Dark Souls II is the latest game in a series developed by From Software that is famous for brutal difficulty and it's dark take on the standard European medieval fantasy setting. Both previous games, Demon's Souls and Dark Souls, have been critical hits with a loyal fanbase that lines up behind From Software's refusal to adhere to the trends of modern gaming.
Although Hidetaka Miyazaki – the man who made the first two separated from the crowd – has left from the director's chair, From Software has promised a bigger and more intricate world, an overhaul of the graphics and lighting engine, and refinement of the unforgiving combat in this highly anticipated sequel.
With this promising to be the last of From Software's outings on the aging PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, how do you feel this latest game holds up to the solid legacy the Souls series has cemented so far, Eric?
Dark Souls II has a lot to live up to – even more than its predecessor. Demon's Souls might've been an interesting, unique game, but it hit maybe a few years before its time. Dark Souls, though, was the right game at the right time, and it caught on. The bargain price it hit shelves with here in the US – just $40, compared to the usual $60 – along with its reputation, helped it garner a following and a strong reputation; it's whispered about in the same breath as Ghouls 'n Ghosts.
This time, the team behind it has to satisfy not only the hardcore fans that fell so madly in love with the game, but also the newcomers who've heard about this Dark Souls thing and want to hop on with the new version. They have a lot of groups to impress and disappoint.
I'm somewhere in the middle. I loved Dark Souls, but I wasn't exactly what you would call terribly proficient. I never quite finished the game, but I played more than enough to really appreciate the ambient storytelling, precise combat, and thoughtful level and art design.
I was also a huge fan of both games. I played Demon's Souls once I heard a murmur that this marvelously sadistic game from Japan that was actually being localized, and I played it through to the bitter end.
Dark Souls, as well, I picked up once hearing that From Software hadn't lost its touch and actually improved the game by transforming it into an entirely open world. I sank 60 hours into it before finally submitting to defeat, but every now and then I fire up a new character and run through Undead Burg, unable to escape the idea of what a marvelous game this was.
I most recently started playing Dark Souls while playing through Dark Souls II for comparison's sake, and there is a world of difference between these games. I can't say with the same enthusiasm that I even like the sequel.
While I got on the original Dark Souls bandwagon a little late, I was sure from the moment the sequel was announced that I had to have it.
Now, after hammering my head against Dark Souls II for the last week, I feel like From Software left me in the lurch. I'm missing a lot of what made Dark Souls work, and the parts I'm enjoying are being hampered by what I'm missing. The game is unquestionably Dark Souls. You know it the moment you enter battle.
Dark Souls operated on this weird balance that few games can manage successfully. I always wanted one more try, and I wanted to know what was around the corner, what secrets each new area would reveal. As difficult as the game was, it was welcoming me in and pulling me along. It never made it easy, but it never discouraged me. Dark Souls II, by comparison, is pushing me away, punishing me, and discouraging me.
The parts it's missing are small, but they add up to much more than their sum.
Combat hasn't taken too much of a hit in quality, and many of Dark Souls II's fights force you to make careful decisions about when to strike, when to block, how to manage your stamina meter, and when it might be best to just run away. It's hard, but rarely feels overwhelming and impossible. A few bouts with each boss and new enemy reveals an exploitable weakness in their patterns, and it just becomes a matter of pulling off your strategy correctly.
Dark Souls II capably goes through the motions of the first game. I'll give it that.
Decisions outside battles do not, though. One of the more infuriating changes is how punishing the game is towards death. After each time your character falls in battle, their statistics fade away little by little, and the life meter can even bottom out at 50 percent. To fix this, you need an item called a Human Effigy to restore you back to full strength.
The problem with this is if you don't have a Human Effigy, you're stuck completing a tricky area while not operating at your maximum potential. Consequences for death are necessary, don't get me wrong, but in a game that forces you to learn its mechanics through death, you must be given proper chances to adapt.
This system challenges you to not go into battle and not learn from your mistakes, because in the end, these mistakes can permanently work you into a corner.
I have to disagree with you just a bit – the combat often feels overwhelming for me. Like I said, I love Dark Souls, but I'm not very good at it. It takes me a lot of practice to get through any given area.
In Dark Souls II, I die a lot, just like the game promises. I'm always at 50 percent of my maximum life. The game constantly reminds me of this by making my character look more and more decrepit. Dark Souls characters aren't going to win any beauty pageants, and unhollowed characters in the last game were plenty ugly, but they weren't a constant reminder of how bad I was at the game. I wear a helmet at all times in Dark Souls II, because I'm already well aware that I'm playing the game as the Crypt Keeper.
What exacerbates this feels, at first, like a concession to less skilled players. It actually makes the game harder, though. In any given area, each enemy has a limited number of times it will respawn. If you're racing through an area you've already completed, this might be a nice boon, but when you're struggling to hit the next level or buy some necessary items, it quickly starts to feel restrictive. I lose a lot of the souls I pick up in battle – partly because my lifebar is always stuck at 50 percent – and then I have to split those souls between leveling, getting new gear, and keeping my quiver of arrows full for the areas that just aren't meant to be handled at close range.
I didn't fret over lost souls in the last game because there were always more. I could grind one area or another, if I needed to, and get back to where I was. Now, a lost soul is a lost soul, and you can't get it back. For those of us who love the world, but haven't mastered it, this quickly goes from frustrating to disc-snapping.
It doesn't help either that stores run out of items, meaning that once you use all the Effigies available and permanently kill the enemies who drop them, there is no way to revive yourself. It would be like if Mega Man was forced to learn his enemies' patterns starting each fight at 50 percent health and no way to get it back. What's the point?
Finding a balance between how to spend your souls has always been a part of the series, but the comfort of knowing that there are always some to farm makes all the difference. For me, aside from a few bosses which seemed designed to force gamers into using the multiplayer, Dark Souls II is not too difficult because enemies are hard, it's too difficult for the wrong reason of putting a limitation on how much leeway you get with death.
You mentioned backtracking… I often found myself backtracking through Dark Souls, and never once regretted having to go through an area a few times just because of how interesting its world was to look at. Insane, lavish architecture, smokey and creepy atmosphere, an inescapable feeling that this was once a great civilization that now lies haunted in ruin and death.
I feel that Dark Souls II comes off as more generic fantasy akin to the style seen in Dragon's Dogma rather than darkness of its two predecessors. How did you feel about the game's art style?
I said before that the missing parts are hampering my enjoyment of the parts that are there. The combined issues of health and limited resources are keeping me from enjoying both the combat and the art direction. I love what I've already seen, and I want desperately to see more. The issues we've been discussing, too, have made me reticent to experiment and explore to find new vistas, places and characters.
Dark Souls II feels like it exists in the same world as Dark Souls. There's a sense of history in the way armor is designed and the way characters look and act. Everything has weight, and everything is in some state of decay or another. I loved Dragon's Dogma – I played through it three times. It shares some genetic code with Dark Souls, but that magical weight isn't there in Dragon's Dogma. Dark Souls pulls threads from all sorts of historical sources, but in a subtle way, and that links it both visually and aesthetically to things we're familiar with.
There's been some controversy over the technical side of the game's visuals. Between its original announcement and the final release, the game underwent some lighting changes that are pretty tough to miss once they've been pointed out. With that said, I don't know that I would've noticed most of them if I hadn't seen the comparison video to remind me what was shown before. The game just looks like Dark Souls to me.
I would go a step further than that and say that this game is uglier than Dark Souls.
Remember, I played both at the same time while preparing for this review, and it was night and day! The character's walking and combat animations, the light that reflects off their armor, and the way the character interacts and blends in with the surrounding world is far more convincing in the first game.
Dark Souls was technically not a better looking video game, but it was optimized to the maximum potential of its hardware. Dark Souls II was obviously optimized for a PC far ahead of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 consoles, and these console builds suffered greatly because of it.
Ugly green moss does its best to hide jagged textures. Fire looks like it could have been rendered on the Nintendo 64. Light was also supposed to be hugely emphasized in this game, but unless you are walking through the hub town, Majula, or holding a torch, all of the environments look flat, blocky, and uninteresting in just about every section of the game.
When the PC version gets released, I believe we are going to see a world of difference in the lighting and textures, something that more closely resembles that amazing reveal trailer. From Software officially said that this game was balanced to match the power that the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 allowed, and I believe them. This game was cut to ribbons to run on dated specs.
Much like you, I was apprehensive to go exploring, but not only because I feared the permanent repercussions of death, but also because I was just plain uninterested.
So here I am, stuck in a world I want to explore, coming up on roadblocks in every direction. The difference is that this time, I feel like the roadblocks are built into the game, rather than being a matter of my limited but growing skills and knowledge.
I find myself frustrated. Dark Souls often frustrated me, but it was always calling me back. Dark Souls II frustrates me because I don't want to go back. The hardest of the hardcore might find something to love in Dark Souls II, but I know for sure now that I'm not part of that group.
And ultimately, I don't see a reason to go back. See those screenshots above? The game looks nothing like that.
Dark Souls II is an uninviting game with an uninspired world. Gameplay is important and feeling accomplishment by tackling difficulty is certainly something we can use a lot more of. The difference here is that I don't feel the smaller tangible rewards at hand. New areas after beating bosses are not interesting, level ups provide few new experiences or options, and armor and weapons don't shake up combat enough.
I found it funny we both came to the exact same conclusion that this series followed the same evolutionary path as the new Batman series. Arkham Asylum started as a small semi-open-world action game that flawlessly transferred its mechanics into Arkham City, a much more open experience. When put under different direction, its new creative hands wanted to make the game even bigger, but Arkham Origins ends up feeling disconnected and empty despite all the additional space.
If Dark Souls II can't even bother to let me experiment, practice, and enjoy at my own leisure, why should I bother with it?
That's what best describes Dark Souls II – "disconnected." Just as traveling through bland hallways between the game's main areas makes the world feel like it is not one big entity, I too felt separated from my achievements in taking down a hard boss or opening a new area. Nothing really mattered after a while, because I couldn't function at full capacity.
Dark Souls II is hard to recommend unless you love the first game so much that there is no hope in dissuading you. At least hear us out and wait until what we see the what PC version looks like. If From Software managed the graphical fidelity on desktop hardware that it couldn't achieve on the PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360, then it might have a chance at making a world worthy of exploration one more time.
If not, then it's just an unforgiving game which doesn't grasp what made its unforgiving predecessor so appealing.
We purchased Dark Souls II for the PlayStation 3 with company funds and completed 20 hours of the campaign before writing this review.