Dark Souls II Review – Xbox 360
Solid brutal combat and real sense of accomplishment, Easier to get into for newcomers while retaining difficulty, Better graphics and sounds
Still not for the easily frustrated, Wrong decisions can ruin and adversely affect a play-through
There are few games that challenge a gamer’s sanity, patience and skills more than the critically acclaimed Souls series by developer From Software. I learned this firsthand with the release of the original Dark Souls a few years ago, so when I heard they were making a sequel to an already legendarily hard game I was both intrigued and instantly filled with a certain level of anxiety at the thought of its release. That said I actually welcomed the chance to see how From Software could take a great formula and make it better with the release of Dark Souls II for the Xbox 360.
Dark Souls II takes players to the remains of a kingdom in ruins in the land of Drangleic. This once grand kingdom is now the gathering location for cursed individuals like yourself. After being drawn to Drangleic like a moth to the proverbial flame, you are trapped amongst others like you destined to collect souls to stave off the effects of Hollowing that all who are cursed will undoubtedly happen. Once a person becomes hollow they begin to lose the memories of who they are only to die or wander the lands a shell of their former self. The story that follows is revealed in small doses as you task yourself with finding four of the oldest souls in the former kingdom and defeating them to possibly have a chance to break the curse.
Dark Souls fans and veterans will have little trouble getting into the literal “swing of things” in this sequel. While this game has no direct ties to its predecessor it does carry over many of the original’s mechanics that made it the excruciating but enjoyable game that it was. The game is still…well brutally hard by series standards, though there are several new tweaks to the game’s formula that make it more accessible to newcomers looking to discover the series for the first time. Having played the original which throws you right into a boss fight five minutes after you start, Dark Souls II is decidedly a bit easier with a built-in tutorial behind a row of fogged doors. Veteran players can forgo these easily, going right for the good stuff while newcomers might find them useful to stay alive just a bit longer; not that it matters a great deal. Even as the first achievement pops saying “Welcome to Dark Souls” you’ll learn very quickly that death encompasses everything throughout your adventure.
Not long after the opening video and meeting of the Flame Keepers (three old women), you get to create what your character looks like and kind of class you want. There are a few less class options this time around as the Thief, Pyromancer, Wanderer and Hunter classes have been removed, but the item-laden Explorer and dual wielding Swordsman classes join the returning mixture. Beginners may find the Warrior class easiest to work with though each class has their own strengths and weaknesses. Leveling up your character though with the use of souls gathered from defeated enemies can up your proficiency in other area like dexterity for using bows. Unlike the previous game, enemies that aren’t bosses will stop spawning to keep players from soul farming enemies in any given area to keep players from becoming overpowered and thus breaking the balance of the game and its difficulty.
Several other changes have been made to the formula while still managing a near perfect balance of combat, challenge, item usage and navigation of the world. For starters, you no longer have to give up a piece of your humanity to kindle a bonfire which are the game’s save points of sorts. Humanity however is precious as you instantly go into a state of Hollowing when you die. Due to the fact that you will be dying a lot, usually due to player error or sheer bad luck, you will continue to lose a chunk of your maximum Health Points until it bottoms out at 50% with each following death. The preciously few items called Human Effigies can be consumed or burned at bonfires to return you to human state and reset your max health to its previous state. Burning them will also reduce the chance that another player will invade your world for a while, which is quite nice.
Bonfires themselves have undergone a few changes Leveling up your character is no longer available and you must now visit the Emerald Herald in the town of Majula, the main hub of the game, to level up with the souls you have collected as well as give any found Estus Flask shards to increase the amount of Estus charges you can have at any given time. The biggest thing that From Software added to the bonfires is the ability to fast travel between any of the bonfires that you’ve lit along your journey. While this could come off as a making the game easier for a wider audience, I actually welcomed the feature. This does eliminate charging back through the same enemies over and over again just to get a bit farther than your last death or at least to get back to your body and your dropped souls, but I don’t feel that it cheapens the overall soul-crushing effect that Dark Souls will have on even the best of players. You can also light torches that you find at bonfires as well as from sconces that you’ve previously lit along the way though each torch runs on a timer that counts down when in use.
I have to say that despite every death I suffered I really enjoyed the refined combat system. As I started getting bigger and better weapons I couldn’t help but notice the weight behind those attacks, as it took large chunks of my stamina bar away with a single swing, and I hoped to God that the enemy was still in front of me when the blade fell. You see enemies will take advantage of any failed attempt to hit them with an attack of their own; some of which can be quite devastating to your character and your moral.
But what I like most is that the physics of the game accounts for the environment around you while in combat. If you happen to be attacking in a tight confined hallway there is the chance that your attack could bounce off a pillar instead of hitting the thing coming right at you even if you’re using the targeting system. There are times where an enemy’s weapon got stuck in a wall or the ground leaving me a few precious moments to get in a few quick attacks. Other times I would think that I could use a support pillar to guard against an enemy attack only to learn that some enemies can swing right through them taking out a chunk of the pillar in the process.
Enemies are much more dogged in their attempt to take you down as they will follow you sometimes though entire passageways or up and down ladders. Ladders are particularly dangerous as you are completely helpless while on them. A welcome tip that I didn’t learn till some time after several hours of playing completely by accident is that you can shimmy or slid down ladders quickly by holding down B and aiming up or down on the left analog stick at the cost of some of your stamina. Enemies, especially some of the bigger ones and a boss or two actually will use gravity to take you out much like you can do to them. I felt completely humiliated the only time one of those tortoise looking knights purposely fell back on me as I attempted an increasingly more difficult backstab maneuver. If you can pull these off it’s fun to watch as you brain some enemy with a mace or whatever your using at the time.
Equipping gear and items has never been easier as From Software has made the menu screens a lot cleaner and easier to read, explaining things a bit better than the previous title. The cleaner HUD also makes it easier to see the degradation of your weapons. If your weapons like a shield or sword takes too much damage it breaks and can no longer be used unless it is repaired, though if you visit a bonfire before that happens its strength is returned to full. it’s generally a good idea to carry multiple weapons with you however in the chance that you are nowhere near one of these bonfires.
The graphics that fill the distances between these temporary havens are both haunting and beautiful as you make your way through the remains of a once beautiful kingdom. Players will gladly welcome the sun-filled cliff side town of Majula for the first time or the hundredth time that they lay their eyes on it after returning from an area such as the Shaded Woods where fog and other horrors await within. The lighting in Dark Souls II is actually quite good and I often times found myself wandering though dark corridors or tunnels slowly just to watch the effects of the light against the walls. The character models of both your created character and those of the ones trying to end your life are all wonderfully and often horrifyingly detailed. Even the dying world of Drangleic feels alive as you watch the fur or cloth of your outfits or the very grass and plants around you moving in the wind. I also absolutely love the draw distance that this game has much like the first game. In some instances you can chart the very path you took to get where you are in this massive world just by looking off into the distance.
As with its predecessor, Dark Souls II has an awesome audio package in place. The score alone is creepy as all get out, though it’s some of the voice acting that might set you on edge a bit more like that of the talking cat Shalqouir that you meet in Majula. On the note of conversation it’s a really good idea to exhaust all topics that an NPC might have as you are often rewarded with items, shops gestures or the probability that some of them will relocate to Majula as you progress through the game. Sound effects, much like the first game, play a big part in letting you know what you are about to run into before you see it, and I cannot tell you how many times I’ve saved myself a painful death by hearing telltale sounds of heavily armored foes or the ting of an arrow bouncing off the wall near my head from a distant archer. This doesn’t always help though, as some enemies are devious and can’t be easily heard over other sounds.
One of the things that I liked, and to some extent dreaded in the original Dark Souls was the co-op aspects such as summoning other players to your world for help or the unfortunate event of other players invading your world to rob you of your souls. There are Covenants, such as the Blue Sentinels, found within Dark Souls II that once joined will either summon you or others to aid a player against invading real players. My favorite part of the online community of Dark Souls II however is the ability to read messages left by other players to aid or hinder your quest. If you possess a particular item you can even leave messages of your own. In my travels, I came across some evil-intended messages, but for the most part players offered up good sound advice, so reading these messages can often spare you a few deaths or gain you treasures and other rewards.
Dark Souls II, like its predecessor, is one brutally hard game that can attempted in any way you see fit. Even with the new and returning features from Demon’s Souls like the Emerald Herald’s similarity in function to the Maiden in Black, the game still offer up a great challenge with every opportunity to put yourself in the proverbial doghouse for making the wrong decisions along the way. Be it busting through a closed door or offing the wrong NPC (just don’t do this), there is always something that will rear its ugly head to make you pay for those actions even if the consequences are not blatantly revealed to you at first.
Even after 40-50+ hours, I found Dark Souls II to be an extremely rewarding adventure where, for every misstep that spelled my doom, there was always some gratifying moment of satisfaction as I overcame some sadistically hard area or epic fight later on. There are very few games out there that can instill this kind of response and right now Dark Souls II sits really high on that short list. If you love a brutally hard challenge or are a fan of the Souls series then you have to check out Dark Souls II for the Xbox 360.