As a cursed individual banished to Drangleic, it’s your goal to collect the requisite souls required to prevent yourself from becoming a hollow while learning about the mysteries that surround you. This may be a sequel to Dark Souls, but it exists very much in a realm of its own, and doesn’t rely too heavily on the series’ previous story.
Unlike its predecessor, Dark Souls II does a fantastic job of explaining the plot in an interesting way. Even while light on narration, each piece of story and lore is gradually uncovered, with incredible cutscenes and engaging dialogue making this a much more accessible tale to invest in.
The setting is absolutely massive. Each area includes a bonfire that acts as a checkpoint, and allows you to teleport to and from previously lit flames, change equipped spells, access an item box to store equipment, or even burn certain items to affect the world around you. Due to the huge size of the world, the teleport system is a welcome change to the previous title.
The environment also feels organic, like it’s a living breathing world. Certain actions will change the difficulty of enemies, unlock shortcuts, and even adjust adversary locations. Meanwhile, the overall design of the world brilliantly weaves shortcuts, secrets, traps, and bonfires. Killing the same foes over and over can eventually stop them from spawning, saving you time between boss battles, while other items can increase the number and strength of monsters throughout the map.
Combat employs a system of complicated stats and stamina. Whether it be blocking, rolling, swinging a sword, or casting a spell, every action requires the use of quickly regenerating stamina. If you run out of stamina, you’ll be susceptible to attacks making it extremely important to manage. Considering most hits will nearly kill you, it’s critical to learn quickly.
As a consequence, this is an extremely difficult title. However, the challenge is not in the game, but instead the process in which you learn it. Considering the most frequent feedback is unrelenting death, it takes patience to avoid frustration. This can make it slightly intimidating at first, but within a few hours your will to succeed will overcome this.
Once you’re able to learn enemy patterns – how to dodge them, map layouts, and your avatar’s weapons’ characteristics – you’ll be able to kill most enemies with ease. It can be difficult to learn all of these aspects at once, but as soon as you get a general idea of how the game works, the continual learning process becomes much easier. This unforgiving title is designed so that you’ll either learn from community support – or hundreds of deaths.
In both Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, it felt as if every fatality was caused by the player and not the game. However, there are situations in this new title where a boss or enemy will land a killing blow that you clearly dodge. Due to the way antagonists lock on, there are times where bosses or foes feel ‘floaty’ and inconsistent, and in an already immensely punishing game, these deaths can be rage inducing and soul crushing. There are times where you’ll find yourself repeating certain fights praying to get by without a glitchy hitbox.
This entire system of punishment and reward makes for one of the most satisfying experiences in games to date. Dying repeatedly only to finally kill a boss by the skin of your teeth will make your palms sweat and heart race. Succeeding will fill you with pure joy, and while this accomplishment is often short lived, it greatly overshadows the amount of pain and suffering caused by learning the mechanics.
Throughout the adventure, you’ll exist in one of two states: human or hollow. If you’re human and you die, you’ll become hollow, with each death also temporarily reducing your maximum HP. While this effect can be reversed, it requires the use of a somewhat limited item – a human effigy – to turn human again.
While human, you can call upon other players for assistance. However, like most aspects of the game, this can also be punishing. For example, other people possess the ability to invade your world and attempt to kill you. While this can happen if you’re human or hollow, it’s much more common while you’re in human form. Fortunately, there are items that limit the amount of players accessing your game, or even goodies that assist you in killing them.
Moreover, the entire integrated multiplayer system makes a return from the previous two titles. Other people can leave notes known as soul signs on the ground, warning you of an incoming trap, or even deceiving you. You’ll also see the ghosts of other players from different worlds around you, as well as blood stains allowing you to view a snapshot of that particular player’s grisly demise.
Community feedback is and always has been critical to the series, and while it’s all optional, learning tips and tricks from other players can greatly increase your success rate by using optimal strategies and equipment. Whether it’s from soul signs, co-op, or online resources, utilising the community can greatly reduces the number of deaths in a playthrough.
It’s easier than ever, too, as co-operative play now offers voice chat, making it simple to coordinate strategies and work together. Unfortunately, playing with friends still requires a bit of luck, as there’s no easy way to invite your buddies to play. Instead, you must rely on finding their soul sign in-game, and summoning them.
The controls can feel stiff and slightly unresponsive at first, but after a few deaths, it’s easy to familiarise yourself with the nuances of movement and the fairly basic attack system. Advanced features like parrying, two-handing a weapon, aiming a bow, and the new power stance ability add huge amounts of depth and variety to the combat.
When you do die, you’ll drop all of the souls that you were carrying where you fell. You must then return to the spot that you died to reclaim your souls, but if you’re culled before you can collect them, they’ll be lost forever. This adds a true consequence for death, as losing a large sum of souls can be, er, soul crushing.
Assuming that you can hang onto them for long enough, though, you’ll be able to spend them on levelling up a vast variety of stat attributes by visiting the NPC Emerald Herald in Majula. It’s also possible to reset your stat points by using a Soul Vessel if you decide that you no longer like your current build. This offers a level of freedom that not all titles provide.
This expands to the class system, which allows you to switch and experiment with whatever setup that you desire. If you wanted to be a great sword wielding mage, you’ll be able to level up your strength and intelligence. The possibilities really are endless.
Of course, your starting equipment will depend on the role that you choose at the beginning of the game. Various positions will come equipped with different armour, weapons, and items to help get you started. This equipment can be purchased from a non-playable character around Majula, found by defeating enemies, or even upgraded with special shards later in the game.
Whether it’s magic, pyromancy, bows, swords, daggers, fists, spears, axes, or shields, everything in the title feels deadly and unique. Furthermore, the staggering number of weapon types lets you cater to your own unique fighting styles, or tailor your gear to the weakness of an enemy.
However, one item that you won’t be using from the start is the Estus Flask, which was the primary source of healing in the original Dark Souls. You’ll need to unlock this as you play, but while the original provided you with five uses, this new version can only be used a single time until you upgrade it using Estus Shards.
Instead, the new primary healing items are called life shards and work a little differently. These provide a slow regeneration effect, making them effective between battles. If you use these alongside the Estus Flask correctly, then they provide a more than adequate healing solution.
And you’ll need your health to progress beyond some of the downright terrifying boss fights and enemy encounters. The massive variety paired with intelligent artificial intelligence means that even after defeating the same enemy multiple times, they’ll still surprise you with a new attack or ability. Even after you’ve beaten the campaign, the ‘New Game +’ option allows you to take on far more difficult foes and improves a few other surprises.
When your vision isn’t blurred by tears, you’ll find greatly improved visuals. Sometimes the world can be terrifying, while there are occasions where it’s awe inspiringly beautiful. The new lighting system shows off some of the horrifying monster designs, while the improved particles make for alluring and ambient weapon effects.
That’s not to say that the visuals aren’t without their flaws, though. The resolution is quite low, making textures appear unclear. Moreover, the title’s framerate will often dip below 30 frames-per-second, making combat even more difficult. The lack of ragdoll physics is also absent, though this is a stylistic decision.
Elsewhere, the redesigned interface gives you just about all of the information that you could ever ask for regarding statistics. The inventory and equipment pages have all been drastically improved, with help text guiding you through all of the information available. At a glance, it’s easy to see how much your equipment weighs, how many stats points a certain weapon requires, or if a newfound item is better than your previous one. Considering just how deep the detail goes, this is a massive improvement to the title.
While it may not always feel fair, you’ll be hard pressed to find a game that’s as intense and rewarding as Dark Souls II. The astonishingly deep combat, huge world, unique multiplayer, and amazing overall ambience combine here to create a phenomenal experience. It requires a heavy amount of investment to truly appreciate, but those who put in the effort will fall in love with this torturous title. It’s Stockholm syndrome at its finest.