Dark Souls 2 Review: The act of becoming hollow becomes all too real
I'll never forget that moment I became the dark lord. All the Primordial Serpents bowed their treacherous heads to me while I held Lord Gwyn’s cold soul in hand.
I knew the day Dark Souls II came out, I would have a brand new obsession. This game has been on the top of my most anticipated titles list since that mentioned moment, and it was only reinforced by the announcement that FromSoftware was in fact making the sequel.
After years of waiting, that day has come, and it is glorious. Don't let my fanboy encrusted bias fool you, though. It’s the ones you love the most that you end up being most critical towards.
FromSoftware has embarked on the mighty challenge that any sequel of a cult classic is forced to make: How do you improve upon perfection? Dark Souls isn't quite perfect, but it comes pretty close. It somehow mixes atmosphere, ambiguous storytelling, and strong pacing while confronting players with quite difficult but fair challenges. When a boss decimates you, it's because you simply just haven’t learned how to handle the fight. You won't be killed because of some cheap game mechanic, but because of your lack of knowledge/skill on that particular encounter. What isn’t there to love about this equation?
Dark Souls II encompasses the same spirit as other Souls games. The game attempts to make improvements as needed while adding its own unique flavor. This is a slippery slope with no true win/win outcome. Diehard fans will be split between wanting glorified Dark Souls DLC and wanting something that feels like Dark Souls but makes its own mark. In execution, Dark Souls II did neither of these things. Dark Souls II plays like a hybrid of both Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls. Still, it's a wholly different beast than the games that came before.
Almost immediately after creating your character, you’ll find yourself in an area called Majula. This is the Nexus or Firelink Shrine of Dark Souls II. You know, that safe area where you can collect yourself and talk to NPCs, level up, and improve your gear. It serves as the hub to the entire game. Since you can literally teleport to every bonfire that you have visited now and have to level up by talking to a woman named the Emerald Herald (nearly identical to the Maiden in Black of Demon’s Souls), you’re going to spend a lot time here.
The teleporting system doesn’t require the Lord Vessel or any item. You can just do it as you please. Since there are several paths you can go to from Majula, the way bonfires serve as waypoints becomes extremely useful. This is where the Souls hybrid feeling really kicks in. While you’re literally walking in one of a few directions from the start, the first bonfire works like the teleporting system in the Nexus. If an area or boss is too hard, just go to one of the other areas. That's the essence of Demon’s Souls. Unlike Demon’s Souls though, you CAN fully clear an area from start to finish if you so please. If you have the skill, you can really do whatever you want.
All that said, many of the areas you can reach at the beginning are ambiguous, difficult to understand, or downright tricky to notice. While the Forest of Fallen Giants is the most obvious path to start out on, there are actually a few routes you can take. You’ll notice stairs going down in Majula with a strange contraption that you can’t turn yet. If you follow the path further, you’ll see doors that can’t be opened. The assumption I made, as well as the others I’ve known who have played, is that you’ll get an item that will allow you to use that contraption to open the door. Not the case at all. There is actually a unique level near that door which opens it. The contraption is activated by other means later. By the time I learned this, I was WAY over leveled for that area and crushed it.
I know what you're thinking. Since exploration is a huge part of the game, I should have figured that out from the get go. That’s a fair argument, and I have to agree. Still, other than the closed door, there really wasn't any other indication. The contraption above it shut my brain off, and I automatically assumed the two were linked somehow. I know this is just one example, but I found this to be a theme throughout the rest of the game.
I want to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, so I’ll stop there, but when you’re playing, see if you notice this. There is both a certain beauty and frustration in not knowing where to go next. Oddly, I'd count that as a positive. Dark Souls!
Until the end of time, fans will always compare Dark Souls to Dark Souls II (and even Demon’s Souls) as far as difficulty is concerned. The Souls games are known for being difficult as hell--it's their call to fame. At this time, I honestly can’t say which is more difficult.
I’ve played a ton of Dark Souls. I’m talking every achievement and 200+ hours logged across multiple consoles. For this reason, and I really do mean this as humbly as possible, I haven’t been having that much difficulty with DSII. While Dark Souls was harder for me, it was also my first Souls game. It’s surely no cakewalk, but it’s not impossible. It’s fair.
On the topic of difficulty, some of my peers have pointed out a specific harsh cycle players have the opportunity to run into. Early in the game, you only have 1 to 2 Estus Flasks, and you have to rely on Life Gems to heal when those flasks are empty. The issue here is that Life Gems are consumables that don’t recharge at a bonfire. While you can buy them from a vendor, they are limited.
To complicated things, once you've killed an enemy a certain number of times, they stop respawning altogether. This means less opportunities for Life Gems to drop, but it also means that farming for souls isn't really an option anymore.
The same issue applies to the Human Effigy, which is the Humanity item of Dark Souls II. While human, right after you use the Human Effigy, you’re allowed access to all of your HP. Every time you die after, you lose a bit of your total down to about half until you use another Effigy. Thus, if you run out of Effigy, you’re playing the game at half health. You could easily have 1 to 2 Estus Flasks, half total health, no enemies to farm, and wind up stuck a boss you can’t beat. This is the game at its roughest.
Thankfully the game's open-ended gameplay allows to explore different areas if you do wind up stuck somewhere with no more souls to farm. On the opposite spectrum, Souls veterans will be flabbergasted by the fact that they now have multiple healing sources outside of Estus Flasks.
From a gameplay point of view, difficulty has varied. The enemy AI has improved significantly. Foes seem to understand pack mentality now. They will swarm and be relentless. At the same time, enemies seem to have a much smaller chase range. If you run far enough from a fight, the monsters don’t seem to have any issue resetting if they get winded from the chase.
Parrying and backstabbing is less safe. I find myself doing both FAR less than I did in the other Souls games. I like to think I excelled at parries in the other games, but I haven't figured it out in Dark Souls II yet. I’m not nearly confident enough in my skill to do it on a regular basis. Lastly, medium roll is a lot more generous in this game.
In closing, I’m really digging Dark Souls II. Some changes are for the greater good and others are questionable. I can’t rate the game until I try out the online functions once the servers go up.
As a player, I feel the game has done an exquisite job in making me feel like I am actually going hollow at certain points. Dying after restoring your humanity is that much more frustrating in Dark Souls II. As you die over and over again and your total health keeps decreasing as a result, you start questioning if you’ll ever make it. You stop caring about individual deaths. Nothing matters. Would it be better to risk using another Human Effigy just to lose it right away, or should you just quit and go hollow? This is the heart of Dark Souls II, and something you can’t answer until you experience it yourself.
A week later…
I’ve been playing Dark Souls II nonstop for over a week now. With the servers on and online play in full swing, the game is completely different. Not only did I finish it, I managed to get my Sun Bro covenant to Rank 3, and have multiple characters and builds going on. You know, the good life.
That anyone could possibly review Dark Souls II without playing online blows my mind. From orange messages on the ground giving game changing hints to getting invaded right before a boss fog, the online experience is something that can’t be imitated. Since there isn’t an orange soapstone item anymore, players can write messages anytime while anywhere.
Rating messages is easier than before, and gives the writer some HP when it occurs, encouraging players to leave helpful hints instead of troll messages. The messages have also become more elaborate, allowing players to join two thoughts with 'And then' which means you'll see messages like “Praise the Sun and then Praise the Sun!” Dark Souls has officially met conjunction junction.
Summoning is easier and more glorious than ever. I absolutely love being summoned and almost always throw down my summon sign. Certain covenants can be ranked up by aiding other players, while others can rank up through invading. If you successfully fulfill your duty, you’ll be rewarded differently depending which covenant you’re in, or if you’re not in one at all.
Success also means you will get all of your Estus Flasks refilled, spells restored, and a huge chunk of souls for helping. If you’re complaining about not being able to farm, you can be summoned for bosses repeatedly as long as you’re in level range of the host. Failure, on the other hand, means you keep all your souls and stay alive if you were, but your spells and Estus stay exactly where you left them.
I know we’re only a week in, but I haven't seen many invasions. I’ve been invaded twice, got summoned to help with an invader once, and used a red summon message once. Dark Souls II is really harsh on the invader. Since there are so many summon signs up, someone can call for aid quickly and easily. When I joined the Blue Sentinel covenant, I hoped to be summoned to help those being invaded, but I’ve never been summoned or seen a blue phantom before. I figure once more players beat the game and then focus on PvP, it'll become more common. As of now, I think the fan base is just trudging through the game to get it over with.
Seeing bloodspots, learning how players died, and orange messages really give the player hints where no aid existed previously. Part of me was happy that I completed the game before the severs went up, but part of me wasn't. I’m truly curious what my first experience would have been like with the aid (and trolling) from all the other players. Despite what I wrote earlier, the game does pick up sin difficulty later. SCREW the Shrine of Amana--what a RAGE inducing region that place is. I can’t wait to see speed runners tackle that.
Here’s the thing. The second I finished Dark Souls II, I started playing again. I’m not even talking New Game+ here, but a brand new character. I wanted to experience the online play, help people, invade, write messages, try different builds, attempt a different game route, learn fights better, etc.
Dark Souls II isn’t a beat it and leave it sort of game. There's SO much you can do; and I love that. Never dual-wielded before? Give that a shot. Want to try casting dark magic? Go for it. Ever wanted to murder someone for trying to ring a bell? Also an option.
What I’m saying is that replayability is through the roof. The game is still budding, and I’m really looking forward to the crazy $#!t people come up with.
Historian, teacher, writer, gamer, cheat master, and tech guru: follow on Twitter @AndrewC_GZ