Tower Knight. The Tower of Latria. Plague Babies. Basilisks. Sen’s Fortress. Ornstein and Smough. The horrible framerate of Blight Town. These names and places invoke fear in all those who have braved the Souls series in the past. Relentless and sadistic as they were, there was also pride for having conquered them all. Beating Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls gave players a feeling of absolute invincibility. But another fear, a new kind, grew on the horizon as the release of Dark Souls 2 approached: that of accessibility. The question of whether the sequel would be ‘too easy’ gnawed away at fans’ sanity like a curse, but it would appear that all the worry was for naught. I’m happy to report that Dark Souls 2 adds a few more names to that list of terrors, refusing to sacrifice what made the series so great in the first place, while adding a few twists of its own. Simply put, this is a Souls game to die for.

Dark Souls 2 is like one big puzzle or riddle. Each time you defeat a boss or clear a new area of the game, it feels like you’ve finally solved a mystery. Watching someone else play the game feels like cheating—like someone is giving you the answers. Go into this game as blind as possible, fend for yourself, and you’ll feel all the more rewarded for completing each obstacle on your own. If that feeling of fumbling around in the dark never appealed to you in the past Souls games, this one won’t change your mind.

For those unfamiliar, Dark Souls 2 is like a horror game without jump scares, playing at your nerves with dread, anxiety, and fear of the unknown. There are grotesque sights to be seen, that much is certain, but there is also a sad beauty to the forsaken world of Drangleic. It’s like a nightmare you can’t stop reliving, every death presenting you with a new opportunity to go a little bit further down the dark rabbit hole. You never stop asking yourself “what’s around the next corner, and how is it going to murder me?” and that’s a compliment to both the varied level design and imaginative enemy encounters.

Most of the enemies and bosses have more than just one attack, which often forces players to do more than just endlessly swing their weapon until they win. If you keep stabbing a big, fat ogre-like creature in the back, he’ll simply sit on you. It helps that the animations have been improved since Dark Souls, making battles feel more fluid and natural. This is also where the increased difficulty lies. The patterns of the enemies are more difficult to predict, and some enemies can switch from one pattern right into another rather seamlessly. Whereas you only needed one or two encounters with an enemy to have them memorized in previous Souls games, Dark Souls 2 makes even familiar enemies a serious threat. It also doesn’t help that they tend to group up, often overwhelming the player in 2v1, 3v1, 4v1, or even 5v1 scenarios. Prepare to master that dodge roll!

The Souls series lives and dies on the strength of its boss battles, and boy are there some knockouts this time around. The Pursuer, one of the earliest bosses in the game, will remind you that you are playing a game that is not to be fucked with. Remember the Bell Gargoyles fight in Dark Souls? Multiply that by three. Literally. Couple that with the spine-tingling music expected of the Souls series and you have one of the best boss fights in recent memory. The fights themselves may not have the same impact as they did in the past depending on your familiarity with the series, but it’s still refreshing to see a game really give difficulty and apprehension back to the title of ‘boss’.

You will die. A lot (45 million deaths have occurred at the time of this review according to the in-game counter). And this time around, death comes with a penalty. The principle behind the new health system kind of makes me laugh. Every time you die, a little piece of your maximum health is chipped off, with half of your maximum health being the limit for degradation. I can basically hear the game saying ‘What’s that? You’re having trouble with this section of the game? Let me give you LESS HEALTH TO COMPLETE IT. GOOD LUCK!’ It’s a punishing mechanic, one that may frustrate new players to no end, but considering most of Demon’s Souls was spent with half-health, this shouldn’t be a problem for series veterans.

Speaking of bringing back the past, the covenant system is back and wonderfully revamped. They aren’t as difficult to find but they’re easier to understand, and there’s no punishment for constantly switching allegiances. To explain it simply, covenants are groups within the game that offer interesting gameplay opportunities and bonuses, depending on the concept behind the covenant. Some are forces for good, meant to help other players in their own worlds, while others are a little more nefarious in intent. There’s one covenant in particular, one that I won’t spoil, that quickly became my all-time favorite for the sheer sadistic hilarity it offers. It’s almost a game within itself, one that will likely be the crowning jewel of Dark Souls 2’s legacy. Let’s just say my reign of traps and terror is far from over. All hail the Rat King!

It isn’t all familiar territory, though. Apparently someone complained that Dark Souls was a little too, well, dark, so in Dark Souls 2 a torch has been added to light the way. You light them at bonfires and have a set amount of time before they burn out. It’s kind of a random addition to the gameplay, but very useful in the some pitch black areas, and a smart way of keeping track of where you’ve already been. You can light other torches in the environment along the way as a sort-of bread-crumb trail back to the nearest bonfire.  Some enemies (like the nightmare fuel that skulks around No Man’s Wharf) even have an aversion to the light, so it’s a smart idea to have a torch handy to keep the darkness at bay.

Dark Souls 2 is vague and abstract as ever with its story and progression. I don’t condone handholding in video games, but would it really hurt the developers to make important things like how to leave messages for other players or how to light torches a little more straight-forward? The NPCs, who are supposed to act as guides, mostly speak in gibberish, so players would be excused for not wanting to talk to everyone multiple times to hear whatever ramblings tumble out of their twisted mouths. But in doing so, they would miss crucial pieces of the story, or entrance into certain covenants, or the woman who allows you to level up your character.  The sense of unguided adventure is part of the enjoyment, but a little bit more direction wouldn’t hurt for the more crucial pieces of the puzzle.

I think the debate of Dark Souls vs. Dark Souls 2 will largely come down to preferences instead of objective strengths. For example, the level design of Dark Souls was very impressive for the way in which the world seemed to fold in on itself. Everything felt connected and close in Lordran. Dark Souls 2 has a more sprawling level design, making Drangleic feel vast—almost infinite. The ability to warp between bonfires is necessary, or else the player would be forced to walk great distances to get back to the main town of Mejula. Both of these design choices can be argued to be better than the other, but neither is definitively superior. Except the appropriately named area called The Gutter. That place can just go die in a hole.

Dark Souls 2 is not a leap forward in the same way that Dark Souls was to Demon’s Souls. It’s a refinement—an encore to one of the best games of the last generation.  There are tweaks to the winning formula, ones that instantly distinguish Dark Souls 2 from its predecessor, but the core experience stays the same. This will be a blessing for fans that hunger for a challenge, and a curse for those who could never handle the pressure in the first place. Either way, you will face many perils on your arduous journey, but stick with it. Once you get a taste for death, you won’t want to stop.

 

Final Score - 9/10

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#1 sherlockmathew 2014-05-01 09:53
I loved the earlier game of Dark Souls,as I love adventurous games.
Instant Gaming

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