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Dark Souls II
Genre: Action RPG
Developer: From Software
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Release Date: 03/11/14
So, here we are, together again, to discuss Dark Souls II. Returning readers will remember that I’ve been something of a cheerleader (if a qualified one) for From Software as a development house and have spent far more time playing through their games than is entirely healthy. I also spent my time with the original Dark Souls and provided a review for the site, in which I noted that the game was basically amazing, if incredibly niche and hard to recommend. Well, Dark Souls, as with its predecessor Demon’s Souls, got popular amongst the US reviewer set and managed to draw a good amount of attention its way. In an odd case of listening to its fanbase, From Software announced a sequel… with a new head developer attached as the prior head, Hidetaka Miyazaki, stepped out of the role. To say people were worried about this was an understatement, especially since there was talk of adding to the storytelling of the game, along with implications about making the game more accessible, though it was quickly made apparent that no, the game would not be any easier as a result. Well, at first glance, Dark Souls II certainly seems like it’s holding to the tenants of the franchise, as it adds in all sorts of new difficulty wrinkles on top of the existing framework to make things more complex and punishing. That said, however, the game is far and away a much easier experience compared to its predecessors for surprising reasons. It’s also not as technically sound as it could be, as it repairs the issues Dark Souls had while introducing new, and baffling, ones in their place. It’s still a good, even great, game, let’s make that clear up front, but it’s not as impressive of an experience overall. While it might be fine for newcomers and casual fans, diehard fans might find it to be a step back in some respects.
The plot of Dark Souls II is similar in theme to that of the prior game: your character has become undead due to a curse dubbed “Hollowing,” which slowly causes those afflicted to lose their faculties and memories, look like Deadites, and basically fall apart until there’s nothing human left. The lead-in has more in common with Demon’s Souls than Dark Souls, however, as instead of attempting to escape from an undead prison, your character willingly plunges into the abyss, ending up in the world of Drangleic in search of a cure to this condition. From here, the basic gist is more or less the same: murder a bunch of super-strong and most likely insane entities en route toward curing the undead curse (hopefully) and finding out what might have caused it in the first place (possibly). Now, while it had been discussed in interviews leading up to the release of the game that there would be a more focused narrative this time around, Dark Souls II is still (aside from an introductory cutscene explaining the gist of the game) as light on narrative as ever. You can absolutely seek out NPC’s who might fill in some of the gaps, but the game isn’t really focused on telling you everything that’s going on, and as with its predecessors, this actually works in the game’s favor as often as not. The game answers a lot of the important questions, but leaves the unimportant ones open to interpretation and speculation. This leaves it up to the player to fill in the narrative, and it does so admirably, as it doesn’t leave gaping plot holes behind so much as room to speculate and discuss, which leaves the narrative stronger than an explicit one might have been. Those who need an extensive and detailed plot may find themselves annoyed, as before, but for the most part, the game is better for its limited narrative, and anyone who can appreciate that will find this to resonate, especially if you’ve played the prior game to any significant extent.
As with its predecessor, Dark Souls II is a visually stunning product, due in large part to its ability to craft a very specific sort of emotion in its visual setpieces. The entire game is based around attempting to craft a specific feeling of despair in the player. Whether it be through dilapidated cities, desecrated crypts, defiled churches, or beautiful but barren underground sandbars along hauntingly serene lakes, the visuals accomplish this task admirably. The game drops the texture count and visual effects this time around in order to control the frame rate issues of the prior game, so it’s not so much a technical marvel as Dark Souls was, but there are also aren’t massive framerate drops (looking at you Blighttown). So the tradeoff is, for the most part, worth it. The overall animation quality and variety is also as strong as ever, which mitigates the technical downgrading somewhat. Aurally, the game features a minimal amount of voice acting and music, but the music is often ambient and very haunting during the various open world areas it appears in, before switching to more panicked and driving scores when encountering the various boss monsters scattered throughout the game world. The voice acting is also generally pleasant, in the rare instances when it comes up. The various NPC’s you’ll meet generally speak in a fashion that plays to their mentality, especially when you make efforts to improve their mindsets through your actions and you begin to hear the change in the characters as you progress. The sound effects are mostly very good, and mostly fitting to the things you’re using and killing, though much of the effects and some of the musical pieces are repeated from Dark Souls. These reuses do make sense in context, so they’re not unwelcome, but you’ll notice them if you’ve spent any time with the prior game.
For those who have played Demon’s Souls or Dark Souls, the basic mechanics of Dark Souls II are going to be very familiar and easy to work with and you can basically skip the next couple paragraphs, but for those who missed the prior games, some explanation is in order. As one might expect, the left and right sticks control movement and the camera, respectively, but combat is relegated to the triggers and bumpers. In most cases, the left and right bumpers are either weak attacks or normal actions, meaning that you’ll perform normal attacks when wielding weapons, cast spells when holding talismans, block when holding a shield, and fire an arrow when holding a bow or crossbow. The triggers perform harder strikes and alternate actions, meaning that you’ll perform more exaggerated and unsafe attacks when wielding weapons, strike when holding talismans, parry or strike when holding shields, or switch arrows and bolts when wielding bows or crossbows. What sort of weapon or item you wield will dictate what sort of effect the triggers and bumpers will have, so experimentation will be helpful when you acquire new items, as they may not do the same things even if they’re same types of weapons. The face buttons are more static in their functionality. The A button interacts with things in the game world, the B button allows you to backstep and dodge around when pressed or run when held, the X button uses whatever item you have armed at the moment, and the Y button switches from one-handed to two-handed stance with whatever weapon you have armed. The D-pad allows you to cycle between armed spells, items, and left and right hand equipment, the start button brings up the in-game menus for changing equipment or quitting the game, and the back button lets you use gestures when meeting other players, or for your own amusement. The controls can take a bit of getting used to at first if you’re not acclimated to them, but thankfully, the game puts down all sorts of explanation messages through the first zone of the game to give you an idea of how things work, so you’ll be able to get the hang of things sooner rather than later.
The gear you get as you progress through the game isn’t just differentiated by its uses, however. Each weapon you find or build as you play through the game is functionally similar in that it has a base attack damage and weight, and every piece of armor is functionally similar in that it has a base defense rating across different categories and weight. However, each piece of gear also has any one of a number of other potential factors that need to be considered before putting it on. Now, base attack damage, defense and weight stats are important on their own. If a weapon’s base damage or armor’s defense ratings are low, generally, they’re going to be less effective, but the best gear often weighs a good bit more to compensate for its usefulness. Weight, in turn, determines your ability to move around. The more your equipped gear weighs, the slower you are, meaning that dodging and movement are impaired. As such, it’s in your best interests to decide if that matters to you. Lower weight gear will leave you able to dodge enemy attacks and move more easily at the cost of less damage and greater possibility of being smeared, while higher weight gear will up your defense and damage at the cost of making you, well, a tank. Further, each piece of gear can influence or be influenced by several other important statistics. Each piece of armor influences your ability to resist various types of status and elemental damage, meaning that some gear will be better than others in different situations. Armor that repels flame damage but is weaker otherwise will be better against enemies who use fire attacks than high defense, low fire protection armor, as an example.
Each weapon, on the other hand, can potentially have stat requirements associated to it, such as a minimum Strength, Dexterity, or Faith value you must have to wield it. If you lack the minimum rankings the game will still allow you to wield the weapon, but you’ll swing it like a tool, frankly, and it’ll basically be less than useful. Further, weapons can also have various values relative to how they’re influenced by your stats. You’ll see various stats that either have a null value or a letter value in the description for the weapon; a null value means there is no influence, but if there is a letter, the higher the stat, the more damage the weapon will do when that stat is raised. The higher the letter, the more bonuses you get for raising that stat. In other words, if you get a spear with a higher base damage and no stat improvement, and compare it to a spear with a lower base damage and D-grade stat improvement on Strength and Dexterity, eventually the stat-improved spear will be much better because it feeds off of your stats. Various pieces of gear you find may also influence other elements of your character or add bonus actions to your action palette, so you might find armor that improves (or reduces) your stamina reduction, a shield that casts a spell that reduces damage instead of bashing enemies, or a weapon that deals a massive shockwave when wielded two-handed while performing strong attacks. You’ll also find various rings that you can equip that may improve your stats in obvious or subtle ways, as well as items you can use to temporarily boost your performance, so you’ll have even more elements to consider when preparing for various situations.
There’s also the matter of your own inherent statistics. Your character has various stats that improve their base ability to do things at any given time, such as Strength and Dexterity improving their ability to wield certain gear or adding damage to gear, Attunement allowing you more spell slots for equipping spells, Endurance allowing you to equip heavier gear without being as encumbered, and so on. You can improve these stats with Souls, which you get from the enemies you kill or from pick-ups you find around the game world. Now, Souls are basically the currency of Dark Souls II, so you’ll find that you’ll also need them to buy gear, upgrade gear with the Blacksmiths you find, and so on, so you’ll need to strike a balance between these needs to ensure that you can jack out your stats as well as keep stocked and keep your gear in good shape. However, you’ll definitely want to put the lion’s share of your Souls into leveling up, as leveling up also frequently improves your base defense levels, no matter what stat you choose to improve. This isn’t as easy as just dumping your souls into leveling a stat, of course, as you’ll find that each time you level up increases the soul cost for the next level up, and while it’s entirely feasible to max out all of your stats eventually, when you get to level one hundred and find you’re burning around fifty thousand souls for one level, when most boss encounters don’t pay out that amount of souls, well, you’ll want to be more frugal with how you level up as you progress. You’ll also want to make sure that you have a good plan in mind for any Souls you have in general, as any time you die, your Souls are left on your person; if you make the successful corpse run to your blood stain and recover your remains, you get them back, but if you die again, you lose the prior set of remains, and any Souls associated to them.
For those who played the prior two games at all, welcome back. Let’s talk about what’s new to Dark Souls II.
The most obvious changes that have been made to the game all revolve around the overall difficulty of the experience, as players of the prior games will notice that tools have been modified and removed to tune that somewhat. For one thing, Estus Flasks have been retooled. Before you could carry around Flasks in groups of five, relative to the flame you’d accessed and how much it empowered your flasks. Here, Estus is more universal. No matter what flame you visit, you always get the same amount, and there’s no real boosting to be done to campfires to speak of. However, you can also only carry around a maximum of twelve flasks, and you only earn them in single increments, which means that, yes, you only start with a single flask, though you can earn as many as four in the first few hours, so this isn’t as bad as it seems. Flasks are improved with Flask Shards, which increase the total number of Flasks you can carry, and Sublime Bone Dust, which can be burned to improve the total amount of health the Flasks replenish. To offset the lack of Flasks available in this game, new healing items dubbed Lifegems have been added, which are consumables that replenish health more slowly than Flasks, but can be carried in much larger quantities. As such, you have multiple options for how you choose to heal yourself at any time, and making the right decision at the right time is another bit of challenge tacked onto the game that’s generally not as bad as it first seems, but does take some considering.
The game also does much of the same things in regards to enemy behavior and behavioral training, IE, enemies have tells they use to indicate specific attacks and the game rewards you for using the best tools at your disposal to whittle down groups and avoid attacks and punishes you for relying too much on any one tactic or tool. However, it also pares down the ability to massively soul grind a bit by imposing a limit on the total amount of times an enemy can spawn when you return to a fire. Each time an enemy is killed, a number in the background ticks that death off, and when a set amount of that specific enemy has been killed (generally between ten to fifteen), that specific spawn stops appearing. This limits the amount of souls you can farm from enemies a bit (though you can still put your summon sign up to help others and farm souls while doing so) so you can’t (in theory) become massively overpowered. On the other hand, it also costs less to level up per level, meaning that you’ll find that you can become much more powerful much more quickly than you could in Dark Souls as a result. Part of this probably was done because the game also features a new stat, Adaptability, which is your primary way to improve your agility; improving this stat means you move faster, evade faster, and drink Estus faster, making it a desirable stat to level. Since it doesn’t replace any stats, however, it makes sense that the game would let you level up faster to compensate, though this may come as a shock to diehard fans at first. It also bears noting here that you can equip far more of everything than you used to; there are more weapon slots, ring slots and consumable slots than before, so you can equip more gear (so long as you don’t overweigh yourself), thus helping you prepare for basically anything you can think of more easily.
Another big change to the game is in the way the game handles the world itself. For one thing, you can instantly teleport between bonfires any time you wish, which was something you had to unlock in Dark Souls, so you’re no longer stuck wandering around for hours to get somewhere early on as you were in the prior game. This is largely due to the fact that the game now has a proper hub, Majula, and characters will begin to relocate here as you meet them in the game world. Now, this also happened in Dark Souls with the Firelink Shrine, but the way the game handles this thing will likely be more familiar to Demon’s Souls fans, as several merchants relocate here, and you have to travel to this location to level up with the Emerald Herald, as she’s the only person who can increase your levels and improve your Estus Flasks. Now, since your blacksmith is also located in Majula, you’d think you’d have to travel back here sometimes to repair gear, but this actually isn’t so. While the blacksmith will need to repair broken gear, anything that’s just worn down will be instantly replenished any time you visit a bonfire. The trade-off, of course, is that your gear is much less durable than it was in Dark Souls, so you’ll find you want to visit fires more regularly as a result, so it’s more difficult to just plow through a section with that in mind.
The final major changes to talk about here revolve around the Humanity, online and Covenant mechanics from Dark Souls, as they’ve all seen some notable modifications. First off, you no longer need to be in human form to be invaded or summon aid. You’re always functionally able to do so, meaning you can’t be “Hollow” to avoid invasions. Death has the same basic negative connotations it did before, but each time you die you also lose a chunk of your lifebar, and your character begins to physically deteriorate as a result. This total loss stops at around half health (though it can go lower if you’re a big player killer), which can still be absolutely detrimental in boss fights. You can mitigate this loss with equipment, but to undo it entirely you need to use Human Effigies. Using them on your character undoes all the health loss you’ve endured up to that point, bringing you back to “human” until you die again. Since you’re always online, this means you can always be invaded, and while burning Human Effigies in bonfires can reduce the chances of this happening, this doesn’t mean you’re completely in the clear. This is where Covenants come into play, as they’ve been tuned a bit for online play, so much so that it almost makes online a whole new experience. Some of the Covenants simply reward you for killing players or “sinners” (big player killers), while others allow you to summon help when you need it, be summoned in as a helper, invade players who enter certain zones, or even trap invaders and turn them into the hunted when they come after you. You can certainly just play offline if you don’t care about seeing messages players leave behind or summoning in help when you fight bosses, of course, but for those who like the online component, there have been some notable changes that are worth investigating for both newcomers and diehard fans alike.
Oh, and as a final note, jumping has now been relegated to the L3 button and pressing forward and attack now does a diving strike instead of a kick. These are minor changes, but you’ll likely find the change to jumping to be worthwhile, if nothing else.
Depending on how quickly you pick up on the mechanics of Dark Souls II and how much time you spend trying to do things, you’ll likely get through your first playthrough in anywhere from fifty to a hundred hours, but there is so much more to the game than its first playthrough. Dark Souls II offers the option of multiple playthroughs, each of which lets you carry over your equipment, levels and inventory (though not any of your key items)… along with a raise in the difficulty of the enemies you’ll be facing, to really keep things even. If you complete THAT playthrough, the next one will raise the difficulty AGAIN, and so on. You can also burn Bonfire Ascetics to raise the level of a zone (and regenerate exhausted enemies) if you want to farm for more souls, but those raised zones always remain raised so in a Plus One playthrough that zone will be Plus Two. Yes, this means increasing the level again means that location is always two levels higher than it would otherwise be, but sometimes you have to take some risks, y’know? You’ll likely want to play through the game more than once if you get into it, also, because there’s a lot of stuff you’re likely to miss the first time around, and items you can only acquire through multiple playthroughs that you simply won’t be able to collect in one go. The game also makes an effort this time around to add in new drops, enemies and rewards for a second playthrough at the very least (or for those willing to use the Bonfire Ascetics), so there’s even more reason to do so. There are also a significant amount of Achievements to earn through playing the game, and while none of them are particularly complex to earn or borne from any sort of increased difficulty per say, many of them do require you to perform tasks that aren’t required or play through the game multiple times, so as to earn or acquire everything you need in the end.
The single biggest issue one might take with Dark Souls II is that, if you’ve played the prior games, the game is notably less difficult than its predecessor, both in general and if you choose to play in specific fashions. Now, in general, the game is a bit more balanced to certain extents. Bosses are far less murderous in the beginning, so new players won’t find that they’re being decimated as they might have against the Taurus Demon or Bell Gargoyles when facing the Last Giant or the Pursuer, which is fine. Giving newcomers a chance to learn the basics is a good thing, as it makes your incredibly difficult (in theory) game more accessible to someone who’s never played a game in the series before it breaks it off in their backside. It never really gets to that “break it off in your backside” point, or at least not to the extent the prior games did, however, which isn’t specifically a bad thing, but it bears noting for those expecting a violently painful experience. What’s interesting, further, is that if you make an active effort to deplete every zone before moving on, the game is significantly less challenging overall as a result. Now, if you choose to play the game the way you played Dark Souls, yes, you’re going to get hurt, a bit, and that’s understandable. However, the game seems to want you to play by the depletion method, as it can be borderline impossible to reach a boss from a bonfire with your weapons in strong enough shape to fight said boss, and the limited amount of souls you can earn because of the non-respawning enemies almost makes grinding until nothing spawns the ideal method of doing anything. This actually reduces the overall difficulty of the game, noticeably, as a result. Since you can clear out the path to a boss given enough time it makes fighting your way to a boss a thing of the past, and if you grind in segments, even if you die, you only have to kill a couple enemies to get back to your souls instead of a massive amount of them, making the game far less risky when played this way. Yes, it’s far more time consuming, but let’s be honest: a lot of you are going to grind anyway, and this is simply a method of doing so that makes the overall experience far easier overall. This is kind of a weird change, all told, and it kind of mitigates a lot of the difficulty in the game, so it’s hard to know what to think of it.
Further, the balance of the game is spotty even beyond that. Several of the bosses use very predictable, exploitable patterns, and it’s hard to find a single-player challenge across the game if you’ve spent any time with the prior game except in very specific zones, and even then, not in the boss fights that end said zones. There are challenges to be had if you’re looking to complete the storyline for certain NPC’s, but this comes from the massive upgrading of the bosses when phantoms are summoned in to aid a player combined with the complete ineptitude of the AI when it comes to moving away from bosses with AOE damage than from anything else. I understand the want to increase the difficulty of a boss when players are summoned into battle, THAT makes sense, but when it’s easier to beat a boss WITHOUT help, that’s poor execution and not well implemented overall. Technically, it kind of also punishes players for summoning help in general, since you have NO IDEA if a summoned ally will be any good. If they die in the first ten seconds of battle you’re screwed into fighting an overpowered boss, and it makes co-op kind of pointless as a result. Some of the other changes made to the game are also questionable at the best of times and outright frustrating at the worst. It makes sense that you can be invaded at all times, and the Hollowing aspect of the game is fine since there are several ways to mitigate this fact, but designing the game such that you can always be invaded but can’t summon help unless you’re completely human seems pedantic, as it limits the viability of HELPING others altogether. The game, in most cases, seems to be focused on making FIGHTING others a better choice, especially with the Belltower Covenant that (according to everyone I’ve talked to) makes traversing the Belltowers borderline impossible when playing online, for example. It’s also silly that you have to travel back to Mejula whenever you want to level up, improve your Estus or repair gear, since it basically means you have to spend five to ten minutes travelling to accomplish something you could do locally in Dark Souls. Finally, there’s also some far more notable hitbox issues here than in the prior games. While it’s not a regular thing, you’ll find that there will be instances where the range on enemy (or, more commonly, boss) attacks extends or shrinks at random, or where you hit when you should miss and vice-versa. This is manageable, but it makes the game feel less “fair” than its predecessor as a result.
In the end, Dark Souls II is a little more accessible and a little more friendly to newcomers than its predecessors, and while it switches up prior technical issues for new technical concerns, it’s mostly a well designed, if confusing at times, experience. The story is perfectly fine, the visuals and audio are especially engrossing and good at evoking the mood the game strives for even if the visual quality has been traded up for functionality a bit, and the gameplay, while a bit daunting to learn at first, is very tight and well developed overall. There is a decent amount of challenge to the game for newcomers, as one would expect, and several changes have been made to how healing, invasion, leveling up, world navigation and online play in general work, so as to give returning fans something to change things up. Further, the game is exceptionally lengthy and offers plenty of elements to players to bring them back, including expanded online play, the option of multiple New Game Plus sessions, and plenty of things to collect and Achievements to earn. The game is overall less difficult than its predecessor in general, which makes it easier to ease into for new players but potentially less engaging for those who’ve come to expect the painful experience of the prior games, and the game seems to encourage grinding through stages to deplete enemy forces at times, which is an odd decision if nothing else. Further, the game has some odd design choices in play, such as jacking up boss difficulty when NPC’s who aren’t bright enough to evade their attacks but MUST be summoned to complete their storylines are summoned into battle, or allowing INVASION at all times but restricting summoning help to fully human players, or the borderline unplayable Belltower invasions when online, among others. Odd technical issues with hitbox detection also pop up here and there that can get frustrating for the wrong reasons. If you can ignore the hitbox issues and play offline when visiting belltowers (AND BELIEVE ME YOU WILL WANT TO) Dark Souls II is as engaging, if not as challenging, as its predecessors, and while some choices made to it are odd and it might not appease its most diehard fans, for those who found the prior games TOO oppressive, this might be your jumping on point.
Short Attention Span Summary: Dark Souls II continues the tradition of being an ambient, aesthetically oppressive experience, albeit one that’s less onerous than its predecessors, and while it’s got a couple of odd elements to its systems, and while its reduced difficulty might not appease its most diehard fans, it’s still a fantastic time for those who love the franchise. The plot is solid and ambiguous enough to work far better than it might otherwise, the visuals are ambient and more functionally viable even if they’re not as technically sound as the prior game, the aural experience is as top notch as it’s ever been, and the gameplay is strong once you adjust to the nuances of the experience. The game refines a lot of the content from its predecessors while changing how Hollowing, healing, travel, and other aspects of the game function, and the end result offers enough familiarity to appease fans of the franchise while changing enough to feel like its own thing, and there’s plenty of content to bring you back for more across one or multiple playthroughs. The game isn’t as challenging overall as its predecessors in general, which may be good for newcomers but annoy diehard fans, and the game almost seems like it’s encouraging you to grind like a crazy person which is… fine, but kind of confusing. Several of the design choices are also odd, between jacking up boss difficulty when summoning NPC’s who can’t handle it, making leveling up more of a chore than it need be, allowing invasions at all times but continuing to restrict summoning or borderline unplayable zones when online due to the sheer volume of invaders, in addition to the technical issues with enemy and player hitboxes that pop up now and again. Honestly, none of this detracts from the experience, and if you can ignore the intermittent hitbox issues and play offline when in the Belltowers, Dark Souls II is as enjoyable as its predecessors in most respects. It might not be as challenging as the prior games, and it might not always make as much sense, but it’s still an amazing experience overall, and there are almost certainly few games that does what does as effectively as it does it.
Mark B. is the Senior Editor at Diehard GameFAN, mostly because he’s been on staff for a decade. He has previously written for 411Games, InsidePulse Games, Not a True Ending, Retrograding and Beyond the Threshold, and he maintains multiple infrequent columns, as well as a Hitbox stream on Saturdays. You can check out his archives and non-game related work over at markbwriting.com, and follow him on Twitter at MarkBWriting or Facebook at MarkBWriting. (Special thanks to J. Rose for the artwork.)