Many successful game series have managed to carve out unique and long lasting reputations amongst the gaming community. Names like Grand Theft Auto and Elder Scrolls are synonymous with vast, living worlds, while Call of Duty and Battlefield conjure up images of fast paced adrenaline rides.
The Dark Souls/Demon’s Souls series, on the other hand, are known for their unforgiving gameplay, extreme difficulty and steep learning curve. But beneath the punishing exterior is a rock-solid game and a rewarding experience that is well worth the investment.
Dark Souls II is a semi-open world action-RPG, and sequel to one of the cult gaming phenomena of the past generation. To a newcomer it can certainly be intimidating to pick the game up, and having not played the original Dark Souls or its spiritual predecessor Demon’s Souls, that was the position I was in.
However, a decent introductory section and a difficulty that ramps up at a fast yet manageable pace allows players to learn the ropes before being thrown into anything they can’t handle.
To get the obvious out of the way early, your character will die. A lot.
The consequences of this are minimal if you are able to return to your place of death in your next life, but failing to do so will cost you souls, the in-game currency used for everything from purchasing equipment to Leveling up your character.
Evidently this penalty was not considered enough by developer From Software, since Dark Souls II introduces a new system whereby every death also reduces the size of your available health bar, up to a maximum of 50%.
Reversing this will cost you a Human Effigy, an item rare enough to make you think twice about using it. While this may seem sadistic to the uninitiated, it offers an additional incentive to carefully consider before acting.
And that is the unspoken rule of Dark Souls.
Patience is the key to victory. Walking blindly into a room will quickly see your demise. Enemies hide around corners or out of sight, waiting to ambush you. Even the simple act of opening a chest is made dangerous by the existence of Mimics, disguised enemies that give no indication that anything is amiss until you attempt to open them.
But while Dark Souls II is certainly difficult, with a little practice and patience most players should not have much trouble with the majority of the game. The combat system is simple and elegant, easy to use yet tough to master.
It is here that Dark Souls II really shines. Every death is your own fault, and you will quickly recognise your mistakes and learn from them. Attacks are deliberately slow and uninterruptable, forcing you to consider before making a move and leaving yourself vulnerable.
Boss fights are particularly exhilarating, as they have very little tolerance for mistakes. By observing their behaviour you will quickly notice their weaknesses.
The battle then becomes a matter of patience as you block or dodge their attacks and carefully wait for the time to attack. The sheer size of their health bars can be intimidating and it is tempting to try to sneak in an extra attack or two to speed it up, but doing so will usually lead to your death. Some of the more difficult battles may take dozens of attempts, but persevere and you will eventually be victorious.
These moments leave you feeling indestructible. The feeling is supremely addictive and will leave you craving an even bigger challenge. This is the essence of what the Souls series is about; the most challenging experiences are the most rewarding. It’s rare to find a game that gives you such a genuine sense of accomplishment.
Interacting with the plot is mostly optional, as a small amount of motivation is provided at the start and you are left to your own devices.
The game has a rich backstory and lore that can be explored through the descriptions on items and by talking to NPCs, but these are not forced on you and many players will be happy simply making their way around the world looking for bosses. A huge amount of the context and atmosphere are provided simply by your location and surroundings.
The world of Drangleic feels alive, yet detached and alien. A few minutes of exploration makes you feel helpless, like a pawn walking amongst giants. Even the weakest inhabitants can make short work of you if you are not careful or stray beyond your skill. Crumbling ruins and the enemies that inhabit them tower over you, and walking through gigantic doorways obviously designed for much larger beings can be humbling.
The game is split up into about 30 larger areas, split along several paths that are opened early in the game and can be explored at your leisure. Most areas contain unique enemies and at least one boss, mostly tied in excellently to their surroundings. This provides a huge amount of variety in combat and environment.
The first few minutes in each area are the most exhilarating, as you cautiously spar with the first few new enemies, learning their attack patterns and looking for weaknesses.
Difficulty is only occasionally introduced through the number of enemies, and combat is usually 1v1 or 2v1. This is when Dark Souls II excels. Intelligently designed foes offer substantial challenge even in 1 on 1 combat.
Most strikingly, there is an overall sense that the world is connected.
Most of what you can see in the distance can eventually be visited, and are connected in believable ways. Many of these areas also offer gorgeous views of your environment, but while the graphics on PC are good, even on the highest settings they fail to amaze. The 2D skybox is also disappointingly flat, and the combination with a system that blurs objects as they move further away makes it look like you stumbled into a painting. Textures are also reminiscent of the early days of the PS3 and Xbox 360, serving as a stark reminder to PC players that they are playing a port.
While much of the world is explored through trial and error, playing with an internet connection allows you to see messages left on the ground by other players. With a limited range of words to choose from, these range from helpful (”boss ahead”) to hilarious (“merchant ahead therefore try two handed”) to deliberately misleading. Expect to see at least one room in every area with messages saying there is an illusory wall.
The multiplayer elements also nicely complement the core experience.
The summoning system allows players to volunteer their services to others. This is particularly handy for the tougher boss fights, which are often made much easier with a friend. The summoned player also receives a small amount of souls for their trouble, making it worthwhile for everyone. For those playing offline, NPC’s can also be summoned near many of the boss fights.
Players may also leave a sign to challenge others to PvP combat. However, probably the most well-known is the invasion system. This allows players to enter the worlds of others unannounced, with the sole goal of trying to kill them. These battles are often the most intense, since players act unpredictably and will not give you time to heal.
However, due to the sheer length of the game (don’t expect to complete it in less than 50 hours), drop offs in quality are inevitable.
Particularly in the latter half, enemies start to repeat and the developers rely on introducing multiple enemies at a time to challenge you. But perhaps most heinously, previous bosses are used as regular enemies.
Often they will have taken many attempts to kill the first time, and so you will know their behaviour inside out. Killing them again becomes a chore due to their huge health bars, and it feels like they were added simply to pad out the experience rather than provide additional challenge.
Some areas also feel like lazy designing, relying on cheap tactics like lack of visibility or seemingly endless poison spitting statues and are more likely to annoy than challenge you. However these are in the minority and the great moments vastly outnumber the not-so-great.
Overall Dark Souls II is a punishing yet addictive game that is well worth your time.
It’s refreshing to see a combat system done right, and the plethora of differing enemies and environments provide tons of variety. The feeling of finally taking down a boss after dozens of failed attempts will leave you feeling like you can take on the world, and seeking greater challenges.
The game does drag on towards the end, with several poorly designed sections and repetitive enemies, but there is enough here to thoroughly recommend Dark Souls II.
Don’t be surprised if it pops up in the shortlist in Game of the Year discussions.
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