If you often feel as though you aren’t being punished enough for simply progressing through a game’s storyline of late, then rejoice! From Software is back to give us all another kick in the gaming teeth with the successor to Dark Souls. Is it time to buy a few ‘backup’ controllers or have they finally relinquished and pandered to the masses?
No, of course not! Whilst it certainly eases you in a little more gently, Dark Souls II still packs a wallop if you attempt to play it like any other game. As in any other scenario, as soon as I gained control of my character, (after what looked like an incredibly high budget and impressive intro scene) I attempted to explore the wilderness stretching out before me. It wasn’t long before I’d found my first enemy, a giant troll looking character that, inevitably, beat me into submission several soul crushing times before I conceded defeat and ruefully went about my business following the implied ‘proper’ way to go. From then on, it was a lot easier, there were instructions to heed, little notes informing you of the controls and many susceptible enemies in weak, vulnerable formations that don’t really occur ever again. I savoured this bit, whilst it lasted. Yet as much as I tried to put it off, there’s death to be dealt on both sides; it wasn’t going to be settled here.
After some nervous foraging and a visit to a disparate warrior complaining nervously about a stone statue blocking the path, I arrived in the hub town of Majula. A place with several branching paths, an unnervingly large pit complete with visible treasure, and a merchant selling a ring to reduce fall damage. I didn’t trust him or the pit, so I left. Oddly serene, Majula instantly felt welcoming due to it’s soft, never-ending sunset and mostly safe setting, save for a few small, surprisingly aggressive pig resembling creatures. One cheeky hint I will point out is that there is a very helpful woman who resides here, talk to her, as it’s the only place where you may level up, and don’t forget to return to her fairly regularly as I did for the first few hours!
Veterans of the series will know exactly what to expect in terms of the combat mechanics, every move and decision you make during combat, even against the lesser foes, could spell disaster. It’s all about learning your opponents patterns and exploiting their occasionally wonky AI with your own timing and stamina management. Bosses are of their own unique styles and of course, posses challenges far beyond what you’ve come to face. Once you finally manage to slay one however, the elation is incomparable, until, much like many other RPG’s, they turn up as ‘normal’ enemies… Unlike previous entries, Dark Souls II runs at a stable, if not slightly underwhelming due to the newer consoles hardware, 30fps. Fortunately for us, this means less screaming at the game when it used to diddle us out of a few crucial frames during a particularly vicious battle in the past. Now if you die, it’s very likely it’s your own impatient fault!
A few noticeable changes have been implemented that may split opinion between fans, yet combined, probably makes the game better as a whole. The first being that whilst resting at a camp fire, you can fast travel to any other unlocked camp fire without any form of payment nor punishment. The only reason this works, is due to the layout of the world map, before you might have been funnelled down a particularly linear route, whereas now, there are often different routes to travel and explore. Plus it makes the frequent returns to Manjula significantly less dull! A second change, one more in keep with the franchise, is that numerous deaths will whittle away at your maximum health bar, up to 50% in fact; to replenish that lost health, you’ll have to use a human effigy, which are rare. The third debatable point, assumedly a counter to the second, being that you can quell the amount of enemies in an area by repeatedly beating them to a pulp; whilst some may argue against this, I’ll take it. The last thing you need whilst stuck on an already, inherently difficult boss, is to either attempt to kill the horde of enemies along the way, or attempt to leg it past them, each and every time. For those, still on the fence regarding the controlled respawns, there is an item just for you that you can burn at a camp fire which will spawn more deadly variants to battle.
Whilst a player new to the series is always going to experience difficulties with a game like this, certain design choices don’t help along the way either. The menus, whilst archaic in looks, are filled with many, many stats that are going to go straight over most newcomers heads. Alongside this, items you acquire and come across are not named in any relative fashion to what you might expect of a traditional RPG. During the create a character stage, you are offered to pick one item from a list of gifts, most of which, inevitably sound useless yet presumably have a hidden function, accessible later in the game. I appreciate that the Dark Souls series has a reputation to uphold, but increasing the user base must also be of a benefit? I for one, would not be put off via the sheer difficulty of the game itself, but rather having to spend a few hours looking up what each item does, when you can use it and why.
Majula’s serene, almost brightly lit, setting is also in keep with some pretty rough, enemy riddled areas however. Unlike the dark, brooding lighting of the previous games, rightfully indicating a dangerous route, you’ll find many a danger lurks in broad daylight; as such however much it makes you feel safer, you should always be on your guard. One annoyance in particular is related to the largely redundant torch, as in the earlier stages of the game, it recommends you take it into darker locations; it will even ward off some enemy types. The downside of course being that you must use your offhand to equip it, therefore sacrificing a shield or another weapon. The problem being, is that the majority of the game is quite adequately lit; in fact for the majority, it’s too well lit and as such I never really found a good reason to break it out. Whilst I’m of course grateful of having a shield on hand at all times, it would have been an interesting dynamic to have to balance your effectiveness of exploration and defence a step further.
Online play, once again makes it’s return with players able to invade other peoples games, help them out or just add a further source of difficulty. The written notes also make a return, either signifying danger or, depending on the player, giving ‘helpful’ hints to others. Entering a certain covenant can also help protect you against these threats should the need arise, or you can play in offline mode to help limit game invasions, at the downside of missing out on what can make this franchise so unique.
Due to it being developed on the previous gen, it’s understandable that the graphics aren’t going to provide too many wow factors yet despite this, not only does the opening cutscene look as through it’s been ripped straight from a blockbuster film in terms of awe and effects, but the art styling is of a higher class than most. It must be hard to come up with original locales and monsters but this seems like something From Software excels at, as most areas look fantastic, despite me being painfully aware that it’s not on the new consoles.
Overall, whatever you might think of the Dark Souls series, this game isn’t going to change your opinion. If you’ve played and enjoyed the others, you’ll feel right at home, if not, you’ll feel like you’ve been dragged into hell.