Dark Souls II
Genre: Action role-playing
Publisher: Bandai Namco Games
Platform: Windows, PS3, Xbox 360, PS4, Xbox One
Release: March 11, 2014
Immortality is the oldest of human fascinations. It appears in many guises, from vampire folklore to religious promises. Sometimes it elevates men, and sometimes it defiles them.
The Undead of Dark Souls bear a cursed mark known as the Darksign. They begin with human intelligence, and they’re reborn at mystical bonfires when they die, granting them an indefinite lifespan. But they decay each time, eventually becoming mindless, predatory Hollows. Your character in Dark Souls II begins partially Hollow, entering the ruined kingdom of Drangelic in search of a cure. You face hordes of former peasants and soldiers, consumed by the same curse. But perhaps your condition is fortunate, because few people could beat Dark Souls II without dying many times.
Veterans of the Souls series will often say it respects you more than other games. “It’s not hard, it’s fair,” a fan once told me. Many RPGs begin with severe challenges, growing rapidly easier as you level up and find better loot. Dark Souls II remains difficult for the entire journey. You can and will gain enough firepower to one-shot many enemies, but even with heavy armor, you can take extreme damage from a handful of blows. Some shields don’t completely neutralize physical damage, and you lose stamina for each block, roll, or swing, leaving you staggered and helpless if you overextend yourself. Combat is as much about reading your opponent’s moves and posture as sheer brute force. If you aren’t careful, the weakest peasants will stunlock you to death.
Dark Souls II punishes risk-tasking like few other RPGs, largely because of how it handles resource management. You collect souls from the beasts and Hollows you slay, which serve as both currency and experience points. Levels and items are permanent, but you drop unspent souls when you die, and the Hollowing process deepens, leaving you frailer and frailer each time. You can regain your souls by touching your bloodstain, but they disappear forever if you die beforehand, and when you’ve lost half your maximum health bar, death comes easily indeed. There are ways to reverse Hollowing, but they’re scarce, leaving a constant shadow over your journey. I like the brutality, but I’d argue the health penalties are too severe. It encourages slow, cautious level grinding over meaningful practice.
Dark Souls II isn’t a full MMO, but Drangelic is filled with messages from other players, ranging from helpful to catastrophic. Some reveal enemy locations, some mark invisible walls, and some advise you to jump into bottomless pits. It demands vigilance, like everything else in the game. Every so often, other players invade your world and try to kill you. You’re rewarded if you succeed, but they’re some of the most tenacious enemies of all.
Conversely, few games are more satisfying when you finally succeed. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve played Zelda or Final Fantasy and wished the enemies would put up a better fight. Dark Souls II rarely disappointed me this way. The enemies generally follow a soldier or peasant formula, but their attacks are varied and intelligent. The boss encounters are even more threatening. They’re enormously durable, and many can attack from great distances, or leap through entire rooms in the blink of an eye.
You have numerous options yourself, from a standard sword-and-shield layout to fire magic or dual greatswords. There are four schools of magic and many different physical weapons, and you can switch between them at will, provided you’ve developed the proper stats. There are nine vital attributes, affecting elements from health to casting speed, and you only get to raise one each level.
Unfortunately, the mouse in the PC version suffers from input lag, making some of the combo moves almost impossible to perform without remapping attacks to your keyboard. The problem is that it’s hard to fit all the controls there. I eventually found a setup that worked, but I found I had to slightly change my controls whenever I switched between dual-wielding and carrying a shield. The PC version also displays controller buttons in the inventory menus, making it difficult to find the right keys. I recommend using an Xbox 360 controller even if you’re playing on a computer. This game is hard enough without your input device fighting you.
Dark Souls II isn’t exactly next-gen, but it isn’t ancient either. Some of the textures are too muddy for my tastes, but Drangelic is as varied as it is lethal. You’ll traverse haunted forests, ruined prisons, draconian mountain peaks, and castles embedded in magma, searching for souls powerful enough to stave off your fate. Most areas offer several branching routes, rewarding exploration with powerful relics and helpful NPCs. Drangelic suffered the Darksign for many years before it fell, and the survivors persecuted sane Undead alongside their Hollow brethren. The Huntsman’s Copse is a chilling forest you cross early in your journey. The Old Iron King’s servants used it to imprison the Undead and maim them for sport, until the curse struck them as well. Now they walk mindlessly alongside their former prey, hungry for the souls of humans and human Undead.
It’s a grim tale, but unless you read item descriptions and supplementary material, you’ll miss out on it. Dark Souls II takes place long after Drangelic’s fall, and the main plot can feel aimless, with little dialogue and few character interactions beyond enemies who want you to die. There are times when the game doesn’t even bother telling you where to go; I had to look online to find the NPC who allows you to level up. All of the Souls games try to let you uncover the setting yourself, but this one is particularly indirect. It’s hard not to feel like the developers squandered their lore.
Otherwise, Dark Souls II is one of the best games I’ve ever played. It’s a masterpiece of uncompromising RPG design. It goes to great lengths to kill you, but it’s usually your fault when you die, and every roadblock is ultimately as vulnerable as you. It forces you to adapt, and it’s immeasurably more rewarding for it. The combat system is vicious and precise, and Drangelic is a fittingly dark sandbox, with new routes, treasure, and death traps around every corner. I think the Hollow penalties went too far, but there are rings that soften the blow, if you pay the necessary maintenance cost.
In the end, Dark Souls II is as much about overcoming adversity as being crushed by it. It’s consumed more hours than anything else in my Steam library, and I regret none of them.
That said, get an Xbox 360 controller if you’re playing the PC version. You’ll thank yourself later.
The Lost Crowns DLC
Dark Souls II has three DLC packages: Crown of the Sunken King, Crown of the Old Iron King, and Crown of the Ivory King. They were each released a month apart in the summer of 2014. They’re automatically included with the Scholar of the First Sin version, but even if you have to purchase them for the original (like me), I highly recommend them.
You’ll likely encounter the entrance to Crown of the Old Iron King first, but the episodes can be tackled in any order. They take place in three areas separate from the main quest, with much nicer architecture and even less hand-holding. Enemies carry stronger and more varied attacks, and you’ll have to interact with the environment in deeper ways to progress. I leveled my character well beyond six hundred before I completed them, but you can probably win earlier if you have better reflexes.
Crown of the Ivory King was my favorite of the three. It spans a massive frozen castle with intricate chambers and a host of icy guardians. It closes with a brawl unlike anything in the base game, and you can gather a team of ancient swordsmen to even the odds. If can you beat all three DLC episodes, you’ll earn the game’s ultimate reward.