Dark Souls II – ReviewDark Souls II – Review

Dark Souls II – Review

The passageway is dark, lit only by the vestigial flickering of torches far down the way, near the gate that is your destination. You move down a handful of steps to the passage’s main floor, only to find it flooded, your now sluggish movements echoing so loud the only thing drowning it out is the frantic beating of your heart. As you continue toward your destination, you hear the rattles of chains – rattles which stop when you do. You take a deep breath, a step forward…when, suddenly, an inhuman mutate breaks through a wall to your right, battering you to death, its victorious bellows the last thing you see as you fade to black. And a message, by now all-too-familiar, appears on your screen…YOU DIED.

Welcome to Dark Souls II.

PRAISE THE SUN! No, seriously, that's the name of this gesture, a throwback to the first Dark Souls. Gestures  can be used to communicate with other players...or, in this case, just to be silly.

PRAISE THE SUN! No, seriously, that’s the name of this gesture, a throwback to the first Dark Souls. Gestures can be used to communicate with other players…or, in this case, just to be silly.

The sequel to Fromsoft’s infamous 2011 release, Dark Souls II builds off of everything that made the original the unique game that it is. You play as the Chosen Undead, a wandering traveler who is searching for a cure to the undead curse. Being undead does come with some nifty perks, such as never being able to permanently die, but it also results in you slowly losing your own memories and sanity as you become more and more “hollow”. before you finally lose yourself forever. You are drawn to a mysterious realm called Drangleic, which is supposed to house the key to the curse, and possibly the cure. In order to keep your sanity, you have to collect souls (the game’s currency), and that means you’ve got some tough battles ahead. The plot itself is fairly nonexistent – you have your goal, and you play through the game and kill enemies to slowly work your way toward that goal. That’s about all there is to it. However, the game is still very rich in lore, which gives a lot more context and background information about what’s happening in the world, who you’re interacting with, and who the bosses you’re killing used to be. Unlike the last game, though, where you largely relied on reading item descriptions and poring over every line of dialogue, a lot of the lore is mentioned by the various NPCs, so you have to do a lot less digging to get that background info. That said, for those who like to sniff out all the secrets and lore they can, you won’t find yourself disappointed, either – there’s tons of content hidden and waiting for you to find the vague allusions to and put the pieces together (I found the story of the one non-hostile dragon to be particularly interesting…). There are also plenty of allusions to the original Dark Souls to be found, as well as a few nods to Demon’s Souls (one area is like some horrible, horrible mixture of Blighttown and the Valley of Defilement). Reading some of the information the game gives you on some of the bosses has some shocking revelations in store for you (hint: be sure to find and speak frequently to Shalqoir, the talking cat, in Majula!)…

Uh...thanks? Shalqoir, a talking cat, provides you with different (useful?)  bits of information, usually while mocking you or being weird and telling you how awesome you smell.

Uh…thanks? Shalqoir, a talking cat, provides you with different (useful?) bits of information, usually while mocking you or being weird and telling you how awesome you smell.

The different gameplay mechanics are largely untouched from the first game, including the very high level of difficulty the Souls series is known for. Your choice of starting class and gift dictates the equipment, items, and spells, if any, you start with, and from there on, the rest is left to you. Gameplay is the standard third person perspective, though thankfully there is a first person aiming mode available for aiming ranged attacks (or through use of the binoculars). You fight many different kinds of enemies, from your standard hollows to ogres, knights, lizardmen, and sorcerers, alongside other such notables as werespiders, dragons, animated puppets, and mutants. The bosses are back, naturally, with a few that return, in one form or another, from previous Souls games, with plenty of variety among them as well (along with plenty of ridiculous powers and gimmicks that they have – like the boss that removes all of your equipment). That said, few enemies are quite as deadly as your environment, which is possibly the biggest danger in the game. The environments range from castles and ruins to forests overrun with mist (impeding visibility), a pirate-infested wharf, a prison, a small lake housing a shrine, and much more. Unfortunately for you, these provide plenty of tiny ledges, dark environments, traps, poison, illusory walls (fake walls), and even lava are present to make you as antsy as possible while playing, because literally everything is out to get you. Fortunately, the game offers respite in the form of bonfires – a kind of checkpoint that allows you to rest and fast travel to other bonfires. The downside to this, of course, is that resting at bonfires causes all slain enemies to respawn… Speaking of which, you’ve got a score of different types of weapons to choose from (yes, types), ranging from the typical sword, spear, bow, and axe, to more unusual fare like whips, claws, chimes, and twinblades (a double-bladed sword, a la Darth Maul). There are tons of different kinds of armor to choose from, all of varying efficacy, most of which you find or buy as you travel the land. Spells are still present in full force, though the dark magics which made an appearance in the first Dark Souls now have their own magical subset (hexes). Magic can perform a number of functions, from the obviously useful damage to the more subtle things like removing fall damage or lighting up a dark area. There are also many more item types than the first game offered, including about eight different kinds of bombs, various throwing knives, healing items, and the like, though the more subtle items tend to be the most useful – the Flame Butterfly, an item which allows you to light a torch without a source of flame (other torches, bonfires, etc), was insanely useful in a number of areas where light is incredibly important. There’s even items that allow you to lower the stat requirements for using magic!

Miracles, a form of magic, require the use of chimes. Because somehow a handheld chime is your connection to heaven? Pictured: Great Lightning Spear.

Miracles, a form of magic, require the use of chimes. Because somehow a handheld chime is your connection to heaven? Pictured: Great Lightning Spear.

As far as graphics are concerned, the new engine rises to the challenge magnificently, giving up some utterly amazing visuals – any of the coastal regions are a fantastic example of what it’s capable of. The lighting and shadows are top-notch, to the point of being eerily realistic (though the fires are still pretty obviously gamey). Playing on the PC version, I haven’t noticed any form of the fps slowdown which plagued the first Dark Souls in places (Blighttown, I’m looking at you), though there are some amusing Skyrim-esque times when you’ll find an enemy twitching after they die or fall with their heads in a wall. The biggest letdown is the removal of the ragdoll physics from the first game, though there are still plenty of hilarious body physics hijinks to get up to. Personally, I found the environments to have better atmosphere than the first Dark Souls, though your mileage may vary. The character creator is much deeper this time around, though the character models are still a ways away from Mass Effect-level quality, meaning that your player character and the NPCs do take a bit of a quality hit (still no moving mouths!). Personally, I was both relieved and slightly disappointed that when you lose your human form, you now look like a zombie who’s been in some rough fights instead of human beef jerky… The sounds are still top-notch, though there is little in the way of music again. Of course, you’ll be thanking the creators for that, given that sound is so utterly vital to the gameplay. Sounds are often the only warning you’ll have of enemy attack or sudden traps, and you’ll really have to listen carefully to make sure you’re not walking into a horrible, horrible ambush (though lots of times, you will anyway because SURPRISE the enemies are just being quiet). Tons of moans, clanks, and guttural growls to be found here, though these obvious sounds are accompanied by pretty good ambient noises and environment sounds (the lava sounds are a nice touch!). Personally, though, I found the Shrine of Amana to be my absolute favorite location in terms of audio, as there is a persistent singing there – not the eerie and ominous Gregorian chant of Dark Souls’ Ash Lake, but instead a haunting yet incredibly beautiful singing reminiscent of the Tower of Latria in Demon’s Souls. Even after I finished up everything I needed to do there, I found myself going back just to listen to the singing.

Torches are indispensable for certain areas of the game where darkness reigns.  (hint hint)

Torches are indispensable for certain areas of the game where darkness reigns. (hint hint)

And, of course, no review of a Souls game would be complete without mentioning the dreaded invasions. In the first Dark Souls, while you were in human form, you could summon the help of NPCs or other human players to combat the regular enemies and bosses of the game. However, doing so opened you up to invasions – human players entering your game with the intent of murdering you for fun, souls, and profit. This time around, the rules have changed – it now no longer matters whether you’re human or not; you can be invaded at pretty much any time. Fortunately, the matchmaking service is a lot better this time around, as you’re no longer matched to people with your same character level (as you can easily avoid leveling up and instead buying items or leveling your equipment), but rather matched by “soul memory” – the game’s way of keeping track with how many souls you’ve earned over the course of your adventure. That said, I think that I only got 2-3 invaders throughout the course of my game until I started getting to the late portions of the game – at that point, I think I got closer to a dozen invaders total. Of course, it’s not always a wash – the game itself is quite challenging, and there are plenty of scripted invasions (that is, invasions done by NPCs) that take place to give you a bit of practice. Even if you do lose, you can always just retrieve your souls: that green glowing where you died allows you to get the souls back that you lost from your last death – die before you get them and they’re gone forever! Personally, I found that the hint messages left by other players caused more headaches than invasions, spending time looking for illusory walls that aren’t there. Covenants play a much bigger role in invasions this time, as all covenants now serve a specific function; there is now a covenant that summons other players to help when you get invaded (as well as the covenant you join in order to do the helping), accompanied by the obvious invasion-oriented covenant. Overall, most of the covenants do retain the flavor or function of those present in the last game, from the dueling covenants right down to the beloved Sunbros (PRAISE THE SUN!). However, my personal favorite is the Rat King Covenant; this one allows you to summon enemies who are in one of two game areas into the corresponding area in your game – except for this covenant, enemies in this area won’t attack you and will instead go straight for the invader, forcing them to deal with you and the enemies both! However, there are two new types of covenants that focus on PvE – one of which involves making the entire game harder…

Many items can be hard to reach. The items in this picture require a currently-lethal fall to obtain. But how to get them...?

Many items can be hard to reach. The items in this picture require a lethal fall to obtain. But how to get them…?

Overall, Dark Souls II is an extremely solid new entry into the Souls series, and more than that, an excellent game overall…if you can get past the difficulty curve, at least. I found that I enjoyed it more than the first game in a lot of ways, though just as incredibly frustrating and swear-inducing. It is by no means perfect – few games are – but it is a rich and fulfilling experience that took me about 70 hours to beat, complete with loads of backtracking and farming opportunities. It even comes with a New Game + mode, allowing you to replay the game with your character and items intact while increasing the difficulty. The bosses are powerful but not overly so, with the possible exception of the boss that has more health than any other enemy in the game and an enormously aoe-based instant kill attack (aka the only boss I didn’t kill…thank goodness it’s an optional boss). There are some cheap deaths, sure, but most of them are learning experiences that keep you from making mistakes a second time. If you have a tolerance for difficulty – basically anyone who likes to get 100% achievement/trophy completion, or anyone who likes Ninja Gaiden/Devil May Cry – this is a great game for you to give a look to when you’re wanting something challenging yet fulfilling.