Dark Souls II Review – Prepare to Swear
When I received my Dark Souls 2 Xbox review copy, I had no idea that I’d end up writing such a massive review. Like the game itself, it had a difficult but addictive quality.
First, the gist: I didn’t know whether or not I liked From Software’s new game at first, but once the mechanic hooked me, I fell for it. This is not for casual gamers, or lovers of storyline, but if you want to be challenged and play what feels like a true old-school RPG, you’re in luck come March 14th. So…
…Greetings, traveler. No, do not look upon my face, for it is scarred with terrible curses. Sit beside my fire and hear a tale of woe that few have heard and remained sane… if you dare.
You must get used to this manner of speech if you wish to traverse the black heart of Dark Souls 2, for many are the vague references to upsetting goings-on. Hark at my account of the first few hours of play:
The game boots to a series of stark menu screens. No whistles and bells here, no friendly GUI. The first thing I was greeting with was ‘retrieving latest calibrations’ which isn’t a message you see often. From this point onwards I was reminded many, many times of Silent Hill; the menu sounds, the fonts, everything. Trust me, you’ll see it.
We open with a lovely FMV of a murky, forgotten land, not unlike Wales. Spooky stuff abounds. We see Whistler’s Mother and she looks a bit sad (and melty). Your standard gap-toothed crone with a considerably younger-sounding voice appears to tell you how bleak everything is. You are a hooded, bescarfed stranger under a terrible curse; you will become inhuman and a ‘Hollow’ (just like in Dark Souls 1). Basically, there’s a ton of vague reference to how bad things are (Silent Hill popped into my head again with this all this creepy, slightly unnatural dialogue).
To the north is the amazing land of Drangleic, where there’s dragons and stuff. Your only slim chance of salvation lies that way. That seems to be enough for Mr or Mrs Hoodscarf, so you go boating away to check it out. Some fireflies turn up (nice) then some flying skeletons (oh). It’s actually a gorgeous video, if a bit random. Rendered in these lovely graphics is a big spooky bottomless whirlpool of ghosts. In you pop. Nothing better to do.
Voiceover hag informs you that you’re going to go full-on Hollow if you don’t attempt to make the Terrible Journey of Impossibility. In the course of the journey you’ll suffer much hardship (‘Like a moth drawn to a flame, your wings will burn to ash, time after time’). In other words, she’s confirming what everyone expected to see from the sequel to Dark Souls 1. You’re going to die, often.
In-game the graphics are still smart; crisp and smooth if perhaps a little bleached. It’s not screaming ‘next-gen’, but it’s a step up from DS1 and good enough to serve the purpose. From Software are not EA or Bethesda, so you know, it’s all good. I’d like to see more screens of the PC version, which will be released with nifty HD texture packs on the 25th of April. The PC port will apparently be better than the DS1 ‘Prepare to Die’ fracas, with an enhanced frame rate option and better mouse/keyboard support. I say ‘fracas’ because that last port provided yummy new content but was still a bare-bones direct port (press A to confirm? PRESS A?!).
But I digress, like all the characters in this game frequently do: the art style is brooding and striking and makes up for rough edges.
So, you find yourself in a barren land, titled with ‘Things Betwixt’, continuing the poetic style. It’s all a bit high-falutin’ but cool and appropriate. You’re dropped in and left to your own devices. You wander into patches of grass that, when walked through, sound like plastic bags having sex. There’s a few little audio issues actually (like a staff that goes ‘shing’ sometimes when striking foes). You pass some creepy Zuul-like dog things that run around like John Carter’s sidekick but don’t harm you.
The game plays and looks like it would have been cutting edge 5 years ago. I don’t want to be mean, it’s just how it is- dated and a little ugly, both visually and in terms of interface. Still, that’s fine. Nobody buys Dark Souls because they want to play a quick-time event laden Infinity Blade-‘em-up.
So, you keep exploring. It’s all a bit random in that typical Japanese way, but you’re going along with it. You enter a house where some red-hooded wenches mock your shit. “Heh heh heh… you’re going hollow, you cursed undead twat”. That kind of thing. You’re invited to ‘try to recall your name’ as a way of entering your character’s name (nice touch). I went with ‘Crisps’. Actually, I spent a few minutes trying to proceed from this screen before realising that the D-Pad is used in a lot of menus. There’s a little of the legendary Dark Souls difficulty already!
You then get a small human effigy from one of the oldies. A sword would have been nicer, but whatever. Wait a minute, that thing looks just like Crisps! Of course, it’s prompting you to make your bloke. You get the classes you’d expect from the first game: warrior, knight, a very camp looking bandit with a bowl on his head, a pimp cleric and so on. Don’t forget the good old ‘deprived’ class (which I first read as ‘depraved’) who gets sweet FA. You may also choose a gift, or starting item. Ring of More HP, Some Potions, etc. I chose a Homeward Bone, which summons a dog called Shadow to take you home (get it?). There’s also the option of taking a ‘petrified something’, keeping in with the theme of vagueness. Actually, as it happens, there’s a use for that smooth, silky object very early on…
The physical side of character creation is your standard RPG fare. I must say that it’s refreshing to play a console RPG that doesn’t try to dumb-down. You have the same big pile of stats from DS1, dependant on your class. Then you can modify your face and body in the usual way. At the zoomed-in level, the character graphics aren’t fooling anyone; don’t expect the whole game to look like the FMV sequence. You have various anime hair styles to choose from, or you can enter ‘advanced mode’ if you want to change everything in minute detail, including your character’s glabella width. Yeah.
By now, if you’re at all like me, you just want to stab something and be cursed and cool. The old biddies keep taking the piss, while Crisps the ginger-moustached warrior just stands there and takes it for some reason. Oh, by the way- speak to the ladies a few times for a novel pronunciation of ‘impasse’. Also, handy hint, fellow travellers. The younger woman, called Milibeth, is absolutely nails with a ladle. Attack her at your own risk.
Leaving the house, we now get to the core Dark Souls mechanic- resting at a bonfire. Resting heals you, but respawns all the monsters in the area. Those monsters drop their souls upon death and you gobble them up like yesterday’s noodles. You need to save a lot of soul points, because you use them to level up and to buy things. If you die, you lose the souls you’ve gathered. You can regain them, but you need to return to the place you died and touch your bloodstain. If you die while trying to do that (likely, since you probably died in in a difficult area), then you lose those souls for good.
No saving and reloading. No second try. No nothin’. This is not Call of Duty and you cannot hide behind a wall to get your health back. This is Dark Souls and you really should prepare to die, because you will. I died so many times (mind you, I never got far in the first game, so I never sharpened my skills on it). The game autosaves frequently so don’t be trying to cheat your way around a premature death. Crisps lost all his souls several times. The total number of souls you’ve had in the past is tracked, but it’s unknown whether this is a blessing or a curse (so it says on the help tip).
Upon death, you lose your humanity (like in the first game). You go from looking alive to looking shrivelled and corpselike (the end state of a ‘Hollow’). You also lose a temporary chunk from your maximum HP, so you can only allow this state to continue for so long. You must return to human state by consuming an effigy item. In DS1, being ‘human’ was also needed to join online play- I haven’t been able to test that yet but I assume it’s still the case.
Oddly, after becoming Hollow and returning to human state, Crisps lost his moustache. It’s hard to tell but I think he also became a woman. So… yeah… watch out for that bug! There has been a patch already, so it’s safe to say that the testing team are all over it like Putin on Crimea.
The game contains classic RPG elements, that is to say, screens full of numbers. That’s fine, but does sometimes feel like you’re just in a number crunching exercise. The gruelling difficulty that gets mentioned all the time in Dark Souls commentary is certainly still present. It can be frustrating and the balance sometimes feels too heavy, especially if you die for stupid reasons. Sometimes you need to jump over things and the controls for jumping are a little clumsy. The parrying and collision detection can be haphazard too, in frantic combat. Maybe I’m just letting frustration get the better of me. If you can’t handle being a bit pissed off from time to time, you won’t enjoy Dark Souls 2.
Saying that, combat is good and often quite tactical. You can make a standard or heavy attack with either hand (or brace/parry with a shield). Each fight has a fun cut-and-thrust to it and due to the limit on healing items and the dire cost of death, you take every fight seriously. Underestimate a foe and you’ve had it. It only takes two enemies to attack you at once while you’re unprepared and your health starts plummeting. Your best friend is dodge, as it’s often more reliable than block, though this does mean that you end up with that arcade-y situation where you spend half of each fight rolling around like Sonic having a seizure.
Magic is, as far as I’ve been able to test it, simply a case of equipping a staff (default weapon for a mage) and attacking. You have a spell equipped too and a number of charges, which can be refilled at a bonfire. You choose which spell you have equipped by ‘attuning’ it at a bonfire.
I must admit, I didn’t get to test a lot of the magic and combat features because I haven’t gotten very far yet. Why? I kept dying! Once the initial frustration wears off, it’s actually very refreshing to be challenged. So many games just hold your hand these days, pandering to the lowest common denominator of casual gamer who wants to be spoon-fed some fragzors. This is not a game for someone who wants to float through a scenic landscape and save the princess. I’d even think twice about getting into it if you have a partner or kids. You can’t even pause the damn thing. It’s a test of your gaming mettle, certainly.
So, Crisps explored the first area, eventually. He found two giant troll-like things that he couldn’t kill. He dodged around one long enough to get into a coffin, for no apparent reason. The monsters look great, even the default Hollow Infantry, but especially those you can see on the trailer. Again, I find myself mentally comparing this game to Silent Hill. After a while, I took Crisps to the village of Majula. The place is smashed to bits, but you meet a hooded lady who unlocks levelling up. There’s a few ways to go from here, though a couple of routes seem to be too hard, for the time being. Handy hint: check out the well and whack the stone into it.
Majula has a few NPCs and even a weapon shop. Oh, but guess what? Everyone’s despondent and tragic. They all seem lost, even damned… and kind of annoying to talk to, not unlike Silent Hill characters. Be prepared for a whiny violin of a game. Don’t get me wrong, I like the vibe- it’s haunting and desolate, with everything just ever so slightly wrong or hostile. Even the lovely scenery looks forbidding. The music is another thing that reminds me of Silent Hill, for some reason. It’s soulful and subtle, always on the edge of hearing, like a funeral is taking place around the next corner. I have now made some headway into the ‘Forest of Giants’ or somesuch place, and the area just beyond it. Sometimes falling into water is an instant kill, but I found that the shallow river in the forest was safe and could be crossed to find a few hidden things. In fact, exploration is key to Dark Souls 2. Do not let the simplistic design of the scenery fool you; there are many hidden things if you can get to them without dying and you will soon find your path branching out in several directions.
The plot of Dark Souls 2 is, like with its predecessor, deliberately vague. What’s going on, who you are, why everyone’s cheesed off- these all fall well into the ‘dunno’ category. It’s intended this way. You can learn more by talking to people and reading the in-game literature.
Hidetaka Miyazaki, the first game’s director and a supervisor on this game, has stated previously in interviews that there’s no direct story connection between the two games, despite being in the same world. In other words, expect no hand-holding, just like in DS1. It’s just you and the crazies, with a grand and rich backdrop story- but that’s all it is, backdrop. Expect no help here. You’re a speck of dirt on an oil painting, waiting to be flicked into oblivion.
A feeling of being somewhat lost story-wise is usually a turn-off for an RPG fan, but I don’t think it is in this case. This is an ‘action RPG’ and so the former element carries the game, with the latter drawing you in over time. The lack of exposition actually serves to add to the feeling of being lost and uncomfortable, in over your head, a stranger in a strange land.
Let’s get down to brass tacks. It’s hard, sometimes not in a good way, but mostly in a challenging way. It’s addictive. It’s not pretty. It’s vague, sometimes too vague, to the point where you start to wonder if you’re just grinding. I hate games where I’m basically just making some numbers go up, in exchange for my precious time. I was close to giving a negative review before the mechanic of oh-dear-God-no-no-no-SHITIDIEDAGAIN got its hooks into me.
Casual gamers may be put off by spending the first hour/s failing to get very far and having to repeat the same tasks again and again just to level up and receive an uninspiring 1 point attribute boost. RPG fans may find that the story isn’t gripping, existing only in the background. Next-Gen gamers may find the graphics too simple and the atmospheric gloom a distraction.
But you know what? They’re cowards. Throw them on the bonfire.
More souls for Crisps.
Dark Souls II is out on Xbox 360 and PS3 on March 14th.