Dark Souls II PlayStation 3 review

The punishing Dark Souls series returns in its second outing. Here's our review of Dark Souls II...

The original Demon’s Souls laid the foundations of From Software’s devilish series, and Dark Souls went on to build on this to create a torture house of an RPG that players looking for a challenge lapped up. It was a superbly difficult action role player that pulled no punches, crushing the unwary or careless, and daring defeated players to try again, just one more time.

The level of difficulty was nigh-on perfect. It was hard, but never unfair, and the frustration was kept to a minimum due to the sheer quality of the game, and the fact you could always get further, or defeat that seemingly unstoppable boss with careful planning and tactics. The balance was great, but the high difficulty and a notoriously punishing opening put many off. In order to grow the series’ fan base, From Software decided to make a few changes with this, the second Dark Souls, and what we have here is the result – a game that’s still hard as nails, but far more accessible to the masses. Has this focus on accessibility robbed Dark Souls of its teeth, though?

Death is just the beginning

To lay any fears series veterans may have to rest from the off, I’ll quickly say that Dark Souls II is every bit the brutal action RPG it’s always been, so there’s no real need to worry too much about the high challenge being curtailed. Those who have played the previous games may find that it’s a little easier to get into, I know I did, but this isn’t simply the result of a toned down level of difficulty, but more of familiarity.

At its heart, Dark Souls II is very similar to its predecessor. It looks and plays very much the same, with the same core combat and focus on tough, challenging foes and deadly environments. Character types are much the same, as are many of the weapons and environments. There are plenty of new inclusions and new features, of course, but this is more of a refinement, rather than a total overhaul.

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So, fear not. If you’re looking for more of the same, you’ll find it here, it just has a more forgiving opener, and for once, it doesn’t actually kill you during a tutorial (well, not unless you make a mistake).

Deathly Hollows

The main thrust of Dark Souls II revolves around an ancient curse, turning warriors into undead ‘Hollows’ if they die. This curse can be lifted, but not before venturing into the new kingdom of Dranglaec, a dangerous place filled with all sorts of deadly creatures, massive beasts and plenty of juicy souls for heroes to harvest.

As with previous games, death is the theme around which the game turns, and by slaying foes you gain souls. These souls are used as both currency to buy weapons and items, as well as the resource for levelling up your character. And, just as before, the more you level up, the higher the number of souls needed to progress. You carry these souls around on your person at all times, and if you die, which happens a lot, you lose them where you bit the big one. You have one chance to revisit the site of your death to touch your own blood pool to regain these souls, but if you die before you do, they’re gone forever.

It really is the RPG school of hard knocks, and it certainly keeps you on your toes. This isn’t a game where you can run in blindly and expect to succeed. Try that, and you’re doomed. It takes mastery of combat, parrying, and other skills to survive. Button mashers need not apply here, and in combat the slightest mistake can be your last, and even the most lowly foe here can kill, with AI that effortlessly exploits your weaknesses.

This is all familiar, though, and isn’t really anything new to the series, but that’s where Dark Souls II throws you, and it’s the small things From Software have changed make a huge difference, and it’s here where fans will notice the shift.

Limited edition

So, what’s changed? The first thing most players will likely notice is the punishment for dying and becoming a Hollow. Whereas Dark Souls was happy to let you run around as a hollow, effectively rewarding you with few punishments and immunity from invasion, Dark Souls II takes a different approach. When you die as a Hollow you’ll lose a chuck of your overall health. Keep dying and you’ll lose more, until you end up with around half of your maximum health. This makes for a massive challenge and a punishing death tax. It can be alleviated by using a human effigy to become human again, or by finding a ring that can reduce the health limiting when hollow, but when you begin, it’s a major shock to the system, even more when you see how ugly your avatar gets, even losing their hair and turning green. Nice.

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Healing has also been tweaked. Estus flasks are still present but these now take longer to use (and are weaker from the off), making them tricky to use in the middle of battle. From Software has balanced this out by adding in other healing items like Lifegems. These single use items slowly heal you, and are faster to activate, but they’ll run out, unlike the Estus flasks, which can be recharged indefinitely at bonfires.

Core combat is the same, save for new weapons, but timing on such things as parrying have been changed, so don’t expect to come into Dark Souls II from the original expecting to be a parrying master. You’ll have to learn the timings all over again. And, you’ll also have to manage your stamina even better than before. Stamina drains with everything you do, and if you run out in battle, you’ll be left vulnerable to an early death. Practise makes perfect, and the careful, wise warrior is the one who survives. This isn’t so much of a problem, right? Enemies are never ending, respawning after each bonfire use, so there’s always someone to practice on? Erm… no.

Dark Souls II, in an effort to rebalance the game and stop the various farming tricks people found in the previous outing (such as the infamous Darkroot Garden glitch) does away with endlessly respawning enemies. Defeat foes so many times and you’ll eventually return to find nothing there. Enemies soon vanish, never to return, so there’s a finite number of souls out there to harvest.

This makes the challenge all the more real, and there are no easy outs this time. You can’t find a good place to quickly farm souls and level up, as your foes will eventually disappear. Instead, the game gives you the challenge and says, “Come on, then! No cheating this time.”

This can be both a good, and a bad thing. It’s good in the sense that, after several attempts to slay a boss, eventually you’ll have a free run back through an area to the boss, as all the enemies will be gone. The downside is that the world eventually becomes a little barren and lifeless, and if you’re stuck on a boss and simply want to grind and level up a bit, something many RPGs encourage, and a legitimate gameplay feature, you can’t, unless you go somewhere else. What if you’re only left with places you’re struggling with, though? Tough! Is the answer from Dark Souls II, and you just have to deal with it. Well, that’s not entirely true. There is a way to repopulate areas, complete with bosses, but this also increases the difficulty, so may be a little much for all but the most hardened players.

A little help?

As I said before, though, accessibility is something From Software had in mind, and Dark Souls II does a better job in explaining many (but not all) game systems, meaning you’re not left to figure things out yourself, something both Demon’s and Dark Souls were guilty of. That said, the new covenant system is still a little cryptic. Unless you look things up online, you’ll not know exactly what you’re letting yourself in for until you join, and as the game’s safe zone hub, which you find right at the start, has a covenant you can join that actually makes the game harder, this can be a little bit of a problem. A simple description would be nice.

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Of course, the addition of extra healing items, more affordable supplies and, shock horror, a shopkeeper who actually buys items from you for souls makes things easier in various ways. The guy who’ll buy items in particular is welcome. Whereas the previous games saw you amass mammoth stockpiles of useless weapons and items, here you can actually sell them for souls.

Some areas also present you with hidden ways to make things easier. One early boss, for example, you have to fight on a small dais over a bottomless pit. As the boss can easily push you off, this makes for a particularly tough fight. However, find and activate switches in the world, and you can raise extra levels up, filling up the arena’s chasm, making the fight far easier. Many other areas and boss fights feature similar tricks that you can seek out to make things easier. Those light-fearing creatures bothering you? Then figure out how to activate that giant chandelier and scare them all away. That kind of thing.

Another change lies with the levelling system. There’s more of a focus on attributes and status ailments this time, such as poison resistance, adaptability, etc. Many areas and enemies of the game feature specific afflictions, which can be made all the more bearable by a well-prepared player. What if you’re not, though, and come up against a poison threat and have no defence? Well, at the very beginning of the game you meet three old women. By using a special item you can ask these to reset your levels, allowing you to respec your character. The items needed are rare, so this can’t be done many times, but it’s a big help, and if you’re stuck, it’s nice to know you can start again without literally restarting the whole game.

Red Vs Blue

The staple, and still unique multiplayer returns to Dark Souls II, and this has remained largely unchanged. You can still leave messages for others, see the deaths of the unfortunate and both invade and be invaded, and you can help others by letting them summon you as a co-op player.

The covenants, however, change things up. This time they focus much more on player interaction, something Dark Souls also did, but here it’s been refined. Covenants are now clans of a sort that each offer different kinds of online play, including honourable defending, or evil invading variations. There’s even a covenant that lets player summon a blue guardian to deal with invaders on their own.

The constant threat of invasion is just as terrifying as before, and the notification that you’re being attacked instantly gets the heart pumping as you frantically ready yourself for combat. And remember, this can happen at any time, making it all the more worrisome.

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Big tracts of land

One of the major highlights of the first Dark Souls was the interconnected and highly detailed world. Lordran was an impressive place, full of disparate locations all connected together in clever and often hidden ways. Dark Souls II also takes this approach to world building, and as before, there’s no loading as you wander around the various regions. As the game world is bigger and certainly more complex in layout, the cohesive nature of the world seen in the first Dark Souls isn’t totally present here. This is partly due to a looser world design, and also thanks to the fast travel system that lets you instantly zip to any discovered bonfire from any other.

This feature makes it far more convenient, and you can nip around the various regions with ease, but it also has the added effect of robbing you of that mental map, and you’ll often forget how you get to one area from another, and where that previously inaccessible door was. Forcing you to trawl the halls and corridors of the world of Lordran meant Dark Souls‘ world was memorable in the extreme. Here, that’s not quite so. Don’t get me wrong, though, Dranglaec is every bit as interesting and impressive as Lordran, and there are masses of areas and a huge assortment of foes to tackle, it’s just not quite as well bolted together.

Thine eyes!

Usually, I’m not one to focus on graphics in games as a major issues. I’m firmly in the school of gameplay over aesthetics, but I do also appreciate good visuals, and here is where Dark Souls II has a bit of a problem. It’s certainly not an ugly game, far from it. There are areas that are simply stunning, and monsters that are a joy to behold. However, anyone remembering the game’s initial reveal in 2012 will surely be scratching their heads. Indeed, as Internet ranting has proven, the retail release of Dark Souls II is noticeably different in visual quality to trade show demonstrations, with gutted lighting effects, missing textures, simplified geometry and more.

Why is this? Only From Software knows. Is it a result of optimisation to make the game work on last gen hardware? Was the trade show version of the game an improved PC port to make up for the sloppy Dark Souls? Or, did we actually see the next gen Xbox One and PS4 versions? Time will tell, but for now, whilst it still looks great, Dark Souls II is a game that’s been downscaled a lot.

Aside from the lack of expected visual polish, though, there’s really little to complain about here. I did notice that the online servers could be flaky, often kicking me off, a problem of previous games in the series, and there are still areas where your view can be unfairly obscured by the camera, but this is nit picking and otherwise superb game.

From Software has managed to produce yet another stunning action RPG with teeth, and Dark Souls II is, in many ways, the strongest entry in the series. It’s a little less refined in places, but you’ll find no more satisfying challenge elsewhere in the RPG world, and this is a game that simply demands, and deserves to be in your collection.

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5 out of 5