Do yourself a favour: don’t use a wiki when you play through Dark Souls II for the first time. Granted, we didn’t have the luxury of that even being an option, having been among the first outside of From Software to reach the credits, but that feeling of accomplishment is something we wouldn’t trade for any number of missed swords, Covenants, secrets or locations. It is the very antithesis of modern gaming – a game where so little is explained that blind experimentation and daring exploration are the only ways to slowly get a handle on this dismal world and its occasionally equally dismal mechanics. Resign yourself to the fact that you /will/ miss stuff on your first run and everything you do manage to find will come as its own minor victory. With so much mystery drenching almost every single aspect and area of the game, it seems almost disrespectful to From Software to simply follow in the footsteps of brighter, bolder adventurers. Carve your own path, die a hell of a lot and work the game out for yourself. Trust us, you’ll be glad you did – played this way, there’s still nothing else on the market like a Souls game.
Structurally, the lauded open layout of Dark Souls returns but with even more freedom to tackle things however you see fit. There’s still a ‘recommended’ route through large chunks of the game, although you’ll need to interpret health bars and enemy patterns for yourself rather than be told outright that you’re out of your depth. And that’s the best thing about it – once you have a solid grasp of the mechanics, you never really /are/ out of your depth. There’s even more emphasis here on MMO/MOBA staples such as kiting and pulling well in order to avoid being wildly outnumbered, with typically simple AI sometimes making this feel a little cheap. One particular area highlights this better than any other, largely as it’s the first point at which such tactics go from beneficial to necessary – the door to the Bastille’s barracks. Charge in and you’re looking at up to seven grunts at once but get clever with ranged attacks and movement and you can pick them off in slightly more manageable groups of two or three at a time.
No matter how strong and skilled you may be, you never feel safe – with packs and bottlenecks this common, groups of even the most basic enemies can make short work of those who lack the necessary patience and caution. This is a fact in which From Software clearly delights, with various areas throughout the game dealing in quantity rather than quality of opposition to make you really scream when you get axed in the spine by a Hollow grunt you’ve killed countless times before with just a single hit. Every encounter must be read and reacted to quickly, making it even more important than ever to have a selection of offensive options on hand. But with one melee, one ranged and one magical option filling your three primary weapon slots, you should have all bases covered. Provided, that is, your fingers are fast enough to switch between and utilise the three properly in the heat of battle.
With Dark Souls’ old three-tier weight system effectively prohibiting equipping gear beyond your most basic needs, it’s good to see that From Software has fiddled with that mechanic in order to better empower adventurers with the tools they need. Encumbrance is still an important consideration but the numbers are more generous and the scale more dynamic – get close to 80 per cent load capacity and you’ll see that horrible slow roll that kicked in at over half weight in Dark Souls, with various quicker brackets as you shed pounds of unnecessary gear. It’s slightly more lenient than its predecessor in this respect, but it’s just about the only aspect that is.
It used to be that you could bang your head against an easy area for hours and slowly rack up a huge collection of souls with which to level up or buy/improve your gear. But no longer, since enemies don’t just keep coming back like they once did. Run an area too many times and enemy numbers will start to dwindle, to the point where it’s actually possible to farm an area to extinction. This means that both souls and enemy drops are in limited supply, so making the most of what you have (through luck-boosting items and preserving the souls you do manage to acquire) is absolutely crucial. Nothing is missable due to this – New Game+ brings everything back, as does burning a new item that refreshes an entire area while increasing its difficulty – but it does prevent long-term grinding, almost in direct response to the number of people who used Dark Souls’ forest of invisible assholes to quickly and easily boost to higher levels.
Similarly, other aspects seem to have been altered directly in response to speed run videos and such high level play. Parrying, for instance, was risky enough in the last game, but at least the brave could benefit from a free critical hit for risking everything. Here, though, no such luck. Now it’s only good for interrupting longer combos and given how risky it is, you’re generally better off using Stamina to roll out of harm’s way or block, shield permitting – there’s little benefit to the parry outside of the fact that it still makes you feel like a badass despite being basically pointless. Fast travel too is no longer tied to the Lordvessel or any similar MacGuffin, now possible from any of the campfires you have unlocked along the way. It’s useful, sure, but things can really get daunting when you’re exploring multiple areas at once and don’t know which of them – if any – is the right way. Oh, and Estus too… you don’t get quite so many uses of the regenerating potion as you once did, although thorough exploration can take it up to and beyond its familiar capabilities.
As much as the grunts can (and will) smash you to bits, this is a boss rush game first and foremost and as such, it’d have been nice to see some more interesting opposition in the early stages. The first boss encounter doesn’t come for a good few hours and, even then, both it and the few that follow are all fairly similar affairs. It helps ease you in before the more complex big dudes come out to play, sure, but Dark Souls II’s increased boss count means there’s a lot more forgettable encounters than there were in previous games. Things certainly pick up later – and there are some genuinely superb boss battles waiting for the dedicated – but where once mist gates meant something genuinely amazing was about to happen, here it’s all too often just another oversized man with a longer sword or spear than should be practical.
Online play has been given a radical overhaul, a new selection of Covenants and server-based (rather than the former peer-to-peer) connection making invasion an even more pressing concern. Almost an expectation, in fact, given the ability to properly clear areas of enemies although once again, the more complicated (or just trolling) Covenants seems harder to track down than the sporting and cooperative ones. There are even concessions to make playing with friends easier, albeit at the cost of a ring slot or two – whether it’s worth the stat loss will be for you to decide but just as we love the mystery of the game, we also prefer messing with (or being messed with by) randoms rather than friends. You should never feel safe in this horrible place and even though there’s no guarantee friends would have your back, the dim hope of a random stranger coming to your aid is far more desperate – perhaps the most suitable word we’ve found to describe Dark Souls II so far.
Yes, desperate situations present themselves almost by the minute, and they never stop coming. A mistimed swig from your flask; one sword swing too many depleting your Stamina gauge; opening a chest only to see a row of teeth around its rim… In these moments, buttons get wildly smashed in a last ditch shot at survival, which seldom works but good luck letting the facts come between you and frequent panicked trips around the controller. It’s longer and somehow harder than its predecessor, but without making things too cheap in the process. Weapon degradation and single, isolated individuals for levelling and powering up are just the start of this, with far more coming when you reach New Game+. Rather than just getting slight HP and damage boosts, enemy waves are usually changed up – additional foes, powerful red versions of standard enemies and roaming Black Phantoms all make life hellishly difficult, making levelling before leaving your first run essential.
Despite so many slight changes here and there, the solid combat, janky platforming, overwhelming odds and brutal bosses all conspire to remind you that this is very much a Souls game, and yet another excellent one at that. People will argue at length about the hierarchy of the three games but for now, all we can offer is the fact that it DSII definitely deserves its place beside them – an exact order of quality will have to wait until the community is established, the wayward secrets found and the wiki updated. When you’re done with your first horrible run through Dark Souls II’s desperate world, /then/ you have our blessing to abuse the hell out of that wiki. Just don’t ruin the surprise and have someone else constantly tell you where to go and what to do – you might as well be playing Assassin’s Creed if you do, and that’s sort of entirely not the point.