Dark Souls II Review
You might be thinking, "They are just getting around to Dark Souls II now? It's been out for a while..." In the interest of doing justice to the sequel to one of the last generation's best games, I wanted to make sure I saw and did it all before I sat down to type this all out. After hundreds of deaths, hours of heart-exploding tension and more monsters and equipment than you can shake a severed arm at, I'm finally finished with Dark Souls II. Was this review worth the wait? Does it manage to live up to the original? In a word: yes. Dark Souls II capitalizes on everything that made Dark Souls, and before it, Demon's Souls, so great. There are one or two minor things that rubbed me the wrong way, but this is everything a sequel should be.
Like the previous Souls games, the story here is appropriately nebulous and depressing. You exist as a lone warrior in a world beaten down by monsters, magic and war, and you don't stand much of a chance against what lies ahead. What light is shed on your world is done through notes and scribblings here and there, and you spend most of your time in-game alone on deserted paths and structures, with only evil waiting for you. More story flows into the action as you near the game's final encounters, but if someone asked you to describe the plot of this or any Souls game, you'd be best served by saying, " You play as a human with no chance in hell of living, in a world where literally everyone and everything wants to kill you."
If that makes the game sound hard, you bet it is - the Souls games are the hardest of this past generation, and in some ways, Dark Souls II is the most difficult of the three. Two specific design decisions make that statement a true one, but let's cover the basics for those who may not have the encyclopedic knowledge of the first games the rest of us do. Dark Souls II is a third-person action RPG where every move counts, and you are going to die. Like, all the time. Minor enemies can easily strike you down, and stronger boss enemies almost always seem completely unkillable - at first. Careful, defensive battling and pattern memorization are your only keys to victory, and when it is achieved, Dark Souls II has the ability to make you feel like an absolute god. There is no feeling in modern gaming that can match the visceral excitement of finally besting a Dark Souls boss, and this sequel ups the ante considerably from the first game. Bosses are bigger, harder and much meaner, and I faced no monster that didn't kill me at least twice before I emerged the victor.
What makes the Souls games even more difficult is that when you die, you lose pretty much everything. Weapons, armor, souls (currency used for upgrading yourself and your equipment) all of it stays on your dead body as your soul is sent back to the last bonfire checkpoint. You've got ONE CHANCE to cover all that lost ground and recover your loot from your dead body before it is gone forever, and this is something even the best players deal with often. Progress isn't easily made in Dark Souls II, and oftentimes remaking said progress can be even more difficult. But, like defeating monsters, recovering your stuff elicits a feeling of triumph unlike any other.
Two things in particular make Dark Souls II even harder than previous games. One is that your roll move, one that used to grant a split second of invincibility, is no longer a good way to avoid damage; you are now vulnerable through the entire animation. Also, in previous games, enemies would regenerate when you were killed, meaning you could get fancy and play the death/rebirth cycle to your advantage by killing constantly respawning enemies for souls. You could then beef up your character beyond normal means, making the game easier. No more. Both tweaks make the game even more visceral and heart-pounding; one misstep can mean hours of careful work down the toilet.
Oh, and did I mention that every time you die, your max HP goes down a bit? Yeah, this new fork in the eye makes things even harder. You can counteract the penalty with a particular item, but they are few and far between.
Another addition, one that actually makes things a little easier, is the long-wished for ability to fast travel. Lit bonfires serve as checkpoints, but now you can fast travel between them without having to trudge from one end of the world to the other. It's a huge change and more than welcome, but other difficulty tweaks ensure that the game feels every bit as tough as when you had to do all that walking.
Like past games, combat here is still the king. When choosing weapons and armor, you must carefully analyze your play style and work around that. Do you need a huge shield for defense? Or are you light on your feet enough to equip lesser defensive measures? Do you prefer to fight up close and personal? Or is ranged your game? You'll need to employ lots of different strategies to get past the game's many boss encounters, but getting a feel for your particular style is as important as ever. One thing new players may not get is that Dark Souls II will kill you and bury you upside down if you try to go the button mashing route. Exploring the nuances of battle and moving accordingly is the only way to win, and the game makes sure you know this from the very beginning.
Even though I've already gone on and on about the boss fights, I wanted to make a quick mention of two in particular - the Mirror Knight and the Darklurker. I won't give anything away, but these two bosses top my favorites from both the first Dark Souls and Demon's Souls. They are absolute monsters, and among the toughest fights I've seen in some time. Don't miss the opportunity to be ripped limb from limb by these two.
To say I like Dark Souls II is an understatement - I loved every second of it. Being the third Souls game, the feeling of awe and "how the hell..." isn't as jarring as it once was, and the little tweaks... some work, some don't. Overall, though, this is a great sequel and a great way to wrap up the previous console generation. There is a reason Dark Souls fans are among the most obsessive (and sometimes most annoying... sorry) on the Internet: the game they love is amazing, even legendary. Don't miss this one.
Final Rating: 96%. Even more amazing, and difficult, than Dark Souls.