Dying is an inconvenient truth of living that most people choose to not think about during the time they’re given. The Souls series is notorious for taking the stark fact of death and shoving it right in the faces of its players, and it all started with the, at the time, underground title Demon’s Souls. After the many achievements of this brutally difficult dungeon crawling, action RPG, a spiritual successor was announced known as Dark Souls. Through word of mouth and critical and public success, Dark Souls swiftly became one of the most praised and beloved games of the console generation. Now, five years after the release of Demon’s Souls, and three after Dark Souls, Dark Souls II is finally in the hands of the consumer. It’s well known that Dark Souls II has a legacy to live up to in the eyes of the gaming community, and it’s time to determine whether or not it holds a… torch to its predecessors.
Unlike Demon’s Souls or Dark Souls, Dark Souls II does not immediately start with the player choosing a class or naming their character. Rather, it begins with a beautiful cutscene that sets up a lot of the lore, that can be further discovered by the player within and throughout the games duration. Another oddity that accompanies only Dark Souls II rather than its forebearers is that it does not start by urgently killing the player in a battle that is nearly, if not completely, unwinnable. On the contrary, Dark Souls II, ever so slightly, provides to the player a sense of hope in the place of despair. It does this not through exposition, but through precise lighting cues and soft melodies. I am describing one scene in particular very close to the beginning of the game that caught me off guard because it filled me with a sense that this world, Drangleic, was not completely hopeless and lost… I will stop there, as the lore in Dark Souls II is quite expansive and relies heavily on the players willingness to find and appreciate it. However, like in previous Souls games, the story often feels secondary to the gameplay, which is most certainly the case here.
The Souls series is renowned for its precise controls and fair gameplay. Dark Souls II takes that formula and changes almost nothing about it, and strives because of it. The player controls their character from a third person perspective. Being a role playing game, Dark Souls II’s gameplay is largely based on the players play styles and preferences. Multiple classes are available to the player near the beginning of the game. However, these classes matter very little later on in the game. This is simply because of the freedom given to the player over what attributes they choose to pursue. The player pursues these attributes by collecting souls. Souls are the currency for everything within the Dark Souls II universe, from leveling up skills such as Endurance or Dexterity, to purchasing equipment upgrades from a blacksmith. Collecting these souls requires the slaying of enemies, both small and large, which is easier said than done. A variety of weapons exist within Dark Souls II, from melee weapons such as swords and great swords, to ranged bows, crossbows, and even spells. Melee combat involves smart management of stamina, while understanding how to effectively evade enemies attacks. Ranged combat, whether that be with a bow, crossbow, or magic, involves knowing how to kite enemies to pick them off one at a time without letting them get too close to attack. The controls are accurate and and satisfying, but most importantly, they are fair and extremely rewarding. While the game is open-world, it is also very open-ended. Meaning that the game does not explicitly tell the player where to go or what to do. It trusts the player to explore on their own, at the pace of their choosing. The feelings of discovery and wonder in Dark Souls II are some of the most satisfactory in any game that I’ve played.
Areas within Dark Souls II are segmented by waypoints known as Bonfires. These Bonfires are recovery and fast-travel points located throughout Drangleic. Resting at a Bonfire not only restores the players health and gives them the option to travel to another discovered Bonfire, but it also resets any enemies that had been slain within the world. However, they’ve tweaked the spawning of enemies so that if a player slays a particular enemy in an area enough times in a single playthrough, they will stop spawning all together. This stops players from farming copious amounts of souls from a single location in the game, which encourages exploration and creativity when it comes to soul collection. Succeeding at combat is the best way to amass a large amount of souls, but chances are, failure will happen. A lot. Upon dying, the player loses all of the souls that he or she has collected, loses their humanity, and returns the most recent Bonfire they’d rested at. However, death is not an endgame in Dark Souls II. It is a learning mechanic designed to teach the player techniques on how to go about tough and dangerous situations. Dying also adds a risk/reward mechanic to the game, breeding questions such as, “Do I continue going even though I have all these souls,” and “Are the souls I left where I died worth going back to get?” Because the amount of souls the player collects ultimately affects their ability to succeed in the game, the stress of losing them, and the triumph of gaining them, can be quite intoxicating.
Discovering and interacting with the numerous NPC’s in Dark Souls II is another core goal within the game. NPC’s are often treasure troves of knowledge about the happenings of Drangleic, both presently and historically. Talking to these characters often gives tips to the player about where to go or what to do, and in some cases provide an option for them to join what’s known as a Covenant. Covenants are very ambiguous “groups” that require the player to perform certain actions or meet criteria to “deepen” their devotion to specific Covenants. Only one Covenant can be active at a time, and some are more mysterious than others. These Covenants are fuel to the lore fire that is initiated by the games cryptic nature, and endeavoring to understand each one is fun in and of itself.
Dark Souls II, following the format set up by it’s predecessors, has one of the most interesting and unique multiplayer experiences out there. Throughout the game, the player will encounter multiple types of illuminated glyphs on the ground, those being Messages, Summons, and Bloodstains. Messages are orange glyphs with, usually, instructional advice left by other players in their own world of Drangleic. I say usually because, on rare occasions, these messages can be used for more nefarious purposes, i.e, misleading unfortunate souls to their untimely death. Summons are white, yellow, or red glyphs left by players who would like to come to another players Dark Souls II experience. White and yellow glyphs are left by those who would like to help their summoner accomplish tasks within the world. Red glyphs, however, are left by those who wish to challenge their summoner in a duel to the death. Bloodstains are muddy, red stains that show the player a shadow of someone else's death, which could in turn prevent their demise. One multiplayer element is completely out of the players control: Invasions. Invasions are random acts of violence committed by those looking to challenge live opponents for sport. Things like Messages and Bloodstains work flawlessly and add to the connected, yet separated atmosphere that is built up during the game. Summoning friends can be stressful when the Summon Sign takes ages to appear, but when it works, it’s an immense amount of fun. Invasions are definitely the most stressful situations I encountered during my playthrough of Dark Souls II, primarily because of unintentional player lag. At times I had wished that I could just turn Invasions off all together. The multiplayer in Dark Souls II is just as robust and gratifying as it is in the previous titles, but it is just as frustrating as well.
The world of Drangleic is a beautiful and expansive one; filled to the brim with areas to explore and discover. From the hub location of Majula, with its crashing waves and setting sun, to the dank and dark pits of The Gutter. Every location in Dark Souls II is rich with detail and quality. While some areas can feel rehashed from past games, most are new and vibrant, and all are gorgeous to look at. The characters and monsters that inhabit Drangleic are equally as compelling as the environments they reside in. Non-Playable Characters throughout the world are unique and diverse. Each one boasting interesting armor and apparel that makes them instantly recognizable and memorable. The players character has a vast variety of exquisite armors and weapons to choose from, that can be mixed and matched according to preference. Added clothing physics within the game make cloth blow in the wind and move naturally with the characters. Technically speaking, the graphical fidelity of the game hasn’t improved much over the direct predecessor, Dark Souls, but to say that this is a bad looking game is simply false. Locations, environments, NPC’s, armor sets, and weapons are all superbly detailed.
Many sounds can be heard within Dark Souls II, and each is as lovely and skin tingling as the next. Silence, however, is one of the most prevailing sounds in the world of Drangleic; most of the areas are accompanied with it, building tension with each weary step around every dark corner. A few locations do have somber melodies that can be heard in the background, but these are few and far between. Boss battles are always followed by strong orchestral scores that add a sense of urgency to the showdowns. Contextual sounds, such as swords hitting armor or footfalls on brimstone, are, for the most part, accurate and impactful. On a few occasions, in select locations, the sound would lag behind the actions, which was quite jarring in a world with so much visual and ambient atmosphere. On the other hand, the voice acting of all the NPC’s was outstanding. Even with little to no facial animations, voice actors were able to convey emotions and bring life to their respective characters, providing quite a memorable experience. All in all, Dark Souls II’s sound design is undoubtedly one of the defining tonal techniques within the game.
The Souls series has tested my patience since I picked up Demon’s Souls in late 2009. Dark Souls II has tested my patience and perseverance once more, and I am once again grateful for it. Dark Souls II sacrifices nothing in attempt to accommodate to those without the fortitude to master its secrets, and by doing so, intensifies the sensations of accomplishment and triumph. I play games to escape into worlds that beg to be explored, with challenges and mysteries that dare me to push forward. Dark Souls II reminds me why I play video games, and a game that can accomplish that is absolutely one worthy of praise.