I’ve been playing games for a long time, and I’d say I’m a pretty cool cucumber when it comes to manipulating a virtual environment. While Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls are two of the only games to ever make me break a sweat, Dark Souls 2 managed to do it before I even got past the title screen. Is that because it’s really hard? Well, yes, but the real reason is that I was really nervous when starting up this particular sequel.
Dark Souls took everything I didn’t like about Demon’s Souls and fixed it, all without compromising the series’ core values. I don’t want to throw the word perfect around willy-nilly, but Dark Souls was about as good as I felt the franchise was going to get mechanically. With this in mind, I was extremely anxious that Dark Souls 2 would fail to be relevant. Dark Souls 2’s strange blend of new and old mechanics may make it a mix of innovation and disappointment, but neither of these fluctuations are strong enough to change the game significantly. In short, it’s more of the same, but still very good indeed.
"The quality exploration of the Souls series would be nothing without compelling worlds, and despite a change of location, Dark Souls 2 offers a setting that is just as engaging as that of its predecessors,creating beautiful location after beautiful location, but without sacrificing the dark tones of the series."
I’ll start with the good, as this is what makes up the majority of Dark Souls 2. Yes, the difficulty is still there. But more importantly, so is the sense of achievement and emotional investment this breeds in the act of exploration. Some lengthy gameplay chunks could be considered unfair with their lack of bonfire checkpoints, but Dark Souls 2 is still a confident display of how modern games should handle and balance exploration and difficulty.
The quality exploration of the Souls series would be nothing without compelling worlds, and despite a change of location, Dark Souls 2 offers a setting that is just as engaging as that of its predecessors,creating beautiful location after beautiful location, but without sacrificing the dark tones of the series. The new world of Drangleic is breathtaking, with sturdy textures and a surprisingly melodic soundtrack escalating the sense of wonder throughout.
The way you interact with the world has also changed. The best alterations to the series formula are in the customization options. The character creation and plethora of items, weapons and equipment is as you may remember it, but several tweaks and balancing changes have helped make all your wildest character fantasies viable.
"With the crutch of fast travel, levels lack the intricate shortcuts and connecting paths of the previous game (bar a few exceptions), and you also need to constantly travel back to a hub town in order to level up."
You can now duel wield weapons, you can use a shield as a battering ram and spell-casting implements can now be upgraded and scale just as your weapons do. Whereas Dark Souls forced several weapons and fighting styles into obscurity due to poor balancing, Dark Souls 2 does a great job of keeping all weapons somewhat relevant. Considering my first few hours of the game were spent with two knuckle dusters brawling through the hordes of the undead, I’d say this is a major achievement and a boon to the series.
This has a knock-on effect with the combat, raising it to even greater heights. The sheer physicality and weight behind Dark Souls’ combat made it some of the best in the business, and the new balance allows Dark Souls 2 to be even more playful in its melees. Small tweaks to levelling also give you greater control of your fighting style, with the new adaptability stat allowing you greater control of your agility and poise scores. It adds to the series’ existing combat options to give Dark Souls 2 a surprising sense of expression, whether you want a nimble fighter, or a stalwart hero.
For all these steps forward, a few mechanics have been reverted to as they were in Demon’s Souls, and not necessarily in a good way. Despite the world being a large connected space like in Dark Souls, the inclusion of fast travel between bonfires from the beginning has given From Software room to make some poor design decisions. With the crutch of fast travel, levels lack the intricate shortcuts and connecting paths of the previous game (bar a few exceptions), and you also need to constantly travel back to a hub town in order to level up. Seeing as Dark Souls didn’t have this limitation,having to fast travel to a separate location just to raise a few stats feels really backwards by comparison.
"The visual designs are stellar as always, but too many bosses are found in blank arenas that limit strategic options. Where are the rooftop gargoyle battles or the towers I can use to get the jump on that stupid Taurus Demon?"
Though the level designs hold up for the most part, a few pacing issues can take the wind out of Dark Souls 2’s sails. A prime example of this is the game’s opening, arguably the worst opening half hour I’ve experienced for some time. Lengthy exposition that betrays the series’ usual storytelling method, along with a linear, dull opening level are a far cry from the incredible tutorials in the previous games.
Things get much better once you make it out of the prologue, but a similar malaise can be found at a few points throughout the game. Repetitive enemy placement create a few tedious sections, (oh, there’s an enemy hidden behind a door again? That’s new) and there is a lack of boss variety for much of the game. The visual designs are stellar as always, but too many bosses are found in blank arenas that limit strategic options. Where are the rooftop gargoyle battles or the towers I can use to get the jump on that stupid Taurus Demon?
A further change to the health system also prompts a controversial point. I’m going to go out on a limb and say the Estus flask was the best thing about Dark Souls. Rather than rely on collectable healing items, you only had the Estus flask. It healed you a certain number of times, and was restored at checkpoints, reducing inventory clutter and meaning you couldn’t grind healing items to cheap your way through tough sections. Dark Souls 2 brings back normal healing items, but alongside an initially weaker Estus flask. I’d like to say it’s the best of both worlds, but I’m not so sure.
"For all these small issues and minor innovations, the core gameplay of the series remains unchanged. This isn’t a problem. Dark Souls 2 truly is more of the same, and this is a good thing."
Similarly, that really annoying thing about Demon’s Souls is back. You know the whole “once you die you have to play with half your max HP till the next boss” thing? This time your maximum health is limited a little bit more each time you die. You can reverse this by using a particular item, but as these cures are limited, death carries a heavy consequence. This fits Dark Souls 2’s tone, but it also discourages experimentation in comparison to its predecessor, something that will unfortunately stop some players from fully exploring Dark Souls 2’s many exciting new options and features.
For all these small issues and minor innovations, the core gameplay of the series remains unchanged. This isn’t a problem. Dark Souls 2 truly is more of the same, and this is a good thing. It also helps that is a lot more of the same. The game is massive, arguably rivalling and besting either of the previous two games in sheer size. The new game+ mode also returns, but it also changes enemy layouts this time, delivering even more content. Online co-op and PvP is also back, and will likely extend your playtime even further, though we weren’t able to try this aspect of the game as the servers were not up and running at the time of testing.
Despite a few questionable design choices, the Dark Souls formula still wins the day. Series fans will be delighted when they get their characters into Drangleic, and I have no doubt that Dark Souls 2 will quickly develop a loyal community as its predecessors have been doing since 2009. The original Dark Souls is still as good as the series’ mechanics will ever get in my eyes, but Dark Souls 2 is every bit as worthy of your attention and play time. I can finally dry my sweaty brow safe in the knowledge that Dark Souls 2 is a worthy successor. Then I’ll come across one of the game’s more punishing bosses, and I’ll be drenched in my own sweat once more.
This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360.
Great combat, Beautiful world, Delightful soundtrack, Enhanced customisation options, Lots of content.
Questionable design choices, Few major improvements over the original games, Overly repeated combat scenarios.
Another compelling romp through the twisted mind of From Software, Dark Souls 2 is a strange case of one step forward and one step back for the Souls franchise.
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