Dark Souls II has had a lot to live up to. Its predecessors Dark Souls and Demons Souls are widely considered to be modern masterpieces, and the series has since garnered a sizeable fan following.
Although I’ve been greatly looking forward to Dark Souls II, a few early reports were troubling. First off was the director of the game being changed from the original, prompting questions of whether the game would manage to capture the ‘feel’ of the originals. This fear was further fuelled by rumours that Dark Souls II was aiming to be more accessible to a wider audience.
While this is true to an extent, I’m relieved to say that Dark Souls II is more than just a worthy addition to the ‘Souls’ franchise. Rather, it manages to combine many of the best elements of the first two games, while further honing what is one of the greatest combat systems in any action title.
Upon starting up the game, From Software’s attempts to make Dark Souls II more accessible to beginners is immediately apparent. The starting area does a great job of teaching the basics of combat and movement, and doesn’t drop new players in the deep end quite as much as the Undead Asylum did.
This extends to beyond the tutorial zone with the new items on offer to players. Like Demons Souls, expendable items can be used to heal up, along with the Estus Flasks that replenish at every bonfire. Most notably, Life Gems are fairly abundant sources of healing, that regenerate health over time and don’t require the player to stand still for a few seconds. After a few hours of playing they become scarcer and less useful, but help to reduce early frustration for new players.
Like Dark Souls, players are initially greeted with a pre-rendered cinematic, but this time there’s a greater amount of exposition, and your motives for entering Drangleic are made far more explicit.
You are a cursed undead, who has heard rumours that a cure for the affliction can be found in the kingdom of Drangleic. Like Lordran before it, Drangleic is a land that was once prosperous, but has since been devastated by the curse of the undead, as well as a scourge of terrible creatures.
The Souls games have never offered compelling, cinematic plotlines, and the same is true of Dark Souls II. However, once again, the world is a total joy to uncover, and it’s fascinating to piece together the Kingdom of Drangleic’s story.
Dark Souls II’s visuals on PC are a big upgrade from the first game. Many of the locations are hauntingly beautiful, from the majestic Cathedral of Blue to the eternal sunsets of main hub Majula. Equally, the improved lighting brings a palpable sense of dread in dark locations such as The Gutter and Black Gulch.
Best of all is that the game is now able to run at a silky smooth 60 frames per second, double what could be achieved in the shoddy Dark Souls I port. In a game as reliant on quick reactions as this, the fast and steady frame rate makes all the difference.
The challenging but fair gameplay that the franchise is known for is perfectly intact, with a bit of spit and polish here and there. Once again, this is a game where you’ll need to pay close attention and give due diligence to even the most seemingly trivial encounter.
Dark Souls II is hard, though it never quite felt as insurmountable as the first game did on occasion. Every death teaches you something, like knowing that there’s a hidden pit behind those piled up boxes, or that following an enemy swing you’ve only got time for three consecutive attacks rather than four.
It may just be because this is my third Souls game played, but I found Dark Souls II to be less frustrating in general than its predecessors. A large part of this is due to clever bonfire placement. Bonfires allow you to restore to full health and act as respawn points, although if used they also bring every non-boss enemy back to life.
One of the most disheartening parts of dying to a boss in Dark Souls was not just having to battle it from the beginning once again, but also having to fight through a long series of enemies over and over to get there. Arguably, this is just part of defeating the boss, but it could end up feeling like a bit of a slog.
Fortunately, in Dark Souls II, there is almost always a secondary bonfire very close to the boss arena entrance, although it is often hidden away. When this isn’t the case, the game often rewards exploration by opening up shortcuts from the zone’s starting bonfires, heavily speeding up boss re-runs. It’s a good compromise, retaining the challenge and encouraging players to uncover secrets, while reducing unnecessary irritation.
That said, there are still some gameplay aspects that I feel were handled better in the previous game. In particular, many of the bosses in the first half of the game aren’t hugely memorable, both in appearance and in the design of the fights themselves. I can recall at least 5 early bosses that had the exact same mechanics of dishing out slow, heavy swings, while being open to attacks from behind. Fortunately, there are exceptions, and the latter areas of Dark Souls II feature some stunning encounters.
Some elements of Dark Souls II are unnecessarily clunky. The stat system is still stupidly convoluted, and my knowledge of how it all works has almost exclusively been derived from the various online wikis and tutorials. I’d personally be in favour of combining a lot of the stats together, even if it necessitates increasing levelling costs.
A big quality of life change is that you can now instantly travel between any and all bonfires in the game, as long as you’ve lit them at some point. When I first realised this, I was initially worried that this might cheapen exploration, but overall I’m happy with From Software’s decision on this front. I’m less pleased that they’ve taken away the ability to level up at bonfires though. Instead, you have to quick travel to the Majula hub area whenever you want to spend your souls, a clunky timewaster made slightly more bearable by the very fast loading times on the PC.
Dark Souls II’s world feels more like a series of distinct levels than the contiguous environment offered in the previous title. This means that there’s less mindblowing moments where you’ll kick down a ladder and realise you’ve been right next to one of the starting areas all this time, but it also gives each zone the space to be its own uniquely styled area.
The biggest improvement in Dark Souls II over its predecessors has to be the covenants. These are in-game factions that you can align yourself with, each with varying effects on gameplay. For example, if you’re a beginner player it’s a good idea to join up with the Way of Blue. This covenant not only gives an item that raises your maximum HP, but also gives you additional protection from nasty players that invade your game in an attempt to kill your character. It does this by automatically summoning a member of the Blue Sentinel Covenant, who are rewarded for defending the weak and punishing the sinful.
My favourite though, is the Rat King Covenant. Once you’ve allied with the Rat King himself, players are automatically summoned into your own world whenever you’re in the rat realm. You’re given the objective of killing them within ten minutes, and every rat in the area will help you in defeating them.
It’s also possible to set traps, such as armour breaking acid pools and waterfalls that help set up ambushes. It can feel cruel and unfair to your enemies, but there’s an undeniable pleasure in teaming up with a swarm of rats to kill off an unsuspecting player.
This is not a title for everyone. Dark Souls II rewards hard work and skill, while punishing hasty or greedy play. It’s also a game that forces you to play by its rules, not the other way round. Don’t pay attention to your environment and you’ll die, pick up that item while archers are firing at you and you’ll die, mess up while levelling your character and you’ll suffer for it.
Persistence is always rewarded. Dark Souls II’s combat is a steady, complex, and deadly dance. There’s a tempo and rhythm to it, and it’s hugely satisfying when it all clicks together. One stumble will usually end in failure, but death is a brutally efficient way of teaching you the steps.
Dark Souls II is a beautiful, deadly masterpiece. The high difficulty, addictive gameplay, and haunting aesthetics create a strangely compelling atmosphere that is absolutely unique to the series. A labyrinthine behemoth of a game, Dark Souls II’s ultimate genius is in how its fascinating world and challenging mechanics will convince you that the hard work is absolutely worth it.
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