When I got Dark Souls II in the mail some two weeks ago, I was admittedly scared. I had never played a Souls game properly before, and its stigma as an extremely difficult and frustrating game kept me far from excitement. Upon putting it in, however, and upon beating it 63 hours later, I now know the truth about Dark Souls II. Dark Souls II is wonderful.
Although there is a II on the end of the title and although the game has a very involved plot, it does not require any prior series knowledge to get going. You can pay close attention to the story involving your cursed undead character trying to find a cure for their curse if you want. You can go even further and pay closer attention to the story involving the rise and fall of the kingdom of Drangleic through somewhat complicated means (it is well written and carefully portrayed). Ultimately though, it’s perfectly acceptable to use the plot as setting and gameplay dressing.
This is because, at its core, Dark Souls II is about its gameplay. The Souls games are third-person action-RPGs that live in a vaguely Medieval fantasy setting. Like other games in similar genres and settings, you level up and allocate your stats, and you can do so as a warrior who dawns a sword and shield, an archer who plays the long-range game, a mage who uses spells and charms, and everything in-between.
What makes Dark Souls different, is, well, everything else. The world of Drangleic is no sprawling Skyrim; instead, the game is separated into somewhat (comparably) linear area level paths that all extend from central town Majula. As you attempt to collect the four Great Souls and take down the throne for your undead means, you can do so at your leisure in a number of different ways. I would describe the pacing almost like a much larger Pokémon game, where you can go in one of four paths from the starting town, take out five gym leaders (minor bosses), and fight an Elite Four member before going down the next path of areas to get the next badges three more times. Of course, because this is an RPG with levels, and because the enemies don’t quite scale, it is possible to be slightly overleveled by the time you get to a path the game sort-of intended you do first. This leads to a slightly stagnant difficulty in the middle of the game, but it’s a small price to pay for total freedom, and Dark Souls at its easiest is still harder than many games at their hardest.
And yet, despite the fact that it is separated into somewhat linear area paths a la Pokémon, I continue to be floored by its potential for exploration and secrets. Because the game refuses to hold your hand in any significant manner, there are certain required story paths that only open up upon doing very specific tasks. For instance (minor spoilers ahead!), in order to open one of the four main paths in the game, I had to exhaust an NPC of her dialogue options, later find her in an underground area that she doesn’t say she’s going to, pay her 2000 Souls, and only then does she activate a contraption that allows you to proceed with the game. It sounds obtuse because it is, but it’s the kind of fun obtuse that classic Zelda games used to take pride in.
And Dark Souls II does manage to make this fun – if you get stuck somewhere, there’s always something else to try or another huge chunk of content to experience. What’s more, if you’re doing well and decide to try your hand at making that one jump that looks impossible or try that early-game door that a new key finally allows you to unlock, you will be rewarded with a plethora of fun side content and/or cool weapons that are by no means required to finish the game. For a series known for frustration and getting stuck, Dark Souls II is a game that keeps on giving.
As for the combat, it prides itself in precision. As a Knight with a sword and heavy shield, I needed to roll, slash, and guard at the correct time in order to avoid obliteration from an enemy or tough boss. In Dark Souls, many of the myriad of small and large bosses the game has to offer can kill you in moments if you don’t execute your strategies perfectly. When fighting bosses and figuring out their tells, it is quite likely that on most, you will die immediately several times before slowly but surely learning the strategies. And as you die, a side effect of being undead is that you will lose your maximum HP (up to half) and turn more grotesque after each death, which puts on the pressure despite its reversibility. At the end of the day, after you finally beat one of these monstrosities that could pass as final bosses in many other games, it feels amazing, and the game begs you to proceed.
The difficulty in Dark Souls II is by no means insurmountable. If you get stuck, you can summon other players playing the game at the same time as you to help on a particularly tough boss without any penalty (outside of a touch of dignity). The game also offers a bonfire mechanic that acts as a checkpoint for when you get killed, as well as an opportunity to rest, heal, and fast-travel. You still drop all of your unspent Souls (which acts as your currency and experience) upon death, but the addition of checkpoints to the formula minimizes a bit of potential frustration. If that still does nothing to quell any fears you have about jumping into a Dark Souls game, enemies will no longer respawn indefinitely. In other words, if you kill an enemy enough times (10 or so seems the norm), it will stop respawning and you can run through the area without the fear of getting hit. The game remains difficult with these somewhat casual mechanics, but its accessibility allows players without as much time and patience to get through the game with enough trial and error.
Additionally, it’s important to understand the timing system the game has to offer. You can almost never pause the game, so you need to figure out the perfect time to use a potion and get locked in that 1.5 second drinking animation, because a boss could easily charge (and murder) you if you get too hasty with your deliberate movements, and if you’re gonna dodge, doing so a second too early is a death sentence. It sounds hard because it is, but it’s also extremely fair (minus some slightly questionable hit detection) and extremely rewarding.
I would be remiss not to mention the elaborate and inventive online multiplayer system From Software has crafted for this series. While exploring the world, bloodstains pop up that briefly show how a fellow player recently died, and simple messages can be placed on the ground to give other players hints (‘hit this rock for an item’) or words of encouragement (expect lots of “nice job!” notes after beating a tough boss). It’s passive, but feels like a built-in strategy guide where players just as lost as you can share tips that lead to a livelier world and richer cooperative experience.
As for in-the-flesh multiplayer, the game offers the aforementioned cooperative summoning to help with levels and boss fights, but certain statues can be touched to trigger multiplayer 1-on-1 arena combat, and you can invade other players (or be invaded) to try to kill them in their own world. Yes, all of this will lead to occasional griefing and a bit of frustration, but seeing players bow to each other after finishing a tough boss or seeing them show respect before a duel is a really beautiful thing. In the world of Dark Souls, you’re never really alone.
Unfortunately, Dark Souls II is no visual stunner. There’s a bit of screen tearing, the textures leave something to be desired, and the framerate hovers around a questionable 30-ish . Thankfully, the game shines in its art design. Bosses range from frightening to delightfully messed up, like a laser-spewing giant spider with a head on each end and a frog with the face of a decaying human corpse. To get a taste of the kind of unsettling From Software pulls off, just try to imagine what a boss called “The Last Giant” would look like in the right hands. The scenery, likewise, continually shifts between drab despair, pure evil, and strategically-placed hopeful sunlight. After taking on a boss that looked impossible until finally earning its defeat, going back to the sunny town of Majula managed to warm my heart every single time.
Dark Souls II is for everyone who wants to play a modern AAA experience that doesn’t do any handholding or last a measly 8 hours. Dark Souls II is for everyone who wants to play Dark Souls but never had the chance. Dark Souls II is for everyone who wants mechanics to come way before story. Dark Souls II is for me, and it is, without a doubt, some of the most fun I’ve had in an RPG in years.
PS3 review copy provided by Bandai Namco Games. Dark Souls II is now available on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, and comes to PC on April 25.