on your level. Here you’re practically guided on your way in what might seem like a more linear fashion. This means that you immediately go in the right direction and hopefully keep it that way. Should you end up going in a different — or, wrong — direction, you are then welcome to either fast travel back or try your hand at the enemies there, some which can be bettered by you even though you are possibly far weaker.
This isn’t to say that the game is easier, though. Oh boy, no. That is definitely not the case. There are a few ways in which it could be easier for the hardcore Dark Souls player; for example, a lot of enemy attack patterns are ripped straight out of the previous games, together with some sounds and visuals. This means that veterans can pretty much walk through areas with enemies they’ve faced before, including boss fights. However the newcomer to the series is still going to suffer in this respect, and further, it’s going to be even worse. The Estus Flask, for example, doesn’t come with as many uses and doesn’t heal as quickly as before, while taking longer to use than it did in previous games. It can be upgraded over time but early on, when it’s needed most, it is almost entirely useless.
Further, you now have yet another consequence of death, being that when you die your health capacity drops a little, maxing out at 50%. A few silly deaths and you’re basically operating at reduced capacity, just before a precious boss battle. Your health capacity must then be restored using the human effigy item, which restores your humanity and removes you from the hollowed state. Always fun. Oh, did I mention that your weapons weaken with attacks and you only have limited spell casts which force regular visits to bonfires or the risk of breakage, which then requires a trip to a blacksmith if you don’t have the necessary items to fix them? Those are things that happen. At least weapon crafting is simplified somewhat; it’s all about Titanite shards this time — there’s a Titanfall joke here somewhere — and magic-imbued weapons can be reversed without breaking.
The classes available in the previous game have made a return here, with the sorcerer class still being the absolute hax easy class — and naturally my pick after discovering that swordsman was just a bad idea — however there have been a few noteworthy changes made to the combat system. Okay, that wonky trigger-based control system is still a thing but we’ll forgive it because it’s just another way that From Software tries to fuck us. Apart from that, new to magic is the hex; it is a new type of spell that depends on both the intelligence and faith stats and has the option of using the amount of souls you are carrying in order to power up attacks. Speaking of stats, it is now much easier to assign stats when levelling up, and it actually pays to level up those stats not related to your chosen class as well. Should you decide that you’ve done it incorrectly, there is now, at last, how was it even not here in the first place, an item that allows you to re-spec and re-assign your stats as you please, if you so desire. This has an obvious tactical advantage for those areas where your chosen class is particularly weak, or if you just get bored of casting Soul Arrows.
Dark Souls II will consume a very large portion of your life. If you rush through the game then you could finish it in around fifty hours, however you really don’t want to rush it and you’ll likely not do so as you spend your time dying anyway. Then you have the option of doing it all again in new game plus, which this time incorporates the story, a neat addition if I may say so. I would recommend playing online because a lot of the messages scrawled across the floors really help you out, especially if you’re new to the series and need every little bit of help you can get. Further, walking into an area and seeing bloodstains all across the floor is typically a good way of knowing it’s time to clinch that sphincter and prepare that
It’s not the prettiest game in the world, unfortunately, although even though it tries to be all doom and gloom, it still manages to be quite something to behold. It’s got a forlorn sense that carries across the entire game, and the brightness of Majula, it being a safe zone for the player, is a fitting contrast to the rest of the game. Then again you’re not playing this game for its aesthetics. One thing that is a direct effect of the visuals, or perhaps it’s just bad optimisation, is the irregular slowdown I experienced while playing on the PS3. Hear that, ‘Xbone’ haters? In a game where precise timing and key-presses is vital to your vitals, it was frustrating to have the frame rate drop for a few seconds, mid-battle. Worse when it ended up causing me to lose more health than I otherwise would have, so it definitely bears mention.
Important to remember is that Dark Souls II is, at its heart, an RPG, but it’s trying really hard to also be an MMO. Dedicated servers et al. In that way, the story mode is basically just a PvE scenario, with the option for PvP entirely open to players. Various items will allow you to invade other players’ worlds, create summon signs into your worlds and so on. Further, the already mentioned messages and bloodstains that are strewn across the floor, together with the ghostly flashes of other players doing battle or exploring, further serve to emphasise that you’re not the only one going through this torment — which kind of defeats the point of the story trying to come across a desolate quest of solitude, but that kind of dissonance is perfectly acceptable and I’m not fussed about it if you aren’t.
One last thing that I would like to discuss is that of the difficulty of the Dark Souls games. I think that Dark Souls II is like any other RPG but the difficulty slider has been moved all the way up, and then removed from the game. This applies insofar as, enemies are typically going to do a lot of damage if they hit you, your ability to take hits is reduced and your ability to hit things is also much reduced. An example of this is the old knight who will hit you and cause some 400hp worth of damage but a typical physical strike from you would only do 50hp worth of damage. This is nothing new, in fact this is the oldest trick in the book. Other games do this a lot better — that link is required reading for this review.
The one thing that Dark Souls II does well is present real consequences for your death. As in, when you die your health capacity is reduced and you lose your souls and must recover them or lose them forever if you die again. That is consequence, not difficulty. And I think the ability to differentiate between those two is important because what From Software are doing with this game is not presenting real difficulty, they’re actually just stacking the odds against you. The stamina bar is basically like cancer in the real world, and From Software are pharmaceutical companies; sure they could cure it, but why if they can control you once you have it? The dependence on stamina is everything that is challenging about this game. Not finding weak, exploitable traits of enemies. Not building a strong character with good stats, weapons and armour. Not even summoning other players to help you out. The only thing that presents difficulty in Dark Souls II is being smart enough to manage your stamina.
Still, you cannot deny that overcoming those unfair odds and prevailing — or: effectively managing your stamina — is an amazingly rewarding feeling and every time you see the words ‘Victory Achieved’ across your screen, you feel like a veritable badass. And rightly so. While it’s not real difficulty, at least not the way they claim it is, it’s still the game in which the developer keeps reminding you that you’re going to die… and you only went and proved those bitches wrong. Well done you.
A special thank you to longtime friend of the site, Sherwin, for his invaluable assistance with this review. Praise the sun!