In Drangleic, a land where souls are used both as currency and consumed for power, you’re told to seek misery. Misery will lead you to larger, more powerful souls. You’ve found your way here, as all cursed folk do, because these souls can cure you of your undeath and the madness of going Hollow -- or so the legends say.
Dark Souls 2 is an action RPG in a place where times and spaces meld with each other. After a slew of slayings, dying will attach your souls to your bloodstain. Reach it again and touch it to regain your lost power, or they’re lost forever. In a land where resting at the game’s bonfire checkpoints also regenerates the hostile world around you, one struggles to achieve permanency. And among the sly attacks and oppressively horrific atmosphere, your one reliable tool is an evasion roll with a small window of invincibility. That window has now been shortened, because Dark Souls.
Yes, it’s a hard game. But to focus on that is to overlook other, just as important elements: A perfect combat system, brilliantly understated narrative, unique Japanese horror, and innovative multiplayer. It’s a series rich with talking points never talked about, due to its difficulty -- and this is a sequel that is more accessible but, somehow, isn’t easier.
As an example, multiple paths branch from the hub town of Majula, in a world layout that combines the open-world of Dark Souls with the hierarchical stages of Demon’s Souls. Going into stage one of world one, then stage two, and so on, gives one a sense of trekking deeper into these nightmarish kingdoms, layered on top of each other like an archaeologist’s fairy tale. Warping between bonfires is enabled from the start, so you’re not muscled into one path, and you’ll regularly come back to your “home” of Majula to level up. So the world is more accessible -- but not quite easy.
Similarly, more weapons and playstyles are viable this time around. Whereas before, whole categories of weapons were useless, new mechanics have helped them find their place. Beating down someone’s guard with a strength weapon now triggers a vulnerable state for you to perform an execution. Ranged weapons can now be used while moving. And whereas before, the “pure” Souls experience was melee, now that all attacks use stamina (including magic), these styles have been brought in-line with the main combat system.
As a true action RPG should be, progress means formulating a plan, then executing it. Theory, then practice. That fire resistant shield won’t resist fire unless you use it right. That exquisite parry dagger requires both the right stats to make it sing, and your equally exquisite timing. There’s no “super” armour, or sword. Just gear with different purposes, as much a part of your overall battle plan as how you move and strike.
Durability is more of a balancing factor now amongst weapons. That katana with amazing reach, stats, and moveset might break after a few wall scrapes -- but every rest at a bonfire will repair it. Dual-wielding is now properly available, allowing you to sacrifice defence for the attacking options of two different weapons. Enemy attack patterns will leave openings only specific playstyles can take advantage of, too, but their uniform love of blatantly telegraphed three-hit combos makes them easy to predict.
Whereas an ogre holding his club a subtle few inches higher could have been the difference between two different attacks before, now it’s as obvious as holding it “up” or “to the side”. To balance this out, you’ll be outnumbered more -- but there are no fights approaching the difficulty of the infamous Smough & Ornstein. There are just hints of the old tricky tells: One of the tougher bosses always lunges at you halfway through his demonic roar -- but for his overhead attack, he’ll wait until the end to strike, fooling you into rolling too early.
It is these most miserable souls that Dark Souls 2 will be chiefly remembered for. Just as players walked away from Sif or Artorias with the feeling of having had a good, solid fight, such is the case with the majority of bosses in this sequel. While the difficulty hasn’t risen the intensity has, and each fight has something special about it. From the giant who rips his own arm off for extra reach to the battle in a boat, with water slowly rising to waist level if you take too long, they’re quite memorable and fun -- both in terms of design, and sheer filth. From Software has outdone itself on the art side, with more than a few bosses inspiring the same reaction the Gaping Dragon did -- my face a combination of “That’s disgusting” and “That’s awesome”.
There might be less wild experimentation than in previous games -- the likes of which produced the series’ iconic features, yet also ideas best forgotten like broken covenants, gimmicky bosses, and eccentric features like Demon’s Souls’ World Tendency. Dark Souls 2 takes less chances, and thus shows no broken design. A true sequel, in that regard.
As for whether it’s a sequel in terms of story, well… yes. But one shouldn’t let the “official” story get in the way of one’s own interpretation. Dark Souls 2’s story is as if a detailed book had four pages ripped out for each one left undisturbed. The lore is there, for those who seek it. Sparse dialogue, sparser cutscenes, item descriptions, and level design all convey the history of Drangleic. What’s that cleric’s real motivation? Why are those statues in chains? What’s behind this recurring symbology of holes in peoples’ chests? Clues guide you, but your internal script trumps all -- like a book more about what the author left unsaid.
Drangleic’s NPCs are along for the ride just as much as you, trying to figure out the mysteries of this land, why they’re there, and how to survive. Like a friend in real-life playing simultaneously, they can only tell you what they know. They’ll have their own theories, as well as intrigues and betrayals amongst themselves, with real consequences. There’s no good or evil in the part you play -- just shades of unfathomable Dark.
Misery loves company, and your world will blend with that of other real players as well, who might intend to help or hinder you. The multiplayer covenants of Dark Souls 2 are again pitted against each other, though covenant lore is more peripheral this time, instead of story-essential bosses also serving as covenant leaders. The Brotherhood of Blood seeks PvP, invading the worlds of other players for spells and gear, while their victims are protected by the Blue Sentinels, who come to the aid of the invaded for the same motives. Some zones are even set up with traps to make combat more interesting, and one item can make enemies turn on invaders. These encounters have abandoned the level range they previously adhered to, and will now operate according to time spent playing, to prevent twinks hammering level 1 players.
All of these have their own rewards for success, though some are harder to join than others. There’s a dueling covenant, a solo covenant with additional PvE challenges, a co-op covenant (the Sunbros are back), and even a covenant just for making everything harder. Because Dark Souls.
Covenants, rings, items to sprinkle in the fire, and NG+ are all ways to increase difficulty, which changes not only health bars and damage, but enemy behaviours and combinations. It balances out the one thing I’m not sure I agree with in Dark Souls 2: After several deaths, one by one, enemies stop respawning around that particular bonfire -- which seems to conflict with the “earn every inch” philosophy of the series, but also stymies those who would grind out levels under the misconception their Final Fantasy training will help them here.
Some of the pressure has also been taken off the crafting experience, with only one discoverable ember required to infuse your gear with special properties. This process has been streamlined, too. One Bleed Stone will convert a weapon to one that causes Bleed damage, and the same goes for Poison, Lightning, etc, without requiring several stones for the same weapon. Weapons imbued with boss souls no longer require ascending a weapon to +10 status first -- simply trade the right NPC the right soul for the weapon.
Special mention goes to the cloth physics -- any robe, or cape, looks fantastic as you’re rolling or sprinting. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the new ability to carry a torch (sacrificing shield defence) was directly inspired by the new lighting system, which does wonders for the explorational side of the game as you illuminate the secrets of long-forgotten crypts.
Dark Souls 2 isn’t for everyone, or even every moment. It’s a “sit forward” game that demands you be mentally present and adaptable. But for those who like to earn their victories -- really earn them -- this is a game in which winning means something more than “I went through the motions and witnessed the end”. If you do seek misery then on release, when the community is scrambling to uncover the mysteries of Drangleic lore, will be the most exciting time to play. Good luck -- and don’t you dare go Hollow.
Jeremy “Junglist” Ray was born in the realm of FPS and RTS, and molded by it, while you merely adopted it. That said, he regularly eschews the CODs and Halos of the world for the more interesting game design ideas of the indie scene. Most recently he became the global #1 in Frozen Endzone, and beat Dark Souls without levelling up -- and is halfway through doing the same in Dark Souls 2. He abhors die rolls & treadmill games, and loves competition. His top 3 games are The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Half-Life 2, and Dark Souls.
What we liked
Understated narrative that isn’t in-your-face
Perfect combat system
Highly memorable and well-designed bosses (lots of them)
Streamlined crafting system
Multiple ways to increase difficulty and replayability
What we didn't like
Enemies disappearing after a few deaths to make your job easier is not very “Dark Souls”
On the whole, enemy attacks are more predictable and less subtly telegraphed