Dark Souls is a tough act to follow. While it was the second game in the dark fantasy Souls series, it had a wider audience and fell under closer scrutiny. As well as solidifying the mechanics that Demon's Souls had laid out it made some major changes and built a more cohesive world. Dark Souls II tweaks the formula again and the results aren't entirely satisfying. Here's wot I think.
Dark Souls II is a well-crafted and superbly designed game. With that out of the way, I’m going to write a few hundred words about all of the things that I don’t like about it. You may disagree with some of my opinions and there’s a clear reason for that – the Souls series has a broader appeal than its reputation suggests and over three games, people have been drawn in and discouraged by a range of features and experiences. For my thoughts on the series in general and some of the more obvious alterations between Dark Souls 1 and 2, read my review of the first and early thoughts on the current.
I’m not going to explain why this is one of the most important RPG series in existence because one of the two links above should explain that if the recent bellowing of the internet hasn’t already clued you in. Instead of reviewing Dark Souls 1 again, I’m going to try and decipher my thoughts about Dark Souls 2 and explain what it lacks that made its predecessors so brilliant and bewildering. To do that, I’ll try to identify the different aspects of the game that appeal to different groups of players, and pinpoint in what ways they’ve changed.
Now that I’ve faced the final boss and triumphed, I’m all but 100% certain about a couple of things. The first is that the core of the game – patient, positional and observational combat - is gripping and almost as constructed as in the previous game. If that weren’t the case, the whole thing would fall apart under the lightest scrutiny. Whatever else it might be (and I’ll get onto that in a moment), Dark Souls is a dark fantasy combat game and the brutal simplicity of the stamina-based clashes is responsible for much of the series’ reputation. From the most bruising behemoths to unarmed hollow guardsmen, every encounter is potentially lethal, and every movement of intent and assault must be studied so that a response can be formed.
The second major point that has been solidifying as I’ve played is a bit more of a downer, although not everybody will see it that way. Dark Souls II is a better RPG, in the class-based stat-bothering sense, than Dark Souls I. I’ll explain why that is and also why I think it’s a bad thing, but that involves figuring out exactly what it is that I love about these games.
It’s a more balanced game, although there are still devices, traps and patterns so cryptic that they lead straight to a crypt 99% of the time. Heading into an area while underpowered can be frustrating and because the nature of the game is to offer a challenge even to players who are relatively overpowered, it’s not always obvious when turning tail and discreetly picking another route might be the better part of valour.
The improved balance mainly manifests in the form of a smoother levelling curve, with souls dispensed in regular doses along each path, and easy access to a blacksmith at the main hub. More on that hub in a second - and the way in which bonfires have changed – but there’s more to say about levelling.
I didn’t have to grind for souls at all and that is quite possibly a good thing. That’s not to say I didn’t end up collecting an Alderaan’s worth of the sodding things at some points in the game, but that only happened because I died ten or twenty times and managed to limp back to my bloodstain each time, stocking up on the way. To finish the game, I didn’t intentionally feel that it was necessary to return to areas solely for the purpose of killing enemies over and over again after forcing them to respawn. There’s a new complication regarding the respawns as well, which run dry after a while, but the implications of that are best left vague. Suffice to say, I didn’t feel the change harmed the game.
When spending souls, there are still choices to be made. Which stat to boost, which equipment to upgrade and which items to buy. The biggest question is whether to cash in the soul of each boss or to keep hold of it until it can be swapped for a piece of unique loot. The first Dark Souls could be punishing when poor decisions were made and it wasn’t always obvious that a decision had been poor until a few hours had passed. That added to the hopelessness and the despair, but it also made every purchasing or levelling decision a fraught occasion, and I eventually resorted to the use of guides to ensure I wasn’t being entirely wasteful.
Dark Souls II isn’t as harsh. That’s evident with the redesigned bonfires as well. Light one up and you can travel to any previously visited fire, including the one planted by the safety of the village. That’s a place to restock and replenish, as well as to trade Estus shards for an extra use of the flask. A small nagging criticism is that it’s necessary to travel to the village to level up, even though it’d save on time and button presses to have the option directly available at each bonfire. It’s rare that I don’t quick travel straight back out of the village so there are a lot of pointless loading screens.
Here’s a bigger criticism – the quick travel detracts from the sense of claustrophobia, and of being lost in a cursed world. That feeling is central to my admiration of the Souls series and the quick travel softens it. You’re never more than a few minutes from a teleporter that will take you to the beginning of the game, which makes the world overlap itself and obliterates the sense that it has been left unfolded, Origami-like, or opened up like a ribcage before surgery. That’s how Lordran felt, spires like cracked ribs in the distance.
With the bonfire teleportation system you could be lost in a desert and all it’d take to get back home is finding a single waypoint. It’s as if the characters in The Descent could have been back home with a cup of tea and a Hobnob if they’d managed to survive a couple of action sequences. In Dark Souls, being underground was oppressive because it was always necessary to find a way back to the surface. In Dark Souls II, if you keep going deeper in or down, there’s likely to be a bonfire that’ll take you back to the start.
Some people will like the change and it does have its benefits, chief among them that it makes farming for items much easier and encourages revisiting areas to tease out their secrets, of which there are many. But my complaints cut to the heart of what it is that I like about Dark Souls – I like the atmospherics and the sense of being trapped in a dark fantasy adventure. Dark Souls II may be a stronger RPG but it’s a weaker adventure.
Compounding that, the first areas suffer from a lack of variety, in both enemy types and architecture, but there are surprising vistas and reveals in wait. Lore – and indeed the basic plot – is hidden in item descriptions and in conversations, usually two or three button presses deep. Like the visual design, the story and world-building isn’t as evocative as that in the two previous games for the first third of the game. By the time the approach to the final conflict arrives, stakes have been raised and the basic and well-worn foundation of the story has begun to show its sinister hand.
Story is worth focusing on for a moment. The Souls games can seem plotless, like a cocktail of dungeons from roleplay supplements that have been muddled together haphazardly. The dungeonmaster who should explain the ‘why’ and the ‘whatnot’ is mostly mute, leaving the ruins and the things that stalk them to communicate the tale non-verbally.
There are themes though and characters to go with them. All three games have a similar forward motion but one side effect of their atmospheric dread and mechanical repetition is that they can feel devoid of progress. Dead warriors slogging through limbo’s grey areas, like shadow figures of the heroic ideal.
Repetition is not stasis, however, and something is happening. Just as Disney has its fairytales, princesses and happy endings, Souls has its curses, hollow humanoids and ruined lands. A piece of armour collected from a fallen enemy early in the game tells a story of unspeaking automatons that awoke, climbed from unknown depths and assisted in the defence of a fort. They are enemies now, as are most things. The Souls world is in its twilight and the disconnection from the usual questing storylines is easily explained by the finer details of the setting – the player characters arrived too late to perform all but the most minor miracles. To a great extent, they are the heroes in a story that has already run its course and ended in disaster and disintegration.
One way to reframe the plot, while acknowledging some of its metagame implications, is to ask a question - is it possible to be the hero of the story when you only arrive during the epilogue?
All of that, combined with the brilliance of the combat and some of the more inventive boss designs (flexile sentry, I’m looking at you, grotesque though you are) makes this a game full of weird wonders and a fantastic piece of work. The multiplayer integration is excellent and I’ve left my mark on the world in the form of helpful signs and as a phantom ally to the beleaguered.
Those people who play with the intent of creating the most powerful character possible and beating the cruel systems at their own game will be in their element. I saw the shade of a character by one bonfire who looked like she’d been plucked straight from an anime series or a JRPG, with an enormous sword resting on each shoulder. I like that it’s possible to build those characters but I also know that’s not why I’m playing. It’s entirely possible to direct your late-game and new game + characters toward PvP dominance and the layout of some levels seems directly attuned to the qualities of specific classes for just that purpose.
For me, Dark Souls is at its best when I’m harrowed and hollow, lost and cursed and beaten down. I love the eventual victories but I appreciate the journey toward them far more than the end result. The journey through Draenglic is a memorable one but some of the mystery and the rot has gone from this world.
One new system that I do like and that I haven't mentioned is the sapping of health with each hollow death. Every time a 'dead' player dies again, without restoring humanity, another notch is knocked off the maximum health bar. That adds to the sense of being eroded and creates its own long-form tension and it may not be possible without the ability to quick travel and replenish restorative items so easily. Everything is tied to the balance of these delicate mechanics.
For those willing to invest time into the New Game +, into the covenants and the raiding of other players' worlds, there's far more to uncover than I'll probably ever see. As I said at the beginning, Dark Souls II is a very good game. These have been some of the reasons why as well as some of the reasons why I don’t think it’s quite as great a game as I'd hoped it would be.
Dark Souls II is available now.