A month after its console debut, Dark Souls II is finally available for Windows platforms.
There can never be another Dark Souls. From Software's magnum opus required years of King's Field and dry run in Demon's Souls before visions of Dark Souls were made a reality. A sequel owes an allegiance to its ascendant, and it's doubly-hard trying to improve upon a game many feel was born perfect. Dark Souls II, as its blessing and its curse, is not the next Dark Souls. It is, however, more Dark Souls - and it makes good on its hallowed name.
The pitch for Dark Souls II remains the same as Dark Souls. Assume a chosen undead, earn souls by defeating enemies, and use those souls as currency for gear or spend them leveling up your particular stats. Lose your life; lose all of your souls. You have the opportunity to reclaim lost souls by return to the spot where you died, provided you can make it through all of the opposition once more. This is the thesis of Dark Souls' risk and reward system, or as 50 Cent may have more eloquently stated; get rich or die tryin'.
Classes aren't purely defined through one particular statistic, leaving a specific style open to interpretation. I found comfort in a high dexterity, high adaptability melee class wielding two swords with almost no defense to speak of. A bow aided in a few specific instances, but generally I was allowed to play the game in a way that I enjoyed. Yes, I was beaten and broken by the same foe dozens of times, but, no matter what, I always found my way through. There is always a learned strategy, considerable exploit, or massively cheap way to go about your business.
Dark Souls' reputation, its marketing bravado along with its public persona, positions the game as a suitable challenge in an age of diminished difficulty. This is true, although the implicit violence and masochism ("PREPARE TO DIE") is only an association, not the complete message. An apt, though abstract, comparison is the vicarious wave of emotion fueling sports fans. There's a slim chance of any team winning a championship, but a person invests his or her time and energy in maintaining a positive interest in a team for months every year. The season almost always ends in failure (some of it even poetic), but the pain endured is saved and spent when a favorite team finally wins it all. It's a unique feeling of pure elation, and while a relationship with a sports team is surrogate in nature, coming to terms with Dark Souls feels much more personal. You try and try and try, and somehow - through repetition, experimentation, and applied skilled - victory can be achieved.
With Dark Souls, From Software mastered the elusive cycle of confidence and fear. Everything can and will kill you. Everything. A lack in focus or patience often results in death; Dark Souls won't allow the player to drift through many of its challenges. Every new area arrives with at least one new type of enemy, and either their placement and/or their tactics are learned through repetition and defeated through skill. Making it through the Valley of Fallen Giants, for example, equips the player to deal with archers, basic melee undead, and lumbering turtle knights. Heide's Tower of Flame, logically the next area in Drangleic's open world, presents a completely different load-out of enormous ancient knights. There's some crossover here and there, but largely Dark Souls II's suite of enemies changes from level to level. As soon as you feel you've beaten a particular challenge, Dark Souls II waves its finger, wipes your confidence, and reinstalls fear.
Much of what I've already written could be applied to both Dark Souls and Dark Souls II. Both games obey and similar functions and themes. Most notable is Dark Souls' unique approach to multiplayer. You can touch a bloodstain and watch the harrowing final moments of another player. You can read a message left on the ground warning you of an ambush, an illusory wall, or some awful lie. These systems are now three games old and, while not as novel as they were in 2009; still feel relatively fresh in the world of gaming. As with so many other aspects of Dark Souls, there's still nothing out there quite like it. While Elder Scrolls and Final Fantasy are still content to oblige a multiplayer model established decades ago, Dark Souls goes its own way and emerges much better for it.
For Dark Souls II, the game's system of player covenants feels reworked, or at the very least better explained. PvP was an aspect of Dark Souls I only embraced by happenstance, but in Dark Souls II I took full advantage of its gifts - whether I intended to or not. Outside of boss battles, there's always the option to summon a member of the Heirs of the Sun to help battle a boss. I tried to avoid this whenever possible as I felt like it would cheapen my experience, but in one instance I got tired of losing to the Belfry Gargoyles for two hours and called for help. My new friend came into my game and we worked together to systematically decimate all five gargoyles. As the battle ended we both waved to each other and then she disappeared forever. Ephemeral camaraderie is the bleeding heart of Dark Souls II, establishing a bond between players not unlike that of thatgamecompany's Journey. You can't choose your friends, but with a shared goal everyone seems to understand their role.
Of course, trying to summon players carries its own set of risks. Dying once renders the player hollow, and you have to be human to someone another player. Effigies are disposable items and can restore a player’s humanity. The twist is that Effigies are in relatively short supply, insuring that any use of them carries the understanding that, whatever you're about to do, you better be god damn prepared to do it correctly. Few things are more devastating than burning an Effigy and dying five seconds into a boss battle. Likewise, knowing that it was all worth it as another boss comes crashing down provides a wondrous sense of elation. Dark Souls II doesn't want cooperative play to harm someone's enjoyment of the game, and Effigies help insure that both parties are in for the kill.
Player-versus-player also seems to have a more focused presence in Dark Souls II. The aforementioned Belfry Gargoyles were staged in an entire environment guarded by the Bell Keepers covenant. Up to two Bell Keepers at a time are summoned to insure that you don't make it through that particular misty door. For the first twenty minutes I had no idea what in the hell was happening in this area, all I knew was that I apparently hit a hot spot for getting repeatedly invaded and (usually) killed before I could get to the actual boss battle. Like anything else in the game, though, its tricks are learned and skill is applied to mend the obtuse circumstances. Dark Souls II is absolutely loaded with systems focused on the PvP element, including specific quest lines unique to each particular covenant. I didn't feel the need to embrace much of these beyond the surface during my seventy-hour run through Drangleic, but that will surely change on my next turn.
The most significant change to Dark Souls II lies with how it handles its repeating legion of respawning undead. In Dark Souls, most enemies respawned the moment a player died or rested at a bonfire. This is true of Dark Souls II, but respawns are limited to twelve appearances. This information stressed me out like nothing else in the opening hours of the game; I feared all of my souls would go to waste and I would never be able to reclaim them, thus setting myself up for a permanent disadvantage. It also negates any perceivable soul-farming areas, thus insuring that all of your souls are always on the line. Conversely, it also can serve as an advantage if you want to permanently vanquish a legion of huge knights guarding a boss door. Having to do that for the Looking Glass Knight and Demon of Song, specifically, I found disappearing enemies to be particularly advantageous. Once again, Dark Souls II allows the player to find their own way through any means necessary.
Bosses were some of the most talked about aspects of Dark Souls, and Dark Souls II responds by dealing them out at greater frequency. While Dark Souls II certainly has its share of unforgettable fights (Executioner's Chariot, The Pursuer, and the Ruin Sentinels among them) there's a certain intangible feeling of sterility and uniformity to its collection of humanoid foes. Dodge-roll + melee attack got me through more often than I thought it would, trading an expected response for nervous anticipation. Due to their numbers there are still plenty of thoughtful and creatively produced fights, but as a whole few can stand up to legendary creatures of its predecessor. In any case Dark Souls II still feels tuned precisely for moments of reduced breathing and deliberate temperament, either resulting in crushing defeat or personal moment of incredible satisfaction. It's all still there, in one way or another.
Dark Souls II's world of Drangleic also feel systemically different from Dark Souls' Lordrun. While Lordrun was full of interlocking corridors that cleverly linked one area to another, Drangleic feels more akin to several branching paths in different directions. Aided by the ability to fast travel from bonfire-to-bonfire from the get-go contributes to a certain feeling of detachment and less cohesion between Drangleic's eclectic environments A considerable amount of diversity, both in geography and enemy layout, remains - but they feel more akin to Demon's Souls' levels than Dark Soul's true open world. Whether this change was a knee bent toward creating a more friendly game or the result of a simple design decision was unknown, but it damages Drangleic's credibility as a homogonous world.
There's also a matter of the implicit lore bleeding through Dark Souls II's oblique narrative. To be perfectly honest I played through Dark Souls fairly ignorant of the unfolding story, only picking it up later through various YouTube videos. With an eye tuned to detail in Dark Souls II - talking to every NPC multiple times, reading every item description, and filling in the blanks by absorbing environmental details - Dark Souls II seems just as ripe for narrative speculation and dissemination. At the very least, after I rolled credits, I had the general gist of the story down, along with a vague collection of contributing details. In an age when both Western and Japanese games are content to beat you over the head with dialogue or cutscenes, Dark Souls II’s minimalist approach works in its favor.
If nothing else, the world of Drangleic seems better focused on encouraging the player to press on. Majula, the veritable hub area, boasts a serene melody and gorgeous sun-soaked vista to absorb every time you return. Likewise, Heide's Tower of Flame and Dragon Aerie default to a bright and sunny disposition. Dark still dominates the landscape, especially in the torch-required haunts of The Gutter and Undead Crypt, but didn't feel as dank and depressing as Dark Soul's Blighttown and surrounding depths. A little positivity goes a long way, and this served as a welcomed change to Dark Souls II's presentation.
Other changes didn't seem nearly as profound as I thought they would be. Every time you die in Dark Souls II, your health is reduced until it's at fifty percent. It only goes back to its maximum when you use an effigy and turn human. I carry no shield and put zero points into health-boosting Vigor, presumably leaving me at even more of a disadvantage. In the end, I literally rolled with it, as it forced me to pay even closer attention to timing my dodges. Half-way through the game I found a ring that reduced my health minimum to 80%, effectively negating that effect almost entirely. Any change made to Dark Souls II is another opportunity to learn how to adapt and survive, as your life and subsequent progression through the game depends on it.
The PC release is currently the best way to experience Dark Souls II. I bought the PlayStation 3 version on day of release and put about ten hours into it (the joy of reviewing games, you rarely play the things you actually spend money on). I'm so glad I waited. My Core i7-3770 and GTX 660 ran Dark Souls II swimmingly at maximum settings. Switching inputs between my PC and PS3 copies, the former renders the latter a choppy, seemingly unplayable mess. That's hyperbole, of course, but the smoothness of sixty-frames-per second inside of a game where literally every frame counts renders the PC edition as the most refined platform. Dark Souls II still doesn't boast the obscene lighting effects from that infamous demo reel from 2013, but baring an obtuse texture here and there, it's a real looker. Considering how maddeningly inept the original release of Dark Souls on PC was, this is a welcomed accomplishment.
Dark Souls II's most enduring accomplishment remains with the expanse of its presented challenge. For some, it's enough to spend seventy hours on a single run and walk away from the game feeling accomplished. Others may not find their needs met until that character is pushed through up to ten rounds of New Game +, adapting their game to tougher enemies and other surprises. Some still will perform that feat across multiple different characters. Let's also not forget the PvP crowd, which, assuming balance is maintained between classes, could extend Dark Souls II's gifts for years. The game is a challenge at any level of play which, at the very least, is more than can be said for most of its peers.