STAFF REVIEW of Dark Souls 2 (Xbox 360)

Tuesday, March 25, 2014.
by Khari Taylor

Dark Souls 2 Box art Gamers who have been closely following the development of Dark Souls 2 since it was announced in late 2012 may remember the controversy that erupted shortly afterward when the game's co-director, Yui Tanimura suggested that the sequel would be made "more accessible", giving longtime fans the impression that the brutal difficulty, confounding lore and at times obtuse gameplay would give way to excessive handholding as a concession to newcomers. In an interview with Edge Online one year later, Tanimura would explain that by "accessible" he actually meant streamlining elements of the game that did not positively communicate and contribute to the essence of what the Souls games were about, and that players could still expect the same level of challenge and confusion from Dark Souls 2 that they were accustomed to. Well, Dark Souls 2 is now upon us, and as a veteran who has been through the wringer the original Dark Souls and Demon Souls (for PS3) before it, I can personally attest that Tanimura has remained true to his word. Dark Souls 2 is a true ‘Souls’ sequel, demanding just as much patience and perseverance as its predecessor, but some delightfully unexpected changes to the Souls formula also make it feel like a remix and re-mastering as well. While many of the changes will be lost on newcomers to the franchise, the sanding down of Dark Souls' rough edges actually benefits veterans and greenhorns alike, creating more opportunities to get back into the action (of dying over and over) more quickly.

As mentioned earlier, Dark Souls 2 is indeed a sequel, but players who have poured countless hours into its predecessor would be forgiven for thinking the game is a remix. Several elements of the original Dark Souls' plot and vocabulary have returned. Players still take on the role of a cursed adventurer who journeys to a fallen kingdom inhabited by an evil undead army, the original reason for his or her journey now long forgotten. Key Souls mechanics, which a) see players beginning as undead "hollows" that gain added health and other benefits when becoming "human", and b) souls collected from fallen enemies serving as the game's soul currency, both remain unchanged. There are bonfires, and while using one has many key advantages (such as creating a new checkpoint), doing so also resets all of the world's enemies apart from bosses and mini-bosses.

As always, there are Covenants one can join, there's a king to seek out, and there are four "Old Great Ones" that must be vanquished. Even the leveling system and many of the first Dark Souls' weapons, armor, trinkets, Estus flasks, creatures and even bosses have also returned, though the majority of the latter now serve as lesser-enemies and knowing winks to previous game, as opposed to new threats. Finally, whether you're human or hollow, the penalty for dying remains the same; any humanity and unused souls that you have gathered since spawning at the bonfire are lost, and those souls can only be regained by returning to that spot upon reincarnation and touching your bloodstain. Should you die again before reaching that bloodstain those souls are lost forever, now replaced by a new bloodstain containing your newly-collected souls at the new death location. On the surface, it's all very familiar, and seasoned Dark Souls players at the very least will have a leg up when it comes to character creation and leveling, as many of the classes and upgrade paths remain the same. However, a closer look under the hood will reveal that far more of the previous title's gameplay pillars have been turned on their head.

For instance, the cursed kingdom of Drangleic is a more splintered world than Dark Souls' Lordran, borrowing heavily from the hub-world design of the first Souls game, (Demon Souls), meaning that instead of a single, contained and interconnecting world and underworld, players will be traveling outward in different directions from the nucleus that is the coastal town of Majula until they reach the ends of those branches and then return to embark on the next.

In Dark Souls, if you managed to reach a high summit and looked out upon the kingdom, any major landmarks you could see you could expect to reach eventually, but Dark Souls 2 is far more reticent in lifting its veil, making what lies behind each unlocked gateway and mist-door a complete and deadly mystery. Accompanying the Demon Souls-inspired hub design is the Emerald Herald, who is the Dark Souls equivalent of the Maiden in Black. A fixture of Majula, players must return to visit this young woman whenever they wish to upgrade their abilities or their Estus flasks, roles that were individually fulfilled by the bonfire and fire-keepers in Dark Souls (respectively). Fortunately, the amount of backtracking that these alterations necessitate have been mitigated by yet another important change; players can now fast travel back and forth between any bonfire that they have lit right from the beginning of the game, an ability that was not available in Dark Souls until much later in the story.

Of course, these are just some of the many new wrinkles that are bound to force veteran players to rethink how they approach Dark Souls 2, but none of the above are likely to affect those strategies more radically than the following two game-changers:

1) Player's worlds can now be invaded by evil spirits (i.e. other human players) when their character is in hollow form as well as human form (meaning neither state is safe) and 2) each time a player dies and chooses to remain in hollow form, the player's overall HP is reduced by a small amount. The significance of the former change means that players can no longer avoid invasions by staying hollow and still reap the benefits of playing online (e.g. gathering hints by reading soapstone messages, seeing glimpses of other live players who are also playing online, or joining other players' games). If you don't want to take the chance of being invaded, you'll have to play in offline mode and truly go it alone. Meanwhile, the latter change means that in addition to humanity being still being required to take on bosses and summon other players into your game, continuously choosing to not play as a human comes at a real cost, as ‘Hollow health’ gradually reduces with each death until staying undead becomes too much of an inconvenience (not to mention that in Dark Souls 2, the chances of player invasion are actually higher in hollow form than human form).

To balance this out however, Humanity is not quite the precious commodity as it was in the first Dark Souls. Human Effigies are easily-found or purchased totems that can be used to instantly return to human form, and although they are somewhat limited in number they are far from rare, so players need not be stingy with their use. Also, unlike the Humanity item in Dark Souls, Effigies do not require a bonfire to use, meaning that players can use them almost anywhere at any time. For example, a player can choose to clear out a level of enemies and items completely on his or her own and then use an Effigy to become Human right before the boss door, increasing their chances of victory against the boss while keeping the odds of a successful invasion low. The Covenant system has received new checks and balances, increasing the ways in which players can invade other player's games, but also improving and streamlining the means by which players can call upon aid to counter them. Finally, Humanity is often a random reward of assisting another players in their games, so its possible to revert to human form without relying on Effigies at all.

If there was ever an aspect of Dark Souls that did not need fixing however, it was the combat, and veterans should be pleased to know that little has changed in this regard. Weapons and armor still have the same weighty feel to them and players must be mindful of not just their endurance but also their surroundings while wielding them, so that they are not left exhausted or vulnerable to counterattack when their swing or thrust bounces off an entryway. Similarly, powerful defensive and offensive spells take several seconds to cast and must be used at the right time for best effect. Should an enemy character or invading player catch you in the middle of a casting animation, you'd best hope you have enough health, endurance and poise to withstand the blow and still escape with your life.

Speaking of enemies, just like in every Souls game, no single foe, even the weakest foot soldier, can be underestimated. Every single creature in the game, from the lowliest of minions to towering level bosses have their own specific repertoire of moves, and even the most basic of them can devastate or kill a player if he or she is unaware. All it takes is one careless move by a player to get rocked by an unexpected attack, upon which the same enemy or its allies can then pile on and finish the job, or push the player off of a ledge to seal his or her fate. Or perhaps the player will panic and do it for them with a careless misstep or backward roll. Combat in Demon Souls and Dark Souls always demanded the player's full engagement, and it's no different with Dark Souls 2. If this is the kind of action that you crave, then you'll be more than satisfied, as Dark Souls 2 ramps up the action before boss-fights more gradually, throwing more mini-bosses and sub-bosses into the player's path than ever before.

The only area where Dark Souls appears to fall short is in its visuals. Without a doubt, there have been improvements, particularly in respect to character animation and the scope of Drangleic’s many jumbled parts. Tattered cloths, robes and capes on both player-characters and enemies alike flow and flutter realistically as they move about, pace around each other and strike, and the complexity of level design in each of Drangleic's splinter worlds is stunning, filled with hidden and sometimes dangerous shortcuts. Unfortunately, for every new addition in Dark Souls 2 there seems to be something borrowed too. As explained earlier, many of Dark Souls' weapons, armor and enemies have returned, and as a result, there is a heavy reuse of their visual assets and animations from the previous game that won't go unnoticed by fans. It's a small price to pay for a new Souls adventure, but it will be extremely disappointing if the next game in the franchise dares to recycle with the same level of abandon, especially if the game appears on next-gen consoles.

The sound design, while also largely unchanged from the last game, gets a pass however as it fulfills its main role perfectly -- warning players of impending danger with clear and familiar signals, and delivering important audio cues in combat. Every enemy type and even some of its tells can be predicted by familiar grunts and screams, and the stark difference between the squishy-crunch of a well-placed sword strike on a minion versus the hollow clatter of one's blade against a stone wall or pillar can make all the difference in a player's decision to keep on the attack or quickly roll away to avoid a lethal counterstrike. Some sounds, such as the jingling chains of the exploding kamikaze mummies, are just plain chilling. Do yourself a favor and play this game in surround sound, where the added positional information will be even more beneficial.

The big question that many of you who are new to Dark Souls probably want to know is: "Do I have to play Dark Souls 2 online?" The answer of course is no, the game can be played completely in offline mode, but to do so would be to completely miss out on much of the experience. The Souls games have carved out a unique niche for themselves between single-player and multiplayer, and Dark Souls 2 continues this tradition, tying its multiplayer functionality directly into its theme of multiple worlds overlapping each other, with the game's soapstone messages, bloodstains, summon signs, cracked-orb items and more as means of temporarily interacting, communicating with and invading those other worlds. As a consequence, multiplayer in Dark Souls 2 remains as awkward and inflexible as it was before, but now is even more transient, as time limits have now been assigned to how long another player can exist in your world, and vice versa. But as with all of the other tweaks discussed above, the fun of a Souls game is learning how to adapt to and work around these limitations.

Dark Souls players shouldn’t easily expect to play alongside their friends, as level-based matchmaking, the inability to use party-chat while playing in online mode and other factors can make getting into the same world together a frustrating and time-consuming process. But if you're willing to embrace the randomness of multiplayer the way the game intends you to experience it (i.e. with total strangers), you'll find that not only will you enjoy, learn how to play and progress through the game faster, but you'll also appreciate and perhaps even welcome the long periods of solitary adventuring when they happen. In short, Dark Souls 2 is both a single-player game and a multi-player game, but it's not really meant to be either's at its best when both sides are working as one. The reasons why are too many to be listed here... you'll just have to experience it yourself.

To sum up, Dark Souls 2 succeeds for the same reasons that it predecessor was so highly praised. It's brutally hard, and it won't hold your hand (the game doesn't even come with an instruction manual anymore, and provides only the barest of in-game tutorials). Furthermore, its numerous enemies, bosses and invading spirits will intimidate and crush the unprepared at the first opportunity. But each time the game pounds your body into the earth and serves up another defeat, without fail a glimpse of the solution will make itself apparent if you are observant and make use of all the tools available. Dark Souls 2 is the videogame equivalent of "falling upward". You're going to die, horribly and often, but you'll also become addicted to the satisfaction gained from overcoming each obstacle, and ultimately push on through in pursuit of your next sadomasochistic fix. Take this reviewer's advice; avoid the numerous online wikis for your first run-through, improve through playing (and of course dying), and don't be afraid to lean on and learn from your oft-silent but incredibly helpful online allies. That's the way to truly experience Dark Souls.

Overall: 9.0 / 10
Gameplay: 9.5 / 10
Visuals: 8.0 / 10
Sound: 9.5 / 10


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