Review: Dark Souls II

Here’s a disclaimer for you. I am not capable of reviewing Dark Souls II in a way useful to someone who has never played the original game. The depth of my involvement and passion for that game has crippled any ability I might have had for separating the sequel from the context of its bigger brother. Over the last two years my hobby for gaming has split in two. I would still consider gaming to be a hobby, but ‘Playing Dark Souls’ is a distinctly different part of my life – one which in truth has largely overshadowed the broader hobby of gaming. I am not capable of objectivity for this reason. I’m in too deep, and my emotions overrule logic. It’s like asking someone to review a family member.

With that established, let’s get started. And, like Dark Souls II, I’m going to begin on a negative note.

For me and many other players Dark Souls II kicks off in a reasonably disappointing way. This is not to say it was terrible – it wasn’t – but at the same time it was no Dark Souls. I was asked recently to sum up my thoughts on Dark Souls II and, in my then drunken state, I somehow landed on a succinct statement which I’m happy with as an appropriate description of the game. Paraphrased roughly: “Though Dark Souls II is notably worse in all regards than Dark Souls, such is the beauty and elegance of that original game that a sequel can be a pale and mundane shadow of its prequel and still be absolutely fucking brilliant.”

As brilliant as the game is, its flaws need airing. Chronologically it makes sense to cover them first in this review as they are never more apparent than in the opening stages of the game. The most notable initial issue is that the game seems very rushed. I suppose when you consider that it had a very short development period of two years, and that time included creating a new engine from the ground up, changing project directors, re-imagining key game designs mid-way through, creating the Dark Souls DLC and porting the whole lot to the PC, it’s unsurprising to discover that the new engine and the game that uses it is a little… off.

There are a number of bugs present. Most commonly you will see floating enemies, long delays before or entirely missing sound effects, but there are some really horrible issues that go beyond bad presentation. There is a huge lag on the UI which means you will often be waiting around for the menu to appear after pressing buttons. You have to wait a long time for your inventory to populate after opening it, which is a shame as you will often want to access that mid-fight as you could in Dark Souls. That is simply not conceivable now. Even starting the game is laggy. From pressing the ‘Start’ button you’re looking at about a ten second wait before the sound and visuals kick in to transition you into a loading screen. It doesn’t leave a great first impression.

A couple of other bits are worth mentioning, such as jumping often being cancelled out if you are trying to jump up something, or what I personally consider the worst bug in Dark Souls II – alas one which no-one is really kicking up enough fuss about – that when you swap either of your actively equipped weapons/items there is a reasonably high chance that it just won’t happen. This has killed me so many times I can’t count. If you were swapping an equipped item mid-animation in Dark Souls or Demon’s Souls there was a small chance it wouldn’t happen, but this problem was worked out sufficiently in Dark Souls by the item box flashing if the swap was successful. In Dark Souls II, the bug has sky-rocketed in frequency from ‘occasional’ to ‘very common’, and to make it harder to deal with, the item box now flashes every time you try it regardless of success. I’ve really struggled to untrain myself from checking the flash, as this is now meaningless visual language. It means that I pressed the button. It doesn’t mean that the game chose to perform the action associated with it. Additionally, sometimes you’re tactically crippled by the game refusing to change your weapons. If after three button presses it still hasn’t happened, it’s usually too late to adjust and you should prepare to die… for all the wrong reasons.

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Where the rushed development – in my estimation – really shows is in the level design and the player’s interaction with the world. A commonly discussed change in the sequel is that the game’s setting, Drangleic, differs from Lordran (Dark Souls’ setting) in that it is no longer interconnected. Instead it’s a series of single direction pathways and the player is able to warp-travel from any bonfire in the game from the outset. Whilst this has been spun as a positive in that it allowed the designers freedom to create more expansive levels unrestrained by a requirement to loop them in and around one other, my experience has not been so rosy. In fact, I don’t really care about this. It has not added any value. And why would any level designer prefer to design a short linear path over a more dynamic level? I would argue it’s more likely this was due to very quick development, on the basis that it was significantly easier to design detached levels. 

This method of world design has further drawbacks. You no longer feel like you’re exploring the setting, which is inevitable when you replace an open world with a level select screen. You are not a lone adventurer traversing unknown lands; you are a tourist with an always-available teleport back to your self-service holiday apartment in Majula. It cuts a big and bloody chunk out of the tone and immersiveness of the game. No more getting trapped in Blighttown. No more nervousness that you might explore that little bit too far and go through hell getting back.

Worse still, it denies players one of Dark Souls’ best feelings. Remember when you stepped into that elevator in the Parish and started travelling down with no idea where you were going? Remember your sheer fucking joy and relief when ‘Firelink Shrine’ popped up on your screen at the end of that journey? Oh, I remember that feeling. I remember it well. Remember when you kicked the ladder down after the Hellkite bridge and realised that everything was – just for the time being – absolutely fine again? Remember the elation when you realised what the Lord Vessel does? These were all moments of inner peace that should be treasured – they are the reasons why Dark Souls was justified in its difficulty. Doesn’t happen in Dark Souls II, because it’s always there from the start. It’s not something you earn, or something you can enjoy receiving. It’s just something you have, and consequently tension is something which you don’t experience – at least not nearly as often.

Besides this the areas are by design often long corridors, and remarkably short as a whole. This leads to much less exploration than Dark Souls players are used to, whilst the shortness of areas means that for the most part you never experience that familiar dread of being far away from the last bonfire with no idea where the next one is. With only one exception I was always less than two minutes away from the previous bonfire, safe in the assumption that the next one was no more than five minutes away down whichever corridor I was progressing through. The one occasion where this wasn’t true was as terrifying as any similar experience from the original, so it’s a real shame it only factors into the experience a single time.

What this all results in is the inescapable feeling that Drangleic isn’t really a place, not like Lordran was. Lordran felt alive. Drangleic feels like a collection of levels in a video game. Dark Souls feels hard because Lordran is a hard place to be. Dark Souls II feels hard because someone upped the difficulty slider in a game.

Last big moan now, then we’ll talk about the good stuff. It’s the same thing a lot of us have got a problem with, and that’s despawning enemies. To explain briefly: in Dark Souls, every time you died or revisited a bonfire, all enemies except bosses, mini-bosses and the occasional other non-respawning enemy would reappear in your game and need to be killed again in order to regain your lost souls or progress through the level again. In Dark Souls II, enemies which have been killed 10 – 15 times are permanently gone, unless you kill the boss of that area and use an item which upgrades the area to the next highest difficulty, respawning all enemies in the process.

This has caused a lot of controversy amongst players, and the respective merits and flaws of the system warrant a lot of discussion which is too detailed to really go into here. I want to share my experiences of this mechanic with you, but I do recognise that there is a flip-side to it all which I’m ignoring in this review because my intention is not to provide balance to the debate, but to explain why I personally don’t like it. [Ed: maybe in the comments, eh?]

When I was making my way through the Shrine of Amana, those enemies were kicking my ass. On my umpteenth death to those fucking arseholes, I felt the way Dark Souls makes you feel. I was gonna do it, I was gonna bloody do it, no matter what it took. And then I realised that I wasn’t. Not because I was going to give up, but because the game was going to give up on me. If I didn’t hurry up and progress it was going to take the game away from me and shepherd me onwards. It was the most disappointed I had been whilst playing this disappointing game, and that is still a deflating emotion to recall. A game which would be so much improved if it felt more like Dark Souls has a mechanic specifically built in to ensure that never happens. I realised then that Dark Souls II will never feel like Dark Souls, not because it had failed to do it properly, but because there was a conscious decision to force it away from that. 

Remember when I mentioned that unforgettable feeling of landing back in Firelink in Dark Souls? This loss of challenge was my biggest unforgettable feeling in Dark Souls II. But it wasn’t a good feeling. It was a really quite unhappy feeling.

Dark Souls II is a much easier game than the original, so for the most part disappearing enemies wasn’t something I had to deal with. I had almost always completed an area before they had a chance to escape. However, the few times it did happen it was just sad. I missed them and I hated the ‘slide’ into emptiness. The first time you restart, just one enemy is gone, but you know that the others will start to trickle away soon. Slowly, but surely, the game was gutting itself. And even when the enemies weren’t disappearing I hated feeling that they might. Just the knowledge of this sword hanging over me was unpleasant. When people came over to play the game, I hated watching them spend all my fun credits. I wanted to snatch the controller back and use them myself before they were depleted, and I missed Dark Souls, where there was enough fun for everyone to enjoy.

Okay, that’s enough whinging for now. There are a few other big annoyances I’d like to get off my chest, but I feel bad for Dark Souls II after all that criticism. It already knows that bigger brother is better at everything, and it doesn’t need any more reminders. Poor little guy. Let’s take a look at the things it can offer that the original can’t.

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Where Dark Souls II really takes off is the second playthrough. This is not to say it’s a poor experience initially, as it’s not, but what works well the first time blossoms into something much better the second time. This is a great change because the reality is that whilst Dark Souls was designed with the knowledge that people would play through multiple times, it never took the bull by the horns, so to speak. It relied on things working the way they worked just fine in Demon’s Souls, and let people continue to repeat the process again and again, taking their original character with them. Whilst many fans did this, equally as many continued playing by starting new characters instead because whilst the New Game + system worked, it also had downsides for certain players and to them an all-new playthrough was the better option. This is Dark Souls being ‘perfectly fine’, but it’s where Dark Souls II takes that knowledge of how people played the original and ups the game considerably, for both types of ‘endless player’.

There’s a few reasons for this. One is that the character build system – which was near-perfect in the original – has been refined immeasurably. I honestly don’t know any RPG game which has ever done it better. Now every single one of my character’s stats would benefit from being increased, and would allow changes to my gameplay and the options available to me in the process. At this stage of progress in the original my character would have become stagnant, and I would have reached the point where I no longer particularly cared to gain more souls, upgrade equipment or level up. That was fine – but this is better. Now I have more game to experience and I haven’t lost the character progression side of things. There’s no immediate end in sight – I can see my character continuing to grow in interesting ways for another 4 – 5 playthroughs at the current rate.

Additionally, the newly simplified weapon upgrade system and the restricted ability to respec your character’s stats means that there is much more flexibility available for players who either want to try something completely new, or tweak away on the minor but regrettable decisions they made with their character’s growth. This dissuades you from starting again ‘to get it right this time’. I do have issues with the new weapon system, but only in the sense that it has been reduced to choosing what you want from the blacksmith in a menu (as opposed to travelling the length of the land to acquire rare or unique items to build your very own beloved super weapon). Ignoring that, the way that weapon choices interact with character build choices is much more interesting, and crucially more variable.  There’s also the plus side of being able to make new weapons in five minutes instead of five days. In terms of damage output, the focus has been shifted away from character stats slightly in exchange for an increased focus on smart choices regarding elemental affinities, but I’ll avoid getting into the numbers in a way which would bore anyone who isn’t me. If I don’t I’m liable to still be here typing away this time tomorrow. Just trust me – it’s brilliant, and it works seamlessly with the idea that anyone can continue into New Game +, even if they want to completely re-imagine their character.

You’re also given more enemies in NG+. Not just larger groups of mobs, either, but actual new enemies to mix things up. There are some great surprises in there I’d hate to spoil, so I won’t give any of my favourite examples. At the same time, the difficulty of NG+ is finally up to par with the kind of difficulty we should be expecting from the game. It’s strange to see this change work its magic. I’ve always been of the opinion that the difficulty of Dark Souls is just seasoning to enhance what’s already a robust combat system. After seeing what ‘easy mode’ Dark Souls is like, I take that back. It’s essential to the formula. In the original, any boss which any player defeated first time went into their personal history books as a proud achievement. In Dark Souls II the vast majority of the bosses went down on my first attempt, and it was thoroughly underwhelming. Not so once you hit NG+. Those brutal, high-tension, breathless boss battles are back and it’s lovely to see them again. I missed them so much and didn’t even realise it until I had them back.

Elsewhere, each run through New Game + gives you more items, weapons and spells that aren’t available in the previous run-throughs, meaning there are still goals to work towards that stretch beyond the usual bounds of the original game. My character, for example, just isn’t a Warrior Priest in a Souls game until they can cast Wrath of Gods, which doesn’t unlock until near the end of Playthrough 3. I ain’t going nowhere ’till that’s in the bag. Also, the multiplayer mechanics are weighted towards New Game + and onwards – a shame for fans of low-level PvP but a boon for players like me who want the first run-through to be mostly single player. I prefer to get into the PvP once a character has been built up and most of the game has been experienced at least once without single/multiplayer elements blending together more heavily. 

On the topic of multiplayer: on a technical level it is so much better in Dark Souls II than it was in Dark Souls. Summoning is quick, and if a summon sign is inactive you are told instantly. Both co-op and PvP are smooth and lag-free. It is missing any of the high-concept innovative new ideas for multiplayer types that Dark Souls had, but let’s not forget that none of those innovative systems actually worked in Dark Souls. It’s a bit of a shame that they weren’t revisited and improved, but on the plus side they have focused on nailing the basics, and ultimately that’s where the real meat is. I’d still love – at least once – to be successfully gravelorded in Dark Souls, but I guess that ship has sailed.

Multiplayer has been set to the forefront of the gameplay experience now, which is a symptom of the renewed focus on providing content for the Endless Players (which is pretty much infeasible without either multiplayer or regular free DLC). It seems almost as though the first pass through the story is intended to be quick and nice enough, with everything after providing the full experience. This is what leads me to do what I never thought I would: compare Dark Souls II to Call of Duty. Needless to say the games are completely different in almost every aspect, but where they converge is the idea that you have a quick jaunt through a single-player bit which is mostly lacking in depth but gives you story and the basics of gameplay, and then you spend the rest of eternity playing multiplayer. It’s less clear-cut in Dark Souls II because the two concepts are intertwined together. It’s more a shifting of priorities than a mode you can switch on or off, but the idea is there and clear to see.

Here’s where Dark Souls II’s flaws are almost forgiven. I’m near the end of my second playthrough now. There is no magic, enigma, atmosphere or intrigue in the game. Shame, because like everyone else, I loved that about Dark Souls. But guess what: by the time you’re near the end of your second playthrough of the original game, all that stuff is gone anyway, you’ve seen it all before and you’re now just enjoying the game mechanics. So, what’s the difference between the two really, once you’re at that point? As much as the constant warping between bonfires made the first playthrough lack power and presence, do you know what’s pretty damn useful in playthrough 2 when you don’t care anymore? Constantly warping between bonfires. 

I suppose at some point the Call of Duty guys asked themselves the question: If you play a game for 3,000 hours, which matters more, the first 4 hours or the last 2,996? And from that question the Call of Duty single player campaign was born. Apparently From Software asked themselves the same question and reached the same conclusion, only substituting 4 hours with 40. The actual combat and character building in Dark Souls II is better, and that’s the bit that you spend those final 2960 hours playing with, so did they make the right choice refocusing away from story?

My answer to that question is ‘No’, for the reason that it didn’t have to be a choice in the first place. Spend another year or two making the game, and make the first 40 hours as awesome as it could have been. Offer players both aspects, don’t sacrifice one for the other. That would have been the sequel that Dark Souls truly deserved.

I do believe that time and budget were the motivating factors here. Compare the warping-between-bonfires issue to other elements of the game’s design. Wherever possible, they do things like opening it up to you midway through playthrough 1 but giving it to you from the start in playthrough 2. But they only do that when doing so wouldn’t involve use of lots of time and budget. Personally, I blame Namco Bandai. They took Hidetaka Miyazaki off the project against his will, they chased a ‘new audience’, that as it turns out still isn’t interested, and in the process alienated the fans who were already interested.

But once all of that is said, the most important thing to remember is that the first thing I want to do when I finish writing this is play Dark Souls II. If I was picking either of the two games to play from the start again, there’s no question it would be Dark Souls. But if given the choice between which one I’d rather pick up to play with my Level 200 characters, there would be no question that I would choose Dark Souls II.

So… it worked, I guess?