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'Dark Souls 2' review: death intensifies

Dark Souls II
Dark Souls II
From Software

Dark Souls II

Rating:
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From the onset of its reveal, Dark Souls II had a massive reputation to live up to. The original Dark Souls attracted massive attention to the series, and for good reason. It is by far one of, if not the hardest game of the PS3 and 360 generation. Developer From Software, finding success in the Souls series and a newfound fanbase consisting of both pseudo-masochists and people interested in the hype, had massive shoes to fill with the sequel. Many feared that From would “casualize” the game – changing it to make it easier in order to appeal to more people in an easy bid for higher sales – and to be honest, it would have made sense to do so. But rest assured. Dark Souls II is nowhere close being to easier than its predecessor.

Let it be known that Dark Souls II is even harder.

The original Dark Souls granted players the privilege of always their maximum health available. How can something so obvious and commonplace be a damn privilege, you ask? Simple. In Dark Souls II, every death takes away a percentage of your maximum health. This can continue until you only have 50% of max health available. This can be restored with the use of Human Effigy to restore one’s humanity, but these valuable items come in limited supply. Restoring maximum health to full is not its only application either; players with humanity intact are able to access the game’s co-operative multiplayer aspect, and summon other players to help them fight monsters, bosses included.

Enemies were aggressive in Dark Souls. Even the lowliest of mooks could ravage one’s life bar if caution is not heeded. This is amplified in II, where enemy aggression level fly off the charts. Enemies that would appear to be large and slow are deceptively agile. Take the stone turtle enemy, for example. He wields a massive hammer, and with a giant stone shell on his back, it only makes sense for him to walk and attack slow. The former is true, but the latter, not so much. There’s a certain cruelty to every enemy’s moveset in Dark Souls II, but that is especially prevalent in turtle man. When he raises his hammer slowly, one would expect to be able to roll away to dodge the slow strike – but no, there’s a real possibility that he will hold the hammer still above his head and suddenly sprint toward you, bringing it down to smash your brittle body into dust before you can recover from the dodge.

The cruelty is real.

Staying true to the original Dark Souls, skill and prowess come with experience. The more privy the player becomes to the enemy’s wild antics, the more prepared they will be to employ countermeasures. Of course, this knowledge can apply to any game. But in Dark Souls II, it may take a dozen deaths, or more, to get the ball rolling.

But once the ball gets rolling, it’s hard to stop. A person unfamiliar with the Souls series might wonder how it got so popular – are there really that many masochists among gamers? Maybe, but maybe not. Overcoming the game’s difficulty, finally defeating an intimidating boss after so many tries, elicits an incredibly warm sense of accomplishment exclusive to this series – none other comes even close.

Death is less of an obstacle than it is an unrelenting teacher.

Along with the difficulty, gameplay remains largely unchanged, with one notable exception: dual wielding is now a viable tactic. With 2 weapons that use the same striking method and meeting 150% of both their strength and dexterity requirements, players can enter a Power Stance. In that stance, both weapons can be simultaneously swung with massive force behind them, dealing high damage in a short time. Of course, wielding a weapon in both hands means no shield – a bold risk, considering how easy it is to die when struck. By anything. Better hone those dodge skills before trying this new feature.

Multiplayer aspects have been expanded, as well. Leaving messages for other players, whether to help or harm them, was an interesting concept in the original that has only grown here. Players can leave more elaborate messages now, although they are still restricted to certain preset words and phrases. In most cases, they are enough, anyway. Yes, there’s always going to be that guy who leaves a message by a door saying “Treasure ahead” when in reality, that door hangs off the side of a building, and anyone who goes through it falls to hasty death. But there will be more benevolent messages that point out hidden secrets and the like, since when a message gets approved by other players, the message writer receives a heal in real-time, a welcome addition that might just save one’s life if it comes down to it.

As per the usual in a Souls game, the game is cryptic hardly bothers holding the player’s hand. At all. Hell, the tutorial at the beginning is optional, and thus easily missed by inattentive players. The game doesn’t bother to explain anything; neither do the NPCs, who all seem to speak in riddles or nonsense or a combination of both. This is both a positive and potential negative. Firstly, this enhances the mysterious atmosphere of the game, which was clearly intended. It places a huge premium on exploration – at times, even the most trivial of activities can unlock major portions of the game or have other huge effects. Inexperienced players may feel isolated and alienated by the distinct lack of guidance – but should they adapt and find their way on their own merit, they will easily come to a deep appreciation of the series as so many others already have. The game’s reluctance to intervene and lead the player is both a freedom and a burden of responsibility.

The graphics appear to push the Xbox 360 and PS3 to their limits, a reminder of just how old the now last-gen consoles really are. Still, the game manages to look phenomenal while preserving a consistently high frame rate – or at least much, much more consistent and smooth than the original game.

When it comes down to it, Dark Souls II is another grand and lengthy helping of despair-inducing, death-laden adventure. The doomsday scenario of the game becoming easier to appeal to the mainstream did not come to fruition. Instead Dark Souls II maintains the integrity of its forebears while taking another step further into the abyss of soul-crushing difficulty.