When Dark Souls II director Yui Tanimura suggested the new game would be more “accessible,” From Software’s fanbase grew nervous. The dark fantasy role playing game’s notorious soul crushing difficulty was not for the faint of heart, as those who suffered through Boletaria’s poison swamps or Anor Londo’s Silver Knight archers can attest. Difficult as they were, a niche group found a masochistic delight in the challenge the game offered. The euphoric feeling of accomplishment that followed every defeated boss was far greater than popping off headshots or earning perfect kill/death ratios. Strange as it is to say, suffering through Dark Souls is what makes it so compelling and enticing. If Dark Souls II was going to be open to newcomers, does that mean the game’s difficulty has finally been reigned in?
In short, not at all. The definitive Dark Souls experience has not been diminished in the sequel. In fact, new mechanics and tweaks to pre-existing systems introduce a different set of challenges that make the game more difficult than its predecessor. Elements that were easily taken for granted, like soul farming and enemy intelligence, have been modified in order to shake the player’s reliance and faith. Set in the same world as the original Dark Souls, you’ll take up the sword as an unnamed knight inflicted with the Darksign, a curse that grants a twisted form of immorality in which the bearer must consume souls lest they grow mad and turn into a Hollow. Instead of Lordran, the knight will travel to the decaying, war torn realm of Drangleic in a quest to seek out its King and hopefully remove the curse, slaying all manner of beasts and monsters along the way.
From Software veterans won’t need much of an introduction as to what makes the game work. Dark Souls II combines the Castlevania-style open world of its predecessor with the progression and warp capabilities of Demon’s Souls. The game opens with a character customization screen and offers a handful of starting classes to choose from. These are merely suggestions, however, as you are given complete freedom in how you choose to shape your character. Souls are what make the world go ‘round and are used to upgrade equipment, purchase supplies and levelling up your character. Dark Souls II introduces the option to completely respec a character in the event of an unsatisfying build. An especially rare item is required for this action, so don’t expect it can be done at the drop of a hat.
Travelling to each realm in Drangleic is done by exploring different paths that originate in the hub region of Majula. There are two obvious and available paths open at the start of the game while others require a special item or getting through a particular encounter in order to advance forward. Strategically placed within each realm are a series of bonfires that serve as safe havens that refill life giving Estus Flasks and automatically repair weapons and armor. Resting at bonfires also causes any defeated enemies, save for bosses, to respawn. In a unique twist, Dark Souls II implements an interesting change to the relationship between bonfires and soul farming. Should you kill a particular enemy enough times, they will eventually disappear from the world entirely. A special powder can bring them back again but in a much stronger form.
From Software once again delights in delivering as many punishing scenarios that will test your mental and reflex skills. Only the most thoughtless players will run into a fight, swinging a sword around like a madman without taking stamina into account. The best and oft-repeated approach to each combat encounter is to be patient and analytical. Enemy AI has been improved a noticeable amount and they seem to be more aware of the environment, making make some of the cheese tactics that worked so well in Dark Souls a bit more difficult to achieve. Crowd control is essential as it is no longer easy to pull individual targets away from mobs at a safe distance (The Lost Bastille is an absolute nightmare because of this). Some of the larger, more imposing enemies know when to back off or egg the player into a mob trap. Bigger foes will often use their bulk in surprising ways. Though Ogres may be slow, they will wait for careless players to engage them in close range before performing a devastating body slam. By taking the time to study attack patterns and behavior, even the most terrifying foe can be brought to its knees. Of course, this only applies to AI enemies. Fighting human invaders is another thing entirely.
If there’s one mechanic in the game that is the most “accessible,” it is how Dark Souls II treats death and Humanity. In the two games before it, turning into an Undead would cut your health bar down to about 50%. Now, each death takes away a smaller portion with each subsequent revival. Reverting back to human form is no longer requires Humanity but instead a Human Effigy. Effigies can appear as drops or vendor items and can be used at any time, making it easier to run to a boss’ fog gate, revert to human form and summon other players for help. As helpful as this system is for new players, what Dark Souls II giveth it also taketh away. Estus Flasks, the reliable and refillable potions that can instantly restore health have been scaled back considerably. You’ll begin with just one flask and only by seeking out Estus Shards can the quantity be increased. Life Gems have taken up the role of de facto healing items but will only refill your health in a slow, gradual pace. Weapon durability decreases at an increased pace and with repair powder now ridiculously expensive, having to cut short exploration and lucrative farming runs is quite annoying. Those hoping to partner up with friends or someone at a much higher level are going to be disappointed, as a new system determines who can be summoned based on soul level and the total number of souls collected.
One part of the game that deserves real criticism is the graphics. On the PlayStation 3, the incredible lighting effects and high resolution texture work highlighted in various gameplay trailers are startlingly absent. This doesn’t ruin the game by any means but seeing the drabness after being hyped on the exact opposite is really disappointing. On the other hand, the poor graphics make a case for exploring the PC version or hope for a PlayStation 4 re-release.
Is Dark Souls II an easier game? Most definitely not. The game is just as mysterious and obtuse as before and puts the onus on the player to figure it all out. Therefore, players fond of the rich and complex challenge of From Software’s games are going to get the most out of it. To those, I say that Dark Souls II gives more of what you’ve enjoyed from the last two games. With new places to explore, enemies to fight and lore to uncover, it offers a significant amount of content to keep players busy for a great while.
Teen Services Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.