This is Dark Souls… II! This is my first real dive into the nigh on legendarily difficult Souls series, aside from about an hour of play through the tutorial of Demon’s Souls. Not due to a lack of interest; I own every game in the series. I just a lack of time to get my teeth really into them, so I decided that I’d start here, and now I can definitely see myself making the time to go back and play both of the games that came before it. Dark Souls II started slow, but hooked me deep a few hours in.
The game begins with your rise as an undead, or “hollow” as the game puts it. A gaggle of ancient women explain to you that you must collect souls if you ever wish to be human again, but to hold on to them tightly, for with each death, of which there will be many, you will lose them. The story is fairly thin, but that is not the main attraction here. It’s kept thin on purpose, to keep you in the action as much as possible. For some players, myself included, this can make it hard to become attached and get into the game as it starts.
Gameplay is for the most part very tight. The left shoulder buttons (I used a controller, rather than keyboard and mouse) control your left hand item, and your right shoulder buttons do the same for your right. This system is very solid, though I will admit during my first playthrough, I often found myself hitting the square button on my PS2 controller to try and attack, and would get mad at myself as I wasted a curative item. The game is very responsive, even using a non-standard controller plugged in with a mysterious Chinese adapter. There are a couple of marks against the controls though.
First thing, jumping is very awkward in this game on a controller. You have to be holding the dodge button, running forward with the left stick, and then click in the left stick to jump. This goofy setup is further complicated by the game’s other major control fault: Shadows of the Empire syndrome. For anyone that grew up in the Nintendo 64 era, they will remember dying an inordinate number of times by falling off of cliffs, and the detection of whether or not you are standing on something solid was very finicky. When you are surrounded by enemies and rolling around to avoid their numerous attacks, it is far too easy to fall off of the world to your untimely demise. I’ve also suffered from multiple falls running back to a safe area, because I’ve gone just a hair too close to an edge, and lost a large amount of progress.
Difficulty is the main attraction for Dark Souls II, and in that department, the game is hard. Enemies can take you down in 3-4 hits most of the time, and trapped chests can instantly kill you if you aren’t prepared. The game teaches you all of these things early on, so none of your deaths, aside from the occasional falling death, will feel unfair or cheap. If you die, you earned it in the world of Dark Souls. Much like the original Castlevania, this game is about learning patterns and being patient. Getting greedy and trying to attack an enemy for one last hit before they recover will be the death of you. Hit and run, dodge until there is an opening, and be sparing with your aggression. I have heard from many that this game is a step down in difficulty from the previous games. For those people, you can start the game with an item that makes things more difficult. For a new player, this game is hard, but fair, and a good intro to the series if you aren’t sure that an overly difficult game is your cup of tea. If you can stand up to Dark Souls II, and you find yourself enjoying the challenge, checking out the older titles could be very rewarding for you. If you are finding the game too difficult on your own, you can summon the phantom of another player into the game to help you with a certain area. I have played around with this, and have had a few players who were so much more powerful than me that they made sections of the game trivial to pass through. The flip side of this is other players could invade your game and attempt to kill you, but I did not experience this during my time with the game.
Graphics are something of a mixed bag here. You will find messages written by other players, alerting you to great views and beautiful monuments throughout your experience, and they could not be more correct. Whoever was responsible for creating the backgrounds in this game deserves a medal. Unfortunately, this quality does not always translate to close up objects. NPCs talk without moving their mouths, which is fairly disconcerting. Also, tall grass is not affected by characters moving through it, as the grass just phases through the models, as if every single creature, including your player, was simply a ghost with no corporeal form. I also cannot read one of the warnings before the opening menu, as it jitters like Michael J. Fox on an espresso binge.
With multiple ways to play through the game, depending on the class you pick, the game has plenty of replay value. You also have the multiplayer options, where you can be summoned as a white phantom in to other players’ games and assist them, or become a dreaded Black Phantom and invade their world, trying to take them out. You can invest a large chunk of time into this game and never worry about things getting boring. Dark Souls II doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel it created for itself back in Demon’s Souls, it simply continues to work with a winning formula.
Short Attention Span Summary:
Dark Souls II was slow to grab me, but once it did, it would not let go. The story is paper thin, the graphics do some very weird things that make it feel rushed, and some of the voice acting will make you mute the sound, but the gameplay is the main attraction, and the gameplay shines for the most part. If you are looking for a good challenge to sink your teeth into, I can give Dark Souls II a solid recommendation.