I feel emotionally drained. Dark Souls 2 gave me hope. It beckoned me toward a glorious sunrise and calming waters into a tranquil haven. A quaint wooden shack, a beautiful panoramic view across the mountains and a warm glowing fire reassured me that everything was going to be okay. It took me by the hand through its tutorial where I slaughtered low-level grunts like a knife through butter. And then, after presuming that developer From Software had made its notoriously-difficult RPG series more accessible to the masses, it battered me so hard that I had to switch off and give myself time to think and recuperate before attempting to sink back into the tough mind-set that you simply have to maintain in order to be a successful Dark Souls adventurer.
Then I logged back in, composed myself, re-thought my strategy and tried again. I died again. My spirit wavered, again. Then I mustered every ounce of mental energy I had left in me to attempt to conquer the group of heavily-armoured, giant-sized Knights and boss that had been making my life hell for hours. When I finally defeated them, I felt triumphant, pumping my fist in the air like I’d just knocked out a heavyweight champion. A sense of achievement; the same rush of adrenaline that fans of Dark Souls will know all too well. And then…Dark Souls 2 battered me again, and again, and again. But still, I kept coming back for more.
Yes, Dark Souls 2 really hasn’t changed its tact for this second game in the series. For the masochists among us, the original title’s incredibly tough challenge proved to be the ultimate test and, no matter how many times you got battered, coming back for more until you worked out how to kill a creature was as addictive as crack. In terms of difficulty, Dark Souls 2 picks up exactly where the original title left off and, though it starts off by easing you into the game – giving you real hope and a fighting chance – it soon brings you crashing back down to Earth with a bump. The first Trophy you unlock, ‘THIS IS DARK SOULS,’ is an immediate reminder that you will keep dying if you don’t look before you leap. In fact, even the most cautious and skilled will die anyway. Consequently, Dark Souls 2 demands only the best warriors, sorcerers and explorers; not mere mortals and the impatient. For those who persist, the rewards are there for the taking.
Dark Souls 2 begins with an impressive cinematic intro where players learn they are a cursed, undead, hollow corpse that needs to feed on the souls of the living to survive. It’s a gloomy outlook that doesn’t get any better as you’re thrust into the creature-ridden Kingdom of Drangleic with no real clue as to which path to take, or what horrors lurk around the corner as you search for a cure. A ram-shackled hut is your first port of call where a grotesque-looking, hooded woman warns you that ‘You’re Finished!’ Yes, even from the outset, Dark Souls 2 tells you that you have no hope and jabs at your soul and spirit in an effort to unnerve you. After choosing a class, you head out into the wilderness to explore a world thwart with danger, a land where death isn’t just inevitable, it’s frequent.
The initial hour or so of Dark Souls 2 is a huge departure from the original game. Not only is the environment much lusher, greener and brighter than many of Dark Soul’s murky locations and drab dungeons – entering into the hub of Majula, for example, with the sun beating down and waves crashing in the distance, is an inviting site – but the aforementioned tutorial section introduces players gently into the combat scheme; seasoned pros can bypass them if they wish. For those worried that Dark Souls 2 has been made more accessible, rather than the tortuously tough game fans will hope for, you needn’t worry though. The first battle, if you take that specific path, is against two giant ogres and the first reminder that Dark Souls 2 requires the same three rules that need to be adhered to before taking part in any battle: observe, come up with a strategy, and make the right choice.
For those unfamiliar with the series, Dark Souls 2 is a fantasy-based, action-RPG that is designed to challenge even the most hardcore gamers. Before the adventure truly begins, players choose a class from the likes of a Warriors, Sorcerer or Hunter, each of whom have upgradeable attributes such as Vigour, Attunement and Strength. Gameplay focuses heavily on exploration as you travel through forests, castle ramparts and dungeons in search for answers. With multiple pathways and no clue as to which way to head or what might stand in your path, you’re totally on your own. Along the journey stands many different enemies, ranging in strength, weakness, behaviour and size. One moment you might be battling against a low-level skeleton brandishing just a spear and next you can walk around a corner to face a seemingly impenetrable giant the size of a block of flats who can wipe you out with one swing of his hugely over-sized weapon. The unpredictability of Dark Souls 2 makes every step an anxious one, yet its intense challenge is also its appeal.
Indeed, bonfires (checkpoints) provide one of the game’s only safe havens, where adventurers can refuel on health, and travel between bonfires, while locations such as Majul offer a chance for players to buy weapons, equipment and potions, as well as repair existing items without the threat of death. Once again, the game’s currency is ‘souls,’ earned by killing enemies, looting bodies or opening treasure chests. The value of souls is immense. Without them, you can’t level up, buy items to help you in battle or improve your armour, magic or weapons. Yet again, however, each time you get killed you lose all the souls you’ve collected, which ensures that you’ll soon be thinking twice before running into any battle unprepared. The option to ‘touch your bloodstain,’ and retrieve your souls from the point where you died offers some incentive to return, though if you die before you reach that spot all your efforts have been in vain. The fact that souls are so precious constantly leaves you in a dilemma as to when you should cash them in for upgrades. Be too greedy and you may lose the lot.
Combat is immensely challenging, so much so that each battle becomes a trial-and-error approach where you often need to die before you learn how to defeat your opponent; either that or you’ll be running back and forth between a bonfire and your enemy to restock on health before trying again. Enemy design and animation is superb with a vast array of enemy types, from huge hulk-like knights to lumbering giants, who vary in their behavior. The hero of the game seems much more agile than in the original Dark Souls, able to move more swiftly and maneuver and roll out of the way of attacks with swiftness. The dodge move is no longer hampered by heavy armour, so you can leap out of the way at speed irrelevant of what you’re wearing.
A combination of potion-taking, item-using, blocking, parrying, dodging, range and melee attacks ensure that each battle requires a tactical approach. The lock-on system also appears to have been tweaked for the better, allowing players to focus firmly on one enemy without it accidentally switching to another opponent mid-fight. While the main character is more agile, making for a more natural fluid pace to battles, enemies are still unforgiving and tweaks have been made elsewhere to ensure this is anything but an easy ride. Equipment sellers only stock ‘X’ amount of certain items, so you can’t, for example, keep stocking up on Life Gems to boost health. Also, your maximum health is reduced by up to 50 percent when you die making it tougher and tougher to beat higher level enemies without resorting to consuming the hard-to-come by Human Effigies (used to restore life).
Enemy A.I. isn’t dissimilar to the first game with some opponents seemingly far too intelligent for their own good and tracking you for miles, while others wander around like headless chickens, failing to follow you after a certain cut-off point when they’ll turn back, even though you’re clearly visible to them. There’s instances where enemies will smash their swords into walls, walk off a cliff, or even stand at the bottom of a pair of ladders having somehow not seen you climb up when they were less than a metre away during your ascent. The occasional clipping issues (two troll’s heads poking through one another) also remind you that, despite the obvious improvements to the graphics engine, some of the issues from the first game remain.
Nonetheless, the fact that A.I. behaves so unpredictability between enemy types, whether it’s realistic or not, is really where you have the chance to gain the upper-hand. Luring enemies into traps, to the side of a cliff where you can plunge a sword through their mid-riff to send them toppling into the water below, or watching their behaviour from a safe distance, is often what is needed to work out a strategy to beat them. The environment often plays an important part too with the option to utilise traps for your own advantage, though it’s also easier to get caught out by them. And then, at other times, the odds are totally against you with multiple enemies ganging up on you, relentless in their pursuit.
Success in Dark Souls 2 really boils down to ensuring you’re equipped for the job. There’s a dazzling amount of equipment, armour and items and once again the inventory screen, to those uninitiated, just looks like a series of numbers and percentages. As fans will be aware, each piece of armour or weapon has a host of stats and parameters associated with it, giving you details such as the damage it can do and the strength needed to hold it efficiently. Like most things in Dark Souls 2, there’s little explanation of the stats so you’re left to work it out and try and remember what each icon means. The UI looks cleaner than in Dark Souls and it is easier to navigate and manage the inventory, which is a welcome change considering how much time you’ll spend studying weapons and armour.
In addition to items such as swords, daggers, magical staffs and axes, potions and items can be bought or found, which are crucial to survival. With items such as Life Gems that boost health, rings that increase damage and shards that boost armour, exploration is an exciting affair because finding one item can really be the difference between life and death. And Dark Souls 2 makes exploration well worth the effort too with its detailed environments, impressive lighting effects and solid level design. Multi-tiered levels that can take you swiftly from an open, winding mountain-side path into a corridor-filled hell-hole in the depths of despair, makes for an exciting and unpredictable game world thwart with traps, NPC interaction and hidden treasures. This is a world that begs to be explored.
Playing Dark Souls in offline mode can be a lonely experience, but the return of community features and some new additions ensures there’s companionship and much-needed help at hand. Peer-to-peer lobbies have been axed in favour of dedicated servers to ensure improved stability, while up to two other players can be summoned into your game to create a three-player co-op experience for a limited amount of time, which is also supported with voice chat. You still can’t summon specific friends into your game, though you can improve your chances by aligning to the same God.
Once again, there’s also the option to leave messages in-game for adventurers, choosing from a list of pre-set statements to either help or hinder their progress. Worlds can be invaded for PvP battles by using certain items where you can earn rewards such as souls for beating other players. This can initially be facilitated with Cracked Red Eye Orbs, although the use of Covenants, multiplayer factions, also comes into play again and you can use different items to access other player’s worlds as part of these groups. Within a Covenant you can receive special bonuses in return for completing successful objectives, such as defending an area. At this particular point, I was unable to test out Covenants due to the limited amount of time with access to multiplayer prior to release.*
Dark Souls 2 can be a stressful affair, providing frustration and fun in equal measures. The trial-and-error battles aren’t for everyone but for those who played and enjoyed the first game in the series there’s an enticing world out there ready to test you to your limits once again. Dark Souls 2 is no ordinary RPG; it consumes you right from the outset. It invites you to explore it and then makes you pay the price. It gives you an item of hope in one hand and then takes it away with the other, yet it’s immensely rewarding when you reach the next bonfire, or beat the next boss. Dark Souls 2 may be the toughest game since Dark Souls, but it’s also one of the most satisfying for those who remain calm enough to persist.
*We’ll cover the online portion of Dark Souls 2 in more detail after launch.