Review – Dark Souls II (PS3, 360)

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New community member David Rodoy dons his battered armour; bids farewell to the sun and enters the forboding world of Drangleic for his Dark Souls II review. Dark Souls II: Dark Harder…

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I wish I’d written this a week ago, in some ways, before Yahtzee of Zero Punctuation got his inimitable claws into it. A lot of my comments could be direct mirrors of his, but I diverge in some ways, and so I’ll focus on the places where I do, or where I think I can be more in-depth. Number one, basic line: Dark Souls 2 is good. Very, very good. I say that now because there’s going to be some negative-nancy criticism in this review and the final score is going to be exorbitantly high. There’s a reason for both of these things.

One, I am very focused on narratives in my gaming, and – frankly – Dark Souls 2’s narrative is lacking, for reasons I’ll go into. However, despite that, it passes the most important test for any 9+ game. The test is a sort of mathematical equation, laid out thus:If A = Playing Dark Souls 2, and B = not playing Dark Souls 2, and C = the number of times one proceeds from A to B, how often does C exceed zero? For quite a few days, C did not rise above zero at all. And it only did when I realised I was spending altogether too much time playing Dark Souls 2 and that there were people who wanted to see me outside of my house from time to time. Since I now have four characters with a combined play time of over 80 hours since the game’s release – a truly staggering amount of time considering that I can only fit in two or three hours’ play time a night – I cannot rationally give this game anything other than a glowing mark. Indeed I haven’t played a game this obsessively since Demon’s Souls. While I did platinum Dark Souls and played the hell out of it, I took several lengthy breaks from the game to play other things. Not so this time round.

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It is highly possible you’ve read reviews saying things like ‘I was great at Dark Souls, but I sucked at Dark Souls 2!’ and other hyperbolic statements meant to big up how much different the sequel is, and how much harder. These reviews were written by people who were either not very good at Dark Souls – platinum or no – or who haven’t played Dark Souls since they got that platinum and their skills have eroded in entirety. All of the necessary skills to survive in Dark Souls 2 carry over from the first. The need for patience, the focus on timing and learning enemy attack patterns, the situational awareness to know when a trap is coming, sizing up a boss and calculating what your build can leverage to defeat them, these things are identical. Most of the attack animations are even the same, so the idea that a player who is good at the first won’t be good at the second is poppycock. I did die 8 times in the tutorial, but that was because I’m a Dark Souls veteran and thought ‘screw it, I’ll try and take on those trolls that are blatantly too powerful for me’. For the record I figured out a way to get them to kill themselves inside ten minutes, though they did kill me plenty of times when I tried to fight fair.

And this is good. Dark Souls is a genuine example of a game that is close to mechanically perfect. The camera very rarely gets in the way, the combat is streamlined, and the actual encounter between man and monster is down to the skill of the player. The brash and the fearless will soon be the burned and the lifeless, the cautious and respectful will live long and prosper. Well… live longer and not die as often, at least. Everything in the game does what it needs to in order for the game to work properly. There’s no corner, no segment of the game I can point to and say ‘they overdid that’ or ‘they hold your hand there’. Thus, Dark Souls 2 improves on the prequel. It maintains the steep difficulty that gives the series its identity, along with the mechanics which hold it in place, while tightening up certain loose areas and broadening options. The addition of a ‘dual wield stance’, activated by holding the two-hand stance button (triangle on the PS3) is a definite draw, and allows a couple of unique attacks for different weapon combinations that are sure to spawn all kinds of experimentation. Testing shows that dual whips and dual ultra greatswords (the latter is hilarious to watch) are pretty damn good, though my own personal dual wielder is using double katana.

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Options are very much the appeal of Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls and Dark Souls 2. You can be any character you want. Levelling up is a simple matter of gathering enough souls to earn a single stat point to be put into one of quite a lot of different statistics that govern everything from how hard you hit to your resistance to different elements and the number of spells you can equip. This has the effect of allowing you to, at any time, begin to multi-class by building up stats needed for what you need. In my case I am running a strength/faith knight with ridiculously heavy armour and LIGHTNING BOLTS OF DEATH, a heavy agility dual wield and sorcery hybrid, a pure sorcery and pyromancy build, and a mixture of archer and pyromancer. I haven’t tried hexes yet – a new form of magic combining faith and intelligence – so there’s a fifth character waiting my attention.

And that’s one of the wondrous things about the experience. It’s having these different ways to play, and all of them being different enough to be worthy of exploration and for them to be viable. This is not like some other RPGs that have set upgrade paths leading to characters that are often not as strong as they should be, or who are strong, only to be drastically underpowered compared to other builds. On the other hand, should you completely screw the pooch, or find that there’s not enough hitting power or whatever annoys you, or you’d just rather focus on one style of play, there is an item that allows you to refund all of your souls and reset your soul levels, allowing you to then redistribute those points as you desire.

Not all is rosy, though, if one is a new player.

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The tutorial for Dark Souls 2 is much broader than Dark Souls, and more comprehensible, but the mechanic wherein a player loses a sliver of health every time they die is a pretty difficult one to swallow. For veterans, who shouldn’t die that often, it’s really no more than an annoyance, but for newcomers I can easily see games becoming unplayable after they’ve burned through the limited supply of human effigies (the only items that allow a return to humanity and the likewise return of that lost health) and died often enough to be down 75-50% of their life bar. For me, it’s never been a major problem.

Also, I’m not at all certain that new players will be able to look at a situation and know exactly why they’re dying over and over. There are certain bosses in Dark Souls 2 that I’ve encountered once and known without any doubt that there is no way I could ever defeat them on my own, and accordingly waited for player support before attempting the battle. The Ruin Sentinels, a boss with a difficulty spike akin to that of Ornstein and Smough from Dark Souls (names that should stir a shudder from veterans), come at a time early in the game, when there’s very little chance for players to really shape and mould their character, and for certain builds may actually be impossible to solo. I’ll be very interested to see if the famous ‘naked soul level 1’ run-throughs are possible in Dark Souls 2. I suspect they are, but it seems hard to believe from what I’ve seen. My suggestion to new players is to progress as normal until you’ve earned the white sign soapstone, and from then on to use it and wait to be summoned by another player, and use your time in their world as a scouting mission. Which takes us to the multiplayer aspect of the game. Dark Souls 2, in some ways, messes this up, though for understandable reasons.

Multiplayer in Dark Souls is not quite like that in other games. There are no ‘lobbies’, and there are no ‘new game modes’. Instead, you can use various items to allow you to be summoned to, or to invade, the game of another player, either to help them or to kill them. It’s a smooth, integrated part of the system, working alongside the message system, allowing players to leave notes written all over the place pointing to items of interest, hidden pathways, warning of traps, and the blessed bloodstains that let you watch a player’s dying moments. The latter are critical when it comes to spotting death drops, which are plentiful, and are often quite hard to see. As I’ve experienced Dark Souls 2 thus far, there are in truth very few times that I’ve been invaded. For the most part the co-operative elements work perfectly, hence my suggestion of using these to perform scouting or practice runs. But the other element seems to be… lacking. Some people are probably aghast at the idea of them running about quite happily, only for some PvP-specialist troll to turn up and murder them, costing a human effigy and throwing them back to the most recent bonfire. But that’s a big part of the atmosphere.

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In the previous game I was always tense, always frightened, because I was horrendous at PvP until I built a pure magic build designed for it. And I knew, without any doubt, that if I dallied too long in an area there would be an invasion and I’d be in deep, deep trouble. More than once that terrifying message ‘Dark Phantom xxxxx has invaded’ would pop up on the screen and I would go into a pell-mell sprint, tearing past dozens of enemies in a last-ditch attempt to reach the boss of the area before the dark phantom could catch me. And I sort of miss that fear, that ever-present atmosphere of threat. Not to mention that there were times when, trapped, I was able to summon ally phantoms and together we inflicted unholy retribution on the invader, and I got to laugh maniacally as they were sent away (and I got a ton of souls out of the bargain, once over 100,000; equivalent to about +50 character levels).

At least for now it seems that unwanted PvP is a minor threat, and newcomers will likely appreciate that. Veterans, I think, may be a little upset by this turn of events. They are also likely to be a little upset by tweaks to the backstab system clearly designed to prevent the Dark Souls epidemic of people just running in a circle until they could glitch behind you and get an unearned, easy critical hit. In the latter case certainly, the change is for the better, and I see the potential for Dark Souls 2 PvP to actually be fun and rewarding for the skilful and practiced. Jolly co-operation, then, is the spirit of the day, as the sunbros ride once more against the forces of the abyss. And that’s certainly nice enough. I’ve encountered very little lag when in other people’s worlds, and no significant errors. As mentioned, this is as simple as going to a place of decent foot traffic and using the White Sign Soapstone to leave your summon mark, then waiting for someone to call on your aid. The benefits are that the summoned phantom gains roughly a half-two thirds of the souls the host receives, plus the very real benefit of not actually dying if you die. You just go back to your own world. Those in desperate need of souls to level up can thereby hang around by boss mist gates and level up to their hearts’ content.

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In most games this would be game-breaking, but it’s a reflection of Dark Souls 2 that you should not only feel comfortable with abusing this opportunity, but even encouraged to do so. You have few advantages, and the odds are stacked against you. Leverage what you have, or perish. If your build lacks something you need, you either get it PDQ or get killed even quicker for not having it. I go for the ‘cowardly hang around the boss mist gates’ route every time. The boss fights in Dark Souls 2 are plentiful, a bit too plentiful. Plentiful enough that a lot of them seem quite unimaginative. Many boil down to ‘large person with sword’. Not exactly the amazing first boss fight of Dark Souls, the belfry gargoyles (who make a sort-of return in another great fight; expect them back again if there’s a dark souls 3), or the memorable encounters with the Iron Giant of Sen’s Fortress, Quelaag of Blight-town, Gravelord Nito, Seath, and so on.

Funnily enough, though, in some ways this works out well.

The thing that I’ve grown to love about Dark Souls 2 is that it punishes you for cowardice. In Dark Souls, most bosses are fought by running the hell away and jabbing them when their attacks miss, or clinging to their legs like a frightened child and stabbing them in the Achilles tendons. Though the first boss in Dark Souls 2 is exactly like that, all of the smaller bosses require you to be brave, even bold, and most of the time punish you for cowardly fleeing unless your build is explicitly ranged and requires it. Time after time I realised that what got me killed was holding up my shield and fearfully circling, or running as hard as I could to avoid their attacks, only for them to hit me anyway. And time after time I got over my initial fear of the horrendous damage output, stood right in front of them, and observed their attack patterns and timing until I could reliably dodge and roll. So, like a boxer, I ducked and I weaved and exchanged punches with enemies often four times my size, until they fell and I stood victorious.

And that, my friends, is a great feeling.

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It’s almost the hero’s journey, each fight, each area, beginning with fearful steps into the unknown that grow bolder with experience, until the boss provides a devastating setback, from which you recover the only way a hero can, by picking yourself up, dusting yourself off, and throwing yourself back into the fray until bravery and skill win out once more. In terms of other raw data; graphically Dark Souls 2 is certainly pretty enough. I’m by no means a specialist but I’ve noticed very few graphical glitches or other problems. Textures look good to me, though the water has a slightly weird look to it. There’s certainly plenty of glorious vistas and dramatic views. The sounds are meaty, voice acting weird, as is the series trademark, but sufficient, and the music never intrusive and always appropriate. I’m especially fond of the subtle theme that plays in Majula, the central hub area.

This is a great game. Buy it. However, the narrative in Dark Souls 2 is terribly weak. There’s a straightforward mistake that I feel the developers have made in the design of the tale, and that is framing it as a personal narrative with a character that has no character. Dark Souls 2 has a single plot hook; your character is going hollow. There is none of Dark Souls’s grand, epic overtones that essentially see your character bringing about the end of the setting’s beginning of time myth (everything begins with the lighting of the first flame, whose last embers are dying out during the events of Dark Souls). The whole hollowing business is still present, but it is not your character who plays out that tragedy, but the NPCs. Without spoiling anything, it creates this consistent and building sense of doom and tragedy, as you can never be sure which of the people around you is on a countdown to self-destruction. This can become really depressing, as the first game is populated with a broad mixture of characters, from the obviously villainous and insane to the pure and the good. Most of them are after the same goal as you, and, of course, none of them can make it. It’s their stories that occupy the bulk of the game’s narrative.

So if Dark Souls is the story of all the people who couldn’t be the hero… what’s the story of Dark Souls 2?

Erm…Well…Hmm.

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I honestly can’t say. There’s probably at least one or two infodumps to come, but when I’m the broadside of forty hours into a game, an RPG no less, shouldn’t I have some idea of what the hell is happening and why? The format of the game is exactly the same. Find four bosses, kill them, use their souls to get to the other bosses, kill them, win. But the reasons aren’t there. It’s clearly explained why you need those souls in the first game. It’s not spelled out in explicit detail, but there’s enough offered to have a simple, clear understanding of what you’re doing and why.

I have no idea why things are happening in Dark Souls 2. There are hints of ties between the games, it’s certainly clear enough that Dark Souls 2 is set so far in the future that the events of Dark Souls have passed from history into legend, from legend into myth, and from myth into being gone from memory altogether. Which is fine, but Dark Souls 2 has almost no identity of its own. NPCs make references to nations they hail from, but say almost nothing about the environment in which they have apparently been dwelling for some time. They talk weirdly, but there seems to be no danger of any of them going hollow and seeking to murder me. With one exception, actually. But it’s telling that I took a moment to remember it while writing a review for the very game I was playing earlier this afternoon.

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Shouldn’t hollowing be more prevalent in Dark Souls 2? The main story is about nothing else. Shouldn’t the threat of hollowing be all around and pressing in, reminding me always of its danger? It leaves me quite cold, if I’m honest. Even the bosses seem to have no lore behind them, or so little that only one NPC has anything to say about any of them, and then very little. In the first game, most of the bosses are shown in action in the intro movie and further built on a little in the main game before you stab them up. In Dark Souls 2 they’re just sort of there, and for whatever reason they have ‘great souls’ and ‘unutterable names’. You’d have thought such characters would at least have a legend or two attached to them.

For all of this griping, it’s the griping of a story hound who respects the developers’ wish to be impressionistic and vague, but feels that in pursuing vagueness they’ve cut out the connective tissue that allows for even basic understanding of the game’s events. There’s limited dialogue in Dark Souls 2, and it feels often that the developers wasted it, with characters saying things that have no weight and are of no benefit to anyone. Even the ‘main’ NPC, the emerald woman who lets you level up and has some connection to the bonfires, is so ridiculously vague in her advice that you’d think she was actually trying to fail. Compare her rambling to the straightforward, direct advice of Kingseeker Frampt to get a feel for where I’m coming from. She doesn’t even directly say that listening to her will help.

So, though I feel the NPCs are short in character, and the story is – thus far at least – vague to the point of being ephemeral, the actual game part of the game is impeccable, unimpeachable, and one of the absolute best games I’ve ever played.

9.7

David Rodoy

 

One comment on “Review – Dark Souls II (PS3, 360)

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