There could be anything down that corridor. There could be a new piece of equipment; perhaps an extraordinary sword or a better set of armor. There could be a new enemy, maybe one that you’ve never seen before. Then again, it could be that thing, a hauntingly grotesque monster that you swore to run away from next time you see it. Whatever the case, you venture forth, both because you fear the unknown and because the adrenaline high is oh so sweet.
This is Dark Souls II, the second (some would say third) in a series built around testing your limits and challenging you to overcome incredible obstacles. There’s an insane amount of pressure on From Software with this title. Two new directors take over for the previous master of madness, wanting to incorporate new and old players alike to engage in this monstrous tale of dead kingdoms, demons and the tiny flame-like glimmer of hope. Success is hard to measure, since this is a title built both around discovery and community, but right now it would seem that a worthy successor has indeed risen, though not without some blemishes that keep it from reaching truly classic status.
You awaken in the land of Drangleic after a curse renders you undead and doomed for all eternity. An enigmatic woman dubbed The Emerald Herald tasks you with searching the land for four large souls, thereby granting you access to the king from whom none have heard in generations. It’s all moody stuff to be sure, and there are connections between this new land and the previous territory of Lordan. Dark Souls II tells its story through the environment and the creepy denizens who reside there rather than spelling things out to you in pages of text. Paying attention is paramount, particularly when it comes to some of the items and souls that seem oddly familiar…
Drangleic is massive, covering a wide range of geography and period styles. The abandoned seaside town of Majula acts as your hub, sprouting paths into different areas and climates. The upper pathway takes you to a forest and castle ravaged by war, while the nearby tunnel leads to a city overtaken by water. Unfortunately, the design here is more patchwork than the intricate and layered layout of Lordran from the original Dark Souls. There are hidden trails and locations, but nothing that links together locales as before, leading to an almost level-by-level feeling. One rather abrupt change somehow moves you from a desert-like valley filled with poison to a dramatic fiery inferno. Still, the lack of coherence means the designers could go absolutely crazy with the world, and there are some truly special and haunting sites to behold. Even better, things get delightfully more fantastical and imaginative in the last few hours, which I refuse to spoil for those willing to take the plunge.
Exploration is a key part of the Souls experience, and here it’s been pushed to the forefront. Players can now warp between life-saving bonfires from the start, meaning you rarely feel trapped in one tough section of the map for very long. This helps to alleviate some of the problems in previous games, as many people become intimately familiar with particular sections through repetition and rote memorization. The best part of Dark Souls II is going through an area for the first time, as traps and enemies spring and force you to think quickly and act decisively. You may want to revisit areas for a chance to suss out more treasure, of course, and there’s always the chance to take a break from your current task and see something new and exciting. You’re rarely left with just one path ahead. I found myself with something like five different roads to take at one point, and each felt even more terrifying and delightful than the last. These games task you with discovery without the need for waypoints and markers. The fact that you can easily traverse the environment without an in-game map speaks volumes to the excellent level design and gentle direction.
Much was made of early interviews and previews talking about making DSII more accessible to gamers, and thankfully this was accomplished without taking away from the mystery and grandeur of the world. The translation job is far more thorough this time, resulting in little confusion when it comes to how items and mechanics work. A handy help screen spells out the meaning of different icons and numbers on your character sheet rather than leaving you to examine an outside resource to figure out why intelligence is important for your hero. There’s even a larger tutorial section, which goes against the previous game’s “trial by fire” approach that most likely turned off as many gamers as it brought in. It’s doubtful that DSII will drastically change the mind of someone who hated the previous games, but it’s an easier point of entry for new players.
Timing and precision rather than combos and flair rule this combat system. Stamina remains your most vital resource (other than your quickly depleting health bar, of course), governing your ability to move quickly by rolling, strike with your weapon of choice, and absorb the impact of a foe’s challenge with your shield. Experimenting and trying out new armaments is thankfully encouraged this time around. Souls, the experience points that govern EVERYTHING in this world, are quite plentiful at the start, meaning you’ll have plenty of resources to build your character and upgrade equipment to your liking. You can even respec once you find a few special items scattered throughout Drangleic, meaning you never run the risk of boxing yourself into a corner.
Combat has been tweaked a bit from Dark Souls I, which is unsurprising given the new game’s enhanced engine. It now takes a bit of time to bring your shield up for a full block, and backpedaling while locked on to a target results in slower overall movement than before. Veterans will probably require some time to get used to these new mechanics, as previous strategies may no longer be viable options. The adaptability stat is supposed to govern some of these actions, but it appears to be an almost pointless attribute at this early stage. My shield still takes a bit too long to ready in a fight, though I can definitely down a swig of life-filling Estus more quickly should the occasion arise.
Unfortunately, it would appear that the new engine is going to require some modifications down the line. Hit detection can be lousy, particularly on thrusting weapons like spears and rapiers. Attacks that appear to connect leave you whiffing a whole lot of air, and yet enemies have little trouble tagging you with similar attacks. The feedback when attacking monsters also proves problematic at times. An enemy may seem stunned and give you the chance to attack again only to have them recover and plunge a dagger into your belly before you have time to respond. Red Phantoms who stand in for online competitive encounters seem to break from their animations and attack patterns randomly, leading to some incredible levels of frustration. In almost any other game, this would be okay or perhaps even go unnoticed, but in a world where just one attack can prove fatal, it ends up tarnishing the experience somewhat. Old problems also remain, including the occasionally spotty lock on system and a camera that can freak out during quick movements. Targeting slow-moving suicide bombers on rickety bridges is not always a pleasant experience given the surprisingly mercurial targeting mechanics. Hopefully From Software can address some of these problems in future patches, but for now Dark Souls II doesn’t feel quite as meticulous and well put together as it could be. Performance overall on the PS3 is decent on average. The framerate never dips down to Blighttown levels of awful, but it never holds quite as rock solid as it should be.
One area that the developers obviously focused on was the online component, and Dark Souls II finally lives up to the promises made nearly four years ago. The dedicated servers for multiplayer offer real improvement, as summoning other people to help you with a nasty boss or aggravating section is practically effortless this time around. Bloodstains show the deaths of previous players and are vital to the experience. You can’t help but chuckle when you see twenty blood pools dotting a seemingly innocuous room and wonder if you’ll be the next one to fall. Messages from other players may lead you to new secrets or perhaps an early death. You can really feel the connection with the community while exploring Drangleic, and this marks the greatest and most pivotal improvement with the sequel. Summoning also mitigates some of the balancing and shoddy hit detection on enemies, as it’s easier to handle large group skirmishes. It’s also incredibly rewarding to help others take down a boss that once proved almost insurmountable.
And there are many, many bosses. You’d be forgiven for thinking of them as pushovers during the first few hours, but rest assured that some very evil things lurk in the dark. Dark Souls II has some of my favorite encounters in the franchise, and none of them feel quite as contrived or deeply flawed as The Bed of Chaos or Four Kings found in Lordran. True, they aren’t as astonishing or awe inspiring either (one even looks like a rejected idea from Castlevania), but they are almost all mechanically sound and fun to fight. Many battles feature more than one opponent, so be sure to bring friends to the party.
Finishing Dark Souls II opens up a New Game Plus option, and it’s clearly been a focus this time around. New enemies, items and challenges await those who dare take on this enhanced difficulty, though the truly masochistic can engage right away by joining an early covenant. Some of these scenarios seem tailor made for multiplayer, which is a conscientious choice that hopefully pays off with a dedicated community. DSII took me around forty hours to complete, but you could easily spend hundreds of hours uncovering secrets, testing new equipment, or trying out new character builds.
As a huge fan of Dark Souls, I find the sequel to be both amazingly fun and ever so slightly disappointing. The combat mechanics just don’t feel quite as responsive as before. Not every death feels entirely deserved, and more than a few feel completely unwarranted, but the enhanced online component cannot be overstated in how fun it makes this trip to hell. Perhaps some updates will fix the finer points of combat, but for now, Dark Souls II is still a fun and worthy treat for those looking for challenge and reward in equal measure. The dark beckons, and you’d do well to accept its cold embrace.