Demon’s Souls was an imported game that I spotted at my local GameTraders long before it was officially released in Australia. For many months, I considered purchasing it, but with only a conflicting review from Famitsu (a renowned Japanese publication) to reference, I was not entirely confident. Needless to say, I was absolutely taken aback when I decided to finally give it a shot. I died at the first boss, and then I died many times after that as well. And yet, no matter how many times I died, I had this compulsion to keep coming back for more. It was like a demonic Super Mario level, and I was determined to win. It wasn’t just that, though. I loved the fact, that, despite being so alone within this dreaded world, I could see other people dying just as much as me, leaving messages to help each other, and, in some cases, working together to beat the demons. It was a revolutionary concept, and I was instantly hooked.
Improving upon its predecessor in almost every way, From Software released a follow-up called “Dark Souls,” and it captured my attention like few games ever have. In fact, it was my personal pick for “Game of the Generation.” It was a paragon example of how a sequel should be, and also expanded the series into the realm of an open world. Bonfires would now provide your only reprieve as countless players ventured off to explore Lordran; a world that was expertly designed, both visually and in environmental variation. I would even go as far as to claim it was the best “metroidvania” inspired game of the last decade. Sadly, there was one major problem with the game, and that was the online connectivity. At launch, the system was just a mess, and as such, I spent a lot more time offline by comparison. It was for this reason, primarily, that I wanted to get my hands on the direct sequel, Dark Souls II.
Dark Souls II explores the wanderings of an undead warrior who ventured in the land of Drangleic on a compulsion. They are not the first, though, as many other undead have ventured to this land because it is rich with souls. The reason for this is because the accumulation of souls can help prevent “the hollowing;” the ultimate outcome of the curse, in which a person completely loses their humanity. The problem with this process, however, is that the undead will also lose their memory overtime; leaving them wondering why the even came to Drangleic in the first place. After an initial tutorial section, and discussion with a group of old women known as “The Fire Keepers,” the player will make their way to a hub area known as Majula. This is where you will meet “The Herald,” and where the premise will be put into motion. Locate the four grand souls, and seek out the fallen King.
The unique thing about a Souls game is that, beyond the initial introduction, there are no cutscenes and very little direct exposition. In fact, if you wanted to, you could avoid most of the lore of the game without too much difficulty. However, being in the world and learning as you go has always been one of its many charms. Dark Souls II is yet another outstanding example of environmental narrative, and it truly is incredible how much you can learn about the world by just looking around, and through the unique encounters you will undoubtedly have with the enemies and NPCs alike. The premise is so simple, but you always feel as if you’re apart of a deep, living world, and as if your own adventure is the narrative. Of course, as mentioned above, there is a lot of lore to discover as well, which can be learned either from many of the characters you meet during your travels, or through the descriptions of the items you collect. It can be a deep and wonderful experience for those that want it. The one thing that lets it down is a lackluster conclusion, but fortunately, this doesn’t detract from the overall experience.
The game concept of Dark Souls II, like it’s predecessors, is remarkably simple. Make your way through an area, collect souls, and fight a demon at the end to collect a great soul. Furthermore, you should attempt to follow new avenues, unlock hidden pathways, and, ultimately, seek out the information needed to find the end goal of the game. However, like the narrative, the design also runs as deep as players are willing to dig. More than anything, though, Dark Souls II delivers refinement, and as such, addressing the differences between the already outstanding formula of its predecessor is what I really want to focus on. Prior to release, there were a lot of concerns from fans due to the supervisory role of the original director, and the goal of making the game more accessible to new players; fearing that the series would, no pun intended, lose its soul. Fortunately, that’s not the case; I assure you!
With that being said, though, there are some notable changes from the previous game – some of which are for the better, and some of which are simply different. The first notable change is that that Dark Souls II has established a hub area (Majula), similar to the one we saw in Demon’s Souls. This area is where you will converse with The Herald, who, in turn, allows you to level up your character and upgrade the number of estus flasks you can carry. This area is also where many of the merchants you meet will return to after you complete the area they’re located in. I appreciated these design choices, personally, and always enjoyed returning to Majula for reprieve. Which takes us to the next change; the player can also now warp between bonfires at any time. Rest assured, however, because the world in Dark Souls II is so massive, the increased scope demands for this ability. Of course, you’ll have to find them first.
One refinement which might leave enthusiasts a little confused is the decision to stop enemies from respawning after you’ve beat them 15 times. It’s possible one could interpret this as a way to make the game easier for those newer to the game, so that they might progress more easily, but in turn, it also discourages “soul farming” and for enthusiast players to keep moving. Don’t fret, though. If the idea of this really bothers you, there are items called a “bonfire aesthetic” which, when burned in the fire, restore all the enemies for that area, and increase their difficulty. I personally felt this helped the pace of the game, and can see how it could help players from both demographics. However, there is another alternative to farming souls, and in a way that is beneficial to everyone. The online functionality in Dark Souls II is simply incredible, and in truth, changed the entire experience for me.
All the core online features are present, but this was the first time where I spent a lot of time in other people’s games. In Dark Souls II, you can summon up to two phantoms, which can make combat very interesting at times. I don’t exaggerate when I say this was genuinely the most helpful online community I ever played with. Everyone exchanged gestures, showed each other secrets, and worked together for the greater good. What made it great for me, though, was that by helping other people, you helped yourself by maintaining the souls you earned, as well as having the opportunity to scout ahead without risking your humanity. Once you lose your humanity, your health will decrease with each subsequent death, and you will also be unable to summon players to your game. Fortunately, helping people also restores humanity, and without the waste of rare items. It was, arguably, the most balanced multiplayer experience I have ever played, and if you’re not connected online, I would go as far as to say that you’re missing out on the game’s best component. The online experience doesn’t end there, though.
Covenants make a return in Dark Souls II, and this time, they are a lot easier to understand and engage with. In Demon’s Souls, I never quite understood “World Tendency,” and in Dark Souls, I don’t remember pursuing any of the covenants wholeheartedly. In Dark Souls II, however, there are a lot of online components tied directly with each covenant, and with clear rewards as well. Essentially, each covenant revolves around several different themes: “Player vs. Player,” “Co-Op,” and “Player vs. Environment.” Personally, what I enjoyed most were the PvP covenants as it gave me an opportunity to combat other players for a purpose other than “invasion.” For example, there is a covenant where you can be summoned to defend a bell tower, in which the player will be rewarded with rare items if they can defeat the intruder. Honestly, there is not a cooler way I know of to grind for items!
In truth, there is only one aspect of the game design which I didn’t enjoy as much, and that was the overall structure of the world. Don’t get me wrong, the world is as visually diverse as ever, but there was a certain charm to the connected areas in the earlier games that are somewhat absent this time round. Dark Souls II is absolutely massive, and, as such, requires a lot of bonfire travel to avoid tedium. However, what it’s missing is that sense of the areas looping in on themselves, opening new pathways, and the discovery of shortcuts. The world in Dark Souls II feels as if it’s an endless branch from one land to the next, whereas, in the previous games, it was exciting to realise you were, in fact, below a previous area the entire time. It’s not a major problem, but I would have preferred to see more areas joining so that players could explore the world in a much less linear fashion.
Gameplay is the heart and soul of Dark Souls. If not for the series strength in this particular component, the rest of the game simply could not synergise the way it does. For the most part, combat is very much the same in Dark Souls II, but with a lot of subtle refinements to the mechanics. Noticibly, the AI has been improved, which only supports my opinion that there is no better role-playing game for empowered one on one combat. In saying that, it’s also worth noting that the game isn’t afraid to throw multiple enemies at you either – something which took a little getting used to; albeit, after some very frustrating encounters. That’s the thing, though. Dark Souls never feels as if its cheating you. 99% of the time, you will know it was your lack of patience, or a simple mistake that got you killed. It is this precision that allows the repetitive nature of the game to work. You always know you can do better.
The other fantastic component of the game, which has been praised since the original, is the physicality of the weapons. There is no other game I know of that plays so blatantly different based on your weapon of choice. Personally, I am a Halberd kind of guy with a support in magic. I like to keep my distance, and strike heavy. For the sake of experiment, I tried to play the opening hours of the game dual-wielding swords, which was a lot of fun, but I died so much without shield on hand! It was an entirely different experience, and while I had no interest in mastering it, it did make me consider just how different each person’s combat experience will be. It’s such a small mechanic that many people wouldn’t think about in another game, but the weapons and their attack patterns are the difference between life and death. The gameplay in Dark Souls II is outstanding; I can give it no lesser praise.
I want to address it right away. Yes, the PS3/360 version of the game looks different to the footage demonstrated in the previews, and from what I can tell, it’s a unique lighting engine that’s been downgraded. In saying that, though. I want to clarify that the game still looks incredible, and, better yet, the game has a much more consistent frame-rate than its predecessor. From the moment I first walked out of the darkness, and met eyes with the sun of Majula; I was in awe of the visual design. It was comparable to leaving the vault in Fallout 3, which is no cheap comparison. There is just so much detail that goes into the architecture of a Souls game, and for this reason, it is always so engaging to explore each area and learn the environment. Given the scope of the game, there is also a larger variety in area design, as well. I was consistently awed by where traveled next, and this worked well. Apart from some quirky, albeit charming, voice work for all the NPCs, the presentation and sound design is rock solid.
Dark Souls II is a paragon for all action RPGs. It has been refined in almost every way, and mostly for the better. It is a difficult game, there is no denying that, but at the same time, if you connect online, you will never truly be alone. In fact, I would argue that Dark Souls II is the best experience I have had with any online game, period. It’s a journey that requires many hours of commitment, and, for the most part, it only gets better the more you play it. The world of Drangleic is absolutely beautiful, so don’t let any controversy hold you back. The structure might be a little less congruent than seen in previous titles. But in saying that, the variety in design exceeds anything that’s come before as well. It’s a game that will challenge you, and due to the flawless execution of the gameplay, will keep you coming back no matter how many times you die. It is an outstanding game, and I cannot recommend it enough.
Note: This article was based on the 360 version of the game, and provided to us by Bandai Namco Games Australia for review.