Dark Souls II Review: Evolving Laterally

dark souls 2 1Dark Souls II is a harder game than Dark Souls.

This is remarkable. It’s also painfully subjective. The act of reviewing Dark Souls II is a futile one, because I’m handicapping myself in a way every other player practically needn’t. These games are so wrapped in a sense of community and shared exploration that to sit down with it three days before its release and try to chug along was the single most intimidating gaming experience of my life.

So yes, I played all of Dark Souls on a live stream, and yes, I played Dark Souls II in complete, stifling loneliness. I’m sure it’s a harder game. You might not be.

What From Software has achieved is something very rare in video game sequels. They’ve created a game consistently both familiar and surprising. Dark Souls II knows you’ve played Dark Souls, but it only cares as long as it can use your expectations fuck with you. In a vacuum, I found my skills bizarrely difficult to transfer.

Most franchises use their second iteration to either refine the formulas of the first, or phone in a new adventure that pales in comparison. I could tell you right now what an average sequel to Dark Souls would look like: keep the gameplay intact, change up the locations and some of the weapons. Polish the UI. Make it 10-20 hours longer. Give the bosses more health. Done.

Dark Souls II is not that game. Dark Souls II is what would happen if you made an imperfect, atomically rearranged clone of its predecessor. If Dark Souls were a complex math problem, then Dark Souls II erases bits and pieces of that problem to plug in new ones. Here’s the weird part: you get the same answer.

Let me be upfront: I do not know how Dark Souls II works. I have guesses. Some things I’ve observed that may be real, meaningful differences. Or they might be glitches. Or they might be one piece of a much larger puzzle I have yet to comprehend. I’m only going to give you a window into my experience. I couldn’t dare comment on what yours might be.

Dark Souls II takes place in Drangleic, and the initial format is similar to the original. You land in a hub area, and you immediately have a couple different pathways you can choose from: one that heads to a forest, and one that heads to some seaside ruins.

This hub area is where you learn about several of the foundational changes Dark Souls II has made. You can now warp between any bonfire in the game, at any time. Instead of leveling at bonfires, you speak to a woman in black robes who likes to stare out at the ocean. You don’t start the game with an Estus Flask, and when you do get one, you… well, like I said, you only get one. You have to find Estus Flask shards to increase the refillable amount, one at a time. Extremely late in the game, I have 5. Which is, by the way, the amount you start with in Dark Souls.

Healing is a significant issue where it wasn’t quite before. Managing your consumable items (Lifegems, which heal slowly over a period of time) with your reliably respawning Estus Flasks is a constant internal struggle between instant and delayed gratification. I’d frequently find myself locked in a difficult boss fight, and having no other choice but to buckle down and beat it with the minimum amount of… everything.

Another difference I forgot to mention: every time you die, your maximum HP decreases a little, until it stops halfway. Does that sound stressful? It is, desperately. Couple that with the fact that the only way to become human (and thereby restore your health to its maximum state) is by staring at a human effigy — a consumable resource — and you have a clear picture of the hell Dark Souls II enjoys putting you through.

It’s a good thing, then, that the game is so excellent, almost uniformly. The environment art is even more compelling than it was in Dark Souls, with some strikingly beautiful landscapes that do the best they can with last-gen hardware. If the port is solid, I will seriously consider picking this up on PC just to get an even more optimal visual experience.

dark souls 2 2

In addition, a lot of those pesky problems from Dark Souls have been smoothed out. The UI and framerate aren’t about to go win any awards, but they’re both solid, and definitely improved. The UI in particular feels like a huge step up. It makes better economical use of the screen to dole out information, displaying more with fewer button presses.

The people who are intent on picking up Dark Souls II immediately, the people who know what they’re getting into, probably don’t care about any of that surface-level aesthetic stuff. They likely just want to know about the level, enemy, and boss design. I can’t blame them.

I played as the Swordsman class. It’s a high dexterity build that starts with a sword in each hand. About 4 hours in, I made a full switch from two swords to a sword and shield, since that’s how I’m most comfortable. Right now I’ve got on some decently heavy armor that cripples my roll speed, a +3 Leather Shield and a +5 Scimitar. I went all in on dexterity, and dumped my skill points in that stat until it hit forty (that does seem to be where the diminishing returns start, like in the original). The rest went to vitality and endurance, naturally. I’m around level 94.

I’ve found the game extremely challenging all the way through, with some spikes but few lulls. A couple bosses I beat on the first or second try, and a couple others took me between three and four hours to best, each. There were points during both of those problematic fights where I thought I simply couldn’t do it.

But I did, eventually. Every single time. Making progress in Dark Souls II is, like the games that preceded it, a very special feeling. And you still can’t get it anywhere else.

The best boss in Dark Souls was actually in the DLC: the knight Artorias. It was a lengthy, intense swordfight that relied purely on skill. The worst boss in Dark Souls was the Bed of Chaos, whose gimmick was simplistically dull, and involved hitting giant, glowing orbs on its sides. If the bosses in Dark Souls II are any indication, From Software seems to agree with me.

Everything, from the smart, linking level design, to the moment-to-moment enemy encounters, to those difficult bosses I mentioned earlier — they’re all a little less ostentatious than their Dark Souls-ian counterparts. That’s an excellent thing. It means that fighting them requires mastery of the still peerless combat system, and very little else. I found fewer exploits, tricks, and bailouts. When I was stuck, I was stuck. It was just me against the AI. And a lot of the time, the AI was much, much better than me.

Can I recommend Dark Souls II? That depends. I think some people were considering this game slightly more approachable than previous series entries before release, so let me set the record straight. It is not. In the slightest. You have to be the same kind of person who’d like Dark Souls to like Dark Souls II, full stop. If that’s not your kinda thing, move right along.

Okay. Is everyone else still here? Good.

Dark Souls II is as scintillating a challenge as Dark Souls, with some key differences: in every technical, measurable way, it’s better. In every aesthetic, structural way, it is familiar. In every abstract, unexplainable way, it is different. It is a specific alchemy, a sort of gameplay give-and-take. The differences are subtle, but meaningful enough to throw me, the kind of person who beat Dark Souls 8 or 9 times, right back into the deep end where I belong. Where we all belong.

If you’re still reading this review, you should buy Dark Souls II. You should play it, maybe once, maybe twice, maybe twenty times, and you should enjoy it. Most of all, you should be grateful that a sequel to Dark Souls does the one thing it would be hardest to: surprise you, again and again, in unexpected ways. It transcends the things we feel we should know by now about how sequels operate. It rewrites the book just enough to hold its title.

They’ve replicated Dark Souls‘ greatest asset: its newness. I cannot fathom how or why it works so well. Luckily, I don’t need to. I can just play, die, rinse, and repeat. I encourage all like-minded folk to do the same. There certainly won’t be anything coming out in 2014 to match it. Or, perhaps, ever.

Until the next Dark Souls comes out, and they rewrite the book all over again.

5 Star Rating