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Dark Souls II Review – Punishing Beauty

I was out of estus healing flasks. My health was so low that I couldn’t even see the red sliver anymore and my enemy, the Pursuer, was at the last bit of his health as well. Fittingly, he was also in pursuit. This was my fifth time fighting this boss and I was determined to finally achieve a victory, but I had to be careful. The first half of the fight went well as I was able to accurately dodge and evade most of his attacks, slowly chipping away at his health with my flame-imbued sword. I stripped down to lighter armor for this battle so I could roll more effectively and I was finally in the home stretch of defeating him. As he raised his shield and dashed towards me to ready a massive final swipe to finish me off with his sword again, my muscle memory took over and I rolled right, then followed it up with two final slashes to fell the foe. I finally won – VICTORY ACHIEVED painted my screen. The weight was finally lifted.

Encounters like the one I just described are common on a moment-to-moment basis against many enemies in this brutally difficult but devilishly satisfying RPG. Dark Souls is often marketed and described as one of the most difficult and punishing game series out there, but it’s so much more than that. For those unfamiliar with the Souls games, it’s easy to write them off as “one of those” games that is insanely difficult just for the sake of being difficult, or to disregard it as “too hard” for most people. But if you spend time with them, you’ll quickly realize that they’re actually games about accomplishment. At it’s core, Dark Souls II is, like its predecessors, a lesson in risk and reward.

Your journey begins with the crossing of a bridge much like this one at the start of the game.

In Dark Souls II, everything revolves around souls. You collect souls for every enemy you defeat and those souls are spent on leveling up, improving your gear, purchasing items, and everything else in the game. I cannot count the number of times the situation at hand presented me with the dilemma of: “Should I purchase X item, or level up some more and buy the item later?” Each time you improve a stat point though, the next improvement will cost more souls than the last. All of this is wrapped up into one neat package due to the fact that each and every time you die, all of your souls are left at the scene of your death. The only way to get them back, is to physically retrieve them from that location. If you die on the way back, the souls you were on your way to recover are lost and all of your current souls are now left at your new bloodstain. Tragic, I know. However, it’s important to understand how intimately every single mechanic in the game is tied together. Do you risk the 10,000 souls you have saved up to push forward a bit farther in hopes of discovering a new bonfire checkpoint, or do you backtrack to a safe zone? Resting at checkpoints, while important to unlock fast travel and refill your health and healing flasks, also respawns every enemy in the area. All of them. But in Dark Souls II, once you kill a specific enemy enough times, it stops respawning.

What makes Dark Souls so fantastic, is that the game isn’t unfair. Notice, it’s important to describe it as “not unfair” rather than “fair” due to the common misconception with “cheap difficulty” in games. There won’t be any bottomless pits that the game fools you into trying to jump across, or enemies designed to knock you off ledges. Instead, everything in the game is expertly crafted and balanced to present the player with a finely tuned challenge. Enemies always have weaknesses or patterns that can be learned. The sheer volume of gear and character combinations is staggering enough to validate a multitude of play styles.

Large weapons, while difficult to handle at first, are very useful to master for big groups.

You can play the versatile warrior that’s an all-around great choice for a melee class, or the priest to get an advantage in healing, or the sorcerer to deal damage from a distance – when possible. If you really hate yourself, you can even choose a specific class that starts the game butt-naked with nothing but his/her underwear and the bare minimum stats. That’s a true blank canvas. Regardless of who you choose as your starting class though, the most important element to the game is undoubtedly the stamina bar. Every action from sprinting, to attacking, to dodging, to getting hit, and everything in between (besides using items) drains a bit of your stamina meter. Even more so for melee characters, the stamina bar, like your soul count, is a highly protected commodity. Rationing its use for both defense and offense is essential to success in Dark Souls II.

As far as key differences from previous games, there are actually a lot more to talk about than I expected. First and foremost, enemies don’t respawn forever – they stop after you kill them enough times. This both eventually eases the backtracking and cuts down on your ability to manipulate the game through farming – both of which are improvements in my book. Additionally, estus flasks are much more difficult to come by, especially at the start, and you instead rely pretty heavily on lifegems and other new healing items for most of the opening hours. The difference is that estsus flasks refill to their max once you rest at a bonfire (this number will continue to increase as you find more upgrade shards) but lifegems are single-use items that become harder to come by as the game goes on. Overall, the menu and presentation appears to be a fairly marked upgrade, especially in terms of usability. The biggest issue with the series, less so with this game though, is that it provides very little in way of direction, instead simply giving you what’s needed to fend for yourself.

Thrusting attacks are extremely useful in narrow environments.
Thrusting attacks are extremely useful in narrow environments.

One of my favorite aspects of the Souls series has always been how they handle multiplayer. While I would love for a standard coop features,  such as the ability to go into my friends list and invite someone to my game, or simply go through matchmaking would be great, I appreciate and understand From Software’s direction with  multiplayer. Given the way the game uses the  “soul” mechanic to its fullest, if connected to the internet, you’ll never  truly feel alone. Apparitions of other players will cross your screen while your  playing and you can leave and receive notes (often very useful tips) from other players.

The truly best part though, comes in the way of invasions and summons. While playing, you run the risk of  being invaded by another player that can not only avoid the attraction of enemies, but hunt you down and kill you while you’re in the middle of playing the game. Both invading and being invaded are extremely high-stress scenarios that always keep you on edge. Alternatively, friendly players can also be summoned to help fight invaders, or even to assists in boss fights.

The sweet and tender solace of a warm bonfire in the evening.

Dark Souls II has enough changes to justify calling itself a sequel, not to mention hundreds of hours of new content, but the changes are far less drastic than the ones between Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls. The game still utilizes an open-ended design, but this time fast travel is unlocked from the very beginning. Despite the alterations, this still feels undeniably like a Dark Souls game and improves on most of the previous game’s mechanics in almost every way. Ultimately, it’s fitting that one of the best RPGs of this entire generation releases at the end – it gives you one more reason to come back to the welcoming embrace of your platform of choice. Before diving into this experience though, you must ask yourself: Are you prepared to die…a lot?

This review is based on a physical retail copy of Dark Souls II provided by Namco Bandai for the PlayStation 3.

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