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.
Publisher: Namco Bandai Games
Platforms: 360 / PC / PS3
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.