Developer From Software continues its Souls series with Dark Souls II, a direct sequel to 2011’s Dark Souls. Most of the themes and mechanics from Dark Souls return, along with a few from 2009’s Demon’s Souls. Left intact are the dark fantasy setting, asynchronous multiplayer, and controller-twisting, teeth-grinding, cuss-inducing difficulty.
The central gameplay remains the same from the previous iterations of the series; players wield medieval weaponry like swords, spears, and axes, or magic. Magic comes from three different schools: miracles (focused mostly on buffing the player and their allies), hexes (dark magic, introduced to the series in the Artorias of the Abyss DLC in Dark Souls), sorcery (a more varied, multi-use school), and pyromancy (a central theme in the series is fire, and pyromancy makes a strong return in Dark Souls II). An addition to Dark Souls II is dual wielding, which allows you to enter power stances and develop a more agility-based play-style. The new options make for a much better multiplayer experience, with the PvP no longer plagued by min/max builds.
The gameplay feels stiffer at first, with the player character not being as responsive as in other games. While initially this felt like a failing in the game, From has introduced a few new stats which affect the player’s agility for you to level up, such as adaptability. This new approach to character building allows for more variety in character builds – even the beefiest swordsmen can pour points into adaptability and other tertiary stats, encouraging a more mobile, faster-paced game.
Multiplayer stays much the same as it was in Demon’s Souls and the original Dark Souls. Players can summon other players to assist them in defeating enemies or invade the world of other players for fun and profit. The netcode has vastly improved since the first game, with connections being made faster and less failed connections. Despite some initial bugs with the game’s online modes (particularly one failed connection barring players from playing online until they restarted the game), the online aspects of Dark Souls II are definitely where the game shines. Players can join in game factions called Covenants, with some encouraging co-operative play like the Heirs of the Sun, or PvP like the Bell Keepers. PvE covenants also allow the player to add an additional challenge to their game, or access special dungeons.
The game does definitely have some roadblocks to new players, especially given the fact that one can die before having even entered their name. Veteran players will have a much shorter learning curve, but new players can be turned off by the difficulty.
The story, mostly exposed through the intro sequence, can be summed up as “You’re cursed with undeath; find souls, seek the King”. Most of the game’s background story is unveiled through item descriptions, adding depth to the dark, dead world. The main hub town, Majula, becomes home for most of the NPCs you meet along the way, each adding their own bits of lore to the game’s story. Like Dark Souls, reaching the end of the game unveils the larger story of the game, although the “twist” is rather similar and unsurprising.
Graphically, the game is a massive improvement over its predecessor. The blur and bloom of areas like Blighttown are replaced with a much richer colour palette, early areas look lush and full of life, and the later, much darker areas still manage to create the sinister, foreboding atmosphere fans expect.
The minimalist soundtrack trend lends more tension to the game. Player and enemy footsteps echo in the castles and dungeons and the wind whistles through tree tops in the outdoor areas. The still silence is broken once a boss is challenged; the epic operatic soundtrack comes in with a rising crescendo, allow you to appreciate the artistry of the musicians for a few seconds before the boss grinds you into a fine paste for the umpteenth time. The voice acting has also improved over Dark Souls, with characters feeling more varied and three-dimensional – although after 10 or 20 hours in the game, some of the repeated lines can become cringe-worthy.
There are some definite slowdown issues, however, especially with the PS3 version. There are also issues with maintaining connections online, leading to disconnections during tense moments of boss fights or PvP duels.
Dark Souls II retails for around $60 CDN, about par for most current generation games. After sinking around 50 hours into the game, and just barely reaching the halfway point, I can tell you that it is definitely worth the money. The varied play style options and new content added on New Game+ brings a lot of replay value. The PvP and co-op multiplayer options also let players sharpen their skills and gain souls (the in-game currency) outside of the main storyline. There’s also the added bonus of PvP trash talk, with “hate mail” dominating most discussions online.
Dark Souls II improves on the original in a lot of ways. The game looks better, plays better, and fixes a lot of the frustrations from the original. However, the learning curve is steeper, and some of the initial technical issues at release soured some fans. The matchmaking for online play isn’t quite intuitive, with players being matched on either their level or “soul memory”, the amount of souls acquired by the player overall. This means that once a player has made a certain amount of progress, it becomes harder to find other players to play with/against if they are in an area intended for newer players. Despite these issues, the game is still a blast to play. The sense of progression and the rewarding feeling you get when you finally beat an area bring a lot of value to the game. If you’re looking for a good-looking, adrenaline-pumping, on- and offline experience, Dark Souls II is a sure bet.
This review is based on Dark Souls II for the PlayStation 3. The game is also available on the Xbox 360 and PC.