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Review: Dark Souls II

Dark souls II Cover

Last year I made the bold claim that Dark Souls II was the best reason to keep our last-gen consoles. Well, the game came out recently and after many hours and even more deaths, is what I said still true? Hit the jump for our review.

If you’re new to the series, what you need to know is that the Souls series is a trio (so far) of dark action RPGs. Each game stars a nameless undead human as your player character, and it’s up to you to guide them through a decaying world trying to kill them at every turn. It’s a difficult series that punishes failure and inattention, but becomes extremely rewarding when you learn how to play it. This is helped by an innovative multiplayer system, where players can enter your world (and vice versa) to help or murder you. Beyond this, players all seem to look out for each other, and you’ll often see short messages by players warning or advising others.

Nope, don't know what you are, but nope

Nope. Don’t know what you are, but nope

Developer: From Software
Publisher: Namco Bandai Games
Platforms: 360 / PC / PS3
Website: darksoulsii.com

If you’re familiar with the Souls games, you’ll have a good idea of what to expect here. You’ll expect the dark and depressing world, the hopeless characters, the insurmountable odds, the mysterious protagonist, the sun praising, and the endless deaths. So, if that’s what you came for, Dark Souls II will deliver it and more.

What you instantly notice are the visuals, and they look good. Yes, I know, graphics aren’t everything but the first impression made by the game’s very stylish intro is that it’s gorgeous. Grass sways in-game and cloth flutters as you move, light streams in and the shadows are as dark as the tone of the game. The visuals and animations in the previous Souls games were good, but it’s clear that From Software really squeezed as much power out of our last-gen consoles as possible here.

What happens in Majula, stays in Majula

Scenic, and the only safe place in the game

The visuals work well and every level is brimming with atmosphere. The Souls games are able to effortlessly capture a sense of adventure and dread, and this one is no exception. The new graphics and animations also make Dark Souls II play differently to its predecessors. See, Dark Souls basically just used a prettier Demon’s Souls engine. This made them look, play and handle almost the same. The new game has updated all of that, so series veterans are going to need to relearn their combos, timings and movement. This actually works very much in its favour by giving vets something new to challenge us, and newcomers an improved system to learn.

FIGHT!

FIGHT!

Speaking of improved systems, there are a lot of small tweaks and fixes in Dark Souls II. First and foremost, you can aim crossbows. This wasn’t something I encountered in my beta preview, so it took me by surprise to learn that crossbows are no longer a useless, short-ranged hindrance. Another improvement is the speed: everyone feels a little faster and nippier, and your equipment wont slow you down as much. I mentioned this in my preview, and the feature has only been refined since. It’s difficult to explain in brief, but now your thief can equip the Plated Armour of Phallus Stomping and not impersonate a snail in treacle.

Another welcome change is fast travel. No longer worrying about surviving a long cross-game jog to reach that one merchant takes a heap of pressure off our plate. This system actually feels a little like Demon’s Souls. See, a common complaint is that this game doesn’t have Dark Souls’ well-crafted and connected world. I see it from a different perspective, and it seems like the developers have taken the game back to the hub-and-spoke design of the past. At the start of the game, you find yourself in a town called Majula. This town acts as the hub, with merchants and skill-trainers, and it branches off into several paths. This will feel a lot like The Nexus and its levels to veterans of Demon’s Souls.

Nope. Don't know what's down there, but nope

Nope. Don’t know what’s down there, but nope

Now I’m just going to say it: these improvements make Dark Souls II easier. Not exactly because the difficulty is reduced, but more because you’re given better tools to deal with it. From Software must have realised this, so several features have been implemented to level it out.

For one, every time you visit a bonfire (checkpoint) you’re given free health items. In Dark Souls, the starting number was five. Here, you get one. You can get more but only by hunting down the upgrade components. There are new health items (Lifegems) to help you, but they’re too slow for use in combat. The other major feature affecting difficulty is that every time you die, you get a chunk knocked off your health bar. Keep dying, and you’ll need to work with only half health in a game where the average enemy can kill you in seconds. Granted, this won’t feel like much of a change to Demon’s Souls veterans because this feature was in that game and was even more draconian.

"So, die here often?"

“So, die here often?”

Another change is to the lighting engine. In my beta preview I mentioned that things were really, really dark. Well, that’s changed now and From Software has seen fit to give back an automatic light source to players. It’s a minor negative, as being forced to light a torch for the really dark places was a fun and nerve-wracking experience in the beta.

And lets talk about the jumping. No, forget talking, I’m going to have an unbiased rant. It sucks. The jumping mechanic seems like it was only implemented to frustrate, annoy, and murder you from the inside. From Software has had two games and an engine change to fix this, and you can see they tried a bit. But mapping the jump to the L3 button (or Xbox equivalent) is clearly not the solution. Jumping requires precision, and clicking in the analogue stick will always, always nudge your character just far enough off course into certain doom. In fairness it has improved, but I wait until my character has nothing to lose before I try jumping anywhere.

Nope. I don't... Argh! The eyes! They're in my brain! Argh....

Nope. I don’t… Argh! The eyes! They’re in my brain! Argh….

Sorry about that, I’m back now.

So, bottom line? Dark Souls II is one hell of a game. It’s friendlier to newcomers with its improved mechanics, it ups the challenge to veterans with the new animations and combat systems, and it seems to combine the good elements from Demon’s and Dark Souls into a game that makes great use of them.The online community is also vibrant and, being this early in the game’s life, you’re bound to find other players to team up with. If you can’t handle frustration, don’t get this. But if you want a dark, atmospheric action RPG that will test your abilities as a gamer, then don’t hesitate in buying this.

  • http://www.facebook.com/pages/Wesley-Fick/184346154999538 Wesley Fick

    Bottom line: Death and lots of it in many varying ways.

    • Alex Rowley

      It says reviewed by Mathew Fick and you’re name in disqus is Wesley fick.

      What’s going on!?!?

      • http://www.facebook.com/pages/Wesley-Fick/184346154999538 Wesley Fick

        What’s going in is this is a review by my younger brother. ;-)

        • Alex Rowley

          Ah, that’s quite a simple explanation actually, don’t know why I didn’t think that lol.

          • Matthew Fick

            The Fick Bros. NAG’s own brotherly writing team…

    • Matthew Fick

      And believe me, most of it is caused by incompetence. I mean hax! And bad jumping! Never incompetence…

      • http://www.facebook.com/pages/Wesley-Fick/184346154999538 Wesley Fick

        Jumping in Demon Souls and Dark Souls seems to have its own special trick to master it.

  • Matthew Vice

    You can set the jumping back to the circle button, the way it was in Dark Souls, in the options menu. On the PS3 version at least. I don’t know about the 360 version.
    It was the first thing I did. I never even tried using the stick click.

    Damn good game, this one.

    Farming is a lot harder because enemies only respawn a limited number of times. So if you collect a huge amount of souls, and lose them, they’re gone for good. I heard there is an item or something you can get later that makes enemies in an area (even bosses) respawn, though.

    • Matthew Fick

      Yeah, I also noticed the bit about enemies. Took me by surprise the first time it happened. It actually made me pretty jumpy and I was constantly expecting them to reappear and attack.
      I’ll try it out with the classic jumping controls. But even in Demon’s and Dark Souls I didn’t jump much. I’ll take on the hideous and fierce demons, but I’m not man enough to try hopping a gap

    • http://batman-news.com McFancypants HD

      The bonfire ascetic? I haven’t used one, yet. But I’ve heard that it really does make a difference to the difficulty of the respawned enemies.

      • Matthew Vice

        Well, I’m still relatively early in the game. I have no idea where it is or how to use it. I have done a bit of farming in some areas. Hunted some enemies to extinction, like dodos. Hopefully this thing will bring them back.

        • Matthew Fick

          All I’ve read about the Ascetic is that it raises the challenge. So maybe it just makes the enemies stronger, like the Champions Covenant. I’ll test it out on my secondary character

  • Squirly

    So… it’s pretty good then?

    • Matthew Fick

      Oh yes, it is pretty damn good. Highly recommended

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