Dark Souls 2
From King’s Field to Demon’s Souls to Dark Souls, there are a few things that are guaranteed in a From Software title – the difficulty will be ramped up, a lot of players will die many times, surprises can often be nasty, and gamers everywhere will tear their hair out in frustration yet still come back for more. The company’s focus on careful exploration, brooding atmospheres and thoughtful world-building have remained at the forefront of their role-playing development, but they haven’t always hit the mark with their releases. The original King’s Field and its sequels were marred by slow character mechanics, the controls and game physics in Demon’s Souls could be unresponsive and jittery, and Dark Souls featured a weaker storyline and a wreck of a PC port..
So have From Software learned from their past mistakes?
Set in the same world as its predecessor, Dark Souls 2 begins with a traveler on a quest to remove the undead curse placed upon them. The journey begins in the land of Drangleic – a strange country full of souls where others who have suffered the same fate gather to maintain their humanity. Once the former Fire Keepers have apprised players of their situation it’s time to set out into a dangerous world where death can be swift and sudden.
Unlike the previous iteration, Dark Souls 2 offers a much more forgiving entry into the game. Character customisation is once again an essential part of the experience, and the choice of gender, race, class, and even starting gift will have an effect on the how players approach the challenges they will face. The starting area – “Things Betwixt” – is a veritable labyrinth of pathways and fog gates scattered with instructional tombstones and enemies that are generally easy to kill – although there are some that should be avoided for the time being. Exploration will yield some interesting items, but the focus is on teaching the player how to survive – and the helpful “ghost” of a previous adventurer is useful for finding things that may not be immediately obvious.
After that it’s off to Majula for a rest and some conversation with the “locals”.
The PC version of Dark Souls 2 has been ported from the Xbox 360 and the switch to mouse and keyboard is decent enough, but it’s not a perfect set up as the menu system is optimised for consoles so navigating them can be an exercise in patience. In addition to this the default keys aren’t fully customisable, the visual button prompts are for the Xbox 360, and mapping the mouse and keyboard onto a controller isn’t as easy as it could have been. That said, the PC set up is flexible in a way that is difficult to achieve on a console, and the ability to tweak elements of the control system can often be a godsend.
Multiplayer is a key feature in Dark Souls 2 thanks to the return of Covenants, but this time there’s a greater focus on factions and they can be accessed at an early stage of the game. Random invasions can still occur, but more direct PvP combat can be sought using dark spirit summoning signs in designated areas – and since there’s no penalty for losing it’s worth getting involved. Fights between players are a common occurrence, but be careful as repeatedly dying in the main campaign will remove slivers of the character’s maximum health – something that can be reversed by successfully assisting in other multiplayer sessions.
On the surface Dark Souls 2 appears to be little more than a third-person action RPG, but approaching the game with this mindset will only get the player killed very quickly (and regularly). Although the combat is often fast, frenetic and extremely tense, there’s a tactical element that needs to be mastered – and outsmarting opponents is generally far more effective than the usual hack-and-slash approach of other titles. Dark Souls 2 may have all the trappings of an action game, but at its core it’s actually a series of complex puzzles that need to be solved with time, patience and effort. The difficult and often frustrating challenges – both combat-based and otherwise – are back in force, and to their credit the developers have tried to stay true to their winning formula.
Playing the game is a bit of a challenge in its own right as, like its predecessor, Dark Souls 2 uses a levelling system that is sorely lacking in explanations. Thankfully it’s easier to improve the characters quickly, and with more loot drops of exotic items alongside the usual accessories, armour, stones, etc, players can focus on developing individual statistics and gear. In addition to this magic-users can utilise light, heavy and two-handed versions of certain spells, and can swap them for different ones at bonfires. There are also surprisingly subtle changes that may not immediately be obvious, and the repeated slaying of a specific foe will now cause it to disappear completely after being killed a certain number of time – which in turn forces players to press forward with the game instead of spending hours on low-level grinding.
One of the main aspects of Dark Souls 2 is exploration, and the land of Drangleic is a truly fascinating place – but very different from Lordran. The ability to fast travel between bonfires has allowed the game’s designers to create a much bigger, more expansive world, and the diversity of locations can often have players going from the palpable forced normality of a settlement to dark, brooding, and sometimes unnerving places. The larger areas are supported by some intelligent world-building, and almost every item, tombstone, epitaph, loot drop, etc, will yield a bit of lore and expand the player’s understanding of the land and the difficult task that lays ahead of them. The game is well scripted, and the dialogue switches between a formal, slightly bombastic tone (in the manner of many games of this type), to what is assumed to be a commoner’s dialect. Conversations with NPCs are encouraged as they can often impart essential information that may not be immediately relevant – along with the usual bits of history, legend, folklore and rumour that breathe life into the world and justify all of the exploration.
The strangeness of Drangleic is accentuated by the fact that much of the game takes place in sunlight of some kind (a factor that almost renders the torch system useless), and although Dark Souls 2 looks impressive on consoles the PC port is arguably the definitive version thanks to the ability to alter a variety of audio and visual settings (thus ensuring that the game runs at a smooth 60 fps on a decent computer). That said, the real bonus lies in the usage of third-party modifications that can improve the quality of the graphics, enhance textures and lighting effects, and turn this from a good-looking adventure into a visually stunning one. These alterations aren’t necessary though, and even without them players may still find themselves marvelling at the remarkable scenery, glorious sunsets, and visibly atmospheric locales.
Dark Souls 2 isn’t perfect, but it is most definitely absorbing, frustrating, enthralling, tense, brutal, taxing and downright vicious in equal measure. From Software have examined the mistakes they made with their previous titles, and in many ways this is the culmination of everything they learned. Granted it looks and sounds better on the PC, but it can take a little time to get used to the control system and there are other issues that come to the fore – but nothing that actually breaks the game. Many of the relatively minor flaws can (and probably will), be overlooked thanks to the gruelling challenges and interesting storyline, and the simple truth is that Dark Souls 2 is one of the finest RPG’s of the last few years, and has managed to surpass the bar set by its predecessors.
The only question now is where do From Software go from here.