They say that first love singes a place deep in your heart. A complex of emotions so rich and raw that they rest in your memory forever, unforgettable. Dark Souls is not my first love in gaming, that pleasure sits with more ancient games, yet this game rekindled those feelings, only further enriched by a more mature and darker theme. Dark Souls reminded us why we play games, imbued as it is with a rich sense of mystery, discovery, progression and, above all, succeeding against the odds.
It was a torrid early affair, constant frustration and anger almost shattered the relationship before it could begin. My original review concentrated so heavily on this suffering that it never had time to fully get to grips with the beauty lying under its shell. Dark Souls requires time and effort to unwrap its layers, to coax its majesty out. The joy that this relationship can provide, once finally seduced, is almost unmatched in the gaming scene. It is important to understand this before diving into Dark Souls II. That delicate unwrapping, that seduction, can never be reproduced. Your experience of this sequel (just as with Dark Souls and its spiritual ancestor Demon’s Souls) is directly affected by your relationship with its prequel.
For those already under Dark Souls’ spell, Dark Souls II is an instant familiarity. A third-person action RPG with a heavy emphasis on precise combat and timely reactions, fighting bewildering bosses that tower above the player, shattering bones with a single mistake. Mistakes that send you back to that last flaming checkpoint. Mistakes that cost you souls - the experience points and currency of the game - flittering away into the ether if unclaimed on a subsequent attempt. Mistakes that cost you everything.
That oppressive tone continues through its story. A plot that lies hidden beneath elusive comments from dreary NPCs, never fully explicit, just tantalising signs that betray a greater depth. A quest for salvation perhaps, to rid oneselves of the hollow curse that haunts our player, or simply a mission to escape this world. It is a heavily shrouded mystery with answers strangely hinted to in innocuous item descriptions or hidden in the architecture of the land. Indeed, right up to the end you are still left in a fog of obscurity over your final goal. Scraping through this dense layer of mystery, joining together distant fragments like a great game of archeology, is all part of Dark Souls II’s joy.
Early on in the campaign the player can design their character, both aesthetically and statistically. Again there is that instant familiarity for any player of the previous games, picking from a very similar list of classes, defining their starting statistics and equipment. It’s all slightly arbitrary however as the equipment will be replaced quickly and, thanks to the extremely versatile progression system that lets you add points to any category when levelling, your class can easily be altered later in the game. Just as in the previous games, you can start off as a warrior, wildly swinging your sword at every enemy and finish the game as a wizened mage, casting spells from afar.
Returning to a sputtering engine very much anchored back in the annals of the last generation (if not further), the characters in Dark Souls II still look like overly chunky pixelated relics. The NPCs that you stumble upon seem to grimace through their antiquated looks, angrily staring past the player as if wishing the experience would end. Maybe that’s the point, they are trapped in a land devoid of hope after all. Again, there’s no direct interaction with anyone, you play the silent protagonist, simply listening to their cryptic stories or spending your souls in their shops.
Meanwhile the world of Dranlaic feels slightly more vibrant than the twisted land of Dark Souls’ Lordran. The home area of Majula, found after a brief introduction area, could nearly be called warm and inviting, despite its dilapidation. With the sun beaming over a worn statue in the distance and a warm welcoming bonfire, it’s almost stunning. There is certainly more depth and design intricacies to many of the areas, a definite improvement in the series, and the architecture feels more realised, yet the low-res heavily repeated textures, blighting the entire game, slightly jar this beauty.
Eventually the player must leave the safe confines of Majula and wander in search of the great souls that could perhaps cure you of this cursed undead affliction. There are multiple ways to proceed, creating an interesting dynamic by giving the player some choice, but it is certainly not open-world: each path is essentially linear with a few branches along the way. Sadly, Dranlaic does not incorporate the wonderfully inventive level design of Lordran, with its winding passages that suddenly open out onto previously discovered areas, filling the player with joy as they realise they have returned to somewhere familiar, somewhere safe. Dranlaic’s locations, perhaps due to the ability to insta-travel from the start (discussed later), are more nebulous and this results in areas that can be slightly forgettable. That being said, it is a huge world with tens of large areas to uncover, making it ever so slightly larger than the previous entry. All in, if you are content to rush it, there’s a good sixty hours of gameplay, but hundreds more if you deviate from the path, explore the multiplayer or even attempt to fight the world again in NG+.
Fortunately Dark Souls II avoids the rather hilarious level layout that cursed new players of Dark Souls, seeing them stray straight into the extremely difficult late game Catacombs at the very beginning and quickly resigning in defeat. The more troublesome paths in Dark Souls II are blocked until the player has made some progress and therefore suffers less from this rather frustrating issue. That being said, the inattentive may still stumble into boss fights way beyond their level early in the game, resulting in constant repetitive death. Trust me: if you find yourself dying to a boss tens of times over then retreat and reassess. Perhaps there is another unexplored route that will open up more of the game.
Similarly Dark Souls II strays away from the more fundamentally frustrating level design that marred previous entrants to the series. There is nothing quite so horribly broken as Blighttown of Dark Souls with its ridiculous plummeting depths, depositing your corpse in a lake of poisonous waste. An area so completely flawed that it caused the game (particularly on the 360 version) to judder to an almost complete halt. That being said a similarly rotten area of Dark Souls II, appropriately named The Gutter, may break some players down into a weeping mess as they repeatedly are thrown off the treacherous platforms or preposterously poisoned by strange spitting statues. At least now you can watch your dead body fly down into the abyss at a sensible frame rate (on both the 360 and the PS3), something that can also thankfully be said about the entire experience.
While much of what made Dark Souls so interesting and successful remains in this sequel, there are several changes in dynamics and features that gently alter the experience, yet at the same time make vast differences for experienced players. The ability to insta-travel between all lit bonfires from the beginning (players had to complete a significant chunk of the game before this was an option previously), means it is never an issue to return to Majula and restock with merchants. Also, levelling your character can now only be done by approaching a certain character at this safe haven, which seems like a bizarre change given the fast travel ability, only seeming to increase the already excessive loading times.
Perhaps Dark Souls II’s most significant change is its more relaxed approach to healing and spell usage. One of Dark Souls’ trickiest components was surviving without taking substantial damage, since healing was restricted to the use of the estus flask. These charges could only be restocked by returning to the bonfire and thus resummoning the enemies and restarting the area. Perhaps more in line with the earlier Demon’s Souls, here you can also make use of lifegems that gradually restore health over time. Since these lifegems are available in a fairly abundant supply through creep drops or purchasing from merchants, the limited use estus flask (which still makes a return) becomes less of an issue and returning to the bonfire to recover is rarely required and areas are often cleared at a quicker rate. Similarly spells, which were originally limited to a strict number of casts between bonfire rests, can now be restored by consuming certain herbs. While this does admittedly remove that overwhelming tension in deciding to cast a limited spell, it does however free up the pure mage class, far more so than in Dark Souls.
This arguably unbalancing change is countered somewhat by the return of the hollow curse, a terrible fate for any player who dies continuously without restoring their human form. While it is not quite so drastic as the instantly halved health that occurred in Demon’s Souls - players of Dark Souls II will find their health slightly reduced after each subsequent death until their total health bar is finally halved. At this point any progression becomes extremely difficult (especially against bosses who have the potential to eliminate that health in one hit) and the only real solution is to consume strange human effigies. These odd items are particularly rare and expensive earlier in the game and we imagine that the hollow curse will be a constant frustration for newer players of the series, perhaps so off putting that it could drive them away before they discover the various items and armour that protect them from the curse in the later game.
Battles in Dark Souls II seem to favour group mechanics far more than either of its prequels, with enemies flocking towards the player together. While this makes the fights more difficult, it also makes them feel less elegant. With its emphasis on movement and timing, as well as the camera only locking onto a single enemy, the mechanics do not feel particularly suited towards facing more than one foe. Often you will separate an enemy, diving in for the kill, only to be stabbed in the back by another foe and countering your attack. Sometimes, particularly earlier on, the only successful approach is to draw out single enemies with ranged attacks, abusing their rather simplistic AI and take them down individually. It may feel dirty and a little like cheating, but it can be the only solution.
Still, the fantastic fighting system that underpins the entire series remains largely untouched. There are several potential styles that players can choose, be it the hulking brutish barbarian with a greatsword the size twice his size, cleaving into his foes, knocking them off their feet. Or the cunning assassin, donning light armour, rolling away from every attack and sneaking in a backstab while they are unguarded. Or a caster, hurling in lightning bolts from a distance, attempting to stay outside of the range of an enemy’s weapon. Or essentially anything in between. It is a wonderful experience to slowly mould your character into a build that suits your style.
Developing your build throughout the campaign is all part of the experience, and some will work better than others depending on which area you find yourself in. However it is within the multiplayer element that the fighting system really comes alive. Dark Souls II maintains the series’ individual approach to multiplayer, but manages at the same time to be more a open and permanent feature, which manages to both improve and damage the overall feel of the game. Like much of the rest of the game, multiplayer is left unexplained, leaving it up to the player to discover how the system works, so it’s hard to discuss here how exactly it all fits together without ruining the experience.
Needless to say, you can still summon allies into your world to help you defeat the area, however you must be uncursed, having consumed a human effigy and not died, to do so. Summoning warriors to aid you, who appear as white phantoms, will increase the area’s difficulty, increasing the monsters’ health and damage, however this, almost without exception, will make any situation easier. It can therefore lessen the overall sense of achievement when defeating a boss that has flattened you several times over, but sometimes it can be the simplest way to progress.
Just as in Dark Souls, the multiplayer element is designed to be more passive than many other games of a similar ilk. You cannot, for example, specifically invite a friend from your friends list to help you and the rules of whom the server does summon are rather unclear. The idea is to further entrench this overwhelming atmosphere of desperation, inhibiting you from the familiar. Yet even here Dark Souls II makes some concessions to perhaps improve its relations with a less hardcore audience. As well as the ability to use voice chat, players can increase the chance of finding their friends. Both require the equipping of certain artifacts, and neither are explained explicitly, but their existence does potentially change the whole experience. Yet if this is the case, the simple solution is simply never to use these items in the first place.
Over the course of the campaign you will discover various covenants who, upon joining, will lay down principles guiding your online experience. Dark Souls II’s covenants feel more concise and well conceived than any previous entry to the series with many areas of the game are devoted entirely to their purpose. One of the more entertaining covenants is that of the Rat King, found by speaking to a rather bizarre talking rat approximately halfway through the game. He instructs you that there are many seeking to invade his realm and wishes you to help him defend it. Within the Rat King’s lair there are several traps that can be set, such as statues throwing axes across footpaths, aiding you in defeating all that dare invade this realm. It is wonderful to watch players stumble into this den and struggle to overcome all that you have laid before them and, if they manage to progress, then you can dive into the fight and eliminate them yourself before they escape.
This refinement underlines the entirety of Dark Souls II. It feels like a more inviting, more relaxing and perhaps even a more enjoyable experience than its ancestors. Yet for many fans of the series this may indeed be the news they fear. Dark Souls’ cult success can be attributed to its unrelenting difficulty and its virtually unbreachable obscurity, deviating so superbly from the current trend of modern gaming. By very slightly opening up the experience, Dark Souls II has risked unravelling this success, particularly for the hardcore fanbase. But in actuality the minor changes do not hugely alter the overall gameplay. It is still wonderfully mysterious and horrendously punishing, all backed up by a unique battle and skill system that is so gloriously balanced it feels like a real talent to master. Is it the better game? Perhaps not. Its over dependence on group battles, less interesting boss designs and a slightly more forgettable world let it down, but none of this is so severe that it stops it from becoming another superb entry into one of the best series of games of all time.