Dark Souls II Review – Prepare to die. Again.
The Souls series is mostly renowned for its brutal difficulty. When the first rumor surfaced regarding the sequel to Dark Souls, many fans were worried that From Software would sacrifice some of its difficulty in order to appeal to a broader audience. After playing (and dying) quite a bit, I can easily put these rumors to rest: whilst Dark Souls II makes some changes to its formula, in no way the series’ trademark difficulty has been sacrificed.
It’s just as hard, if not harder than its predecessors all whilst making some much needed technical improvements and some changes to the formula.
As soon as you start your fairly masochistic adventure in the world of Dark Souls II, you will immediately realize the massive improvements made to the game’s engine. Aesthetically, Dark Souls II is the best looking game of the series, making its bleak and eerie world look vibrant and gloomy at the same time. In general, the game also doesn’t drop frames as often, maintaining a steady frame rate in most occasions compared to the previous titles where the frame rate would drop dramatically in certain areas. Combat also feels much more fluid and refined, with a much larger variety of animations and more accurate hitbox detection.
Overall, the Souls series never looked and played better.
Veterans of the series will feel right at home with Dark Souls II. There are only a few additions to the combat and movement, all of which are explained, albeit vaguely, in the game’s “tutorial”. For those expecting a more gradual introduction to the series’ unforgiving world, don’t raise your hopes, as it’s easy to miss the tutorial areas since the game gives almost no indication of their presence; just as you start to grasp the basics, Dark Souls II spits you out into its harsh world and leaves you to your own devices. No directions, no instructions, once again.
Speaking of the world, Dark Souls II definitely feels more open than its predecessors, something which will be exciting for some and daunting for others. At first, exploring the world was a bit overwhelming, with many paths disappearing into the distance. Exploring these routes usually leads to blocked off areas which can be accessed at a later point in the game, so the world’s openness is more of an illusion than actual freedom, however exploration can certainly lead to juicy rewards – or your untimely death. Still, most of the time you will find that the game subtly leads you the right way, but be wary, as this is still Dark Souls we are talking about, and a perfectly safe area can turn out to be a sudden death trap which the game tricked you in walking into.
Returning adventurers from previous games will notice quite a few changes to the Dark Souls or Demon Souls they were used to; some of which may or may not appeal to everyone. First of all, you can now fast travel from one bonfire to any other discovered bonfire. This is free of charge and can be done at any time without penalty. This makes moving in the dangerous world easier, and it’s a welcome change especially considering how punishing death is. In Dark Souls, death meant you lose your human form and your souls, however if you managed to retrieve your souls the punishment wasn’t too severe. In the sequel, every death blocks out a section of your HP bar until you reach the half-way mark. One or two deaths don’t feel like much, however, before you know it, you may only have two thirds of your HP bar left and death becomes harder and harder to avoid.
The health bar can be restored back to the maximum by turning human again,but the item which allows you to do so is very rare and, sometimes, you might be better off trying to master a tricky area with a low HP bar without risking losing your humanity again.
Another major change is the lower count of Estus flasks available to the player. At the start of the game, the player only has two at his disposal which can be refilled at any bonfire. More can be crafted by finding Estus Fragments but, obviously, these are also rare to come by. Players will have to use life stones in order to regain HP if they run out of Estus or don’t want to waste them. Life stones are dropped by enemies or can be bought at vendors; they aren’t terribly hard to come by, but players will have to pace themselves using them. The upside is that they can be consumed while moving compared to the Estus flasks which require the player to stand still, leaving himself vulnerable for a few seconds. The downside is that once consumed, that life stone is gone; no free refills at the bonfire, and they always seem to run out when you most need them!
Adding another element to the ever-increasing challenge is the new weapon durability. Weapons now degrade much faster than before, which means that you should always have a back up ready in your quick menu in case your current weapon breaks mid combat. This also means that, more often than not, you will have to switch out between weapons with different damage, stamina consumption and swing time. Dark Souls II’s combat is very much based on muscle-memory. You need to learn their patterns, dodge, block and parry their attacks, then strike them with all you’ve got whilst leaving yourself time to get back in a defensive position. By having to switch weapons so often, you tend to lose the rhythm of combat, so you can choose to learn many different kinds of weapons or spend your hard earned souls to upgrade and maintain your favorite weapons. Regardless, you won’t be able to get through half of the game with one weapon like you did before – I’m looking at you, Drake Sword.
In fact, you’ll be spending your hard earned souls on much more than leveling up this time round, since Dark Souls II has a much bigger emphasis on shopkeepers and vendors. With weapons degrading as quickly as they do, Estus flasks being few and far between and consumables being more effective and worthwhile, vendors become essential to your progression, even if it means delaying your next level up.
These changes might be loved by some and hated by others. Personally, I found myself to be somewhere in the middle. Having played through a good chunk of Dark Souls I was only able to endure the game’s difficulty for so long until I wasn’t having fun anymore. Some changes in the sequel helped alleviate that, such as the fast travel and the life stones, however others made it even worse like the weapon durability and the huge penalty for death. Therefore I am left with mixed feelings about the changes, yet they achieved the same goal: after some time, I stopped finding the game fun.
At the end of the day, veterans of the series will still enjoy Dark Souls II even if they aren’t fans of all the changes to the formula. At the very least, the changes make Dark Souls II feel like a different kind of challenge without compromising what made the previous games succeed and stand out.
For newcomers to the series, Dark Souls II doesn’t try and win over your love. You will have to fight and die over and over again in order to earn its respect, but it is a feat not many are able to endure. If you feel up for a challenge, a REAL challenge, Dark Souls II may just be what you need to test your skills. If you, like myself, couldn’t keep up with the previous iterations of the series, Dark Souls II won’t change that and you may be better off avoiding it. Still, this is the most refined entry in the series.