Dark Souls 2 is not a pleasant game – at least, not in the traditional sense of the word. It will unapologetically and periodically beat you down and take everything you hold dear. Half the time, you may not even have any idea of who you are, what you’re doing or where you are. Melodramatic or not, this is the essence of the Souls experience.
While the above might hardly sound like an enjoyable experience to the uninitiated, fans of the series swear by the unforgiving atmosphere. These frustrations and their subsequent successes are the carrot on the end of the stick that continue to pull players back after leading them to the edge of quitting. With Dark Souls 2, From Software has managed to tread a dangerous line and not only retain the series’ signature difficulty, but also provide new players with as safe an entry point as is possible within the Souls universe.
As mentioned above and so lovingly reminded in its launch trailer, Dark Souls 2 is a game about death as much as it’s a game about slaying just about anything that moves. Even the smallest and weakest enemies pose a very real threat for anyone with the gall to rush or approach a situation unprepared. This would be meaningless though, if the combat didn’t feel right. The series’ past installments sported undeniably strong combat mechanics, so while Dark Souls 2 doesn’t represent a drastic shift in the formula, it instead opts to refine the gameplay to its most polished state yet.
From rolling around in a light set of leather armor to swinging one of the game’s excessively large ultra greatswords, everything feels exactly as expected. While at times this can be what some would call “clunky,” anticipating the weight of a set of items, the player’s play-style and the enemies that lie ahead is a crucial part of surviving the game’s difficult encounters. Failure to do so will find the player locked in their death throes.
Of these countless deaths, only a small handful can be attributed to issues with the game’s mechanics. Rather, death almost never feels unfair and can be leveraged on the poor judgement of the player, whether it be a mistimed dodge, an overzealous barrage of attacks, or failing to inspect their surroundings and being caught off guard by one of the game’s many traps. With death sometimes coming frequently and fast, this ensures that the burden it weights on the player is minimal and instead feels like a lesson learned, urging them forward rather than alienating them.
This is not to say that death is an entirely positive learning experience though. In a return to Demon’s Souls form, each death will set players’ maximum pool of health back a small percentage until it caps off at 50% of its full capacity. In order to restore their humanity and regain this lost health, players are forced to expend a moderately rare item. The choice to implement this is sure to be one of the game’s largest dividing factors.
While the game eases players into the masochism of the Souls universe this time with a tutorial and gentler intro area, the harsh penalty on death will surely quell the enthusiasm of some would-be adventurers. It’s hardly an insurmountable obstacle and in fact something that longtime fans will be excited to see return but for the uninitiated, it can definitely come as a shock.
Luckily, this is somewhat remedied by the despawning of enemies that have been repeatedly killed by the player. While they can be summoned back into existence with a specific item, being able to run back to a particularly difficult boss hassle-free can be the breath of fresh air a player needs after a series of horrific deaths.
Turning to the game’s visuals, the effect is a double-edged sword. While it’s clear that an immense amount of time went into creating a rich open-world environment to explore, last generation’s consoles are beginning to show their age with some muddy textures and rough edges. Despite this, the design of each individual area is stunning and perfectly maintains the desperate tone of the Souls series with settings like a secluded cove inhabited by a ghost ship standing out from the bunch. Unlike Dark Souls’ land of Lordran which saw each area flowing together almost seamlessly, Dark Souls 2’s Drangleic feels much more sectioned-off. This time around, the zones feel as though they are all connected by arbitrary corridors and while it doesn’t necessarily hurt the experience, it does represent one of the only steps backward the series has taken.
The lighting engine is where the graphics of Dark Souls 2 really shine though. Players have the option of shedding their offhand implement in favor of a torch which can be carried to light the way and fend off particularly nasty creatures with an aversion to the glow. While the torch is equipped, the environment is basked in a warm glow and acts as the most impressive part of the visual experience. Sometimes, the risk of eschewing a shield in order to see the world of Drangleic from under the torch’s light can be very much worth its weight in souls.
What is truly surprising about Dark Souls 2 is how effective the game is at conveying narrative without very much exposition. From the placement of enemy soldiers in a city surrounding a dilapidated jail to the sparse lines of dialog that accompany each new NPC, players slowly develop a narrative for the devastation around them. In particular, one of the earlier bosses comes to mind as an example of tragic desperation bringing about a surprising level of emotion without the need for a single word. As the narrative experience can border on the subjective, players will only be able to take out of the game what they put in.
Between the immense sense of accomplishment that comes from progressing through the game to the subtle but evocative narrative that unfolds as players explore Drangleic, Dark Souls 2 is an experience like few others. It may not take the series’ established form and shatter expectations but rather, it improves on and refines the formula and leaves gamers with a beautiful, albeit dark experience. While the difficulty may serve to push some gamers away, Dark Souls 2 manages to be both the most accessible title in the series and a formidable challenge for returning veterans and is without a doubt an experience that should not be missed despite the allure of next-generation consoles.
Dark Souls 2 is available now for the PS3 and Xbox 360, and will be making its way to PC on April 25, 2014.
Follow Ryan on Twitter @ThatRyanB.