First Impressions: Dark Souls II

Genre: Action role-playing
Developer: FromSoftware
Publisher: Bandai Namco Games
Platform: Windows, PS3, Xbox 360,
PS4, Xbox One
Release: March 11, 2014

I’ve spent around seventy hours with this game, and so far, it’s handily one of the best I’ve ever played. The graphics are slightly outdated, as you’d expect for a 2014 title, but aside from a few bland stone textures, the artwork remains appealing. Drangleic is a broken realm, and decay runs through every lifeless wooden shack and moss-infested tower. You play as an Undead (yes, capitalized), a human branded with a cursed mark known as the Darksign. The mark grants your kind potential immortality, reviving you at magical bonfires whenever you die. But though you begin with human sentence and flesh, each death rots your body and corrodes your mind, bringing you closer to the walking corpses of old superstition. The final state is a being known as a Hollow, a predator that exists only to feed on the souls of humans, sentient Undead, and other lifeforms.

You begin the game partially Hollow, and your character visits Drangelic searching for a cure. You never reach the final stages in gameplay, but your character loses maximum health each time you die, down to a minimum of fifty percent. Your health and humanity can be restored by viewing magical effigies, but it’s a brutal system nonetheless. You meet many sentient Undead throughout your journey, but most of the enemies you face are Hollows, wrapped in bandages or tattered armor and cloth. You also find blades and contraptions dedicated to torturing your kind, or locking them behind metal bars. The Undead are feared even when they remain sentient, because the Darksign’s Hollowing has brought many nations to ruin. It’s a much more nuanced take on the undeath concept than usual, although the core is still negative.

But at the core, Dark Souls II is about combat. The lore is mostly optional, spread through item descriptions, conversations with NPCs. It reminds me of the modern DOOM, in that sense; there’s plenty of worldbuilding, but you can skip most of the finer details, at least to the point I’m at. I could stand for a little more character development, but it keeps the gameplay in firm focus.

The combat system is exceptionally brutal. At the beginning, you have little health, and enemies can stunlock you at a moment’s notice, delivering two or three blows in rapid succession. Defense is key to survival; you’re often forced to lure enemies out one-by-one, using rolls, backsteps, and shielding to bait them into overextending themselves. It sounds tedious, but it’s really quite a fluid system, if you’re paying attention. If you swing too quickly or get lazy about defense, even the weakest enemies will cut you down in seconds. When you die, you drop all the souls in your inventory, which serve as both experience points and currency for merchants. You can collect them again after you’re revived, but if you die beforehand, they disappear forever. The enemies in each area respawn twelve times, which allows for efficient level-grinding, but also makes travel unrelentingly dangerous. Fortunately, most locations contain more than one bonfire, which you can quickly teleport between kneeling at other ones.

Adding to the difficulty, most of your actions consume stamina, from swinging a sword to sprinting away or blocking an enemy attack. The stamina meter begins fairly short, although it can quickly be upgraded. Unless you’re holding a shield up or wearing equipment you’re too weak to carry, it rapidly recharges, but you can still be left helpless and exhausted for a few seconds if you act too aggressively. Most shields also allow a small portion of enemy damage through, as they would in real life. On the positive side, this means you can often finish off an enemy who raises their shield at low health. You can also perform a quick shove to knock them off balance, but many enemies can break your guard with their own special attacks. You acquire a rechargeable healing flask early in the quest, but it requires extensive upgrades to be very useful, and you need several seconds to drink from it, which Hollows will gladly take advantage of.

To make matters worse, the game has no pause button; you remain exposed while changing your equipment, key bindings or other settings. The core experience is singleplayer, but other users can leave messages and bloodstains on the ground, warning you of impending danger. They can also invade your game and try to kill you, which rarely takes more than a few blows. You’ll gain an effigy to reverse Hollowing if you kill them first, but the invasions force you to remain vigilant, even when all nearby enemies have been vanquished.

It sounds difficult, and it is, but I’ve rarely died in a way I could honestly call unfair. Usually it springs from fighting multiple enemies in a small space, not dodging properly, falling off a boardwalk, allowing enemies to get behind me, exploring at low health, or other self-inflicted follies. Many action RPGs, such as Fallout 4, become very easy in the later stages, because you gain enough health and attack power to make severe errors without consequence. Not so with this game. My character is currently level 156, but even when visiting the forest that held the first boss, I have to pay attention.

You can also gain levels and items quite rapidly, if you don’t keeping losing your souls. From Software’s decision to combine experience and currency focuses the gameplay, creating a constant resource tug that prevents even small acquisitions from feeling empty. If you don’t have enough souls to level up, there’s probably something useful to buy, and vice versa. You can also upgrade your weapons and armor, if you find the right equipment. It has a real addictive quality, but you’re constantly rewarded, unlike some more sluggish RPGs I could name.

So far, I only have three serious complaints: the PC version still displays console buttons in the menus and tutorials, I had to disable double-clicking to get guard breaks to work right, and you sometimes have to cover a lot of ground to reenter a boss battle if you die the first time, even when all shortcuts have been uncovered. The lack of a pause button can pose issues when real life intrudes, but it contributes to the atmosphere of threat, and it would be difficult to include the PvP elements if one player could halt things. I also wish the lore elements were more prominent, but the ruined fortresses, undead huntsmen, and haunted prison cells already tell a dark tale themselves. Every area seems to have degenerated further than the last, and Drangelic’s world is fascinating to uncover. The trail is always grim, and a few areas become truly frightening, even though the game is rated T instead of M.

Interestingly, Dark Souls II has the highest Metacritic score of the series, but I’m told many fans prefer the first and second games. I’ll have to finish the game for a full review, but if this is even arguably the weakest entry in the series, then Dark Souls strikes me as the equal of Zelda, Final Fantasy, and other classic franchises. At a minimum, it certainly handles breakable equipment better than the latest Zelda, simply because it’s possible to prevent.

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