Harsh, unforgiving, punishing, those are the words often used to describe the games in the Souls series. Having begun its life in the form of Demon’s Souls as a PlayStation 3 exclusive, the series was reborn in 2011 as Dark Souls, a multiplatform spiritual sequel to the original game that kept many elements from its predecessor, while redefining some core elements which really changed the game. Dark Souls II is a late generation direct sequel that doesn’t have the aspirations to reinvent the series, but attempts to refine it and polish up some rough edges. Does it succeed in keeping the series fresh, or is it in need of another reboot? Let’s find out!
Dark Souls II doesn’t have a story, it has a style, lore that will make hardcore fans feel right at home, and an atmosphere that most masochistic gamers will certainly appreciate. It’s still just as dark, gritty, and oddly noble and eerie as ever. Some people expressed concern that some key people had left From Software after the original game was completed, leading them to think that the remaining talent would have trouble recapturing the troubling essence of the series, but after playing the game, I can assure you that this isn’t the case. Every area gives off a strong sense of uniqueness, all of them feel oppressive to the point where bonfires noticeable in the distance will feel like a beacon of hope after a long journey through the cold, ruthless paths of the game.
The same brutal, incredibly satisfying gameplay
One of the trademarks of the series has always been its brutal difficulty, but it’s never been at the expense of fairness or balance. The original game was a lesson in game design, allowing for a tough game that trained you not to make mistakes. Once you stopped making these mistakes, you stopped dying. This kind of gameplay was at the core of the addictive experience. For the sequel, I’m happy to report that the same philosophy is employed, but a little bit less happy to report that it’s a mostly noticeable downgrade in fairness. The level design is still extremely good, but never quite manages to surpass the excellent design from the first game. We would have liked to see improvements in this regard, but we can’t complain with what we’ve been given. The progression paths are still sprawling and cleverly implemented, still adding a bit of “metroidvania” flavor to the experience, but there doesn’t appear to be any ambition to go further than the original game ever did. Perhaps some of this can be attributed to From Software’s decision to keep the focus on the last generation’s aging consoles, but it certainly would have been interesting to see them tackle the game world with bigger and more ambitious goals in mind.
Call me a sore loser, but...
A bigger problem and more unfortunate offender to this feeling that the game is less fair than before is that the AI enemies sometimes appear as though they are cheating the rules of the game. In Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls, the key to success was always in learning the various patterns of the impressive suite of different enemies. Once you nailed that down, you were practically unstoppable. This time around, enemies will sometimes diverge from their normal pattern, causing situations that are sadly unpredictable and that can break the otherwise stellar balance of the game. For example, a large knight may attack you with a specific move where he runs in a straight line with his spear squarely aimed at you. Of course, if you study his pattern, you’ll quickly figure out that your mobility is your strength in this battle, allowing you to roll out of the way before he plunges his weapon through your heart. However, trying this manoeuvre may prove spotty, as the enemy will somehow break his own rules and start unpredictably swerving in your direction as you roll out of his way. This kind of situation was certainly absent from Dark Souls, and it’s disappointing to see it pop up in the sequel. Despite that, the game is still very fair in most situations, leading us to believe that those rare moments of unfairness have more to do with buggy AI than with flawed game design.
A revamped user interface
The most noticeable improvement made to the game comes in the form of its UI, most of what was moderately confusing in the other games has been revamped, and it’s never been easier or quicker to access and manage your inventory. Instead of it covering the whole screen every time you press start (and no, it still does not cause the actual game to pause when you bring it up), the UI now only shows you what you need to see, is more responsive and slick, and does a better job explaining where everything is. In other words, it’s a lot more intuitive and easy to use. Another difference is related to how the weapons and moves of your character actually handle. While everything remains largely unchanged in terms of actual features, there have been a few tweaks related to the timing of each move. For seasoned Dark Souls players, this will take a while to get accustomed to. However, all of it has been done in the interest of balance, and considering the arsenal of new weapons, armors, as well as enemy types that the game provides, it’s probably for the best.
Death sounds great but isn't pretty
In terms of presentation, the game stays true to the rest of the series. While the art and design of the environments, weapons, enemies and armors all shine remarkably, the technical side of things isn’t so hot. The much touted and promised new lighting engine is nowhere to be found, much to the dismay of some fans, and image quality simply isn’t great. The variable framerate of the Xbox 360 version used to review the game has its highs and lows, and can sometimes be quite distracting. All in all, there is definitely a sense that the game is held back by its aging hosts in the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Purists who want a pristine presentation may want to opt for the PC version which is just around the corner. On the bright side, the sound design is absolutely fantastic, and the various refinements made to the way weapons sound really help sell the empowering side of the gameplay as the player progresses through the gloomy world of the game.
If you have the patience and are willing to give the game a chance, Dark Souls II becomes a masterwork of player empowerment goodness. After several hours grinding through the opening hours and learning the cold, brutal ways in which the game operates, you’ll find yourself yelling victory chants and grinning in satisfaction throughout most of your lengthy journey. Dark Souls II succeeds in giving fans more of what they want, while providing just enough tweaks in functionality to make the experience worth the hundreds of repeated deaths worth it in the end. Its focus on the last generation of consoles seems to limit it in more ways than one, which remains a disappointment, but the core gameplay and unique, rewarding satisfaction you’ll only find while conquering these games make it easier to forgive its few shortcomings.
+Familiar yet refined and satisfying gameplay
+Great level design
+Fantastic art direction
+Varied enemies and environments
+Hours upon hours of gameplay
+It never gets old
+Great sound design that adds to the empowering gameplay
-Disappointingly "safe" at times
-Presentation is a little lacking
Release date : March 2014
Publisher : Namco Bandai
Developer : From Software
Gameplay : Action-RPG
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