Four years ago, we reviewed the sleeper hit Demon’s Souls. It popularized a bare-bones RPG where everything was trying to kill you, and where being killed was the best start to a game ever. It was followed up by a more popular Dark Souls, which made its debut on non-PS3 consoles, and now we have the direct follow up, titled Dark Souls……II. Ready to die again? And again? And again? Good! Let’s get going.
Dark Souls II takes place many years in the future from the events of Dark Souls (although the two stories are not directly related). This time, your hero is someone who is cursed, and you’re out to figure out why, and to find a cure. So off you prance to the land of Drangleic whereupon many wonderful people try to tell you that this is a futile errand. You ignore the advice, so they finally tell you how to go about defeating the curse. Of course, this inevitably involves obtaining souls, and lots of them, including four Grand Souls (the same four from the prior game).
If you’re not aware of the series’ claim to fame, Dark Souls II is horrendously difficult. What sets it apart from other horrendously difficult games is the fact that it’s not unfairly difficult. When I started the game up and saw the first cutscene, I honestly wondered for the first time in my history of playing and reviewing games “is that scene pre-rendered? Or filmed?” It’s a beautiful start and it just gets better as you progress through the game. Graphically, the game is impressive, and you can tell that much love and dedication has gone into the environment layouts and textures. Your first task, obviously, is to generate the character you’ll be dying playing with. This has a significant effect on the kinds of things you can do early on in the game. For example, choosing the Bandit allows you to wield bows effectively, while choosing a Sorcerer gives you early access to magic. You can customize the character during playthrough to allow for mixed characters of varying abilities, but it takes lots of souls—the game’s currency—to do this sort of thing.
Unlike many games, dying isn’t the end. You can die as often as you like. It’s not without consequence, though. When you die, you lose any souls you were carrying. You also lose a small portion of your health bar each time you die, until your health bar hits the 50% mark. Trust me, in a game where every little bit of health is important, this is a major penalty for recurring death. You can get it all back again, of course, by using a semi-rare item to return to human form. In fact, there are many advantages about being in human form over undead form, more about which a little further down in the review.
As with the prior two games, multiplayer is just as, if not more important than before, and you can have up to two others playing alongside you. Of course, to properly enjoy the benefits of multiplayer, you have to be in human form, not the standard undead form that you tend to be for most of the game. You can only summon other players, or be summoned, when human. However, to see the dead animations of others, or to read notes only requires you be connected online. When you come up against your first boss fight, in fact, you discover the importance of allowing other players into your game world, because unless you’ve fairly bulked up your character, the first boss is so incredibly difficult bordering on impossible.
One of the nicer aspects of the game, as compared to the earlier game, is that fast travel between bonfires is something you can do from the very start, provided you’ve reached and lit said bonfire. It pays to spend some time hunting around for hidden areas in the game, because the bonfires themselves are often well hidden too. Dark Souls II is one of those games that actually gives you nothing gratis—every bit of progress in the game is something to be earned, even your respawn points. In fact, one thing that might sound good initially becomes a problem later on. If you kill the same enemy often enough (and they respawn every time you rest at a bonfire!) it disappears from the game entirely. Initially this revelation makes you say “Yay! That means that if I struggle enough, but manage to kill often enough, I can slowly progress by brute-forcing my way through the game!” Yes, that’s true. But there’s a downside. Enemies that die drop souls. You need souls to do everything from levelling up your character to buying equipment. Couple this with the idea that, if you die you lose the souls you were carrying. You can regain those souls if you can make your way to your bloodstain, but die en route, and those souls are lost forever. Stupid moves can be incredibly costly.
Which brings me to one of the biggest, most horrible issues I have with the game. There’s no pause. The menu opens in real time, and if you’re futzing about in the menu while a monster gnaws at your ankles, you’re going to have a bad time. “But it’s a hallmark of the game!” I hear you say. Bollocks. I lost a good couple thousand souls because there’s no pause—and I had to answer the damn phone. I thought I’d backed off far enough to be safe, but in this particular case, the dratted foes were trailing me far beyond their normal haunt. I was swearing so much (inwardly, of course) while I was on the phone, and having to hear the death screams of my character along with the “YOU DIED” sound.
I ran into another strange issue with the game while testing out multiple characters. The game allows you to play with many save games, which is useful for figuring out how the different character classes play. While switching between characters, I discovered one insanely annoying bug: if your console loses its connection to the internet during gameplay, and you quit and try to get to the main menu, you can’t. Nothing for it but to quit back to your console dashboard and reload. Odds are, many of you are playing with a single character so wouldn’t encounter this, but it’s there nonetheless.
Honestly, though, I really can’t recommend the game enough. It’s brutal, yes, but it’s the kind of game where you truly feel each accomplishment, even if that accomplishment is just making it to the next bonfire. Or making it back to the safety of the game’s hub area, Majula. Or even something as simple as successfully blocking an attack and surviving long enough on a low health bar to kill the last enemy in the area so that you can rest and heal up. It’s the kind of game that makes for stories of valour and bravery between gamers. And when you eventually but inevitably finish the game, there’s more to be had in New Game+, and you’ll play that through too. Pleasantly enough, you don’t have to have played the first games to get into this one, and old hands will find it just as difficult as newbies. It’s the most fun you’ll have dying over and over.
Final Score: 9.5 Dark Soul’d Prawns out of 10
Developer: From Software
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Platforms: PS3 (reviewed), Xbox360, PC
Age Rating: 16+