An old flame, rekindled.

Dark Souls, and its PS3-exclusive predecessor Demon’s Souls, were undoubtedly two of the most rewarding experiences of the last generation. Featuring challenging-but-fair gameplay in a semi-open world environment ripe for exploration, they gained both critical and commercial success through word of mouth, encouraging gamers of all kinds to rise to a challenge that was largely absent in a console generation full of hand-holding tutorial fests.

As news trickled through that developer From Software were going to make Dark Souls II more accessible to casual gamers, fans of the series were rightfully concerned the game would turn out easier and less inspired than the previous Souls games. Now that it’s released, fans are preparing to die all over again, and while From Software have indeed made some changes to the formula to make the game more newbie friendly, Dark Souls II manages to be the hardest, most rewarding game in the series yet.

Lose Your Humanity, All Over Again

The first time I finished Dark Souls was a historic moment in my gaming life; felling such a mighty beast was remarkably empowering, thanks to the game’s high level of difficulty and its ability to reward players who took risks. The sequel continues this trend and provides some of the series’ most memorable moments yet.

In Dark Souls II, you play as a wanderer who has succumbed to the curse of the Undead. You are drawn into the land of Drangleic, which has been heavily affected by a curse: time is distorted and dangerous creatures and Hollows roam the land. There is no escaping the curse, but you have been granted a possible solace by a woman known as the Emerald Herald: retrieve four souls harboured by incredibly powerful beings and present them to her to be granted passage to the King of Drangleic, and a possible cure for the curse.

Dark souls ii lunge

The art of fencing should never be underestimated.

As was the case with the previous Souls games, the story gives you a few main objectives that are directly told to you, but everything else is left for you to discover on your own. By reading item descriptions, talking to NPCs, and simply taking in your surroundings will reveal the lore of Drangleic to you. A good portion of the lore is purposely vague, allowing you to draw your own conclusions. There isn’t a definite storyline here, so series fans will be able to continue theorising elements of the lore like they always have. The writing is smart, and the fact From Software have left a lot to the imagination can lead to some shocking revelations if you allow yourself to be immersed by the lore.

Hollow Man

Gameplay in Dark Souls II is tighter than ever. If you’re familiar with how Dark Souls played, you’ll be ready to jump into the sequel with little issue. However, there are some tweaks that have been made to make the game more challenging. The enemies themselves are tougher, and a hell of a lot smarter. In the first Dark Souls, it was fairly easy to parry enemy attacks, and even easier to circle around them for a backstab. Not so in Dark Souls II; here, you have to earn parries and backstabs. The window of time allowed for a parry has been significantly decreased, and enemies track the player a great deal better, meaning that most of the time you’ll have trouble going for an easy backstab. In short, even series veterans will likely have their patience tested by the sharper AI.

The enemies themselves are tougher, and a hell of a lot smarter.

From Software have also made a lot of changes in regards to your character. Like Demon’s Souls, you can only level up by talking to a specific NPC. In this case, the Emerald Herald located in the hub town of Majula. In regards to leveling up, your player’s stats have also undergone some changes. You’ll now gain a tiny amount of HP for each level you claim, Endurance and Vitality are now separate stats, increasing equipment load allowance and stamina respectively. Now, each time you die, you will lose a percentage of your maximum HP. This will drop each time you die after that, stopping at 50%. To reverse this effect, you must use an item Human Effigy, similar to Humanity in Dark Souls, this will revert you to your human form and restore your max HP to its fullest. It’s a less forgiving system than the original Dark Souls, but more lenient than the straight 50% drop seen in Demon’s Souls.

One thing Dark Souls II strives to achieve is a compromise between the mechanics of the first two games. This is evident with how Human Effigies work, but also in regards to traveling the world of Drangleic. The hub area, Majula, is where you’ll improve your character. Many NPCs you find around the world will eventually settle there, allowing you to buy their items, or improve your weapons, armour and magic. It’s a lot like the Nexus in Demon’s, but also similar to Dark Souls’ Firelink Shrine, given that Majula actually branches off into multiple areas.

One strength Dark Souls II has over its predecessor is the ability to go wherever you want, pretty much whenever. You can fast travel from any bonfire you come across at the expense of respawning enemies in the area, but like with previous entries, doing so will refill your health and Estus flask usage. It’s a controversial change; one could argue that being allowed to travel so liberally makes the world feel a bit disjointed, but it does act as a saving grace if you’re neck deep in a particularly tough area and want to change things up by exploring somewhere else.

Hard Times Ahead

This is not to say Dark Souls II is any easier than its predecessors, quite the opposite in fact. There are some changes that have made some aspects of the game more convenient, but what matters most is the combat, and Dark Souls II has gone above and beyond in regards to this. Attacks have a good deal of added weightiness to them; if you swing a greatsword, it’s going to take your character with it. Blocking too often can deplete your stamina, causing you to stagger and thus leaving you open to attack. You can now dual-wield weapons for a more rushy, glass-cannon style of play. Sorceries and the new Hex-type spells have an added feeling of impact and their effects look cooler than ever. An impressive amount of effort has gone into fine-tuning how combat works in the game; it’s a lot less forgiving than previous games, leaving even less room for error, but a ton more satisfying as a result.

One of the Souls series’ main strengths is its constantly ingenious level design, and Dark Souls II doesn’t slouch here, either. The game features some of the most memorable areas to date. Some of my favourites include The Lost Bastille – an eerily desolate prison for the Undead; No Man’s Wharf – a large underground harbour that features a dangerously large volume of enemies; Earthen Peak – a large mining complex rife with poisonous fumes; and Heide’s Tower of Flame, which bears a striking resemblance to Dark Souls’ Anor Londo.

Locations are as diverse as you’d expect but From Software have unfortunately played it a bit safe in some regards. There’s nothing quite as memorable as the satisfyingly devious Sen’s Fortress, for example, and The Gutter area is just a less inspired version of Blighttown. Nevertheless, it’s another batch of cleverly designed areas that will no doubt test the mettle of newcomers and veterans alike. This lack of creativity also continues in regards to the game’s boss fights. There are some stellar fights, there’s no doubt about that, but so many of them can be beaten simply by circle strafing with your shield up. Some of the bosses shouldn’t even be classed as such, with some being no more than a large amount of regular enemies, or a collection of miniboss-type foes.

In terms of visuals, Dark Souls II won’t win any awards for graphical fidelity (on consoles at least), but it’s an incredibly gorgeous game regardless. The new lighting engine makes using a torch unbelievably satisfying, as the shadows around you realistically react to your position. Special mention must also go to the soundtrack; composed by Motoi Sakuraba, it features some of the most epic boss themes the series has ever had. The theme for the hub town of Majula is especially striking; a bittersweet reminder that this port in the storm ultimately won’t save you from death.

Dark Souls II is an incredible follow-up to a game that many thought couldn’t be topped, and while I wouldn’t necessarily say the game is better than its predecessor, it certainly stands on equal pegging with it, and is still a more rewarding experience than most other games on consoles right now. While lacking that special something on very few occasions, the game’s faults are quickly buried by everything it does right.

Dark Souls II was reviewed on PlayStation 3.

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