Simply uttering “Dark Souls II” will instill some form of emotion in anyone that’s played the previous ‘Souls’ titles – be it dread, excitement or anticipation. For the uninitiated, Dark Souls II is an unforgiving 3rd person action-RPG with deep game mechanics, an intricate and lethal combat system and huge variety in equipment, monsters and world locations.
Following a glossy FMV sequence you play through a short introductory zone as an unknown figure before building your hero (or heroine) using a detailed character design system. With eight classes to choose from each offers their own unique flavour from the melee focused knight to the weak but spell-slinging sorcerer. What’s nice is that you don’t have to worry about picking the best class from the get go as you can heavily alter your character build while levelling up. For instance, your sorcerer could legitimately end the game with a strong melee focus.
The first two hours of Dark Souls II are the least forgiving as you learn the ropes from the deep end. There are fundamental rules about how the game works but unless you exhaust every dialogue option from the NPCs in the main camp of Majula, then you’re going to be in for a rough ride. For instance, bonfires, which act as checkpoints, recharge stations and fast-travel points also re-spawn all non-boss enemies in the game in when you use them. More importantly, every time you die your maximum health drops a small amount. After a handful of deaths you’re restricted to 50% of your maximum health, making the game harder and harder every time you die. Luckily, you can use a Human Effigy to restore your humanity and go back to full health, but you must use them correctly or effectively you waste them. In an age where printed game manuals are almost extinct From Software really could have made this information more accessible in the introductory area of the game. Luckily, we’ve put together a Dark Souls II Beginner’s Guide to help you through your first few hours. With a little bit of knowledge, it’s much easier to get hooked in Dark Souls II’s detailed game world and intricately crafted systems.
The visual style of Dark Souls II is atmospheric and wonderfully varied. It’s unfortunate that the quality of the lighting was reduced since the promotional videos due to frame-rate issues but, while the graphics won’t win any awards, they certainly aren’t bad either. The odd clipping issue here and there and a fair handful of muddy textures are hard to ignore after gaming on next-gen consoles for the past six-months but it’s certainly not bad considering the hardware that the console versions run on. The PC version looks a fair amount shinier, with better textures and overall crisper imagery, but still won’t be competing for awards alongside Dragon Age III or the Witcher 3. What is impressive about the visuals is the sheer amount of creative variation presented in terms of the locations you visit and the monsters you encounter. There are over 30 bosses in the game and most look creatively amazing, with their own memorable style and accompanying, oppressive arena.
Gameplay is where Dark Souls II truly shines. Almost every fight requires an intense focus as you’re acutely aware that a single mistake can result in death, a loss of souls and a sharp return to the last bonfire. Even at level 150 all but the lowliest creatures can put you out of your misery if surprise takes you. Combat is a carefully woven machine under the hood; every point of strength does a fraction more damage, your agility determines how many tenths of a second it takes to quaff a life-saving potion and a higher poise means you’re less likely to be stunned. This all translates perfectly into gameplay too, where every attack you make must be carefully considered – balancing your attacks against your defence is critical to success. Apart from the odd hit box issue or camera glitch, fights feel unforgiving but fair. Every time you die you curse yourself, not the enemy, as you generally know what you did wrong. Patience truly is your strongest virtue in Dark Souls II and this makes every victory incredibly satisfying and addictive.
While the overall gameplay is great, it’s not without it’s problems. While the world itself has some nice lore surrounding it – the actual plot doesn’t provide much of an explanation for what you’re doing a lot of the time. There are occasions where the level designers didn’t really seem to be paying attention to the restrictions of their engine – there are parts where you get stuck behind a 1 foot tall ‘wall’ and in one case you have to go through an entirely different world zone to get to where you want to go due to a climb no higher than your knee. One final gripe is that the targeting system can sometimes result in seemingly unfair deaths – you click the targeting stick hoping that the enemy is close enough to focus on but it often results in the camera swinging around 180 degrees and leaving you looking the wrong way.
The online component of Dark Souls II manifests itself in a number of ways. A staple of the Dark Souls series is the ability to leave messages and blood stains around the world for other players to interact with. The messages can be helpful hints or misleading traps, depending on who left them and their feeling at the time and you can touch a blood stain left behind by a fellow player to watch an image of their ghost dying, which gives you a minor hint as to what perils might be waiting for you around the corner. There’s great tension when you enter an area covered in bloodstains as you hurriedly try to figure out how they died and how you might not. The second component of the multiplayer system is the ability or players to enter each other’s worlds. Sometimes this is a positive co-operative experience, giving you the opportunity to summon a guide while you take on a tough boss. Other times, you’ll be hi-jacked by less friendly players, intent on taking you down for their nefarious covenant. The co-op element is much appreciated, and while you can only summon allies when in human form, it’s invaluable if you need help taking down a tough boss. Overall, the Dark Souls II multiplayer is a refreshing and novel experiment for what is essentially a single player game. However, it certainly won’t be for everyone, especially as the PvP can be frustrating at times – invading players will put a sharp end to your strategically well-planned progress which often feels unfair and just annoying. There was a point during the game that I simply unplugged my network cable just so that I could get through the area without faffing with over-powered PCs trying to kill me.
Compared to Dark Souls, the sequel offers a comparatively similar experience with a handful of tweaks and changes. The overall polish has been stepped up from the previous title while the game has arguably been made a little bit easier due to the inclusion of both re-usable healing items and a scattering of consumable healing items. One fairly large change is that minions will no longer respawn after you have defeated them approximately a dozen or so times – a nice addition in my eyes but hardcore fans may not agree. Focussing the game around a central hub area provides for an interesting place to visit when you need to buy supplies, but forcing you to level up back at the base camp ‘Majula’ can sometimes be a bit of a grind. One thing that nobody can debate however, is that the PC version gets a lot more love this time around. A redesigned engine clearly provides for a much smoother PC experience and this is definitely a welcome change – the PC version can now shine in all of it’s deserved glory.
In conclusion, Dark Souls II is a solid, fun and difficult fantasy action-adventure. While a little rough around the edges here and there, the criticisms are minor compared to the sheer glory and satisfaction that’s offered to fans of the fantasy genre. The world is wonderfully creative, the visuals are atmospheric and the game play is hard yet addictive and satisfying. If you like RPGs and want to battle for perhaps some of the most prestigious achievements for your gamer CV, then you can’t go far wrong with Dark Souls II.
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