Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360
Developer: From Software
Publisher: Bandai Namco Games
Ratings: T (ESRB), 16 (PEGI)
Reviewed on PS3
Boasting a minimalist story, no distinct direction where to go next and a combat system that punishes you severely for being lazy or cocky, the Souls series is one that relishes in the fact that it defies triple A gaming and all its tropes. Dark Souls 2, for the most part, holds up incredibly well as an entry in the Souls series. While it may lack the great design and improvements Dark Souls 1 gave to us after Demon Souls, it is still an incredibly rewarding experience that, funnily enough, serves as a better jumping off point for new players while still keeping the Souls veterans happy.
One of the major complaints many people had with Dark Souls 1 was that it was too hard. Not strictly hard in the sense that the enemies were difficult to defeat but hard in the sense that players would foolishly go to the wrong areas, get fed up from dying multiple times, not realise that they have gone the wrong way and then just give up playing the game completely. Dark Souls 2 rectifies this problems and provides a more open introduction for new players that doesn’t make the game necessarily easier but certainly more accessible. After you pick your class and character, you travel through an area that encourages exploration and teaches you combat in a way that doesn’t feel like a tutorial, just like a part of the level but with more signs/instructions on how to roll, block, backstab etc.
If this is your first Souls game, you will definitely appreciate all these tips but if you’re a veteran player, you will breeze past the area and reap in the rewards. It’s a great introduction for new players that doesn’t quell the difficulty the series is infamous for, it just allows you to tackle it with more knowledge instead of swinging wildly at enemies and getting upset when the AI gets the upperhand.
Dark Souls 2’s difficulty curve has been revamped in an excellent manner and new players will learn how to play this game much better than ever before while veterans will quickly breeze past certain sections of the game before rising to a challenge that will certainly match their abilities. Dark Souls 2 often does hit that sweet spot of catering towards new fans and old and From Software deserve high praise for doing this with such high levels of care and dedication. Previously, Dark Souls 1 was the better game for gamers interested in the Souls series to play first before playing Demon Souls. Now, it’s Dark Souls 2’s turn to outshine Dark Souls as the ideal “gateway game” for the Souls series.
However, while Dark Souls 2 might ease players in better than Dark Souls 1, it both adds and leaves out a crucial mechanic that has some massive knock on effects for the game world “Drangleic”. The ability to level up at any bonfire has been removed and players must now travel to a main hub and talk to a character to level up, like in Demon Souls. However, players can now fast travel immediately between bonfires from the get-go. Both features have some postive and negative effects. For the most part, warping saves a lot of back-tracking and time wasted walking around areas you’ve passed through hundreds of times. But the ability to warp between bonfires straight away makes the player feel a bit disconnected from the main world in comparison to the huge, sprawling map from Dark Souls 1, which was one of the many great features the game had to offer.
In Dark Souls 2, the sense of being in a greater, interconnected world is slightly lost and at times, it often feels like you are merely going all the way down one path before you find yourself back at the hub before going down another new path. It feels like you start at point A go to point B and go back to point A before setting off to point C. While that might not bother some new players, it can leave veteran players disappointed if they were expecting a world like Dark Souls’ Lordran.
The story of Dark Souls 2 follows suit of its predecessors. You are a a cursed Undead human who suffers from eternal life. Everytime you die, you return to life. This will ultimately continue before you succumb to madness and become “hollow”. Souls are the source of power in the game and when you defeat enemies, souls act as the currency that allow you to progress levels, improve weapons and become stronger. However, once you die, your soul counter goes back to zero, giving you only one chance to retrieve it before it disappears completely. For the main character, the only chance he or she has to reverse this curse is to travel to the land of Drangleic and seek its King and that is where your story beings. The story telling fashion might not suit everyone as a lot of it is focused on reading item descriptions and piecing together the stories of the characters/the world by yourself but it is certainly more satisfying to learn more about the world this way than simply having it shown to you through lengthy cutscenes.
Dark Souls 2’s combat is one of the major focuses and I’m happy to say that it has been improved upon a lot. While you might encounter poor camera lock ons at times, combat is still as complex and trying as before but allows for a lot more customisation to suit the players need. When I say the combat is difficult, I don’t meant that Dark Souls 2 will constantly kick you in the groin and shove your face in the dirt (although it can feel like that if you get too frustrated) but rather the combat is a constant challenge that demands your utmost attention because even the “fodder” enemies can kill you if you’re not careful.
The combat animation is still as fluid as ever for both you and your enemies and you will relish in the huge variations of styles you will encounter when using your weapons. From quick deadly slashes with shortswords and daggers to massive devastating swings with huge hammers, the animation is fluid, believable and is some of the best I’ve seen in a while.
On top of the great animation style, Dark Souls 2’s art direction is outstanding. After emerging from the dark introduction levels to the sea-side central hub “Majula”, it is clear that the environment has been spiced up, with a lot more variations this time around. Without wanting to spoil too much, Dark Souls 2 will leave you impressed with the wide variations of environments, ranging from genuinely eerie to simply gorgeous. The same can be said for the variation of armors and weapons that boast designs you can expect from a twisted dark fantasy novel, to a traditional medieval setting; there’s something to suit everyone. However, Dark Souls 2 fails to achieve the high level of graphics we’ve seen from the likes of The Last of Us, Grand Theft Auto V or even the initial gameplay reveal in 2013. While great graphics are not overly important for a game like this, Dark Souls 2 isn’t the best for showcasing how good last-gen still looks.
Simply put, Dark Souls 2 suffers from poor texture resolution and lighting and it doesn’t quite achieve the jaw-dropping visuals we’ve expected from the gameplay videos. The dynamic lighting is subdued considerably, the player’s shadow no longer bounces around realistically and the initial notion that players would need a limited lighting torch to navigate parts of the world feels like it’s been left out completely. It definitely feels like the lighting has been toned down considerably. While Dark Souls 2 certainly has great art direction, the actual graphics feel rather grubby, slightly limiting the true “wow” factor the game hoped to achieve.
With regards to the new features of Dark Souls 2, some of them help make the game easier and some unwillingly make the game more difficult. After several player deaths, enemies won’t respawn. While this can help make the journey from bonfire to boss a hell of a lot easier and quicker, it can limit the amount of farming you can do for important items such as Human Effigies (that bring the player’s health bar to maximum). When the player dies in Dark Souls 2, a portion of their full health gets chipped away which brings the game somewhat back to the Demon Souls level of difficulty where you lose half your health when you’re dead (Hollowed). This certainly limits the level of gung-ho attitude from Dark Souls 1 where you can explore levels, try to get as far as you can (possibly picking up new weapons/items) and ultimately die before returning back to a bonfire. You can still take big risks in Dark Souls 2 but you feel like there’s a lot more than just the Souls to lose this time around. Dark Souls 2 tries a lot of new things to change up the format and it’s certainly more hit than miss but a lot of the game changing features feel rather unnecessary in comparison to the already near-perfect formula of Dark Souls 1.
Warning: Spoilers in the video below.
Despite these very minor complaints, Dark Souls 2 is still a fantastic entry in a truly unique series. It doesn’t feel like a watered-down “cash grab” sequel, offers a lot of what fans expect it to and is much better at allowing new players to find their feet even if its tends to be too streamlined for veterans of the series. Make no mistake, the game is still tough as nails but for new players, Dark Souls 2 offers the best and most convenient introduction to the Souls series. While it slightly pales in comparison to Dark Souls, it still offers gamers outstanding “tough but fair” challenges that you can spend hundreds of hours playing over and over again. For any gamers looking for a lengthy RPG experience to sink their teeth into, look no further than Dark Souls 2.