Within minutes of starting Dark Souls II, I fell to my death due to a poorly planned jump. Seconds later, I received an achievement titled, “This is Dark Souls,” rewarding me for my first death. In any other game, that would be nothing but a cheap gag: a cheeky achievement to laugh at then never give another thought. In Dark Souls, it’s a warning of what’s to come.
Dark Souls II’s slogan may not be “prepare to die” like its predecessor, but it still manages to get the message across. Right from the get-go, you’re being told about the many deaths ahead of you. How you’ll lose your souls time and again, and burn in anguish. It sets a depressing, unwelcoming stage, making sure you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into.
Where most games seek to empower, Dark Souls does just the opposite. Its goal is to make you work for victory, to relish in overcoming the insurmountable, even if it has to break you down along the way. Its steady, methodical nature and unrelenting challenge forces you to take a more considerate approach, punishing those who would look to recklessness harshly. It’s a game you have to make a strong effort to learn and adapt to, but one that also rewards you greatly for doing so. And with Dark Souls II, it’s better than ever.
You once again assume the role of an undead. Marked by the accursed darksign, your memories have begun to fade as your body slowly rots away. Well on your way toward turning hollow – an empty shell doomed to wander the earth, attacking anyone who crosses its path; the fate of all undead – you travel to the lost kingdom of Drangleic in search of a cure. Upon arrival, you’re tasked with defeating the Old Ones – four ancient, powerful beings whose souls you need to take on as your own. Because only those with mighty souls may meet with the king, he who holds the answers you seek.
From there on, you’re on your own. With your goal laid before you, it’s on you to figure out the rest. Never again does Dark Souls II assist you directly. NPCs only provide the vaguest of hints, player messages attempting to guide and mislead you. The only to progress is to plunge into the unknown, see where it takes you, and hope you’re ready for whatever lies on the other end of that tunnel.
The world of Dark Souls II is larger than its predecessor, covering an entire continent instead of a small plot of land, possessing a greater degree of variety. From dense forests and oceanic ruins to vast iron keeps and the murky underground, each locale exudes a mixture of beauty and dismay. Majula’s sunbathed vista, for instance, stands in stark contrast of the crumbling houses that litter the scene, the jovial attitudes of the people who come to rest there a small reprieve from the usual dingy, dreadful sights that lie beyond its borders.
But what Dark Souls II offers in variety, it lacks in cohesion. Drangleic doesn’t feel seamless like Lordran. Where Dark Souls’ setting was a sprawling maze, Drangleic is a series of corridors with the occasional detour. Every path only goes one way, never intersecting with one another. It makes each place feel much more closed off; more distinct, sure, but disjointed as well. Lordran was fascinating because it felt like an actual place rather than a series of loosely connected levels. Almost everything you saw in the distance was a place you could visit, the ways in which they all connected with one another clear and logical. There was never any question as to how it all fit together, whereas Dark Souls II’s geography remains hidden and sometimes illogical. How a massive castle rests at the top of a lift in the back of a windmill is beyond me, especially when there’s no signs to support how that’s even possible. It detracts from the otherwise realized nature of the world.
This doesn’t affect the quality of the level design itself, though. They’re just as treacherous as ever, packed chalk-full of enemies and perilous pathways. If anything, they’re more devious than ever, many areas allowing you to leverage the environment to your advantage. Pots of poison liquid, for instance, can be shattered to coat any nearby foes with the toxic substance. Gunpowder filled barrels can be destroyed – sometimes opening shortcuts in the process – by goading enemies into attacking them, the sparks from their attacks grazing the wall igniting them. The additional tactics are welcome, for odds in combat are hardly favorable.
Enemies often pull in packs – even if you try using arrows to draw them out one at a time – so you have to be more considerate in how you approach them. Fighting multiple opponents in Dark Souls is not usually advisable because the nature of the combat doesn’t lend itself well to such tactics. The enemies don’t take turns attacking you – they swarm you the very second they’ve seen you, overpowering you in mere seconds. You can’t just sit back and block them forever, either, because you only have so much stamina to use, which depletes with nearly every action you take – from attacking and dodging to blocking and dashing. It makes fighting one-on-one difficult enough; anything more and it’s all out bedlam.
From Software knows this. They understand the limitations of Dark Souls’ methodical combat and work around it in surprisingly effective ways. In most cases that means ensuring the truly menacing foes only attack in pairs, granting large arenas in which to tango. They engineer encounters just so to create the optimal conditions for a thrilling battle but not at the cost of fairness. For instance: in one early area, you come across a room with three large knights – one in the middle, and two guarding the exits on the left and right sides. When you enter, the center knight steps forward, the other two raising their shields and backing off. Only once you’ve taken out the first challenger do they advance. It’s a rare scenario, but a welcome touch of kindness.
In many ways, Dark Souls II is easier than its predecessor. Mostly in that it’s done away with much of the ambiguity that’s plagued its forbears. That’s not to say it outright explains everything to you – wouldn’t be Dark Souls if it did – only that it makes a strong effort to acquaint you with its concepts. The upgrade system is much simpler and streamlined, tossing the numerous upgrade paths aside in favor of a single route that can be modified by various elemental infusions (fire, lightning, magic, etc.). The stats each attribute affects are clearly outlined before you even pump souls into them, always ensuring you’re never at a loss as to what affects what. And the threshold for how much equipment you can wear before it begins to slow your movement has also been raised considerably, allowing you to use heavier weapons and armor with greater ease.
Everything is still plenty difficult, though. In large part because you now lose a small percentage of your health with every death, a la Demon’s Souls. Instead of the simple human and hollow forms of its predecessor, where a single death would turn you from a human into a shriveled up zombie with no consequence, every death causes your character to hollow out bit by bit. Their bodies begin to decay as you lose more and more hit-points until it’s reduced to 50%. It’s brutal, but easily mended. By using a human effigy , the replacement for humanity from the last game, you’ll instantly return you to human form, restoring your lost HP in the process.
The biggest change, however, comes from player invasions. Staying in hollow form no longer protects you from them. You can now be attacked by other players regardless of your physical state. The stress that accompanies each step only grows with the constant threat of invasion hanging over your head, reminding you just how truly vulnerable you are in this dangerous world. But invasions, at least so far, have been extremely uncommon. I encountered only two or three during my first play-through.
It’s because red eye orbs – the item used to invade – are purposely scarce. You can only find a handful of them per play-through, more only able to be obtained by successfully defeating players in one of the dedicated PVP arenas or by getting to drop off certain enemies. A smart move, as it makes invasions exciting again. Because they’re no longer a common occurrence, they feel special. They instill fear, for you never know when they’re going to strike. It makes that dreadful “you have been invaded” message mean something again. No more can high level players troll beginners, an improved matchmaking system ensuring that never happens.
Because you gain levels much faster than before (you can reach level 100 well before you’re half-way done), enemies stay stronger for far longer; early-game foes can still put up a fight even after you should have out-leveled them. That the odds are in their favor helps, but they’re also savage by default due to their improved AI. Your opponents no longer follow strict attack patterns; instead, they act in response to your tactics. Keeping your shield raised will make the enemy do the same, causing a stalemate until one of you decides to lower your defenses to attempt a strike. They’ll even counter your attempts to perform backstabs, sometimes using them against you.
These changes make combat a bigger challenge than it’s ever been before. Learning attack patterns and how to counter them was easy in previous games because they were easily exploitable. Enemies regularly took pauses between strikes and seldom unleashed flurries of combos, giving you ample time to get in deal some major damage. Now, they’re much more aggressive, determined to not let you take the upper hand. They rush you, using their superior numbers to break through your guard frighteningly fast, making you work for your continued survival.
The same can’t entirely be said about the bosses, unfortunately. Very few of them feel distinct. Many of them end up being variations on large human-esque figures that wield large weapons who happen to be extremely agile, which quickly extinguishes the excitement of fighting them. The few creative battles that do exist are incredible and immensely fun – the chariot boss from the old gameplay reveal video last year springs to mind – but they’re too few and far between. They all still provide a good challenge, of course, but they don’t exhibit the same imaginative design – both in aesthetics and the battles themselves – of those from previous installments.
It’s worth noting, however, that you can now essentially control the difficulty for certain bosses. Platforms can be raised to make a precarious walkway into a full-fledged arena, pools of oil can be lit to light a pitch-black room to extend your lock-on range, and so on. Seemingly small things that create more thrilling, difficult battle conditions. It’s a shame that it’s so underused because being able to control how challenging a boss will be is a fantastic idea; as is having them attack you before you reach their lair, something that happens only twice in the entire game. Fleshing these out further could have kept the bosses fresh and satisfying, ensuring there would always be some new way to test yourself, as well as add an additional element of unpredictability. But alas.
New game plus fulfills some of that role, though. Where previously all it did was boost the strength and health of enemies, now it introduces a bunch of red phantom variations on standard foes along with some more computer-controlled invaders to create a greater challenge. It makes everything new again, a refreshing change from the usual approach to this mode.
That alone gives it the edge, but add the superb amount of refinements and tweaks made to make it play better, and Dark Souls II becomes an undeniably superior game to its predecessors. Even in spite its few unfortunate shortcomings, Dark Souls II does much so well that it’s easy to look past them, for they’re but mere quibbles than damning flaws.
Dark Souls II is more Dark Souls. Nothing more, nothing less. And that’s all it needs to be.