March 11, 2014
I awaken, face down, on a stone slab. My clothes are tattered and encrusted with blood, my memory is hazy. Small creatures scatter in my wake as I stumble towards the only source of light up ahead. An ominous set of footprints lead up to a hulking, one-eyed creature but I resist the urge to rush over and lay into him with my fists. After all, life is precious right? I wander into the nearby cottage for a discussion with a group of crones and my memories slowly return. As does a swish new outfit; watch out ladies. Armed with the name Bradley and a slightly receding hairline, I step out into the world.
After a beautiful opening scene you're once again dropped into the unknown, left to fend for yourself and struggle against an unforgiving world full of things that want to kill you. Dark Souls II picks up where its predecessor left off then; not in a literal sense, but certainly in terms of the fundamental mechanics and a seamless world that is equal parts beautiful and deadly. For newcomers it can be overwhelming at first, but some effort has been made to integrate the unwary.
In a move that might upset some purists the game actually starts with a - whisper it - tutorial section. Guiding you through your first tentative steps or an annoying sideshow to the main event; however you feel about it, the whole thing feels slightly obtrusive in the grand scheme of things. Still for newcomers it’s a helpful addition and it might also help a few players that have been out of the game for a while shake off some cobwebs. After reading a few signs, killing a few basic enemies and finding a few items you're ready for the real fun to begin. Plus, there are one or two larger foes for the brave or foolish to tackle even at this early stage. FromSoftware still wants you to suffer a bit after all.
Breaking out of the dimly lit woods into Majula, the game's de facto hub area, is a typical Dark Souls moment. The sun breaks through a crack in the rocky path and you are met with the type of breathtaking view that makes you stop for a while to take it all in. In truth the console version of the game certainly lags behind its PC equivalent, and the occasional hiccup and instance of screen tearing is certainly frustrating, but the wonderfully inventive world still manages to impress. A wide variety of locales await your eager eyes, though the occasional area does feel like a slight rehash of the original, especially when you enter a dark, underground lair full of sudden drops, wooden platforms and poisonous foes. Sound familiar? Still for every variation on the original theme there is a fresh new locale to sweep you off your feet. Often literally.
I emerge into the sun and it dazzles me slightly after the dank woodland I had trekked through. A barren village lays before me and a mysterious woman offers me hope and a chance for redemption. I pledge myself to the nearby flame and gaze out over the beautiful ocean, my attention momentarily drawn from the horrors that await. The light doesn’t hold me for long and I wander, torch aloft, in the dark passageways that hold a glimpse into the broken down world around me.
Bizarrely some players took issue with the fact that most of Dark Souls was an ambiguous affair, with players left to figure out the plot for themselves from snippets of information and halting conversation with the few NPC characters that would give you the time of day. Thankfully that tradition continues, and yet again adds to the overall mystery of your journey, as your quest in the land of Drangleic and the murky motivation of your supposed helpers only gets exposed over time. An overarching task is presented but never fully explained and it’s a game that insists on multiple playthroughs in order to absorb and experience every aspect. Even reading the descriptions of certain weapons and items can clue you into the world around you. Plus, being free to go in a variety of directions and explore areas that seem beyond your skills helps to test your limits, and each new location you set foot in feels like a minor triumph and they all segue together via hidden pathways and routes to present the overarching impression of a living, breathing world. The wonderful aspect of this style of exploration is the discovery of a hidden treasure, secret room or out of the way locale that you may have missed first time around.
It helps that the score is wonderfully attuned to the mood of the game as well. Often there is no sound at all, except for the sound of your footsteps and the ominous groan of a hidden assailant. Music is used sparingly, and to good effect, to highlight moments of dramatic conflict or to provide the backdrop to mysterious new areas. The clanging chime of death becomes a constant companion, as does the wonderful discovery of a new area and the blissful safety of the next new bonfire. It doesn’t feel like it at first, but every sound soon becomes part of your armory with each signaling a change in your emotional state and expectations for the area ahead. It’s minimalist and yet fascinating. It helps that every character is wonderfully understated and acted, each telling their tale with a sense of weary purpose, and even the confident amongst them feels undercut by sadness.
My old skills return and foes fall to my blade with only the odd scratch in return. This world is ripe for the picking and hidden treasures loiter in every nook and cranny. A glint catches my eye and I spy some potential loot just across the body of water in front if me. I take a brief run up, legs pounding against the stone surface and power towards it. Only I don’t. Perhaps my memory isn’t what it was, I ponder, as I sink into the murky depths to my death. My last thought, “It’s almost as if I’d forgotten how to jump.” As first deaths go, Bradley mused, it was hardly glorious.
Once again bonfires and souls are a key component of the game. Each bonfire will restore your precious healing Estus Flask, which starts with far fewer charges and is much harder to upgrade this time around, as well as restoring your equipment's condition and healing you. You can also immediately use the bonfires to teleport between each other from the get go, an addition that is welcome and never seems to get in the way or supersede your exploration, On the downside the bonfires also revive most of the enemies you have slain to that point leaving you to cut through them again if they're in your path. In a move that may upset some players, enemies will only respawn this way so many times to prevent players from farming them repeatedly. It feels unfair at first, as if you are thwarted in your quest to become powerful enough to take down the toughest foes. Until you realise that a sound strategy might help more than an extra point or two of strength, and even the biggest enemies can be outthought and then outfought.
Souls are again the currency that you use to buy items, upgrade your gear and, most important of all, level up your skills. With each new level costing more and more, and the benefits feeling like a slow drip feed of assistance at first, the loss of souls can be insurmountable. On the occasions when you die before retrieving your lost souls it can feel like a major catastrophe, and yet also like another valuable lesson learned.
The main source of souls are obviously the myriad opponents that stand before you. Enemies wait to ambush the unwary, each of them with their own foibles and weaknesses. Yet again even the best prepared adventurer can be felled at any time, even by an innocuous foe, should you get too careless. Seemingly unfair and overpowered attack patterns can leave you cursing your screen in fury. Until that is you find the perfect counter, like a little lightbulb going off in your head, and a foe that seemed insurmountable is dispatched. Unlike most games where some enemies never pose a threat, Dark Souls II gets things just right, the balance of risk and reward perfectly pitched with even a minor skirmish offering a sense of progression. Just as you feel like you're finding your feet, the games forces you through the mist into ever more demanding conflict.
Once again, no game does a heart pounding boss fight the way that Dark Souls II manages to, as the line between victory and defeat can often feel painfully narrow. Each is a nervous affair fraught with danger, requiring a keen sense of when to attack and when to get the hell out of the way. Each block and parry is one less attack, but will also help to preserve that shred of health that could make all the difference. The last ditch lunge that brings triumph after so many defeats is still impossible to beat and I genuinely can’t think of another game that gives the same sense of euphoria after each success. The game has a lengthy rogue's gallery of foes for you to defeat, some that seem impossible at first glance only to be found out by the right combination of caution and burst of aggression.
I scramble up a ladder to put an end to the fiery death raining down from above. As I do so an eagle swoops overheard carrying something. Was that a Knight? I pay it no heed and mercilessly cut down the nearby hollow soldier that was making my life a misery. He falls in a few shuddering blows and I head back the way I came. Only a huge, silver Knight bars my way, my mind goes blank and my defences crumble. His sword cleaves down, once, twice and my corpse tumbles to the stone. Overconfidence in this world brings death it seems.
Yet again death is an ever present companion but still remains even handed. All too often it will come from a momentary lapse in concentration or a leap that proved just a little too long or ill-timed. Platforming is again the weakest aspect of exploration, with narrow ledges often leading to the best rewards and leaps into the unknown required for progression. Even then, it never feels unfair, as missing a leap or taking a misstep is often down to your own poor timing than a game breaking flaw. Although it has to be said that the jumping and rolling mechanics are wonderfully mischievous at times, often requiring clever usage to maximise their benefits. Yet again the price of death is the loss of ever important souls, and if you don’t retrieve them from your bloodstain they're gone for good, a factor that takes on even more importance thanks to some of the newer mechanics. Each demise also saps you of a portion of your health for good, or at least until you use a rare item to become human again if only for a short time. The cost of death is greater than ever, which makes you all the more cautious.
Another tweak is that this time around the risk of invasion from other players is ever present no matter what your current state. This may annoy those for whom the multiplayer aspect of the original was an upsetting distraction right at the moment you needed it least. On the flip-side the multiplayer can be helpful in many ways as you can still view the grisly deaths of others and read helpful (or not) messages that they leave behind. You can also summon other players to help out with bosses, as well as some powerful NPC characters if you befriend them and join the various Covenants to get a helping hand too. You can also leave your own mark upon the world to help out those less fortunate. For those that see the constant threat of invasion as a burden the only alternative is a purely offline jaunt, but doing so would be missing out on a lot of the fun and the wicked sense of humour presented by other players.
A red, wraith like figure forms out of the mist in front of me. I had been warned about this – an invader from another world, seeking to steal what was rightfully mine. Their strength was impressive but I shrug them off and strike back to send them cowering into the foliage. I take a gulp from my Estus Flask, the strange amber liquid running through my veins, nurturing and healing. At which point I discover my foe had circled behind me. His sword sliding into my back and the world going dark once again.
In truth much has been made of the increased difficulty in this latest version but that is only true to a point. Each death takes its toll on your overall health and the fact enemies don’t infinitely respawn means you cannot level ad infinitum. However, the game successfully checks and balances every problem with a solution. Most boss fights can take a couple of tries to learn weak points and tactics, but then it merely comes down to smoothly pulling the required moves off under pressure. Fights are never gleefully unfair, just moderately demanding. Healing is more gradual now, but you are not just reliant on the Estus Flask and some movement is allowed to avoid leaving yourself wide open. With practice some bosses can be passed first time and for veteran players the whole game will feel like a new chance to test out familiar strategies and character builds. In truth, if you have played the first Dark Souls to completion there is little here that cannot be overcome and plenty to enjoy.
If there was one slight complaint, it has to be that the first Dark Souls did such a good job that at times this game seems to fall under the pressure. That moment when the red dragon swooped over the bridge, or when you descended into Blight Town, or when you saw the sun-kissed city of Anor Londo for the first time: all of those points felt epic in scope and like unique moments in your gaming history. The sequel has some of those moments, but they never feel quite as wonderful or quite as big a spectacle. It’s a minor quibble, but for some Dark Souls players the sequel may feel underwhelming while at the same time still offering a fresh and wonderful experience. It’s hard to put into words, but the scope and majesty of the first game has certainly made it a hard act to follow.
Assuming you want to acquire the every trophy in the game, some perseverance is required, as attaining all spells and weapons will require multiple runs through the game, as well as participating in plenty of online play to meet the demands of several Covenants along the way. It’s not a list for everyone, but is certainly one that demands you see and explore every inch of the kingdom of Drangleic and interact with as many people online as you possibly can, hopefully with good intentions.
On the whole Dark Souls II is a more than worthy sequel to a game that thrived on word of mouth recommendations and finely honed gameplay. The sequel tinkers just enough to keep things interesting while still being instantly familiar to previous players and has crafted another fascinating world for you to get lost in. It still provides a superlative mixture of standout moments, from defeating bosses, to wandering into a lush new area or even uncovering the grim tale of the locals through random meetings. It is a world that demands to be explored and the new ideas never get in the way of you doing so. You will still die a lot, but each time will be another lesson on your path to mastering everything that the game has to offer. For sheer scope, nerve jangling combat and a sense of accomplishment no other game even comes close.
I stare at the mist shrouded door ahead of me and think back on my experiences. Each crushing defeat met head on, each step forward hard earned and each fallen foe a step closer to this final meeting. My journey ends here, whether in success or eternal damnation it is hard to say. But my experiences have taught me this much, that I will never stop trying and my foes will meet their end due as much to my perseverance as to my blade.
Disclaimer: Bradley died 94 times in the making of this review. He has now retired to a sheep farm in Surrey and still gets nervous around bonfires.
A wonderfully balanced score, that lets the environment do most of the talking and then ramps up when it needs to. The voice work here is absolutely spot on as well, with each character wonderfully conveyed and pulling upon your emotions superbly.
For all the talk of a new engine the game can look choppy at times, and even chug a little when too much is going on. It’s a shame as the scope, vistas and environments, as well as some of the enemies, are wonderfully inventive.
It's hard to fault a game this well-balanced, with every death proving to be a step towards success rather than giving the feeling of butting your head against a wall. Combat can be approached in a variety of ways, and the open nature of exploration and plethora of hidden delights are wonderful.
At times this feels too similar to its predecessor, but it’s only a minor complaint in a game that builds wonderfully on what came before and offers a vibrant new land for you to explore with glee. Tweaks to multiplayer, combat and even death have been meted out in an even-handed way to provide a wonderful experience.
In truth not a great list, and one that will require plenty of online play to acquire certain spells which may seem odious for some people that prefer to explore alone.
A grand sequel and one that adds to the impressive nature of the first game immensely. It looks better and offers a smoother passage for newcomers, while still retaining the wonderful ability to kill you in a heartbeat. Each boss is a thrilling battle against the odds and each new area is something to drink in and then explore with pleasure. Dark Souls II is still as unforgiving and brutal as ever, and that is a great, great thing.