Game Review

by Dave Riley,

Dark Souls II

PS3, Xbox 360

Dark Souls II
The followup to Dark Souls, set in a different world and with a different story, but with the same deep mechanical structure and challenging gameplay

Dark Souls 2 has limited ways to catch us off guard. It's not that the series has run out of new tricks, but it's conditioned us to fear and avoid surprises. We've learned to look behind us before we pick up the treasure and we've learned to stand still until we're absolutely certain we aren't walking onto a pressure plate, a spike trap, or a set of collapsible boards atop a gaping pit. Even though we've never been assaulted by a score of poison-spewing statues we know exactly how to respond: pull back, regroup, reassess.

Dark Souls 2 takes place in the land of Drangleic, which you might mistake at a glance for the last game's Lordran. It's the same kind of quiet, tired place beset by a decay more erosive than rotten. The world here isn't putrefying, it's simply lost all momentum. Drangleic's hub is Majula, a placid sea-cliff village soaked in a permanent sunset. Standing in Majula, you sense a place whose time has passed, and whose struggle is finished. There's a resignation to it, and a sort of calm. The world isn't ending, it's already over.

Out of Majula extend the expected foggy forests, dark catacombs, and crumbling castles. Like Demon's Souls, each path is segregated from the others. The game seems to want you to jump between areas at a whim, given that each route starts at a similar difficulty and ramps up until it hits a dead-end and a confrontation with a mega-boss. Those expecting a mostly-linear path may end up beating their heads against difficult encounters without realizing that there's an alternate route through that tunnel or down that well, only to come back to those comparatively easy areas later and completely streamroll them. Items found in one route sometimes unlock merchants or doors in others. The world is wide-open. You have permission to leave an area if it's giving you a hard time. There is usually somewhere else to go. There are very few gates.

By increasing the availability and amount of its locations, and by allowing fast travel between them from the start, Dark Souls 2 has sacrificed some of its scope. Immediately accessible fast travel is very convenient, but it comes at great cost to the world's connective tissue. Drangleic rarely intersects with itself. Every area has its own little labyrinths, puzzles, and traps, but they usually have only one way in and one way out. The world is wider, but less interconnected, and you're less likely to remember where XYZ exist in relation to each other because X, Y, and Z all have three separate bonfires for instant teleportation. There are few moments in Dark Souls 2 that produce the same revelation as riding down an elevator from a hill-top church and finding yourself back in the Firelink Shrine, or the majesty of looking out from a balcony in Sen's Fortress and seeing, off in the hazy distance, the belltower of that same church. Dark Souls 2 has areas just as intricate as we expect, but on the whole it feels a little less like a world.

But a less-than-perfectly realized world in Dark Souls is still more realized than those in most video games. Everything feels like it has a purpose, everything feels like it was put there for a reason. There are very few generic item descriptions, even on the gear you'll throw away once you leave the starting area. This is not World of Warcraft or Skyrim. There's no point at which you'll run through a copy-pasted cave layout looking for beast livers. Every room in every area is its own, so it almost feels spoiled to complain just because the lattice isn't laced quite as tightly this time.

The world may be slightly less whole but it is no less beautiful. Drangleic is dying, but we can barely perceive its rate of decline. Its inhabitants are inflicted not with despair, but with melancholy born of a forgetfulness played out over years, decades, or maybe even centuries. The curse of undeath has made them lose who they once were and, having forgotten their quests long ago, they determine their original purpose to be whatever they're currently doing. A man decides he's a cartographer. He must be, why else would he be so drawn to this giant map? A woman says the blacksmith reminds her of her father. He was a blacksmith, too. The futility and nihilism that Lightning Returns strived for Dark Souls accomplishes as a matter of course.

These games are not good at telling you which stats do what, or why; they never have been. But they are exceptional at showing you an environment and letting you draw your own conclusions. Part of what makes Dark Souls special is its faith in the player. This is more than just setting a mood, or slowly doling out lore, or limiting expository cutscenes. The world is designed to show you everything without telling you anything. Dark Souls doesn't need an ebullient fairy sidekick to grab you by the shoulder and scream "Don't go into that room! See those ballistas pointing at the entrance? It's a trap!" Dark Souls trusts you to see the ballistas and figure it out for yourself.

And if you don't see the ballistas, you might see the messages left by other players -- those cryptic madlibs of stock phrases and barely-English syntax -- that warn of danger ahead. If you don't see the messages you'll surely see the bloodstains, which show a phantom reenactment of another player's fatal mistake. And if you don't see any of those things? Well, you might die, but death is another way of teaching you to slow down, to take a moment, to think. Drangleic is dying, but it's not doing so quickly. There is no rush.

Death in Dark Souls is not as punishing as people sometimes make it out to be. You don't lose levels, you don't lose equipment, you don't have a limited amount of lives. You don't even lose your souls (that combination of money and experience collected from slain enemies), but they are put in jeopardy. Death provides an immediate impetus to improve: if you make it back to the place you died, you recover everything you lost. Adversity acts as encouragement to rethink your approach and try something new. The frequency of enemy snipers makes getting your own bow a pretty good idea. Item durability is now an actual concern. The first time your favorite axe breaks during a boss fight is the last time you'll leave a bonfire without a secondary weapon. Often when the game feels at its most unfair you'll realize the best way to accomplish your goal is not by beating your head against the obstacle, but by shifting tactics. Those giant iron knights aren't so strong when you've got a mace on hand.

But the game is not without its sadism. Each death zombifies your character a little further and inflicts a small, temporary penalty to maximum health. This is significantly gentler than Demon's Souls's immediate 50% drop, and there are items that mitigate the health loss and consumables that repair it entirely. The penalty feels less punitive and more a way to introduce a tangible sense of loss, whereas in Dark Souls 1 you could walk off of cliffs until the cows came home and suffer very little for it. Sometimes that was preferable, since death stripped away your human status, which would stop other players from invading and killing you. Now you are vulnerable to invasions whether you're human or not. You can avoid invasions by playing in offline mode, though you do so at the cost of player-written messages and player-created bloodstains that appraise you of hidden treasures and hidden dangers. Opting into or out of both at the same time seems like a fair compromise. Dark Souls is now a holistic experience. You have to take the good multiplayer with the bad.

When two new directors swooped in and promised they were making things more accessible, many fans feared what they meant was "easier" or "obvious." Really, all they did was add tooltips for the most egregiously vague bits, like what Poise does, or what Vitality affects. There are plenty of things to discover; apocrypha still abounds. Everyone has their own ideas on the new Agility stat, whether the improved mobility it promises actually exists or if it's just a placebo. There are strange new weapon upgrades like Mundane in addition to expected ones like Fire and Lightning. They did not ruin all the mystery behind the mechanics, they simply gave the average person a better shot at understanding how to play without constant access to a wiki.

They've twisted the rules just enough to make it interesting, and just enough to make veterans feel unsure. There are places that are very dark. They are usually not dark enough to make you blind, just dark enough to make you consider ditching your shield in favor of a torch. Actions are more precise, even by Souls standards. It takes a little longer to heal, it takes a little longer to raise your shield, and you're not quite as invincible when you roll. Monsters no longer infinitely respawn -- this world is gradually dying, after all. Whether this is to limit grinding or to ease frustration during repeat boss attempts is hard to tell, but enemies only go extinct after ten or fifteen deaths, and it's likely you'll clear most fights before it comes to that. Some bosses, loot, and enemy placements change in New Game!+ and beyond, giving incentive to move a developed character onto the next phase instead of starting over with a fresh one.

Not everything they changed is there to hurt you. Bonfires aren't just checkpoints, but places to immolate rare items that improve your healing abilities or that respawn bosses and enemies at a harder difficulty for more experience and better loot. There is so much to this game, so many hidden places to find, so many locked doors to keep track of, so many old references to seek out, and so many paragraphs of text to pore over. There's rare incense that reduces the requirements on hard-to-cast spells. There's a sword that shoots out sorcery, there's a shield that parries magic. Character can equip four rings instead of two, and that's made space for ones that warn you of hidden enemies, improve your chances of playing online with friends, reduce fall damage, and all sorts of utility functions that you'd otherwise never even consider.

More, more, everything is more. More areas, more equipment, more stats, more spells, more bosses. God, there are more bosses. Most boil down to high-pressure melee fights where you barely have a second to think, let alone heal, but a few expand the palette beyond "big guy with sword." One is a swarm of rats that corners you in tight spaces between rows of statuary, one is a group of undead clergy and their zombie congregation, and one set in a poison mire feels unnecessarily cruel until you find the secret lever that drains the room.

There isn't much in Dark Souls 2 that aspires to the level of battles like Knight Artorias or places like Anor Londo. The highs aren't as high. Maybe that's the price they've paid for smoothing out most of the lows. It's hard to point to an area here that's as bad The Valley of Defilement or even Lost Izalith. Still, a certain feeling of "been there, done that" crops up from time to time. We've seen so much of this before. We recognize these places (the creators are still in love with ramshackle shantytowns perched over poison abysses). We recognize these bosses. Some have slightly new twists, some are exactly as we remember them.

But, when nostalgia for the older games threatens to overwhelm, you only need to visit the eternal sunset of Majula's cliffs to be reminded that this is something beautiful, regardless of how it compares to two of the best games of an entire generation. Familiarity isn't necessarily a bad word, especially when describing something made with such craft. The crumbling shantytown here has a lot in common with Blighttown, but what lies beneath it perfectly encapsulates that hallmark foreboding, that dread of forgotten places, without being directly analogous to anything that's come before it. We may speak the basic language of these games, but that doesn't mean they don't have anything new to say.

Coming back to something that is familiar, yet new can be comforting. It's strange to apply that word to Dark Souls, but these games have always welcomed you, albeit in their own peculiar way. Dark Souls 2 is not easy, and there remain times when it's mysterious to the point of frustration, but it is never spiteful. Defeating a difficult boss comes with a mechanical satisfaction, but also a narrative one. In the end, all things are not futile. Drangleic may feel hopeless, but Dark Souls 2 does not. What we crave from this series is not punishment and not necessarily surprise, but struggle and, eventually, triumph. This isn't a game you suffer, but one you overcome. Dark Souls 2 provides that sense of accomplishment in spades, and that alone is enough to recommend it.

Overall : A+
Graphics : A-
Sound/Music : A-
Gameplay : A+
Presentation : A+

+ Much of what's great about Dark Souls is well-represented here. Same rich mechanics, same wide world.
The familiarity mitigates some of the awe. Taken as the third of three very similar games, Dark Souls 2 doesn't feel quite as novel.

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