The Souls franchise made by FromSoftware is one of the oddest creatures in gaming I have ever come across. I was generally one of those people who always chose “Easy” or “Medium” when hard-pressed at the start of a game, and here we have a franchise designed around the very premise that you will die multiple times, over and over again, with no possible way to simplify things until you simply get good enough to progress. And I found myself completely addicted, first with Demons Souls in 2009 and then Dark Souls in 2011. I would find entire days lost behind me as I simply could not, and would not give up until I had explored what these dark, terribly fantastical worlds had to offer. So in the process, I got good. And I highly encourage all of you to do the same, with this, Dark Souls 2.
Let me set the scene. You find yourself in a dreary, ruined world well past its prime. Something about the world is still beautiful and alluring, but now in a more terrifying than delightful way. You design how your character would look, and you pick a starting class. You are now just one small, average person in a world where largely everything will attempt to kill you. From small, undead soldiers and possessed skeletons, to enormous dragons and physical gods; things will go about as well as you would expect. But the trick is, with enough skill, you can defeat each and every one of them. That’s the beauty of Dark Souls 2: it’s extremely tough, but except for a few instances, its fair, in that you can learn from your mistakes; there is very little unpredictability once you understand a situation.
Combat takes the form of assigning armor to yourself that will affect your physical speed and defense, and from there, various forms of weaponry and shields and magic casting devices to your left and right hand; which are then controlled in various ways with the triggers and shoulder buttons on your controller. All of these items for the most part need to be discovered by the player in-world, either from dead enemies or from hidden item chests. If you die, you return to your last checkpoint, which takes the form of a bonfire lying in the world. Upon death, you drop all of your “souls;” which function as both currency and level up items; and you have one chance to obtain them again; by touching the place of your death. However, if you die on your way there, they are lost forever.
Traversing the world is a mission in and of itself, but finding new areas and every nook and cranny can be extremely fun in its own right, as there are a hundred million secrets to find. This is also usually when the optional online elements of this game come in: players can either invade another player’s world, with the aim of killing them for a benefit; or players can summon an ally for a brief section, usually against a boss, to make the world not so terrible to handle. The invasion aspect adds an element of randomness to a players run, and another element of fear as you might not know when to expect another human showing up to ruin your day. Playing offline provides an entirely acceptable experience, as both of these summoning functions are provided at key points by the AI itself.
I suppose I should also at this stage point out for returning fans what aspects of Dark Souls 2 are new in comparison to Dark Souls 1. Well, firstly, there is fast travel between bonfires available from the start, and leveling up is only available from the hub area. There are more consumable items for spell recharging and health recharging, and they are definitely needed, as your main healing mechanic is much reduced. Dual-wielding is more viable, so for those of you wanting to hold a 3 meter sword in each hand for battle, you will now find that possible. Magic has a new class, referred to as Hexes, which inflict damage with status effects at the cost of souls. Backstabbing and riposting are much harder to pull off, meaning you have to have even more skill in battle. In general terms, the remaining differences come down to feel; it will take a moment of adjustment to get a handle on the new swinging speed and such.
Dark Souls II has little inherent story, but what I like most about this franchise is the feeling that a heck of a lot has gone down before you arrived, and if you really wanted to, you would work out what happened. The developers pride themselves on leaving questions open ended, but still, the mystery will enter your heart and get a very firm grip if you don’t pay attention.
As for negatives? There is a couple, mostly personal ones. The new world is largely centered on a hub, with areas arcing out like spokes from a wheel. The previous game was largely constructed more vertically than horizontally, so you could often have a better sense of geography in Dark Souls 1 than 2. It was always amazing to travel a great distance and see where you came in the distance, and there’s less of that in the sequel. Secondly, like all the other titles, some magic and abilities are heavily overpowered, but there is constant patching, and this may be addressed. Lastly, I think the previous game hit a better mark of mystery vs. revealing aspects of its plot, this game often just leaves things completely unstated, and some more motivation would have been appreciated.
But these are all minor quibbles. Dark Souls 2 is as hard a game as the previous in the series; but it has fewer bugs, has smoother gameplay, better graphics, and is essentially, another Souls experience. It took my life over for ten days, and is a strong contender for Game of the Year in my book, even if it’s only March now. It has so much detail and possibility in it that it never feels really done, even in New Game Plus, which can be done over and over, minor changes happen every time and new things are unlocked for the player to keep each run unique. If you have the time to give it that it deserves, Dark Souls 2 can be an extremely rewarding experience for a player, of which there are few enough in gaming now.