Platforms: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC
Publisher: Bandai Namco Games Developer: FromSoftware
Genre: RPG Platform Played: PlayStation 3
When the original Dark Souls came out in 2011, it was the talk of the town. Brutally difficult yet extremely rewarding, the spiritual successor of Demon’s Souls on the PlayStation 3 was considered one of the best games that year, and is even argued as one of the best games of the generation by some outlets. So when a sequel was announced, I met it with both a sense of optimism and dread – which is not unlike how I tackle many of the obstacles Dark Souls threw at me. But now that I have played, conquered, and digested it, I can say with relative ease that Dark Souls II is worthy of its title. It evokes all of the principles that made its predecessor so beloved. While it is not to be met with the same amount of revelry, Dark Souls II is one the best sequels we could have asked for.
For those unfamiliar, the Dark Souls series is a dark-fantasy action RPG with a reputation for being rather difficult. Although challenging at times, it is hardly ever accused of being unfair. And for those worried that its sequel might abandon that philosophy, rest easy – if nothing else, the sequel simply adds more content with that same mentality.
The game starts with an opening cinematic that paints a more straightforward picture of what our hero’s quest is. You are an undead; a dying husk on the verge of losing your sanity and seek any possible way to reverse the curse. It is an ambitious quest, and a straightforward one – a far cry from Dark Soul’s more ambiguous opening sequence. That said, it still held a similar mysterious vibe like its predecessor. How so? Well, there is still plenty of hidden lore, and anyone having played Dark Souls will spend hours trying to tie this story, with that of its predecessor. I am still trying to piece everything together – hopefully some YouTube videos will come up soon and address the matter. In fact, short of the story being initially presented in a more straightforward format, it is largely presented in the same manner.
Okay, there is one factor that helps guide players a bit more easily this time around, and it has a name: Majula. You might recall (or you might not) Dark Souls had a very simple area known as Firelink Shrine. Well, Majula is Dark Souls II’s Firelink Shrine, and more. Rather than having an area that serves as only a gathering of wanderers, Majula acts a legitimate town for the player to replenish basic supplies, improve weapons and armor, and most importantly level up. Yep, you can only level up in one spot – you must speak to a woman called the “Emerald Herald.” This seems redundant though, because Dark Souls II also introduces fast travel from the very start. So there is no reason I cannot just fast travel when I reach a bonfire, and get the same effect as the last game, but for the cost of my time. It is really just a nuisance, and even if there is a reason for it backed by lore I can’t excuse something that really just delays my enjoyment of the game. That said, it is a minor complaint. After all, the dreary little town of Majula is filled with its own unique charm that never really loses its luster, even after sixty or so hours. My only other complaint is that I wished the Emerald Herald had more than five canned pieces of dialogue…
Majula isn’t the only place in this dark new world. While the original game took place in Lordran, players will now be traveling the realm of Drangelic; a vast land, filled with dangers everywhere. So it is basically a bigger version of Lordran if we are putting technicalities aside. Whether it is better is left to the eye of the beholder, but in terms of geography, Drangelic certainly lacks the same kind of verticality and connectedness that Lordran exuded. It loses that particular sense of awe of finding new paths, making the world seem more real while also to cutting the travel time between areas. But with fast travel as an option early on, I can imagine this becoming something of a moot point.
Now it may sound like am being harsh on Dark Soul II’s landscape, but I am just pointing out the difference in geography. Some of the areas are indeed spectacular and gruesome, like the dark and poisonous Black Gulch, or the incredible vistas of the Dragon Aerie. These environments are equal parts beautiful and deadly. My only grip is that the game takes more of a hub-and-spoke approach to exploration, rather than Lordran’s many layers of caves, dungeons, and underwater oceans that seemingly formed one entire whole. It is not a bad approach; Drangelic feels much bigger because of this design choice, which is what I am sure the developer was aiming for.
But what is the land of Drangelic if there is nothing there to kill you in it. Every zone has many unique creatures, all of which can kill you at the drop of a hat (just how I like them). Better yet, Dark Souls II ups the number of invaders substantially, so you never really know what is in store for you. It is all about the bosses though, and Drangelic is filled with them! In Dark Souls there were roughly twenty bosses, but in Dark Souls II, that number jumps up drastically all the way to around thirty. There is also very little drop in quality; I found all bosses to provide an adequate challenge, some more than others. However, there were only a handful of bosses that were truly memorable. One particularly memorable boss fight is the “Looking Glass Knight” which can summon invaders into the world to fight alongside. Sometime they are computers, and sometimes they are other players. It is a brilliant idea that can make this one of the most difficult battles in the game depending on how a player decides to tackle the challenge.
Combat has always been one of the best parts of the Souls series; its most defining characteristic short of dying a lot. However, combat and magic have seen changes being made. The openings for dodge rolls have been reduced, time to parry has narrowed, and the punishment of being staggered is far more severe. After being hit severely and having you stamina drained, characters can spend what feels like ages in a staggered position, unable to attack, defend or dodge. It is a harsh punishment among many other harsh punishments added. Lets say for instance that you died because were you staggered; not only would death and loss of souls be your punishment, you would also lose a certain percentage of your health. Yes, there is a way to mitigate the loss, and a way to revert it, but not without giving up valuable human effigies – an item you’ll come to know very well.
There are a few other changes made to the gameplay that really open up options for play style. Duel wielding is now a feasible option, although it would only recommend to more advanced players. Two-handing is still a risky proposition, with the weight of the world on your shoulders, as well as its power. Casters are a bit more balanced, but pyromancy continues to be the most dominant form of magic. Yet all those new to Dark Souls will continue the tradition of a trusty sword and shield. Combined with the small tweaks mentioned before, Dark Souls II continues to offer a demanding combat system that hasn’t changed too drastically. At least as far as single player gameplay is concerned.
All of the multiplayer aspects from past games return to Dark Souls II, including notes, phantoms, and invasions. While everything has stayed relatively the same, invasions have been revamped considerably. The groundwork for online play is laid out more clearly this time around mostly because of covenants. Most covenants are tied to some form of online local play, or player-vs-player combat, so by nature of joining one the experience streamlined. Furthermore, the probability is higher now since you can be invaded at any one point. So best come up with some player vs. player strategies, because it is a completely different game when two people come into play.
Lastly, I want to talk about the overhauled “New Game+” mode. When you beat the game, you have the option to go into new game plus. Like past game, additional playthroughs become exceedingly harder. But this time it also adds some new elements. New invaders will appear is different spots, and in greater numbers. The same can be said for some monsters. That means you’ll have to be extra careful if you in round two. But I think it is great that the developers when ahead and thought of new obstacles for the players past the first go around. And if you aren’t willing to go straight to the new game, you can also burn items known as bon fire ascetics and make small portions of your current game have the same effect. Beware though, it is irreversible, and stacks later on.
“Praise the sun!” I said to myself when I finally got my hands on Dark Souls II. It is likely a sentiment shared by many who purchased the title on March 11, 2014. To the initiated, Dark Souls was more than just a game, it was an experience. With Dark Souls II, it continued to deliver on that experience; an experience that delivers challenge, atmosphere and lore. Most of what you love about the original game is found in spades in the sequel, but stands short of perfection in areas that made its predecessor the masterpiece that it is. Nevertheless, the warm embrace of the sun still shines brightly on this gem, and heirs of the sun will share in that sentiment.
+ Smart improvements to combat
+ Staggering amount of enemies
+ Improved multiplayer
+ Very rewarding challenge
+ Huge world to explore, but…
– … the world doesn’t feel as connected
– Staggering seems a bit cruel
The Score 9.1
Jaime ‘Paco’ Sifontes is an editor at Analog Addiction; you can follow him on @RTBL1990 if you like having a debate about anime, sports or anything really. He tends to ramble though; you’ve been warned!