Dark Souls 2 Review: From Software Wants You To Die All Over Again

By Alex Riviello , Updated Mar 11, 2014 04:22 PM EDT
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The Dark Souls series is an anomaly, as was its success. In an age where every major developer tries to hold you by the hand and make sure that you get to the end of their game with as little frustration as possible, offering unlimited continues and waypoints and easy difficulty modes, Demon’s Souls came out of nowhere and taunted you- dared you- to play it. You were weak, the game was strong, and it wouldn’t flinch from crushing you time and time again until you figured out just what you were doing, you silly, careless, person.

But despite its seemingly unsurmountable difficulty, it also offered unparalleled joy. Learning the intricacies of the combat, finding new challenges and finally besting them- well, in Demon’s Souls more than any other game a win actually felt like a win. You didn’t just beat a boss by whacking away at him for a few minutes, you learned how to deal with it from your mistakes, death by horrible death.

Dark Souls took that old-school formula of making you actually get good at a game and perfected it, making for a bigger, more seamless experience. Dark Souls II is now available and is exactly what fans of the series want- more challenges, more options, and many more ways to die.

Dark Souls II lulls you into thinking things will be much easier this time around. At first you pick your character and customize him or her with the much-expanded creation system. Choosing from a number of different classes (Warrior, Knight, Swordsman, Bandit, Cleric, Sorcerer, Explorer, or Deprived, which is a class for insane people) that sets your stats and abilities accordingly, you set off into the world, a newborn lamb walking into unknown danger.

The first area you travel to gives you a tutorial of sorts, a nice easy place with clear paths and challenges that gives you hints on how to play and fight off enemies. It’s remarkably light for a series that’s known for throwing you in the deep end with no guidance whatsoever. About 20 minutes into my session I walked too close to a cliff and tumbled in. My character died, and I lost everything I had done to that point.

Oh yeah- this is still Dark Souls.

It’s still just as unforgiving, and in a few new ways too. The series is famous for making you lose all the souls you have collected from vanquished enemies when you die, leaving them behind on a bloodstain and offering you a single opportunity to get them back. Of course, they’re inevitably in a location where some awful monster or challenge lies and there’s a good chance that you’ll die again on your way there, and if you do you lose those souls forever. Considering that collecting souls is your only way to upgrade your character and get a chance at fighting tougher foes, it’s impossible to describe how frustrating it can be.

When you die you lose your humanity just as before, but your body will show it more. Each death makes your maximum health lower and lower, until it’s about half of what it’s supposed to be and your character will start to have the appearance of a corpse, green and about to fall apart. It’s not till you use a Human Effigy, which reverses your hallowing and brings you back to life, that you’ll get that life back. They're hard to find or price at a shop, and of course it’s really easy to die once again and start the whole process over again...

But the game can ease up on you. Before in the series every enemy would respawn every time you healed yourself at a bonfire, but now they only respawn a specific number of times before disappearing. In previous games you had to have your guard up every time you went somewhere, because even the smallest enemy could be dangerous, but here you can effectively clean out entire locations just by killing them numerous times. This also means that you can’t keep harvesting the same monsters for souls, though, and forces you to go deeper and deeper into the world. There is a safe area though, a town where you can barter with characters and the only place you can spend your souls to upgrade your character. Fortunately bonfires now allow you to fast travel between any that you’ve discovered, making travel much more manageble, and it will repair all of your equpment as well.

The graphics have gotten an upgrade, including some nice-looking fabric thanks to Havoc physics, but it’s still very obviously an Xbox 360 and PS3 title, with some framerate issues here and there. (We’ll see if the PC version offers more as promised.) The color palette has been improved- it’s more than just browns here. There will still be plenty of dank, dark crypts and underground locations to explore but you’ll see a much wider degree of color, forests and fire pits and such. There’s still those astounding moments that stop you in your tracks as you remark at the world around you.

One part, for instance, happened while I climbed a ladder attached to a tall battlement. There was a stunning view so I stopped and caught my breath, looking out at the world far below me, remarking as a huge eagle soared overhead. I turned to watch it fly away and then realized (with some concern) that it was turning to swoop back towards me. What’s more- it was clutching something in its enormous talons- something shiny. Before I could react it had dropped what it was carrying, which turned out to be a gigantic armored knight that crashed to the ground in front of me. I stopped for a second, shocked, and before I realized “I really should be running right now” it lurched towards me, and although I tried to get to the ladder in time it had carved me up before I made it.

You can never let down your guard in game like this. As always the ingenious multiplayer aspect is still around, one which lets you see ghosts of other players as they died, giving you warnings of dangers and enemies ahead. You can once again invade other player’s worlds and hunt them down for their precious souls as well, or team up with someone in order to help them out and reverse your hallowing for free.

After an entire weekend spent with this game I feel like I haven’t scraped the surface just yet. Like the previous games there’s more character classes to try, more locations to explore more thoroughly. The multiplayer servers were only turned on last night, meaning that any reviews you read that came out on the embargo date of midnight didn’t take into consideration that entire aspect of the game. But the bosses are just as fulfilling to destroy, each new location increasingly unnerving as you realize how far you've venured from the safety of a bonfire. After beaten the bosses even show up later in the game as normal enemies, in weaker versions of their former selves, and you can take out any lingering frustration on them that much more easily...

Dark Souls II is the sequel everyone wanted and a perfect entry point for newcomers to the series. Despite the Teen rating it's as alternately brutal and satisfying as you hoped it would be. From Software hasn't backed down on its mission to test you and force you to learn how to play the game and, once again, you'll be happy you did.

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This review was based on the PS3 version from a retail copy provided by the publisher.

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