Back in 2009, Japanese developer From Software introduced North American RPG fans to a new kind of action RPG. This RPG didn’t feature stylized graphics or a cast of colorful characters or even a clear-cut story. What it *did* feature however was a grim fantasy setting, a harsh difficulty curve, and an innovative asynchronous approach to multiplayer. That game was Demon’s Souls and it was just the beginning for RPG fans who soon became addicted to its punishing yet highly rewarding challenge. Two years later, From Software released Dark Souls, a spiritual successor that refined many of the gameplay systems from Demon’s Souls while retaining the brutal difficulty of its predecessor much to the delight of fans. Now From Software is attempting to strike lightning a third time with Dark Souls II, but is the third time a charm? Or has From Software struck out?
Unlike its predecessors which just sort of tossed players straight into the action with little fanfare or setup, Dark Souls II begins by bringing the player up to speed on who the game’s central character is and why they should care about the character’s plight. Cursed to walk the world as an undead “Hollow”, the main character has ventured to the limbo-esque world of Drangleic (which is itself connected with the world of Lordran from the first Dark Souls though the two games have no direct story connections). Once the player has customized the main character to their liking; choosing their class, gender, and physical features, they must set out into Drangleic’s unforgiving landscape to find and harness four great souls, hopefully ending the curse in the process.
Veterans of the first Dark Souls will find the controls relatively unchanged in the sequel which consequently means they might take some getting used to for newcomers. Tapping the sprint button while moving allows the player character to do a quick roll (an invaluable technique in combat) and tapping it after it is held down initiates a quick jump that can clear small gaps. The controller’s four shoulder buttons (L1, R1, L2, and R2 on PlayStation 3, triggers and bumpers on the Xbox 360) are used to initiate different combat techniques depending on which weapons are equipped and the added ability to dual-wield one-handed weapons (something that was lacking in Dark Souls) further broadens the player’s combat choices. Combat in Dark Souls II is made somewhat manageable thanks to these various attack and evasion maneuvers along with an enemy lock-on system but taking on more than one or two opponents at a time isn’t a recommended strategy for the uninitiated.
If Dark Souls II is your first experience with the Souls series, one lesson you’ll have to learn very quickly (and one which the game will be more than glad to teach you over and over and over) is that this isn’t a game that wants to just let you win. There are no handy maps or objective markers indicating where you should go, meaning it’s possible to blunder into a part of the world that your character is not ready for (again, you’ll often learn this lesson the hard way at the point of a vastly more powerful foe’s sword). Your character starts out fairly weak and even once they’ve leveled up and gained some decent equipment, many enemies (especially bosses) can still easily one or two-shot you if you’re not careful. You will get frustrated, you will likely shout obscenities at your tv screen, and there will be times when you’ll ask yourself out loud why you’re even bothering to play this cheap, unfair game.
And then you’ll narrowly defeat a boss by the skin of your teeth and breathe a deep sigh of relief and triumph.
All of a sudden, the hours of frustration and hopelessness you endured to reach this point will be nothing but a distant memory. You’ll regroup, re-stock, and solider onward to more battles and more thrilling boss fights because that is the bizarre magic of Dark Souls II that nobody can really explain but that everyone is addicted to. Much like the two games before it, Dark Souls II makes you fight for every inch of progress and it isn’t afraid to yank it all away if you get sloppy or careless. Hours spent collecting Souls (currency gained by defeating enemies and using certain items which is in turn spent to level up and purchase new equipment) can be lost due to one misstep, one ill-placed swing of your weapon, one fleeting moment when a player’s bravado outweighs their caution.
There are a few systems in place for players who want a little less challenge. The asynchronous multiplayer from previous Souls games has returned and by joining certain in-game “covenants”, players can summon friendly phantom versions of other players to help them brave the game’s environments or take down tough bosses. Consequently, those who feel the base game doesn’t provide enough of a challenge can both invade and be invaded by players from other worlds and engage in frantic PvP combat while adventuring. Other returning gameplay systems that have been tweaked, such as enemies that no longer indefinitely respawn, are both a boon and a curse depending on the kind of player you are (no more indefinite spawning means progress is easier to make but Soul farming is no longer a viable strategy).
For every new way that Dark Souls II’s gameplay innovates on its predecessor’s (such as being able to warp between activated bonfires), it also finds new ways to keep players on their toes (dying now costs players a chunk of their total health bar unless they use one of their precious Human Effigy’s to restore their character’s humanity). Having a central base of sorts that grows and evolves in the town of Majula is a welcome change from the original Dark Souls‘ sparse Firelink Shrine but having to return to Majula whenever a player wants to level up might rub some Souls vets the wrong way. Rest assured however, if you enjoyed the overwhelming difficulty of the previous Souls games, you’ll still find plenty to love in Dark Souls II.
As someone who admittedly tends to get frustrated with difficult games, my opinion of Dark Souls II (as with its predecessors) was polarizing but, as was the case with Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls before it, I’m glad I stuck it out. Some might naively assume that all Dark Souls II does is try to purposefully discourage players but they’d only partially be right. For those who are willing to endure all of the challenges that Dark Souls II throws at them, there is a light at the end of the tunnel that few other games can replicate. That deeply satisfying feeling of basking in a victory you *know* you earned is the true reward behind Dark Souls II’s often maddening difficulty, despite all the frustration and hopelessness I felt, I still think it is well worth the steep price of admission.
Images: Official Gaming Site