Dark Souls 2 – Go Beyond Death – Review

Gare – Saturday, May 17, 2014 2:58 PM
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You are of the Undead – forever without hope; forever without light. These were the opening words of the first announcement trailer released at 2012’s VGA for Dark Souls 2, and the brief phrase could not be more accurate. The Souls series first debuted on PS3 with a title called Demon’s Souls, and made its name among gamers and reviewers alike as a game with an unforgiving level of difficulty, a trait that continued in future installments. In Dark Souls 2, every single death your character suffers may have severe consequences – and death itself is hardly a rare occurrence in the land of Drangleic, the kingdom serving as the primary setting for this latest installment. Death’s shadow can be felt in in every nook and cranny: from deadly traps through lethal poison all the way to lurking monstrosities and invisible foes, Dark Souls 2 makes it its mission to turn the player’s adventure into living hell. When the player needs to explore a cave in pitch black darkness, the game will place a trap – a hole to fall down – right where he is most likely to fall into it in his carelessness. At other times, a seemingly innocent door may all of sudden, without warning, burst open – walls included – as a massive troll forces its way through it, killing the player instantly. Dark Souls 2 punishes players, thus forcing them to be cautious, to be resourceful, and this is what makes it special. Every death – even the most bitter of defeats – is there as an experience that will make you want to press on to conquer whatever it is that game throws at you. In Dark Souls 2, death is the greatest teacher and the greatest inspiration.

As far as actual gameplay is concerned, Dark Souls 2 – and all Souls games – are third-person action RPGs in which every player has only him- or herself to rely on. With a few exceptions, but we’ll talk about multipayer later on. Players journey through a series of varied locations, all having their own unique traits and distinct atmospheres, populated by deadly enemies and even deadlier bosses. Once a boss of a given area is defeated, the way onward opens up, and we venture forth towards the next land to explore. Naturally, this might all sound repetitive on paper, but the challenge and constant surprises prevent it from being that. In terms of narrative, while Dark Souls 2 does tell a story of its own, it does so in a relatively unorthodox way, implicitly, working with brief morsels of dialogue and shady references here and there – there is much more focus on showing, as opposed to telling. The environment has a story of its own, and the player is expected to put the pieces of the puzzle together: those able to read between the lines will be at an advantage.

The souls are the key to everything

Defeating enemies awards us with souls, which can then be spent to level up and make our character stronger; they are also a universal currency used to purchase items, spells and equipment. The challenge lies in the following fact: every time you die in Dark Souls 2, you lose all your souls. Afterwards, while you do have one final chance to get them back, this system nonetheless ensures that players feel anxiety every time they enter an unknown, dangerous area, as one wrong step could rob them of all their precious currency. And if you do lose all your souls, what then? You learn from your mistakes; you press on, vowing to do better next time. This sort of tenacity is what characterizes Souls games, this one included. A new addition to the game in terms of this mechanic is that every single death now lowers your maximum HP – and while the lowest it goes is 50%, this system still forces a rather hefty handicap on players early on. Furthermore, this penalty can only be negated by using up a Human Effigy, an item that is fairly valuable and rare in the earlier stages of the game.

Not *completely* alone...

On the multiplayer front, Dark Souls 2 is what one would expect from a sequel to Dark Souls, with some new tricks up its sleeve. Multiplayer is, I believe, an integral part of the Souls experience, giving it its unique charm. For one, players are once again able to leave messages on the floors in every area of the game – message that will then, from time to time, pop up in the worlds of other players wandering into that given area. The point of this, of course, is to help each other out with hints: while everyone is playing in his own game in his own world, the messages connect the community and help them outsmart the game together. We might stumble upon a chest and see the bright orange message on the floor next to it: be wary of trap! At other times, when entering a suspicious room, a message might say “Illusory wall ahead”, warning of a secret passage to be found nearby. This all gives Dark Souls 2 that fantastic feeling of not being *completely* alone in the otherwise dark and dangerous land of Drangleic – there is always an invisible guardian angel on the other side of the internet looking out for you.

Once again, much like in the first installment, other players may occasionally trespass into your own game (the actual terminology for this is “invasion”) with the sole purpose of finding and killing you, lending an excellent feeling of tension to an already danger-filled campaign. Co-op is also present much like it was in Dark Souls, with players being able to summon up to two other people into their own world so that they can journey forth together (for a limited time) and topple a harder section of the area, or even face a tough to beat boss together. A rather interesting new addition to the online matchmaking system is a covenant (basically a faction you can join) called the Way of the Blue – those who become members of this faction, upon being invaded by someone, can expect another player, a so-called Blue Sentinel, to come to their aid and drive off the unwanted guest. Another unique new covenant (Rat King) allows you to summon other players into your own worlds in order to unleash a series of deadly traps on the unlucky adventurer. PvP can be a victim to lag from time to time, but PC gamers – for this is the version I did play – will be happy to know that matchmaking works like a charm this time around without GFWL’s system to hold it back.

While the first Dark Souls made use of character levels when handling its online matchmaking, Dark Souls 2 introduces the so-called Soul Memory system. What this means is that who we get paired together with in co-op or PvP is calculated based on the total number of souls ever collected by our character. Those that are roughly in the same Soul Memory range will be able to play together. Thankfully, this never became an issue on my first playthrough – even with relatively high levels of Soul Memory, I was always able to find other players to co-operate with. What this also means, however, is that character levels become meaningless in terms of matchmaking: and since people have no incentive to stop leveling (as it is only Soul Memory that counts in online matchmaking), after a while most characters will have similar stats, and vastly different builds may potentially lose their meaning.

The often advertised torches, of course, make an appearance in Dark Souls 2 as well, and while they are probably not quite as important as the pre-release trailers made us believe, they still are a useful addition to the game. There are indeed a select few areas in the game where darkness is prevalent, where bringing a lit torch is very much recommended – I myself have occasionally plunged to my death in the pitch black darkness due to not watching my step. They also – occasionally – serve as a way to light other stationary torches that can then be used as landmarks to tell us which parts of a given area we’ve already explored. Overall, while the torch system is not an integral part of gameplay, it does have its moments to shine here and there, and is a great way to add some variety to Dark Souls 2 dungeon crawling mechanics.

Dark Souls 1.5

Dark Souls IIPlatform: PC, PS3, XBox360Genre: Action, RPGDeveloper: From SoftwarePublisher: Namco Bandai GamesRelease: 03/11/2014Rated: TESRBSo what’s the verdict? I have to admit that despite its changes here and there, Dark Souls 2 does, on several occasions, feel a lot like it’s merely trying to be Dark Souls 1.5. Many of its areas give that sort of “you know, I’ve seen this before in the previous game…” vibe that is difficult to shake: similar woods, castles, dungeons and textures all feel like assets re-used from the first installment. The bosses – the highlights of each Souls game – also felt slightly recycled at parts, with looks or mechanics that felt awfully similar to certain ones from the prequel. And yet all this is still not enough to make me write off Dark Souls 2 as a failure – far from it, in fact. While I do maintain that it feels like an ever so slightly weaker installment than its brilliant predecessor, it is still a tremendously enjoyable adventure that glued me to my seat for long, long hours. Fans that enjoyed Dark Souls will feel right at home in Dark Souls 2, receiving merely “more of the same”, but in the best way possible.

Shortcomings aside, Dark Souls 2 is a solid title that I sank over a hundred hours into, and one that I feel I can recommend to both long-time fans and newcomers alike. Who knows – we might have gotten something fresher and more polished, had it been in development for another year or so, but the product we ended up getting this spring is still, thankfully, nothing short of fantastic.

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