Dark Souls II Review

[As Read on GIO.]

If you thought you were already prepared to die, then you’ve got a horrible surprise coming your way with the release and purchase of Dark Souls II. However, if you were also expecting another challenging yet rewarding adventure journey and deep role-playing mechanics, then you’re partially right and may just have a sporting chance at surviving without too many deaths- being relative of course, as you’ll still most likely die over two hundred times. From the original Demon’s Souls to the soul successor Dark Souls to the newly minted sequel to Dark Souls, players have faced stiff challenges, brutal foes, and unforgiving puzzles over the past five years. I can’t say it’s always been rainbows, kitties, and sunshine- never has in fact, unless you count Sun Bro that is….but still, what an experience we’ve had over this past generation until now. I look forward to future projects already, but then again I am probably getting ahead of myself here. This is after all a review, so I should be talking about more related mechanics and less topics of interest- at least in terms of major subjectivity, as ironic as that may be in an opinion piece such as this.

Even if you’ve never played Dark Souls or Demon’s Souls, you may still rest relatively easy in the fact that should you decide to purchase this highly anticipated sequel you won’t be disappointed by the challenge and also won’t feel entirely left out of the loop story-wise. It’s story is relatively standalone, though there are plenty of references to the events of Dark Souls to be found for the inquisitive and experienced dungeon divers and explorers among us. What is most likely known to you already is that said challenge is going to be extremely difficult, unless you’re a veritable tank of a player- in which case I commend you for your fabled skills and still wish you the best of luck, as the mighty will fall as often as the meek in this game- a la Boromir. This sequel introduces a few newer, more accessible methods of gameplay in order to open the title up to other players, however it is also more punishing and hardcore than it’s predecessor was. You’re still heavily penalized by dying, though you’ll see similar methods of regaining lost souls and depleted items or counters, as well as maintaining your solid status and damage impacts or effects- both positive and negative. Trust me, nothing sucks more than the infamous poisons of Dark Souls, which whittle your health down immensely over long periods of time, and pretty much leave you open to one or two hits from most enemies. Tough love, tough luck.

While these punishing tactics may scare certain players away, they’ve obviously attracted more who are looking for a challenge, as the game has been immensely popular thus far around the world and received mostly excellent reviews as well. There is definitely something to be said about the sense of utter accomplishment and triumph that one feels after having beaten a particularly difficult section of the game, a boss character, or even completed the title itself- and although you may be hesitant to dive back in for more, I can pretty much guarantee you that you will. Such is the way of the world, such is the way of Dark Souls, and such is the way of replayability- which this game has mountains upon mountains of content wise and scenario wise. In many ways, Dark Souls II is similar to its predecessor and yet in others it is an altered beast in all possible ways. For the most part the challenges and methods of play style remain closely related to the original game, yet the subtle and less subtle improvements to core mechanics, graphics, controls, and tweaks to just about every major function in-game really add to the experience and refine an already impressive level of control and handling power.

Whereas I gave the original Dark Souls a pretty hefty 9.25 out of ten possible points in my review (a long while ago), comparatively 0.5 points higher than Game Informer’s 8.75 at that time, I must say I am completely impressed by this next stage in the evolutionary process and would give this particular sequel an even higher score- one that will be mentioned at the close of this review, and that you can look up on GIO as well, should you wish to do so. Daniel Tack himself gave the game  a nearly perfect score, and is obviously a big fan of the series as well as this next iteration of the legendary saga- and fan or not (though I am most definitely a fan), I would pretty much agree with the vast majority of his points, so I will point you to his review as well. Dark Souls II, as I previously mentioned, is able to make itself more accessible to more types of players and one of the major ways it does this is by being a little more explicative in the control process without completely eliminating the process of having to figure out how little things work and what certain mechanics do. Even for an experienced player such as myself, I really enjoyed this aspect of the gameplay, and am sure others such as  newcomers to the series have as well.

Another brilliant addition to the game is a sense of life even amidst all the death, destruction, and chaos wrought in the main world and surrounding areas. Whereas there were occasional blacksmiths and vendors in the original, there are a multitude of non-playable characters to interact with in varying ways and to varying degrees within the overall hubworld and main area of the game. Combine this lively sense of being with several other minor yet majorly impacting adjustments to locomotion and clarification and you’ve already stepped up the game so much more than the original could- in about the first thirty minutes. You can now travel from discovered and lit or kindled bonfires with ease, cutting down on the frustration of traveling on foot everywhere in the world, without cutting back on the challenge or difficulty of exploration and unlocking new areas of the open world. Some other more accessible gameplay mechanisms include further detail involved in the joining of specific covenants, the simple amount of covenants (much more to be discovered than in the first title), and the clarity in explanation of the goals you must complete in order to join these guilds of sorts. There are also potentially more benefits to actually joining up with specific covenants this time around, and these are made known as you decide whether or not to join said covenant(s)- seeming more genuine and less like the afterthought they were in the first title.

Admittedly, while the story of the first Dark Souls was engrossing to me and actually pretty spot on in my opinion, it was one of the weaker elements- as the mechanics and gameplay themselves spoke up louder than any story moments did. However, this time around I didn’t feel like that was such as issue. Sure, the story could still use a little work, but it does a better job of seeming more engrossing without being shoved aside or placed directly in your face at times. It is paced much more believably as you progress and neither hindered or helped along faster or slower to accommodate players of varying skill levels overbearingly. The introduction is easily my favorite of the three titles technically in the Souls saga, and the incredible moments and feelings of woe, joy, triumph, and loss were woven excellently throughout the mainframe as well- holding together a wonderful tapestry of modern gaming in a unique, entertaining way without ever feeling forced upon you or unreal (in a bad sense).

For players of the previous title, the combat of Dark Souls II remains very true to its challenging premises, without sacrificing room for improvement to simplistic design and older ways of thinking. Improvements include, but are not limited to, addition of more combat related statistics for general use and leveling up, tweaks to the experience in terms of agility and evasive maneuvers- actually making them harder to abuse, yet somehow not making the experience any worse or much more frustrating at all, and refining blocking, parrying, and riposting. You’ll still remain much more reliant on your stamina bar and want to find an equal balance between it and your vitality, as these two key features are what keep you alive through otherwise impossible circumstances, and make Dark Souls such a strategic game as well as an action-packed one. In many respects, the game is as much a puzzle game as it is a true role-playing one, which is very true and very interesting indeed when you think about it. Unlike many other games, don’t just assume there are ways to abuse specific mechanics in order to “spam to win.” Dark Souls II is still victim to some mechanics and areas that can be used as such, however they are much fewer and farther between than its predecessor, and slowly being rooted out in updates as well- making the experience more challenging but equally or more rewarding as well.

New additions to gameplay such as vigor meters enhance the viability of stamina and agility related statistics, and encourages a further balancing of stats between vitality, endurance, and other important key attributes- making maintaining equilibrium in your powers and inventory all the more complicated yet refreshing as an experience. You still may want to go to certain guides in order to discover ways to get better at the game and some tips and tricks, but as there obviously aren’t too many out for the time being- considering the game released a month ago, you’re probably better off experimenting with classes and finding what works best for you personally rather than relying on others to dictate that to you. It certainly enriches the experience that way too. While your classes will vary as they did in the first Dark Souls, and stats will be slightly different to each- honestly it doesn’t matter where you start, and what truly matters is the starting gear you choose (like the master key and fireballs from Dark Souls I). Whichever class you ultimately choose, over the next few hours and level-ups you can completely change and revamp your character as you see fit anyway. If you feel like you have truly messed up, rather than starting over simply be on the lookout for the rare skill tree and soul respecs which, true to their names, allow you to virtually start over without fear of loss of stats or progress. These are handy but ultra rare in-game so don’t rely heavily on them- make each stat purchase wisely.

The graphics of the original game were pretty impressive, but these ones have come a long way since 2011 and look all the more visually stunning. Originally, having looked at some pre-release builds and trailers, I was not that impressed with a few particularly bland character models and odd textures, however I have been thoroughly impressed with the final build which looks excellent in most respects. Environments are varied and impressive in amount of detail as well as enemies you will encounter. The enemies and specific challenges of each area vary as well and prove to be distinctive and encompassing for players, adding a truly diverse array of settings and gameplay options that I didn’t really feel I had for the majority of the experience in the very similar settings of the first title. Even as you become better at conquering a specific area, you will undoubtedly move on into a new one and get smashed by more powerful and unexpected enemies and puzzles, which is still a large part of Dark Souls’ aesthetics and challenge. There is more emphasis on character choice in the open world, and although at some points you are essentially funneled in specific directions still, it occurs less often than in the first game where you were forced in pretty much one direction for the first five hours in order to have a chance at surviving any encounters until you had leveled up and found area specific items.

As in the first game, you can also summon cooperative partners to assist you in boss battles or particular challenges, as well as be invaded by enemy players in search of loot or otherwise there to cause misery and misfortune to befall you. These online modes can be disabled, which I would recommend if you are a fledgling character and not so strong in your abilities yet, but they also work much better even than in the previous game where they were more often abused and less often enjoyable. Cooperative mode is fine as ever, yet there are still a few minor tweaks that could probably be made to the invasion process- but nothing major enough to detract from the overall gameplay or from the score I would give the game, so therefore it isn’t much worth mentioning other than to say it’d involve some glitch fixes here and there and more stringent rules. I’d definitely recommend trying the single player experience itself before opening yourself up to possible attack and corruption of other players, however as you are your own human being you are free to do as you wish and play online or off.

A pretty large change that actually kind of surprised me is the fact that enemies no longer spawn continually upon restarting form checkpoints at bonfires or after resting up and leveling up. They still respawn plenty of times, however they will eventually stop spawning as frequently, leading to interesting trudging about through difficult sections should you be patient enough to give it a try and if you are positive you won’t be able to pass through otherwise. This serves a larger purpose however than making things “easier,” as it also eliminates endless mining of souls and exploitation on various levels, further enriching an already excellent experience. Time consuming as this may be, I am sure it will prove helpful to certain people in specific areas of the game that are particularly challenging, and although it won’t really do anything for boss battles, it may cut down on the number of minor foes attacking you during them at the least, which is always a good thing in this game. As many accessible features as they added in this sequel, it is no less or more challenging than the original- maintaining the same level of challenge although through a much more balanced and fair experience as gameplay mechanics go. However, if you do wish to make things harder on yourself (you masochistic people!) you can pick up certain hardcore items, join odd covenants, and even play through once more on a slightly more challenging New Game Plus mode- even retaining some important skills and items to boot.

All in all, truth be told it is the atmosphere and not specifically the difficulty and challenge that makes the title a blast to play- although I am sure those other factors rank highly up there as well. I thoroughly enjoyed the greater sense of freedom I was given in my approaches to combat and exploration, as well as the rare helping hands reaching out to help as well. We are only a third of the way through this year’s impressive games list, and yet I already feel as if Dark Souls II will maintain its large impact all the way through despite the stiff competition it will surely be facing. One thing is for certain: I’ll still be playing it come next March. After all, I’m still playing the original!

Concept: Explore a new yet familiar and similar setting- akin to the story and exploration of the first Dark Souls title, and embark upon a quest to rid the world of its misery and to gain power through it as you progress. Engage in challenging combat and experience an intriguing and engrossing story- experienced, not told.

Graphics: Impressively detailed and varied, both in environments and character models.

Sound: Between the epic scores for momentous occasions and stealthy segments to the general ambiance, the sound work is quite impressive and even the little creaks and tremors were impressively detailed in there fullness.

Playability: The challenges will be difficult, yet it isn’t anything that can’t be overcome through patience and a general grasping of the firm handling of the controls set before you. After you establish a solid foundation, you’ll progress slowly but surely regardless of overall skill. But that doesn’t make it any easier on you or your character, be warned.

Entertainment: This is not only a highly anticipated sequel but an amazing stand-alone title and it must be played to be enjoyed. Challenging yet fair, firm yet helpful at times. An impressively detailed and epic adventure in an expansive and deadly world.

Replay Value: Very High.

Overall Score: 9.5

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