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Dark Souls 2

19:0011/04/2014Posted by Chris Braithwaite6 Comments

As the last major release without a next-gen version plan, Dark Souls II stands in the position as the standard bearer for the last hurrah of the Xbox 360 and PS3. Let’s just take a second to reflect on the trends and aspirations that have been emphasised within the gaming industry over the last eight or nine years: cinematic storytelling with well-developed characters; increasingly accessible gameplay, with extended tutorials nearly ubiquitous; life-like graphics that have easily spanned the uncanny valley; and highly socialised multiplayer. Once you consider that, it’s odd for Dark Souls II to sit in that position of prominence at the end of the console generation that featured those characteristics so conspicuously, because Dark Souls II has none of them.

Let’s start with storytelling. Dark Souls II does have a story. Upon reaching the hub town, Majula, you’ll be told that you need to seek the King, but to reach him you’ll need to find powerful souls. And that’s pretty much it as far as storytelling goes, at least in an active sense. You’ll not find much in the way of companionship either. Sure, you’ll come across the widest range of NPCs to date in the Souls series, and many of these have short stories of their own, but you won’t be mistaking anyone you come across in Drangleic as an actual character. They’re little more than handy companions to call in for help if you happen to need it.

But while the story and characterisation are below what you might have come to expect from a major release, Dark Souls II does a masterful job of telling the story of the realm of Drangleic, and it does so in a passive sense. As your journey spans across the Forest of Fallen Giants, through the murk of The Gutter, and into the heart of Drangleic Castle, you’ll find little in the way of plot twists, but bucket loads of suggestions at the history of Drangleic: a once-great realm with failing leadership causing it to go deeply, horribly to seed. This passive approach to storytelling permeates all aspects of Dark Souls II, from the level and enemy design down to descriptions of items. There’s a great commitment to giving you the opportunity to figure out what you’re fighting for, rather than simply telling you.

Does that work for the story of Dark Souls II? Well, that depends on your approach. If you want to dig in and figure out what’s going on, then you’re sure to be satisfied with the realm of Drangleic and the place you take within it. But if that’s not what you’re looking for, you could be faced with 50+ hours of unforgiving gameplay without the carrot of a good story.

And gameplay is unforgiving, one of the hallmarks of the series. Fans feared that the departure of long-time director Hidetaka Miyezaki might herald a more welcoming approach. And there are some concessions that might make things seem easier: lifegems make an appearance as a healing item to supplement your Estus flask; enemies will eventually stop respawning after being defeated a certain number of times; and you’re granted the ability to fast travel between any of the games’ bonfire checkpoints that you’ve discovered. That last one is a hugely welcome addition, as it makes any progress you make both tangible and permanent. The warm glow of a bonfire, and the ability to take a break from your bleak adventuring to return to Majula for some R&R really helps to give you the chance to take a breath and unwind at semi-regular intervals, especially given that doing so anywhere outside Majula or a bonfire’s warm embrace is likely to lead to a swift and painful death.

Yes, unfortunately for people who found Demon’s Souls or Dark Souls too difficult, Dark Souls II is a tough game. The concessions afforded to you are more than offset by the presence of powerful, aggressive, numerous and varied enemies. And that’s before you get to the bosses, of which Dark Souls II boasts more than 30. And a nasty lot they are: down to the last man, woman and giant, each of them is capable of taking one moment of your inattention and turning it into your brutal and untimely death. Many of the non-boss enemies are capable of that feat too.

With a few exceptions, your numerous deaths usually feature the Souls hallmark of feeling like they’re absolutely your fault: if you’d just been a little quicker, or a little smarter, or a little more careful, you’d have survived to fight another day. And then you set out to get back there and prove it. And usually you’re proved wrong a few more times, before, with fist-pumping glee, you’re successful. At that point the pain and suffering of all those deaths is more than worth it.

It should be noted that there are exceptions to that feeling of fairness and reward, and these become alarmingly prevalent in late game situations. It’s sad that a couple of the final bosses feel almost impossible with a certain character build, but after respeccing your character (a lengthy process involving the use of a rare item) can become alarmingly simple. Certain areas can also feel all but impassable if your character is deficient in specific types of combat. And in the case of the Shrine of Amana, regardless of your character build, you’re likely to be quickly infuriated. It might be Dark Souls II’s best looking area, but the combination of waist-deep water (vastly slowing movement), semi-hidden drops, ultra-long-ranged spell casters and speedy, aggressive melee fighters will quickly lead to it being cursed by many who set foot in there.

The ability to summon help from other players, or be summoned to aid other players, does help in these instances. Unfortunately, at this point, Dark Souls II summoning mechanism (whereby you can either volunteer to join another player’s game, or have up to two join yours) feels bizarrely unsatisfying, probably because it isn’t particularly well balanced. While NPC characters tend to be little more than short term cannon-fodder, summoning a human ally tends usually means that progress to the next bonfire or defeat of the next boss is little more than a formality. The advantage of being able to outnumber and outflank the enemy (or, at least in some cases, no longer being outnumbered and outflanked) makes the difficulty plummet. Being unwary will still net you a quick death, but careful summoners will almost always prevail.

Summoning is augmented by the return of the Covenant system from Dark Souls. There are eight Covenants that can be joined at different locations in the game, and they’re loosely categorised into helping other players, invading other players to kill them, or affecting the single player experience within your own world. The Rat King Covenant deserves special mention: join this Covenant, and in certain areas other players will be transported into your world for a quick duel to the death, with the twist being that the areas are loaded with traps that can be activated by clever Rats. If you fancy a bit of PVP, but aren’t as skilled as most opponents, its good way to level the playing field a little.

The Covenants are excellent in assisting players in experimenting with different gameplay experiences – there’s little that the Covenants do that you couldn’t do without their presence, but they do a good job of giving you that little nudge out of your own comfort zone. Unfortunately, you need to work out what you’re supposed to be doing in each Covenant yourself, and information on goals, benefits or rewards is mysterious at best. There are rewards, and they are worthwhile, but in many cases the fun of the experience is the biggest reward on offer.

The Covenant system is a fair microcosm of Dark Souls 2: difficult to know what’s going on, a near-vertical learning curve, excellent fun once you get the hang of it, and while there are rewards on offer at the end, the journey itself is the most rewarding part.

The question really is whether you’ll actually reach that “excellent fun” part and feel that sense of reward. Veterans of the series undoubtedly will. If you’d played a previous entry and found it, to quote my brother “the stupidest game that has ever existed”, nothing in Dark Souls 2 is likely to change your mind.

If you’re new to the series and want to know what the fuss is, you’d do well to consider what kind of game it is before checking it out. It’s a game where you’ll spend a good deal of time banging your head against a brick wall, and the question is which will break first: the brick wall or you. It’s a game that you can come to love like no other, but it’s also a game that you can come to hate like no other too. I’m in the former category, and the review score reflects this. Given the consistent rush towards the safe option in gaming today, the possibility of Dark Souls 2 meaning something special to you makes its worth checking out, even if you might well hate every second of it.

Dark Souls II was reviewed on PS3 with a review copy provided by Namco Bandai.

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