|PS3 / XBOX 360||USA|
By Jack . March 29, 2014 . 5:30pm
Dark Souls II is one of the truest sequels I’ve ever played. If I had to sum up the game in one sentence, I’d say “yeah, it’s another Souls game.” Describing it as just that is kind of a disservice, however, as Dark Souls II does a lot of things right. Exactly what a sequel should do or be is a tireless debate, but personally I’m looking for two things: that it improves upon the systems in play and that it adds meaningfully to the formula.
If you’ve never played a Souls game, this might be the best place to start. Now to be clear, I don’t mean that the game is dumbed down or ruined. It’s more that Dark Souls II is the culmination of all the lessons learned from the previous games. It takes the interconnected world of Dark Souls II and combines it with the hub town of Demon’s Souls to create a game that has the best of both worlds.
Veterans of the Souls games will notice little in the way of sweeping changes, as most of what Dark Souls II brings to the table is for balancing and convenience. In the original Dark Souls you could activate bonfires throughout the land, which essentially served as checkpoints. For the sequel you’re now allowed to fast travel between them straight from the beginning, and they seem to be spread more conveniently throughout the world. There’s a whole list of alterations covering things like the weapon upgrade system to the invincibility frames on your roll, but it’s difficult to say that anything is a complete game-changer.
At its most basic level, Dark Souls II is nearly identical to From Software’s previous Souls games. Dark Souls II is an action RPG that has no qualms about killing you over and over. Movement is slower -paced than most action games, and you are punished harshly for your mistakes by losing souls that you’ve collected. Your progress is tied to how many souls you can get from enemies, as these souls work as currency that allow you to level up or buy items.
Interacting with your environments is the core of the Souls experience, and in this sense Dark Souls II is as strong as ever. You need to constantly be aware of your surroundings, both for traversal and combat. Take a small narrow hallway for example. If you rush into things you may find yourself getting trapped between enemies and end up getting killed by the mob. Even if you know they’re coming though, you need to make sure that your weapon is an appropriate size or it will start bouncing off the walls ineffectively.
There’s ingenuity to the level design here that I can’t help but love. On top of your surroundings always being important to your survival in a practical sense, they’re also filled with hidden secrets and shortcuts to make life easier. All of the areas in Dark Souls II feel like mysteries waiting to be solved, with new things to discover every time you come back. Simply put, it’s a game that feels good to explore, even when you’re getting killed repeatedly by a group of enemies.
One of the most notable characteristics of Dark Souls II is that it emphasizes mobs of enemies. This is a game where handling one enemy the wrong way can get you killed in seconds, so adding in more can definitely cause some trouble. Many environments are built for you to run around and attempt to funnel your enemies, forcing you to be resourceful and alert. While I like how tense these situations can get, it starts to feel overused after a while, which unfortunately is a problem that carries over to other areas of the game.
Bosses are handled in a surprisingly uniform way, leaving many of the encounters feeling bland. I know not everyone is fond of gimmicky bosses, but far too often Dark Souls II puts you in a room with some tall guy with a big weapon. Fighting bosses always felt like a big deal in prior Souls games, but so many of the bosses here feel like they’re going through the motions, like they were needed to fill space. There are of course some standout exceptions I won’t spoil, but they seem to be more towards the latter end of the game, and the experience could have benefitted by placing some of the stronger designs earlier into the adventure.
Another part of it is that Dark Souls II just doesn’t play with your expectations as often as it should. In other Souls games you were forced to go through doors that are completely covered by fog, never quite knowing what to expect. In Dark Souls II it’s a boss. About 95% of the time, it’s a boss. The one time I thought it wasn’t a boss was when there were just a bunch of rats. And it turned out those rats were a boss. Oh.
While the single player experience can feel lacking at times, the online experience is stronger than ever. There is of course the usual array of features like leaving messages for other players, summoning phantoms for help, and being invaded by some not-so-helpful people. They all work about as well as ever, with a few minor changes in how to access these features. The biggest improvements lie in the more in-depth online features.
Throughout the game you are allowed to join into groups called covenants, which grant you special perks and abilities. Just about all of the covenants feel worth your time here, with some of my favorites revolving around setting up traps for unsuspecting players trying to get through an area. None of them are useless and they’re all fun to participate in. It’s a great layer of meta-game that goes beyond the typical player vs. player experience and encourages you to mess around with the game in ways you might not otherwise.
Dark Souls II’s main weakness is that it’s so focused on mixing and improving already established concepts that it ends up lacking its own identity. All of the changes Dark Souls II brings to the table are tweaks to already existing systems, almost more of a balance update than anything. Even as someone who’s never fully completed a Souls game, I was recognizing a lot of level design ideas and boss fights (some of them are actually straight up from the previous game!) that I had encountered before. It’s hard to say whether this was a conscious decision made to refine the experience or just lack of creative direction, but it’s a little disappointing.
On one hand, Dark Souls II is a great example of how applying lessons from previous games and tweaking a formula can make a game better. On the other, I can’t help but wish it did more to step out of the shadows of its predecessors rather than dwell within them. It’s still a fantastic, well-crafted game to be sure, and whether you’re a returning veteran or a nervous newcomer Dark Souls II is more than worth your time.
Food for Thought:
1. If you’re looking for a greater challenge right off the bat, Dark Souls II is more than happy to accommodate you. Very early in the game you can join a covenant that buffs all of the enemies to the strength they would be at during a second play through. Good luck with that.
2. One of the most interesting things about the Souls games is that there are really two versions of them: online and off. The first couple of days I played Dark Souls II were offline (I’m a little stingy with my Xbox Live subscription), and I spent a lot of time appreciating the environments and level designs artistically. It was almost jarring in comparison to when I finally went online. What was once a desolate, moody game had now become crowded with messages, summon signs, and player ghosts everywhere, making the game feel much more community-driven. While the better overall experience likely lies with the online features, playing the game without all the clutter might be a good experiment for those who haven’t tried it.
3. The online seems to be very spotty when it comes to connecting to other players, at least on the Xbox 360. Often when I would try to summon people or get notice of an invasion, it would be cancelled a few moments later for seemingly no reason.
4. While Dark Souls II does a lot to make your experience more convenient, it occasionally feels like it wants to be obtuse for the sake of it. To activate the character that allows you to level up, for example, you have to talk to her. A lot. After your first conversation the game notifies you that this particular person allows you to level up, but in reality you need to talk to her about three or four more times before she does anything.