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The difficulty of ‘Dark Souls II’ allows for more genuine rewards

Dark Souls II
Dark Souls II
From Software

Dark Souls II (Xbox 360)

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Developer From Software returns to challenge gamers to survive another installment of their RPG franchise that is infamously known for its punishing difficulty. Dark Souls II continues the trend by offering a new challenging experience for gamers to undertake.

Dark Souls II
From Software

The same gameplay mechanics that can be frustrating at times also reward players with a great sense of accomplishment after they finally defeat a challenging boss or discover a new bonfire in the midst of a perilous area. The feeling of progress simply wouldn’t be as impactful if Dark Souls II didn’t force gamers to earn every single step forward.

There is no joy in death

Players are forced to overcome the steep penalties that come with dying inside Dark Souls II. Each in-game death causes gamers to respawn at the last bonfire that they used. However, players will find a bit of their humanity stripped away as each subsequent death strengthens the hollowing process that causes the main character to become more and more undead. Fans are penalized with a dwindling health bar as their maximum hit points drops with every death as the result of becoming increasingly hollowed.

Fortunately, there is a way to reverse the hollowing process through the use of a consumable item. Upon using a human effigy, a hollowed character will have their humanity restored as the item allows the undead to remember their formerly living self. This returns a player’s health bar back to its maximum, pre-hollowed state.

A stacking penalty to health isn’t the only loss which players must cope with upon dying because each death also causes the loss of all currently carried souls. The good news is that the lost souls will remain on the ground for players to recover if they can pick them back up before dying a second time.

Souls themselves are worth holding on to as they can be spent in town for various benefits. Souls are earned from defeating enemies and are required to purchase, repair, and upgrade equipment. Additionally, spending souls is the only method with which a character’s level can be increased. Each new rank requires more souls to reach, meaning that players simply can’t progress in level without acquiring more souls

Hope does still exist

While most of Dark Souls II is designed to punish the ill-prepared, that doesn’t mean that the game doesn’t offer the occasional respite from hardship. Strewn throughout the game’s map are several bonfires which act as literal beacons of light and hope. One of the biggest benefits to discovering a new bonfire is that players have the ability to fast-travel between any discovered bonfires. This feature is new to Dark Souls II and is a welcome change that cuts down on backtracking without actually compromising the game’s sense of difficulty. Furthermore, resting at a bonfire restores hit points, repairs weapons, and refills any estus flasks that a player owns.

Fans of the original Dark Souls game will remember estus flasks as a permanent item that acts like a health potion. While the flask has limited charges, it is never destroyed and can be fully refilled by visiting bonfires. Shards can also be discovered throughout the game which can be used to make the flask bigger and therefore capable of holding more charges.

However, the estus flask isn’t the only healing item within Dark Souls II as the sequel introduces life gems. These health recovery consumables can be purchased from merchants or found on the bodies of slain enemies as loot. Rather than providing a large burst of health like the estus flask, life gems instead give players a strong health-over-time effect that will heal them a set amount each second over the course of a longer duration. These new healing items must be used wisely since, unlike the estus flask, life gems are completely consumed upon use and can’t be restored at bonfires.

The dead will eventually stay dead

Dark Souls II also features a slightly modified enemy spawning system compared to what fans experienced in the series’ last entry. As in the first Dark Souls, all previously defeated enemies will be completely repopulated on the map every time a bonfire is used. Where Dark Souls II departs from its predecessor, however, is that monsters will eventually remain permanently dead after they have been defeated a dozen times. This change has both positive and negative effects. The ability to fully clear an area of enemies makes exploration easier, but the limited spawn rate means players will eventually be unable to gain additional souls from heavily trafficked areas. Thankfully, there is an item that can be used at bonfires to respawn all nearby enemies, but they are rare so it’s not something that a player can do on a whim.

Equipment makes the hero

Contrary to popular belief, success in Dark Souls doesn’t rely entirely upon player skill. Even the most experienced gamer is only as good as his equipped gear. Fortunately, Dark Souls II offers players plenty of choice in the way of armors and weaponry. Additionally, equipment can be further improved by visiting a blacksmith. These upgrades can be applied within the game’s central city of Majula.

Majula itself, even though a village in its own right, acts somewhat like an extension of the player themselves. Just as gamers improve their character throughout the course of the game, so too do they expand upon Majula. When first discovered, the town contains few enterable buildings. By exploring the world, fans will unlock additional conveniences for Majula such as additional merchants. Players will also want to see the town prosper since the new bonfire teleportation system means they will be returning to Majula often in order to spend their hard-earned souls.

The Arts of survival

Combat hasn’t changed much in Dark Souls II. There is still a focus on carefully planned attacks that requires players to know when to strike and when to dodge or block. Almost all weapons can also be wielded with either one or two hands for more tactical options. The switch can be made in real-time with the press of a single button, furthering players’ ability to become more offensive when the need arises.

Unfortunately, much of the difficulty of Dark Souls II isn’t a result of intended game systems. Clunky controls tend to create perils which might not have otherwise existed. Special combat moves require awkward button combinations that the game often fails to accurately read. A troublesome hard-targeting system also frequently makes situations more difficult than necessary as attacks may land away from the intended recipient despite the sticky-targeting mechanic.

A game of both challenges and rewards

Overall, Dark Souls II brings many welcome changes to the franchise without affecting the series’ overall tone. From Software did a good job of introducing new user-friendly systems, such as fast-travel, which make the game’s overall experience less tedious while allowing core mechanics to continue to provide fans with the challenges they now expect from a Dark Souls title at the same time.

The sequel has also received a graphical face lift. Since Dark Souls II doesn’t appear on next-gen consoles, gamers shouldn’t expect a giant leap forward in visuals but the game’s improved cloth and lighting physics sill look good for the Xbox 360 and PS3.

Fans of the first game, as well as those who enjoy action-RPGs, should definitely give Dark Souls II a try if they are up for a challenge.

Positives

  • Retains the series’ trademark sense of difficulty
  • The addition of fast-travel is a much needed change

Negatives

  • Combat can be clunky and unresponsive at times
  • The new spawning system makes it hard to farm souls after areas have been cleared

A copy of Dark Souls II was provided for the purposes of this review.