(PlayStation 3 Review) Dark Souls II

Developer: From Software
Publisher: Namco Bandai Games
Genre: Action / Role-Playing Game
Players: 1-4
ESRB: Teen
Reviewer: Ryan Newman

Overall: 9 = Must Buy

The abyss calls again. After a brief respite, digital warriors are being summoned back to the Souls series with From Software’s latest fist-clenching, controller-gripping adventure, Dark Souls II. Players are called upon to return to the dreary world of Drangleic, this time to find a way to put an end to a curse plaguing the lands, including themselves. In order to fend off the curse from taking hold completely, players must absorb souls, whether from the possessed that inhabit the beleaguered wilds or the massive creatures who act as gatekeepers to new areas of the realm. These decrepit swordsmen, fallen knights, and lumbering giants are only some of the dangers that await in a world where even fellow heroes can become enemies.

Dark Souls II is not a direct continuation of Dark Souls, but it does retain many elements of the original, as well as its predecessor, Demon’s Souls. As a male or female Bandit, Cleric, Deprived, Explorer, Knight, Sorcerer, Swordsman, or Warrior, players must set out from the hub town of Majula to gradually force their way through the host of evil forces arrayed against them and unlock new areas by felling the monstrous guardians. The land itself is dangerous for travelers, with steep cliffs, sudden drop-offs, dilapidated bridges, and narrow booby-trap-filled paths making navigation as hazardous as combat. Fortunately, as before, other players can leave notes to help fellow adventurers. Messages created from categorized sets of phrases will warn of ambushes, hidden loot, and possible shortcuts. Not every message has good intentions, as some seemingly delight in having others willingly leap to their deaths, though there are many who are as valiant in thought as well as deed and utilize a simple rating system to convey which messages should be ignored. Other players are even more nefarious and eagerly invade other worlds in order to disrupt play. Covenants return to formalize this otherwise chaotic environment by allowing players to pledge themselves to the cause of hero or villain; some reward players who invade other realms, while others are set up to assist their fellow adventurers with defeating bosses or fending off invaders. Few games refuse to allow players to take their safety for granted quite like the Souls series.

There are some aides for the weary traveler, however, and more so here than in its predecessor. The most useful of these are the bonfires scattered throughout the lands. Bonfires are small stacks of wood that, once lit, offer permanent areas of rest, a means of fast travel (between lit bonfires), a refill of the health-replenishing Estus Flask, and a way to regain full durability on damaged equipment and replenish health. But there’s a catch: enemies respawn whenever a bonfire is used. Furthermore, enemies only respawn a dozen times before vanishing. That’s not quite the blessing that it sounds when considering the long-term ramifications. As satisfying as it is to clear out an area, the precious souls dropped by the defeated are the primary means with which players level their character as well as purchase, repair, and upgrade gear. Souls can also be found amongst the corpses and chests strewn about the world, and these, along with other items, are often tucked away in difficult-to-reach spots or out of sight, offering incentives to explore and take risks in a game whose platforming is best described as stiff (e.g., jumping rarely goes smoothly). The ghosts of deceased players can help in this regard, as activating a bloodstain will cause a red shade to appear and live out its last moments, often saving the player’s life; it’s often worth taking a second to watch a ghost’s demise play out, as seeing one turn a dark corner and keel over offers a chance to live through an ambush as well as verify that the message giving the go-ahead isn’t as helpful as it seems. For those desperate for souls and prepared to restart the grind, a special item can be burned at bonfires to resurrect an area’s enemies, though they will be much more difficult, and that difficulty will be stacked if a subsequent New Game+ is played. Deciding when to go all-in or hold back is a question that constantly hangs over the player’s head, but sometimes it’s worth the risk.

“Worth the risk” could almost be Dark Souls II’s mantra. Nearly every aspect of the game feels like a gamble: where to go, when to go, how to get there. Even though areas are cordoned off, most of them can be accessed in any order, which can make one playthrough very different from another. This means that one person’s experience will be different from another, and while someone might not have had a difficult time on their chosen path, that might not be the same for the other player. Most enemies can kill with just a few blows, often as few as two—hell, some just grab and toss the player in their mouth—so each encounter becomes an event unto itself. Each death also lowers the player’s health bar, known as hollowing, down to as low as 50%. Effigies can be used to restore the player’s humanity and undo the effects of hollowing, and can now be sacrificed away from bonfires. They can be difficult to come by at times, and although I frequently had several stocked away, the thought of being without one was so worrying that I frequently held back. Knowing that each mistake makes survival even more difficult can become a strong hindrance on taking that next step, and that apprehension is nearly palatable. On the other hand, the knowledge that there are ever-more souls to bank, items to loot, and shortcuts to discover provides that much-needed impetus to suck it up and round that next corner into the unknown. It’s worth the risk.

What makes this kind of difficulty not only tolerable but downright enthralling is knowing that combat relies largely on the player’s skill; it’s also knowing that, for those times when the odd inconsistency occurs, whether from a poor camera angle or a bizarre physics hiccup, the bonfires are there as a safety net. Unlike many action games, everything matters in Dark Souls II. A character’s class, equipment, and level all come into play, linked together by the stamina bar. For all builds, especially those not focused on magic, the stamina bar is as important as the health bar. Blocking, running, dodging, attack, everything takes stamina, and budgeting stamina becomes an essential component in the player’s strategy. Other factors are taken into account as well, such as the equipment: for example, too much kit weight can slow the player down, while weapon weight determines attack speed. Gear can be upgraded with special shards, and this creates its own balancing act. The question often becomes whether one should choose to focus on increasing stamina to perform more moves, increasing endurance to more easily wear protective armor and wield powerful weapons, or leveling gear’s stats to forego having to equip better but heavier items. I approached most encounters in the same way I do a traditional top-down or side-scrolling shooter in that I only really had one chance to kill an enemy, and I would live to see the next area by memorizing attack patterns, optimizing my build, and maintaining composure under pressure, be it from the swing of a giant axe, a collapsed floor, or an incoming arcane missile. Given how easy it is for attacks to knock players out of their stance or lock them in a vulnerable stun state, the importance of armor and evasive moves is really about buying a second chance rather than slugging it out. Of course, those that want to slug it out can build a tank character and have an experience closer that’s less about evasion and more about being able to take that third or fourth blow without falling; however, even bruisers need to worry about their stamina, since blocking prevents stamina from recharging. For all other builds, the real goal isn’t to figure out how to survive a hit but how to avoid it in the first place.

The numerous gear and classes make different styles of play possible, but as above, there are basic rules within the game that restrict how aggressive players can be. Dark Souls II isn’t concerned with complete freedom so much as allowing players the chance to maximize their chances of survival. The restrictions built into the system won’t allow for players to rush into new areas, slaughtering everything at will, but it does mean that those who consider their stats and plan ahead can tailor a build to their preferred style of play. The ability to equip several weapons in the left and right hand allows access to a wide range of gear, and though agility might take a hit from their added weight, there are advantages of having quick access to shields, bows, crossbows, daggers, spells, maces, and swords. This means players can create hybrid characters capable of attacking from afar and closing for a backstab, launching into a dual-wielding flurry before parrying a blow or ducking behind a shield, or casting spells and tumbling their way to safety. Having the left and right attacks tied to their respect shoulder buttons feels great, and the wide array of possible combos means there’s always a way to fine tune an approach. Attacks can be linked by type, speed, or movement, with players capable of choosing between a one-handed attack, a stronger two-handed attack, a combo of a light attack and heavy attack with one or two weapons, or an attack when coming out of a roll. The engine allows for a wide range of possibilities, and this wealth of choices makes players feel that their death was due to their own carelessness; after all, with so many options at their disposal, they had to have missed something.

Of course, that’s not always true. There can be times when the underlying mechanics don’t quite gel with the action. Despite a fairly good lock-on and targeting system, there will still be times when the camera will shift to a strange view and make hitting a target very difficult, or when an enemy’s attack goes through a nearby object, like a wall, while the player’s attack bounces back. The servers can also take a while to update, resulting in warning messages not appearing in time, or repeated messages littering the ground because players think they’re being helpful by pointing out something of interest that’s had already noted but not displayed. Helpful phantoms can also be summoned to assist when fully human, but there were several times when the summoning simply didn’t happen.

These concerns are minor when compared with the whole, which is nothing short of wonderful. The same foreboding yet alluring atmosphere and otherworldly, gothic architecture returns, alongside bizarre equipment and strange monsters in a world of baroque decay. The lighting does a fantastic job in making the environment feel foreboding, even when there’s no apparent danger. The outdoor areas in particular look great, and the ethereal, melancholic characters, as well as their drifting, mournful dialog add a sense of loss and sorrow when looking out at even the most beautiful of vistas.  The engine stutters at times, though it’s surprisingly how unnoticeable it is until the framerate shoots up in an enemy-free area. The idea of the entire adventure playing out as smoothly throughout makes me look even more forward to a sequel on the latest hardware—as if I needed another reason.

Dark Souls II continues the series’ tradition of providing a challenging, satisfying adventure in a foreboding world filled with danger. While not adding exponentially to the formula, aside from a few concessions towards toning down some of the more tedious aspects of its predecessor, the core experience shines as one of the most rewarding in gaming. Framerate dips and the occasional server lag aside, Dark Souls II is a must for any action fan who enjoys testing their mettle.

(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)

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