Visions of death... Therefore, try jumping!
The Souls series has all the makings of a terribly frustrating experience: one-hit kills, creatures mimicking treasure chests, player invasions, and a death count totaling over one million in the first week of release in its latest entry, Dark Souls 2.
Passing up a game so seemingly focused on destroying a player’s will to exist seems like the logical choice to make, but missing out on what this powerful franchise has to offer is a mistake far worse than accidentally rolling off of a cliff once or twice.
Starting with From Software’s 2009 release, Demon’s Souls, the series has built a reputation as a staggeringly difficult but generally fair experience. Immense difficulty combined with an even greater sense of accomplishment upon completion has driven the games to cult status, and after playing through Dark Souls 2, it is easy to see why.
This latest entry tells the story of a human, cursed in death to travel to the doomed world of Drangleic. Upon arrival, the undead meets with the Firekeepers of ages past, women sworn to keep the bonfires – safe havens for the cursed – lit. After recalling his or her human profession, the cursed travels to Majula, a retreat for the other humans of this twisted place.
Upon arrival in Majula, the player seeks out the Emerald Herald, who informs the undead of the state of Drangleic and explains the power of the curse. She speaks of four old souls that must be embraced to reach the Castle and eventually the corrupt King Vendrick, who must be destroyed to free the realm.
In the same style as Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls before it, Dark Souls 2 relies on very little exposition to build plot. The game’s story is drip-fed to the player through item descriptions, bits of dialogue, and locations traveled, without ever overtly explaining itself. With story cut-scenes only at the beginning and end, Dark Souls 2 tells what seems like a minimalist tale but is actually a deep, engrossing history of a world cursed to repeat itself endlessly.
Gameplay in Dark Souls 2 is as polished as ever, featuring many tweaks to the systems of previous Souls titles. Improvements in locking onto enemies, inventory management, and the stat screen all prove to be great quality of life upgrades and leave me wondering how I ever survived without them before.
The harsh nature of Dark Souls 2 quickly becomes apparent upon the player’s first death. Each time your hero falls in battle, his or her maximum health decreases by a percentage, stopping at half of the player’s total. The process can easily be reversed through the use of human effigies, which are available to purchase with hard-earned souls or collected off of enemies, but combined with the dropping of all carried souls upon death (and the disappearance of said souls upon a second successive death if not retrieved), this mechanic adds an extra layer of challenge to an already unforgiving game. Any rumors about a lowered difficulty in Dark Souls 2 will be quickly squashed when you find yourself fighting a giant at half your maximum health.
Another interesting change has been implemented in enemy spawns. In previous entries, sitting at a bonfire or dying respawns all of the creatures in the world. In Dark Souls 2, providing that the player clears a location enough times, monsters will no longer appear. This seems to serve two purposes – it both prevents grinding souls, thereby increasing difficulty, and also allows for a clean run to a boss if traveling within an area repeatedly. I found it somehow more nerve-wracking to enter a previously populated location to find it completely deserted.
For the masochists among us, items do exist within the game to respawn the enemies infinitely, but at the cost of granting them increased strength and health, effectively making an area into New Game Plus mode. This upgrade then carries over into NG+ as an NG++ zone and so forth, always staying one level ahead and creating a potentially dangerous starter area.
Thankfully, you are not alone in your struggle. Upon regaining humanity, players can call in others – as white phantoms – to assist against bosses or particularly tough sections of the game. From Software has made great improvements in online play, and I rarely experienced any lag or dropped connections in my sixty hours with the game.
Orange soapstone returns as well, but as a permanent item rather than purchased or found. From the beginning of your adventure, you have the ability to scrawl combinations of pre-written messages on the ground for other players to see and rate. Particularly helpful (or funny) messages tend to be rated often, gifting extra health to the writer and proving to be extremely helpful in tough situations. Other players are not always interested in helping, however, and the risk of invasion is high. Red phantoms can break into other worlds to satiate their bloodlust in player versus player battles. The game thankfully warns you with a message, giving ample time to clear out any monsters and hopefully set up a defensive position for the upcoming fight. I found most of my experiences in PvP to be enjoyable with just the right level of challenge. With changes to how invasions work based on soul memory (total souls acquired), From Software has made it less likely to be faced against overpowered players at lower levels.
Combat, whether against players or monsters, feels as fluid as expected. Playing as either a spell-slinging pyromancer or a heavily armored knight – and everything in between – prove to be equally viable. With the series’ trademark focus on animation priority – essentially whether the player or the enemy swings first versus the time it takes to actually use their weapons – the game boils down to a more strategy-based experience rather than a hack and slash marathon.
In pure Souls fashion, every monster encounter becomes as strategic and nerve-wracking as a boss fight in any other game. Players must learn their foes’ tells and attack patterns or risk death and a perilous trek back to retrieve their precious souls. With a wide variety of enemy types, I never felt that the combat grew stale in over sixty hours.
A hallmark of the series has always been fantastic boss fights, and Dark Souls 2 boasts some of the franchise’s best. From a levitating death knight brandishing a huge, cursed sword to a sickening, gigantic blob of flesh, Souls veterans and newcomers alike will not be disappointed. Prepare for many treks back from bonfires to attempt bosses multiple times, as some of these beasts are real heavy hitters.
The aforementioned bonfires have experienced some major changes as well. Leveling up is now initiated by the Emerald Herald in Majula, and thanks to a fast-travel system between every bonfire in the game, strengthening your character is never an issue – provided you have enough souls. Resting at one of these beacons now repairs all weapons and armor (providing they are not completely broken), and with much faster weapon degradation than previous entries, the importance of bonfires has grown tremendously.
As a last-generation title, Dark Souls 2 does not feature the graphical fidelity we are quickly becoming used to. Washed out textures and scattered lighting effects do not overly detract from the game world, but could certainly look better. That being said, there are some gorgeous areas. Majula, in particular, looks stunning. Contrasted with the dreary Firelink Shrine of Dark Souls, this brightly lit area feels more like a retreat and less like a hovel.
While many locations in Dark Souls 2 are physically brighter than its predecessors, the game still manages to build on the series’ grim atmosphere. Drangleic is a world lost to time, a place where the undead go to die and be reborn as they were, each time one step closer to becoming a mindless hollow. I felt the urgency of my quest in every facet of the game’s design, the oppressive world pushing down upon my poor hero.
Even the seemingly composed characters of Drangleic are broken spirits. They exist as twisted reflections of their past selves, grasping at what little humanity remains and cackling at the player’s futile quest. As time passes, they too forget why they reside in this terrible place, and grow wary of even themselves. As the player spends more souls on their goods, they fall deeper into their curse, corrupting and breaking their collective sanity. These people are a thought away from becoming hollow and it is apparent in every line of dialogue. Even in the relative safety of Majula, the barren spaces and deteriorating buildings contrast the calming waves and warm sunlight washing over it. This world does want to be saved – it wants to be forgotten.
The combination of Dark Souls 2‘s atmospheric world building and strong gameplay results in a title well worth picking up regardless of skill level. Series veterans and newcomers alike will both need to learn the new mechanics present, and with some degree of patience, eventually make their way to Drangleic Castle to free themselves of their curse.
Dark Souls 2 is the most rewarding experience of recent memory. With an intriguing story, solid mechanics, and a system that rewards patience over mindlessness, there is a lot to love about it. Offering solid replayability, the game features both a New Game Plus mode and a stat reallocation item for trying out different builds. Normally after completing a game, I spend some time away from it, but I found myself drawn right back into Drangleic with NG+, much like one of its undead residents.
Yes, you will die. Yes, you will lose souls. Yes, you will swear at your television and you will punch your pillow, but when you come out the other end, all of the tears will be worth it. You will look back and laugh, shouting, “Praise the Sun!” the whole trip back to the undead asylum.