Review: Dark Souls II – Hello Old Friend, Death Meets Us Again

When I was asked to review Dark Souls II, I’m going to be honest with you: I had no idea what I was in for or if I would be able to handle a 100-hour game. It’s a heavy and daunting task to take on. Was I ready to give up so many hours of my life? Would it be even worth it?

I remember the first game; I remember the tug-a-war it played with my heart. The thin line it walked between love and hate. The pure frustration and slight glimmer of hope the game gave. In all honesty, I was afraid; afraid whether the sequel would be a shell of the original. Afraid From Software became too big-headed and figured they could pass us garbage, knowing we would still buy it…just because. However, with much hesitation I put my fears somewhat aside and inserted the disk into my Xbox 360. For the next 100 hours I was blown away.

Imagine running into an old friend you haven’t seen for several years. You smile, greet each other and catch up; after a while it’s like you two have never left each other’s side. This is exactly what you can expect from Dark Souls II; everything you love, hated, and completely frustrated you about the original just upgraded, remixed and more enjoyable. It’s like slipping into an old pair of jeans and realizing they still fit after an all-night binge of sinful cronuts.

The story revolves around a cursed undead character trying to find a cure for his curse. It’s emotional.

While the sequel is not directly linked to its predecessor story-wise, they are set in the same world. The story takes place in the land of Drangleic, full of souls to help the undead maintain their humanity while fighting its curse. While the plot itself is thin, you’ll meet various characters who’ve also been compelled to Drangleic for the same reason: to collect souls to stave off the curse, which slowly erases the curse’s memories.

Upon arriving in Drangleic by a portal of souls, the Undead meets the Fire Keepers, who give vague information about the curse the player is suffering. The player then arrives in Majula, and meets a priestess who urges the player to collect souls to save themselves, including the Four Grand Souls.

Dark Souls II starts off like a television/movie masterpiece, much like Game of Thrones or The Lord of the Rings trilogy with crystal clear graphics, sweeping cut scenes, darkened landscape, mysterious fog and classic voice-overs. The graphics are far superior then the original, much like upgrading from your grandfather’s television to a flatscreen TV no one can afford. The cut scenes are quick; gone are the days of waiting for the game to load in-between dialogue.

The environments are overwhelming, both because they are vast and well detailed. Poorly lit corners are created with careful purpose; each step you take is into the unknown. The music ranges from haunting to downright scary, which only adds to the suspense. Picture walking through an unlit path and hearing random chants and piercing screams. You never know what you will get.

Much like the original, you build your character from scratch right from the beginning of the game who is then dropped into the middle of the unknown in the form of a mysterious darken forest with various enemies scattered throughout. Much like life you will be confused and scared. It took me several tries to figure just what the hell was going on.

Unlike other games, Dark Souls II is raw; expect no gear from the beginning so avoiding or simply punching your way through enemies is your best bet. Luckily the lack of gear situation doesn’t last for too long but I still suggest avoiding enemies as much as possible until you gain your bearings. It really makes no sense to engage in anything at this point.

As you begin to customize your character more, you’ll discover that classes fall between light and all-out-war styles of gameplay, which focuses on strength and performance skills. Fans of magic will be happy to know the magic classes are back. Unfortunately some scales have been decreased making them less powerful and more frustrating, so use each spell carefully. You’re not Harry Potter.

Unlike other titles, there are no useless classes. However, those not familiar with the game will benefit from melee classes. Speaking of classes, one the greatest changes is the ability to reclass via an item, so if for some reason you’re no longer pleased with your starting class, you can change switch things around and make the needed adjustments.

Character classes dictate your starting stats, but as you gain souls from defeating enemies, you’ll be able to level up a variety of stats regardless of class. This open form of customization hasn’t changed, so you can still make each character unique.

There’s still an emphasis on found gear and purchased gear, which will affect movement and damage. Different weapon types will produce different attack results, so it’s a good idea to carry a variety of weapons for different enemy encounters. You’ll thank me later.

One of the most admirable things about this game is that it does not hold your hand — it never has and it never will. Instead, it’s brutal, leading you into the land of the unknown, taking pleasure as you wander around hopelessly lost and halfway clueless. I both loved and hated this game equally. I threw shoes and other various items at the screen. I cursed, I yelled and was almost brought to tears. I died. Numbers aren’t even created yet to explain how many times I died. After I while I became numb to the pain and deaths.

In fact you’ll soon discover that death is really a learning tool. Each death provides a learning experience regardless of how ridiculously or carelessly you died. When I ran off the edge of a cliff or stumbled off the side of a bridge, the punishment and mere thought of death was so great that I became more aware and cautious. Avoiding death more and more is a sort of satisfying achievement that’s hard to explain. It’s like watching a miracle being delivered at your doorstep.

As your journey continues you’ll discover the inevitable…you suck. This is the norm and something that you should embrace. This is one of the few games where you’re able to notice how much your gaming has improved since your beginning steps. It doesn’t happen over a few hours — more like the first ten hours — but if you don’t give up you’ll notice small things at first, like less dependency on leveling and gear.

While your actions can be repetitious at times, you’ll notice how much easier those actions become. While you’ll still dying (you’ll never escape dying), if you pay attention to your actions you’ll last longer during boss battles. You really have to focus to what you’re doing instead of just going through the motions.

Dark Souls II at its heart is an adventure game and it does not disappoint. One of the things I encourage the most is exploration. Even if you never finish the game, take time out to explore. The interconnecting world is what helps make the game.

Drangelic is massive with a wide range of different locations. One moment you’ll struggle alongside a crumbling seaside kingdom, the next moment you’ll spend trekking through thick marshes, stumbling and falling, praying it’ll end. While all you can do is sit in awe at this incredible world and the ability to fast travel in a second.

One complaint I did have was that the settings made the game feel slightly disjointed; more like a large collection a mini worlds instead of one massive world. Overall this is a minor distraction, which in no shape or form takes away from how incredible this game is.

Through your exploration you’ll discover various secrets and beastly encountered throughout the game that will not only make you a better player but will put a smile of your face. You’ll learn new fighting techniques and how to approach situations more cautiously. The amount of time you can spend just collecting various items is overwhelming.While I suggest doing this, remember it can be daunting and it’s easy to become addicted and much like an addiction there really never is “just this last time.”

Another frustrating part about the game is that it never lets up. There’s no such thing as “taking a breather” or a safe location for you to run to. However, there are beautifully lit bonfires which act as your checkpoint, allowing you to replenish your health, level up, repair damaged equipment and contemplate why you enjoy punishing yourself with this game. As you spend your time relaxing and soaking in the heat from the fire, beware, for resting at a bonfire not only ensures that you’ll spawn but resting also respawns all your enemies in the area.

Choosing whether or not to rest should be viewed on a case-by-case basis. Deciding when and where to rest becomes a major part of your strategy. You can go through the same areas again and again, collecting souls and learning enemy attack patterns to make yourself stronger, or you can push onward towards the next bonfire, risking the unknown. The choice is yours to screw up.

One thing that was basically left untouched is combat, which is very similar to the first game. Just like the game itself, fighting will take patience. You must pay attention to any information that’s given about the enemy and never let your guard down. While you can use magic, fighting provides a sort of satisfaction that magic can never live up to. Every battle is unique and can be as complex as a puzzle. The enemies are relentless and dying will be the only breather you’ll receive; these bosses are tough. Mummifies knights to giant turtles dressed in armor to massive trolls testing your nerve and agility.

Now that I’ve gotten all the fun single-player stuff out of the way, let’s move onto the online action. First off expect to feel like Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense, for you will see dead people everywhere, all around. There’s actually something special about seeing other ghosts huddled around the bonfires, it’s almost a sense of community knowing that we’re all suffering together in a sea of hopelessness. In fact you can play the role of being a friendly soul by assisting other players with their difficult battles.

Dark Souls II (2)

However, just like life and everything else in this game there is a downfall. Multiplayer offers the wondrous gift of other players invading not only your space but your world. If you happen to be strolling along in human form they have the annoying ability to kill you. While this doesn’t occur all the time, it does occur.

If going on an online murder spree is not your thing, joining an in-game covenant (which has expanded) or relying on limited items is your best bet. For those who like to live a bit dangerously or more complicated, there is an indictment system where you can partake in a game of tattle-tale by reporting someone who assassinates you. Once this is done, their name enters into a massive public book entitled Book of the Guilty, where everyone is now aware of the murderous player and can be on the lookout. In all honesty the best part about online play is the ability to troll other players. Screw helping them with a tough battle. Let them suffer.

Overall Dark Souls II is one of the best games I have ever played. I have never before laughed at my own stupidity, cried out with frustration and jumped because of random beastly creatures hidden in the dark of the night. I have to give everyone who spent years creating this game a massive round of applause. It’s so hard to find a game that makes you use your intelligence, forces you to challenge yourself, never lets up and rewards you without babying you.

It’s jammed packed with incredible enemies and massive landscapes for you to discover. With over 60 hours of gameplay plus more for exploration and multiplayer, not for a single second was I bored nor did I become distracted. I have never had more fun with being in utter agony. I simply wouldn’t be doing this game justice if I didn’t recommend it to every person I know.

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