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Review: Dark Souls II

ds2-01Dark Souls II (PlayStation 3, XBox 360, PC)
Developed by From Software and Published by Bandai Namco Games
Release Date: March 11th, 2014 (PlayStation 3, XBox 360) April 24th, 2014 (PC)

PC REQUIREMENTS:
CPU: AMD® Phenom II™ X2 555 3.2Ghz or Intel® Pentium Core ™ 2 Duo E8500 3.17Ghz
Memory: 2 GB RAM
HDD: 14 GB available space
Video:  NVIDIA® GeForce® 9600GT, ATI Radeon™ HD 5870
Input: Gamepad or Keyboard and Mouse

Dark Souls II’s arrival signifies the end of a long two-year cycle of hype and controversy. Since its high-profile announcement at 2012’s Spike VGAs, the game has seen series director Hidetaka Miyazaki step down as the project’s lead, endured misconceptions of the series becoming more casual to appeal to a wider audience, and of course, you can’t write about Dark Souls II now without mentioning Lighting Gate 2014, which saw many of the game’s dynamic lighting effects nixed at the last minute in favor of overall game performance. Amidst the frenzy of seemingly bad news popping up every few months, the hype leading up to Dark Souls II’s release rarely wavered. The time has now come to see if From Software’s biggest and most important release dares to “go beyond death” as its tagline implies, or if the hollowing process has already set in.

Dark Souls II’s setup isn’t really so different from the previous entries of the series. Once again, you venture into an unknown and sprawling wasteland as a cursed undead with the very simple purpose of breaking the curse. How you became cursed or why you’re the one that’s supposed to break the curse are issues left up to your own imagination, which is pretty bread and butter for how the stories in all of these games go. Once you arrive in the game’s central hub world of Majula, you’ll be tasked with scouring the land and destroying four Great Demons in hopes of breaking the curse, and the story only plays it fast and loose from there.

ds2-02As you make your way through the kingdom of Drangleic, the world’s mysteries will slowly unravel through vague NPC dialog and side stories which unfortunately lack the impact or urgency as those in previous games. The more you pay attention to the narrative, the more Dark Souls II begins to start feeling like a game that is a little too in love with its own fans’ perceptions and its own ham-fisted and intentionally vague allusions to the world of Drangleic possibly being related to the previous game’s Lordran. Nearly every NPC met makes reference to this, and it almost feels like the writers were sitting behind me the whole time, constantly nagging me about whether I thought the two worlds were connected or not. Dark Souls II’s writing feels like it’s more about trying to artificially capture that spark of subtle mystery the previous game had than trying to tell its own competent, cohesive, or substantive story.

Similarly, the world of Drangleic is about as dull and washed-out as the plot that unfolds inside of it. The world and visuals of the game in no way look terrible, but a real feeling of ho-hum begins to set in once you’ve traversed another grey cave, dilapidated castle, or dark forested area. While the first two games tackled most of these themes as well, they were handled with more atmosphere and striking details in art and sound design that made them memorable, beautiful, and sinister. Drangleic just feels stagnant by comparison, with very few unique or interesting settings that manage to drag you into the experience in a more immersive manner or whack you in the eyeballs and earholes with their life and believability.

ds2-03Exploration is another aspect of Dark Souls II that suffers greatly due to the game’s backtracking to Demon’s Souls’ hub world setup. One of the greatest aspects of Dark Souls was how the world twisted and turned around on itself, with nearly every area of the game having more than one entry point. Dark Souls II’s hub immediately drops the player into a world where there are a few paths you can take from the get-go, each leading to two or three more smaller areas before reaching the end of the line and being transported back to Majula. No one “spoke” of the world ever leads to another. You also have the ability to warp to any located bonfire from the beginning, meaning there’s even less incentive or reason to poke and prod at any of the game’s locations since every path is a straight line. While Dark Souls II’s world may be as large as the original’s and quite a bit more dense with content, it also fails to actually capture a sense of adventure and instead feels like a linear progression of videogame levels.

Though the world and story of Dark Souls II may be fairly disappointing, the game at least has a good go at trying to overcome those flaws with some very solid improvement over the previous two instalments’ gameplay. In fact, Dark Souls II feels a lot like a perfect marriage of the gameplay and systems from both Demon’s and Dark Souls from top to bottom with a nice dose of simple polish and convenience that have been missing from the series since the beginning.

In Demon’s Souls, movement and combat felt a bit too jerky and lacked a sense of weight, making it feel erratic and uneven at times. In Dark Souls, your character had a better sense of weight behind their movement and attacks, but momentum could be really tricky to manage. Dark Souls II takes both styles, jams them together, and comes out on top with combat and traversal that feel just right, making it hands down the easiest game to approach in the series as well as the best feeling. Swinging a sword around and firing off magic bear the same weight as the previous game, but there’s a tight and snappy responsiveness this time around that makes those vicious combo attacks and near-miss dodge rolls feel more satisfying than ever. The Souls games have always prided themselves on punishing player mistakes in a way that felt fair because the mistake was your fault, but that vision feels more fully realized in Dark Souls II than any of the previous games.

ds2-04As with previous games, the ability to proceed and build your character pretty much any way you want remains. It’s rare you’ll ever feel you’re not “playing right” or ever need to grind out levels even when the hordes of undead baddies have bashed your skull in for the fourteen-bajillionth time. For convenience, From have even added a very small amount of consumables that will let you respec your character entirely should you ever feel dissatisfied with your build or simply want to try something new. The game’s also a bit more generous with upgrade materials, so it likely won’t ever be a problem finding weapons, spells, and armors you like and playing the way you want. In the same manner as Demon’s and Dark Souls, there’s an astounding amount of replayability tucked into all that character customization that will no doubt keep you ensnared long after the credits have rolled on your maiden playthrough should you still feel dedicated enough.

Of course, you can’t talk about a Souls game at all without mentioning the series’ much touted difficulty. Be you a first-timer or a Souls aficionado, you can definitely expect to see “YOU DIED” emblazoned on your screen almost as much as any of the previous games in the series. Enemies hit hard and frequently, pitfalls and traps are littered with glee throughout all of Drangleic, and managing stamina has finally become the tactic to winning it always should have been. You’re gonna die, you’re gonna lose a lot of souls, and you’re gonna wanna throw something at your monitor in the process at some point, but the series mantra of “tough but fair” still rings very true.

While Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls both threw you into the world without a lot of explanation or time to get warmed up, Dark Souls II has a much gentler opening few hours that will help newbies come to grips with what the series is about. All of the paths immediately open to you from the first time you step foot into Majula have reasonable difficulty curves and can be taken in whatever order you find most comfortable, and with the ability to warp from bonfire to bonfire, new players won’t have to be stuck on any one area for too long if they feel they’re not ready. It’s smart game design to give the player lots of options, and Souls veterans who seek a little something more brutal in their experience can join the Company of Champions covenant right off the bat to jack the difficulty up to something a little more palatable.

ds2-05Unfortunately, while the gameplay is greater than it’s ever been, much like the world it takes place in, Dark Souls II sadly lacks variety in terms of enemy and boss design. Souls games are known for their creative and often unsettling casts of baddies and big mean scary boss monsters, but the gamut of horrors one faces in Dark Souls II is rather plain, uninspired, and not so horrific at all. While there is a fair share of nice designs sprinkled throughout the journey, most enemies are fairly nondescript and forgettable fodder for the slaying.

Equally disappointing are the boss encounters. From seems to have once again become the victim of drinking their own Kool-Aid as to how it relates to what the series is known for, because Dark Souls II features more bosses than ever before. You can expect a new boss encounter almost every 30-45 minutes depending on how well you’re progressing, and that would be nice if 90% of the boss designs didn’t suffer from the same lack of originality that normal enemies do.

ds2-06In fact, nearly every boss in the game is downright disappointingly predictable. Most come in the “big dude with a sword” variety, and feature a very similar move set comprised of a three-hit combo, a thrust, and a sweep attack. The rare variations on this formula usually only include adding two (or six…) similar bosses to the mix or having normal enemies nipping at your heels while you try to run down the boss’ health gauge. The small handful of bosses that do deviate from this formula are a welcome change of pace, but once they’re over, it’s back to sword swing and circle-strafesville for the next few hours.

The abundance of boss battles brings me to my final point about Dark Souls II, which is its pacing, or really, a lack thereof. In the previous game, you were treated to a long, arduous road of often brutal battles and obstacles to overcome, which would then be gracefully punctuated by a few moments of silence or a brief respite. Reaching the next bonfire after finally slugging your way through a particularly troublesome group of enemies felt rewarding, and you were able to take a moment to collect your thoughts, backtrack a bit to observe your surroundings and level design, or just relax and level up to enjoy the fruits of your labor. The game had “stopping points” where it felt like you could put it down for a bit, come back, and be refreshed for the next challenge.

ds2-07Dark Souls II has almost none of this kind of down time or silence. The violence and brutality of combat are permanently stuck to “ON” at all times with very little room left for a breather. If the way you progress through the game’s various areas somehow didn’t feel like a videogame to you, then its inability to give the player any kind of quiet will certainly hammer that point home. There’s rarely ever any time to appreciate some of the game’s better level design because combat is always around the corner. There’s no sense of dread when wandering around in a new area on the edge of your seat because you don’t know if an enemy is around the next corner. In Dark Souls II, there’s ALWAYS an enemy right around the corner. No surprise at all. It almost starts to feel like a 2D side scrolling beat ‘em up with how many faceless and uninspired enemies you end up laying waste to over the course of an area, and the real lack of intensity beyond wondering if this next enemy can kick your ass or not is probably the most disappointing and unfortunate misstep of all.

At its best, Dark Souls II is just well…more Dark Souls. A slightly more refined and better playing Dark Souls, but without the kind of direction and creativity that made the previous games unique. At its worst, Dark Souls II feels lazy and uninspired, offering very little variety and only occasionally reaching for the high points set by previous entries in the series. Dark Souls II is about the safest sequel From Software could have conjured, and unfortunately for a Souls game, a feeling of safety isn’t what makes these games so special.

Final Score: 6.5/10

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