How much pain and torment are you willing to endure in order to reach your goal? That’s the question that Dark Souls II asks. Like its predecessors Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls II plops players into the middle of a fantasy world populated with some of the deadliest enemies in video games today and expects them to figure it out for themselves.
The concept of Dark Souls II hasn’t changed much from its immediate predecessor. Players find themselves in a strange world with a curse but there is a larger curse that seems to occupy the world at large. They are Undead, meaning that players can’t really be killed and this is actually used as a gameplay mechanic. Being Undead, players can be killed but they just wake up at the last campfire they rested at. Each ‘death’ is accompanied by a slight reduction in their maximum health bar, down to 50% of max health, but this can be reset by using a Human Effigy item and becoming human. Or finding the Ring of Binding item which caps this drop in health at 75% but getting it is going to take some agony.
Initially players are met by three crones who don’t seem very hopeful about gamer’s chances and, following a tutorial section that explains everything to come without being as brutally unforgiving as the first Dark Souls, are sent off to explore the world.
And what a world it is. Much of the game, when you’re not bumbling around in sewers and trying to swallow your heart at every noise in case a massive enemy has managed to sneak up on you, is gorgeous. There are frequent moments that are designed to strike awe in players at what developers From Software have created. The first time players emerge from the darkness and into the light of hub area Majula is just one of these times but there are others, like standing victorious after defeating all of the switch guardians prior to attempting the Dragonrider boss fight. But getting to new locations isn’t as easy as you’d expect.
Sometimes players will feel that they are merely bashing their heads against the wall, attempting the same section over and over again. Whether it’s being swamped by enemies, catching the wrong end of a two-handed sword that is larger than you are or simply misjudging a jump, players will be killed again and again. Like the previous games, all souls – which act as currency and upgrade fodder – are lost upon death but successfully making your way back to the place you died means that you get your souls back. For the moment. But each section can be overcome, either by backtracking and hunting down smaller foes or besting a less difficult section for the rewards that it brings with it. Either the better gear (which honestly isn’t much help) or the combat experience is enough to let players progress but they will have to earn that. Dark Souls II isn’t giving away anything for free and even a momentary lapse in concentration is enough to send players back to the last campfire.
Dark Souls II has made some interesting changes however, that are not immediately apparent on the surface. Progressing higher in level will see some low-level enemies vanishing from the game, meaning that it’s impossible to farm souls in an easy location for too long – unless you don’t mind risking 30,000 souls on the fact that a low-level peon might get a lucky stab in. On the plus side, those locations can be more easily explored when this happens.
At first glance From Software seems to have made Dark Souls II easier than its predecessor as well but that’s just a ploy to keep your heart rate down until the first time that you run into the Pursuer and have every bit of skill you thought you had given a massive wedgie before being flushed down a toilet. At its easiest this game is enough to challenge most players, at its hardest you’ll be hard pressed to not snap a controller in frustration.
But the multiplayer aspects are here to help. Or hinder, depending on how malicious people are feeling. Almost unchanged from the first game, Dark Souls 2 will still let players who are connected online view messages from other players as well as the bloodstains left by their deaths, perhaps giving them a head’s up to something nasty around the corner. Two players can co-op online with Dark Souls II and there is still the option to invade other worlds or be invaded in turn.
If there is anything to criticise it would be that not a whole lot has changed but that’s also the whole reason for praising this game (and the Sun) as well so it evens out. Combat is still tactical, hard as nails and gratifying when you get it right. The world players inhabit is as enigmatic as ever and the enemies are still varied and wholly terrifying. Not everyone is cut out for an adventure like this but for those who are prepared to die, this is the place to do it. Dark Souls II is proof that repeating the same actions will eventually get you a different result. If you’re good enough, that is.