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EGM Review: Dark Souls II

Posted on March 10, 2014 AT 09:01pm

Darkness & Demons

Demon’s Souls was, for me—and most others—a surprise. Tales told of a strange, masochistic PlayStation 3 game coming from Japanese developer From Software, a game only brought to North America after Atlus picked up publishing rights from its original publisher, Sony Computer Entertainment (who seemingly had little faith in a Western release).

By the time Dark Souls came around, things had changed. Hundreds of thousands of players on our shores had embraced the idea of a game that rewarded those who pushed to hone their skills—and punished those who, even for a moment, showed signs of hubris. We eagerly anticipated From’s follow-up, and what we received took many of the core concepts of Demon’s Souls and crafted around them a larger, more open-world adventure that was amazing in scope and depth from beginning to end.

When its sequel was announced, I cheered—but also felt trepidation. A current-gen follow-up would have some gigantic shoes to fill, especially given the expectations its more hardcore fanbase would bring. And for me, on a personal level, there was an even bigger fear. I’d loved Dark Souls so much that it might be hard to top it—and even if its sequel pulled off everything it tried to do, it still might not be enough.

Well, Dark Souls II isn’t what I was expecting. I had assumed I’d find more of its predecessor, adorned with an extra round of polish and a bigger overall world. Instead, it almost seems as if the team moved forward by also looking to the past, bringing back aspects from Demon’s Souls that had been previously lost.

One example of this is evident right from the start. After completing the initial tutorial area, you arrive in the small coastal village of Majula. Whereas Dark Souls’ first location, Firelink Shrine, was a destination but not a home base, Majula serves as the major hub for your progress and development. Leveling is done here, as opposed to each individual bonfire; merchants and trainers will gather in Majula as you find them, much as they did in Demon’s Souls’ Nexus.

To help facilitate that change, Dark Souls II offers the ability to warp from bonfire to bonfire right from the start, and the effect of that decision is major. Dark Souls was about a journey with no one point of safety, with Lordran designed to be one large, interconnected sandbox where players were expected to constantly hoof it from one place to another. Here, the game knows you can instantly return to past locations at any time, and as a result, its locations often come off more as separate stages branching off in their own directions (instead of continually weaving through one another). The change also affects how you approach progress. In Dark Souls, there was often more of a focus on making your way through one particular section unless you found yourself especially stuck. This time around, it’s very common to jump from bonfire to bonfire, conquering areas in smaller pieces to stave off boredom or frustration.

I hated the different take on world traversal at first. It broke one of the things I loved about Dark Souls, and then more changes came along—some of them seemingly from the promised push to make the game “friendlier” for a wider range of players—and they broke other things I loved. Weapons and armor degrade at a faster pace now, but they’re instantly fixed whenever resting at a bonfire. You’ll constantly have your Estus Flask and a stock of healing items, ones that can be used to some degree while moving. (Sure, you could burn Humanity to heal yourself in Dark Souls, but it often made far more sense not to.)

The further I progressed, however, the more I came to terms with the quirks. Dark Souls II isn’t wrong—it’s different. The nods to Demon’s Souls at first feel like they go against the intent of this new Souls franchise (such as the move from hub-based gameplay to an open world), but they help keep the game from coming across as an expansion pack or carbon copy of the first Dark Souls, something I came to appreciate more than I’d originally expected. Maybe things needed to be broken, especially for a series that’s all about venturing off into the unexpected. In fact, late into the game, I felt myself wishing that From had been confident enough to take bigger risks compared to what came before, as at times you’ll swear you’re treading familiar ground.

One thing that didn’t need fixing was Dark Souls’ gameplay. There’s always the chance that a developer can milk an idea too much too soon, but for now, I just can’t get enough of the deliberate, skill-driven combat and storytelling that doesn’t vomit exposition. Even better, the game sees some massive improvements in control and user interface. Little touches abound, such as the ability to climb ladders faster, easily alternate between different arrow types mid-aim, or perform jumps via a button other than Run/Roll. Meanwhile, accessing inventory and changing out equipment has been made much more user friendly. It’s sometimes hard to appreciate some of these smaller revisions unless you go back and play the previous games—but, if you do, it becomes quickly apparent how much better Dark Souls II handles these aspects.

A much bigger change that I also really enjoyed (in a masochistic way) is that, after going Hollow, successive deaths will cause your maximum health to continue to drop—up to a maximum of 50 percent of your original health. (This penalty is reset if you use a Human Effigy to return to human form.) This hearkens back to the penalty for being in soul form in the original Demon’s Souls; in Dark Souls, the penalties for going Hollow were extremely minimal, to a point where it wasn’t unusual to run around in that form for a majority of the game. It’s a good, smart change, one that feels more proper to the spirit of the series.

Dark Souls II sees improvements on a technical level as well, with overall engine performance noticeably improved on consoles. Playing the PS3 version of the game and then spending a little time going back to Dark Souls’ release on the same console, I’d forgotten how rough the original’s framerate could be even in its quieter moments. This feels like a more solid, consistent experience, with no standout rough patches like Dark Souls’ fabled Blighttown. There’s a curious footnote to all of this, however: the game’s lighting engine. Having had access to various snippets of Dark Souls II at previous Namco Bandai events, the portions I played don’t feel as dynamically lit as they did before. This is most notable with torches, one of the major new gimmicks added. The idea—so far as I always understood it—was that some locations would be so dark that torches would be needed, and players would be at a disadvantage, given that a hand that once held an additional weapon or shield would instead be busy holding aloft a source of light. At Tokyo Game Show last year, I played a specific segment where I had to do just that; in the final build, that exact same section was now well-lit enough that doing so was no longer necessary. In fact, as they stand now in terms of their effect on gameplay, torches in Dark Souls II feel like a curious feature that was once meant to be part of some much larger gameplay concept, but now often sit as little more than a memory of what could have been.

If there’s one part of the series that fans hoped wouldn’t be mucked around with too much, it would be its legendary difficulty. Well, fear not—Dark Souls II is as hard as ever, once again offering From Software’s particular style of formidable-but-fulfilling challenge. Sure, those friendlier elements I mentioned above definitely ease the journey in spots, but From makes no concessions when it comes to the world full of monsters and bosses ready and waiting to end you. Despite being my third Souls outing, I still died. Plenty of times. Deaths that were due to foes that at first seemed impossible, and deaths from times when I got arrogant or stupid or should have known better. That rush from finally beating a boss you’ve battled so many times before is still there. The sense of accomplishment from knowing you’ve progressed because you’ve improved as a player—not because of new powers or unlockables like in other games—still exists in spades. From’s series has captured the cult following that it now has due to that core gameplay experience, and it continues to burn as bright as Drangleic’s bonfires.

And yet, as good as Dark Souls II is—and as much as I came to appreciate the blend of Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls—I didn’t like it as much as its precursor. Its characters and narrative are strong, but not as strong as the brilliance of what came before. Drangleic is a joy to explore, but Lordran still sits superior in terms of design and atmosphere. In my early hours with the game, feelings like those had me thinking Dark Souls II would end up a disappointment on multiple levels. Now, so many hours, deaths, levels, and slain bosses later, I’ve been able to shed much of the personal bias I initially held against it. While it isn’t everything that I’d like it to be—and I continue to question some of the design decisions From made—a not-quite-what-I-wanted Dark Souls II still sits on a level prominently above most other games.

Note: Dark Souls II was played using a pre-release copy of the game before the official launch date. Due to this, we were unable to properly test the game’s online and community functionality enough to include discussion of them in this review, or in the consideration of the final score.

[Review text was updated to expand on the changes made to Dark Souls II's penalties for death.]

Developer: From Software • Publisher: Namco Bandai • ESRB: T- Teen • Release Date: 03.11.2013

While some of its features and design decisions might not sit perfectly with all fans of the franchise, Dark Souls II once again proves how enthralling and engrossing From Software’s formula of skill-focused combat, demanding challenge, and bleak ambience can be.

The Good Retains that great Dark Souls gameplay without feeling like a retread.
The Bad Its world isn’t as well designed or engrossing as Dark Souls’ was.
The Ugly Najka. Sorry, honey, but you’re no Quelaag!
Dark Souls II is available on Xbox 360 and PS3. Primary version reviewed was for PS3. Review code was provided by Namco Bandai for the benefit of this review.
Eric L. Patterson, Executive Editor
Eric L. Patterson got his start via self-publishing game-related fanzines in junior high, and now has one goal in life: making sure EGM has as much coverage of niche Japanese games as he can convince them to fit in. Eric’s also active in the gaming community on a personal level, being an outspoken voice on topics such as equality in gaming and consumer rights. Stalk him on Twitter: @pikoeri. Meet the rest of the crew.

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