In its past two iterations, the Souls series has gone from the hostile kingdom Boletaria to even more dangerous climbs in Lordran. Each shows the world a dark fantasy land full to the brim with countless enemies, be they awe-inspiring creatures or fellow Undead trapped in the same situation. Now the third instalment, Dark Souls 2, is out there for the gaming community to jump into. This sequel follows its family tree, taking you to a new yet oddly familiar region called Drangleic. Will it be the cliché difficult third installment or take a beloved series to new heights? Let’s find out.
From the very beginning Dark Souls 2 drips with atmosphere. Walking around the opening caves fosters a threatened feeling deep in your heart which never fades and the game never moves away from, instead transplanting it into new areas with malicious prevalence. Be it the mist-drowned forests of The Shaded Forest, the gloomy tombs of the Doors of Pharros or the molten castle of Iron Keep; every corner and corridor cultivates tension no matter how many times you’ve entered an area.
Environmental delights don’t stop with the tension. Areas may be foreboding but they fling a hook out, embedding a gnarly hook in your chest and pulling you through deeper in. That’s not to say Dark Souls 2 is uninviting. On the contrary, it dangles a variety of golden carrots in front of your face – usually attached to a blood soaked spiky spear aimed directly at your heart. Dark Souls 2 also doesn’t need to throw paragraphs of text at you to give worth to the world. Most of the story is told through the environments itself and the player’s own imagination.
As with any action-oriented RPG the ever-present quest to progress is what drives you through Dark Souls 2. Every victory over a foe yields souls. From Software’s latest release eschews the genre tropes of gold and experience points, preferring to favour a system where almost every single character-building purchase requires souls. This simple yet genius move makes every step a risk. So you’ve gone and killed a veritable butt-tonne of enemies, giving you a healthy supply of souls to spend. Now you’ve got to make an important decision. You could make the run back to a bonfire, essentially the checkpoint system of Dark Souls 2, and make you’re way to the trainer to make yourself slightly more powerful. Then again… you could press on in the hope of finding treasure or a new bonfire but run the risk of meeting a messy death on the bloodied end of some mewling beasts teeth/sword/tongue. You could even go the mysterious third way by opting to reinforce your current equipment and make it more capable while you stay at the same level. These choices at the very base of the game make Dark Souls 2 a shining light in player agency, letting the gamer choose how to enjoy their game.
This focus on giving the player ultimate control over their actions is intrinsic to the Dark Souls 2, especially in the leveling system. While yes at the very start of Dark Souls 2 you are offered the choice of a number of classes ranging the standard melee Warrior to a more specialised Monk, after this selection you’re free to do exactly what you want. For a new player it all looks fairly daunting with nine different major stats changing seemingly confusing stats but with a small investment of time or a journey to the internet the system opens up and you’re cordially invited to indulge yourself. It’s not outside the realms of logic to start out as a sorcerer then work in archery (a venture which works better than previous iterations) before racking up the vitality to wear heavier armour.
By the same token, Dark Souls 2 encourages specialization just as much as diversification in stats. A very powerful ‘pure (a character based almost totally on one stat) with the right gear can be a serious threat for even the most capable opponent, AI or human controlled. It’s all up to you. There are a great many RPGs which offer the illusion of choice but use subtle techniques to nudge you down the path designed by the developers. From Software leave everything to you instead. At certain points you are funneled towards certain areas but it is both rare and near imperceptible. The greatest feeling Dark Souls 2 fosters within your heart is that of success at discovery. There are so many hidden rooms and special items to find that going off to explore the world is beautifully empowering, every corner hides a little something. For instance in playing a magical character should you defeat a particular boss, speak to a specific person, backtrack and find them again, pay a toll of souls, journey down a new path then talk to a character when you have the correct stats you’ll receive a massively powerful reward. This might seem very random but on the contrary its empowering to discover these hidden benefits.
Dark Souls 2’s other shining trophy can be found nestled in the arena of battle. Combat is a brutal affair where a simple mistake can leave you dead and raging at your screen. It’s all a fair challenge. Each conflict comes down to a battle of patterns. AI controlled enemies follow easily recognisable patterns. The first time you meet an enemy you’re likely to find death coming soon to your immediate future. The second time patterns begin to develop. By the third, fourth or fifth meeting of battle an enemy’s attack animations are seared deep in your memory. This doesn’t make fights easier though, it simply equips you with the tools you need to survive the bloodshed. Being a level 100 Warrior doesn’t mean that enemies in areas you’ve been clearing for hours can’t swiftly steal away the life in your body.
This becomes even more important when the legendary Souls bosses are brought into view. These special one-off fights are bombastic melees with ground-shattering strikes landing all around for you to learn and avoid while taking the fight to the enemy. Once again these monsters are creatures of habit, each only may only have several abilities but how you deal with them injects a sense of joy directly into your bloodstream. You don’t have to fight alone though.
Souls has always had a multiplayer element which is seamlessly intertwined with the single player experience. Again Dark Souls 2 sticks close to the traditions of the series here in the same collection of ways Souls vets are used to. Around the world there are bloodstains left behind by fallen players which show you an insight into the game of other to see how they died. This system might just sound like a little distraction but it’s actually incredibly important when exploring new locations. If you see a floor painted with bloodstains from afar you’re told, only through the collection of gore pools, that danger lies ahead. Examining these pools shows a ghostly version of the unfortunate players last moments, granting you a glimpse into possible dangers ahead.
That and when you see a player roll to dodge and then fall off a ledge, the laughter is about as easy to contain as a sex scandal in the British tabloids.
Messages are also scattered around left by players using a pre-selected library of words and phrases to warn others of forthcoming danger or hidden reward. This indirect cooperation goes both ways though. You might leave a helpful message pointing out a nearby item which people may up-rate, both granting you a small benefit and granting the message a stamp of confirmation to its directions. By the same token though, this is a minefield for trolls who will leave messages which lead to the death of players. It adds a sense of humour to this frankly humorless world built not by the developers but by the players. Direct cooperation can be summoned in through the selection of white markers, again rewarding both parties. The summoner gets a helping hand in an upcoming boss fight and the summonee (that’s a word right?) receives a healthy portion of Souls for their troubles. Co-operative boss fights bring an interesting juxtaposition to the lonely and harsh world of Drangleic which feels more welcome than breakfast after a heavy night out. Maybe you prefer to invade the game of others to wreak havoc? Dark Souls 2 offers you that option which can lead to both the most frustrating and most joyful experiences in gaming as two characters whom embody the heart and soul of their player come to loggerheads in epic battle.
Other gameplay elements add a garnish to Dark Souls 2 defining it as a strong unique experience. For instance, every time you rest at a bonfire enemies respawn further cementing the act of repetition until they’ve been killed a certain number of times. This actually makes the experience fairly accessible. Some will no doubt find the act of playing Dark Souls 2 a very imposing experience, this system strikes a near perfect balance between repeated farming for souls or gear and easing barriers of enemies which some players, be it through a lack of skill or choice of combat style, may find exhausting. The simple act of kitting our your character is also quite unique. You may find an equipment set which suits your character’s build or you think looks good. In most single player experiences you’re thrown new looking equipment with greater stats frequently and, to an extent, Dark Souls 2 also does this. Where it makes the gearing system unique to itself though is your ability to instead heavily reinforce your preferred armour set or weapon to make it more powerful rather than constantly changing your clothing.
Visually Dark Souls 2 will not be an award-winning title but that doesn’t detract from how good it does look. The style of Drangleic is uniform throughout in the colour palette and design of your foes. There may not be eye-burning texture quality this is true, but everything is unified and it still has the power to take your breath away at almost every new turn. Admittedly on PC it sees drastic improvement over console versions but that’s not to detract from the console versions, they still look good. The only factor really which sees a drop in quality in comparison to Souls predecessors is the soundtrack. Motoi Sakuraba has composed beautiful soundtracks for the Souls series before, using orchestrally interesting arrangements with choral vocal tracks which are delightful in their discordance. In Dark Souls 2 the musical accompaniment isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination, but it never really strikes the same chords which added to Dark Souls’ atmosphere so beautifully.
Summing up Dark Souls 2 is incredibly difficult. On the face of it with a very brutal combat system which punishes failure and a perhaps confusing leveling system, Dark Souls 2 should be a difficult experience to dive into. The masters at From Software though made this experience perfect. Everything just… works, and works well. Nothing seems half-baked and no situation is painfully unfair. Should you buy Dark Souls 2 you’ll be shouting at your screen, cursing your fingers and considering a blood sacrifice to the gods of war. Controllers will be flung across rooms and cries of anguish as victory is snapped away at the last second. But that compulsion, that need to succeed is nurtured by the game into all out joy.
This review was written from both the PC and Xbox 360 versions of Dark Souls 2, each being privately purchased.