Release Date: March 11, 2014Platform: PS3 (reviewed), Xbox 360, PCDeveloper: From SoftwarePublisher: Bandai Namco GamesGenre: Action RPG
Full disclosure: the punishingly difficult action RPG Demon’s Souls and its spiritual sequel Dark Souls were two of my favorite games over the entire last generation. So it would be an understatement to say that From Software’s Dark Souls 2 sat at the number one spot of my most anticipated games list. But now that the game that first taught us how to die over and over and over again has returned, and this time more streamlined for a broader audience to match the waves of showering acclaim, do we still find the same value in gaining wisdom from our many, very timely demises?
The world and lore of Dark Souls 2 revolve around a nameless hero, who descends into a chaotic realm called Drangleic that’s been plagued by all sorts of curses. The haunting story is developed through subtle visual cues, but the real draw here is the battle-hardened gameplay, which builds itself on caution, memorization, and learning from your many, many mistakes. You don’t have to be afraid about Dark Souls 2 straying from the hardcore formula that has since made the series such a modern cult classic, as the game is very much in harmony with the history that came before it. But you SHOULD be afraid, however, of nearly everything that dwells within the game, as the environment and monster designs are just as beautifully created as they are deadly and ready for you to die.
In a way, playing Dark Souls 2 and its punishing predecessors is like reading a classic piece of literature: you might need to use a dictionary to get through some of the more difficult parts, and you might only understand the breadth of the work after your second reading, but there’s nothing like the sense of reward and accomplishment once you’ve fought your way to that final page. The dictionary, in this sense, comes in the form of other players who leave helpful notes on the ground throughout all of Drangleic, often warning you of an ambush or rejoicing about a bonfire that lies in wait just ahead. And that second reading, of course, is the sadistic New Game+ mode, which both tests you of the familiar while adding even more challenge into the mix for an infinite replay value.
But the big question that everyone will be wondering about Dark Souls 2 is whether or not the game is harder than Demon’s Souls or the first Dark Souls. Based on my own experience, I would say the answer is twofold. The opening 10 hours of the game, though easily more accessible than previous installments, are an unbelievably rough time at first, as they pit you up against extremely powerful enemies with very little resources to aid your progress. There also seems to be a noticeable increase in the number of bosses you’ll face off against, and these are both cruel in design and marvelous in their appearance. And of course, there’s nothing quite as stressful as being invaded by other players in the game’s tightly-refined PvP components.
But once you successfully make it past that 10-15 hour mark and nab your first decent weapon or armor set, you’ll really start to push forward and get to see the wonderful realm of Drangleic open up like never before. Not only is the game world much more expansive than Lordran was in the original Dark Souls, but the visual variety of the environments and all the clever ways in which they intersect with one another make for a thrilling and picturesque exercise in exploration. As the different pathways begin to branch off into more and more side areas, you’ll hold your breath with every step, as you literally never know what kind of horrific monster is sitting in wait around the next bend (and without spoiling anything, From Software really outdid themselves with the monster and boss designs in this game).
While the basic groundwork of Dark Souls remains largely intact in the sequel, From Software added a few new tweaks to the formula this time around, which actually feel derivative of Demon’s Souls. For one thing, the shimmering coastal town of Majula serves as a central hub of sorts, allowing you to level-up your hero and populate it with different shop keeps and blacksmiths that you meet in the world: all very reminiscent of the original Nexus. A new fast travel system is also unlocked right from the get-go, which enables players to move between bonfires at will and eliminates a good deal of backtracking in a nice and succinct way. There are also bigger punishments for death, primarily in your overall health meter gradually getting shorter with each subsequent death as long as you remain Hollow.
The good news for you is that the healing system has also been modified ever so slightly. In addition to gradually upgrading your Estus Flask as you go along by uncovering special shards, a new health system has been infused in the form of Lifegems. This new finite item is helpful in the sense that you can use it almost instantly during battle (as opposed to the long, slow gulp of your Estus Flask), but are forced to wait a few seconds afterwards for its healing powers to gradually take effect. It’s an interesting new twist to the healing mechanics, and one that can easily mean the difference between life and death if utilized properly. Conversely, the inventory interface seems a little easier to pull up and navigate this time, though all the fundamental aspects are still in check.
Another big change in Dark Souls 2 is one that I’m still on the fence about. After you’ve slain a certain enemy a required number of times, that enemy will permanently disappear from the world, allowing you a clearer path to wherever it is you’re trying to go. I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel relieved every time this happened to me after 20+ deaths in the same area, but it does also seem to cheapen the experience just a bit. It’s definitely one of the primary examples of how Dark Souls 2 is trying to be more accessible to the mainstream, and it will go a long way towards letting more players reach the end of the game. Luckily, for all you diehard Souls players out there, using a special item at a bonfire will effectively respawn all the enemies as if nothing even happened.
I’ve put over 100 hours into both Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls over the years, and yet I still needed to relearn how to play the game in Dark Souls 2. Getting cocky or rushing through an area is the fastest way to see that iconic “You Died” screen no matter how good you think you are. But even so, you’ll still keep coming back for more. It’s hard to describe the feeling of elation once you’ve landed the finishing blow on a massive boss, or unlocked an unexpected shortcut that takes you back to the comfort of a bonfire, but it’s a system of risk and reward that you will absolutely thrive on. The three hours I spent dying on Heides Tower of Flame didn’t matter anymore once I finally made my way past the armored guards and demolished the Old Dragonslayer in the Cathedral of Blue.
I should also mention, however, that despite all of the beauty that weaves its way into Dark Souls 2’s every murky corridor and looming architecture, I encountered a number of small glitches on the PS3 version of the game. Certain aspects of the menu system were a bit sluggish in pulling up their accompanying image icons, like the items in your inventory or different bonfire you can travel to. Sometimes the sound wouldn’t quite match up, either: I would hack at an enemy with my sword, watch him stammer back and take a hit to his health bar, and then hear the sweet clash of weapon on armor only afterwards. But the scariest bug? When various grunt monsters would flicker on-screen and turn invisible for a second or two!
As a whole, though, Dark Souls 2 is not only another fantastic installment in the tough-as-nails fantasy series, but it uses its inspiration of Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls to a very positive effect. The world is more expansive and beautiful, the enemies more vicious and deadly, and the reward for overcoming it all has never felt so fulfilling. From your very first death to your third run through of the festering realm of Drangleic, Dark Souls 2 is certainly a game for the battered, blood-soaked history books.
+Story +Graphics +Gameplay +Sound +Replayability