Dark Souls II Review: Unforgiving Fun

Posted by | June 21, 2014 | Reviews | 4 Comments

“Long ago, in a walled off land, far to the north, a great king built a great kingdom.  I believe they called it Drangleic.  Perhaps you’re familiar. No, how could you be? But one day, you will stand before its decrepit gate without really knowing why…”

Dark Souls II is a very interesting, very different game.  In an era when it’s not uncommon for a game to have an hour-long tutorial, the Souls series really sticks out. Some would call the developers’ apparent design philosophy “old school” for the way you’re thrown into the experience and expected to sink time and time again before learning to swim—and then they add some sharks. After all, the game’s motto is “Prepare to Die,” and you most certainly will. A lot.

Sure, Dark Souls II has a short section at the beginning that will teach you the basic controls, but this is a game where even the story is not spoon-fed to the player. If other modern games like Uncharted or Assassin’s Creed are a feast for the senses, Dark Souls II is like scavenging for bones to suck the marrow from.

While previous Dark Souls games were rated M for Mature, Dark Souls II is rated T for Teen. It’s all about killing monsters, but it’s less gory. The story is cryptic but certainly dark (being all about eating souls). Dark Souls II is likely to appeal to gaming teens and adults who enjoy challenging gameplay, lots of action, and horror or fantasy storylines.

The Mysterious Story

All the information you’re really given in the beginning of the game is this: the player character is afflicted with the curse of the Undead. Undead collect souls in order to remain sane. Undead can never truly die; they can only lose all of their souls, which causes them to gradually go “Hollow,” becoming mindless creatures that exist only to feed on human souls. It is said that in the forgotten kingdom of Drangleic, there is a way to end the Undead curse. And so “like a moth to the flame,” the player character is drawn there to meet their fate. If you want more information than that, you’ll really have to dig for it. Most of the lore in the game is just hinted at through item descriptions and repeatedly talking to the NPCs you sometimes encounter.

For (a very basic) example, take one of the NPCs that makes its home in the main hub town of Dark Souls II: Sweet Shalquoir. Sweet Shalquoir is a talking cat.  Why can she talk?  Well, if you buy the “Silvercat Ring” from her and read its item description it says, “Legend has it that when cats grow old, a force brews within them, and they are reborn as something new.”  This, in my opinion, suggests that she is a bakeneko, a creature from Japanese folklore.  It isn’t just small tidbits like Sweet Shalquoir’s background that are hinted at in this way, it’s the whole story.

This, like many other design decisions made in the creation of Dark Souls II, could either be considered a blessing or a curse. Personally, I like the way the sparse information gives the whole game a haunting, mysterious atmosphere. It’s like the whole thing is one big enigma that you may never fully understand. In a time when it isn’t uncommon for a game to have hours of cutscenes and dialog interspersed with the action, I find the Dark Souls approach to storytelling refreshing. Some people might not.

The Difficult Gameplay

Just as the general mysteriousness of the game is a central issue in whether or not any given person will enjoy it, so is the level of difficulty. Some say Dark Souls II and its predecessors are some of the hardest games on the market today.  I’m not sure that I agree with that assessment.  There really aren’t any enemies with lightning-fast attacks to avoid on reflex, or (for the most part) hordes of enemies that will overwhelm you with the sheer volume of their attacks. Most of the things that will hurt you in Dark Souls II are actually fairly easy to avoid if you know what you’re doing. But that’s the rub. If you don’t find a way to learn how your enemies fight and how to counter, they will kill you swiftly and mercilessly. You will lose all of your souls after each death, and a chunk of your maximum health. If you want your maximum health back, you’ll have to expend one of your limited supply of Human Effigies, or be summoned to another player’s world to help defeat a boss. If you want your souls back, you’ll have to make your way back to the place where you died without dying again.  Hopefully you learned how to get through that area efficiently the last time!

I would say that Dark Souls II isn’t actually difficult, it’s just really, really unforgiving. You’re expected to figure everything out for yourself, and when you don’t, you will be punished.  This is one of the reasons it’s smart to get some of the information you need from other players, especially when it comes to the way some of the game’s more complicated systems work.

Role-Playing Elements & Attributes

Dark Souls II is an Action RPG.  The combat itself is that of your typical action game, albeit a bit slower paced than something like Ninja Gaiden or Devil May Cry. The RPG part comes in the form of being able to really customize your character however you want by spending souls to level up, putting points into different attributes (1 attribute point per level) and equipping the various types of weapons and armor you’ll find throughout the game. There is no rigid class system (although you will be asked to choose one of eight classes at the beginning of the game), but basically there are three different basic archetypes to choose from. Strength builds use heavy armor and weapons that require Strength (usually heavy weapons, of course). Dexterity builds use light armor and weapons that require a little more finesse, like rapiers and katanas. Sorcerer builds use spell-casting and are based on Intelligence or Faith attributes. Of course, as there is no rigid class system it is fairly easy to mix and match attributes to create a character that doesn’t fit neatly into any one of those categories.  For example, it seems to be fairly common for almost any build to put enough points into Faith to use healing spells and a certain powerful, ranged damage-dealing spell.

There's no rigid Class system in Dark Souls II; you can build your own character.

There’s no rigid Class system in Dark Souls II; you can build your own character.

All in all, it’s a fairly complicated system, and the game doesn’t always explain to you exactly how it works. I picked Swordsman as my starting class, which is a dual-wielding Dexterity-based class.  Early on, I noticed that it seemed like having two swords wasn’t really giving me any advantage over having one. Alternating attacks between my left and right weapon didn’t make them happen any faster, meaning that I was giving up the ability to use a shield in my left hand for virtually no benefit. This is a fairly big deal, because using a shield means that you don’t have to dodge every single attack that gets thrown at you, which means that a lot of attacks are much easier to avoid. What, then, was the point of dual wielding?  I had to ask a friend with more experience to find out. It turns out that if you have 1.5 times the required amount of Dexterity and Strength for both weapons that you want to dual-wield, and you hold Y/Triangle, your character will go into Power Stance. This allows you to attack with both weapons at once for increased damage, effectively making dual-wielding viable. The game doesn’t even so much hint at this, continuing its general practice of never telling you exactly what the heck is going on.

I think that’s great.  I think there should be some games that don’t have a built-in tutorial that borders on a walkthrough.  I think sometimes it’s fun to be punished severely for mistakes, to be forced to really get good at the game in order to progress.  And that’s why I love Dark Souls II. But not everyone will, and I think that’s okay too.

Player Interaction

Player interaction in Dark Souls II is also handled in a rather unique way. There is no separate multiplayer mode where you are matched up with other players for a quick co-op campaign or deathmatch.  All of the player interaction is rather neatly embedded into the game.  First, it isn’t really possible to communicate with other players using a microphone unless you’re actually in a party or voice-chat session with them.  One nice thing about this is that you don’t have to worry about running into some trash-talking jerk whenever you encounter other players.  The only ways you can communicate with other players unsolicited are through Gestures (which are basically like emotes) and messages left on the ground that will randomly show up in other players’ games.  The messages can only be made from a list of pre-written sentence fragments, which makes it very difficult to write obscenities.  Multiple times throughout the game I ran into messages that were lewd, but not explicit.  I’ll spare you examples.  Most of the time the messages are genuinely helpful.  Things like “Be wary of duo ahead,” indicating that there are two enemies that will attack you together around the next corner.  Or perhaps, “Try jumping!!!” next to a ledge with treasure beneath it.  Of course, there is also nothing to stop people from leaving a “Try jumping!!!” message next to a bottomless pit with no treasure, but I think that’s part of the fun.  Of course, it is possible to send text messages over Xbox Live or Playstation Network to players that you have recently encountered.

Personally, I never got messages from anyone except players that I had invaded through a couple of the more unscrupulous Covenants.

Yes, that’s right, invaded.  It is possible to invade other players’ games in Dark Souls II, the aim being to kill them for some reward or another.  There are several “Covenants” in Dark Souls II—faction-like groups players may join. Some of them focus on PvP, and some on cooperative play, but they all give you various rewards for carrying out the objectives they give you. When I say “unscrupulous covenants” I’m talking about the Rat King Covenant and the Bell Keepers Covenant.  If you play online, you will almost certainly be forced to fight members of these Covenants when passing through certain areas.  Rather predictably, not everyone is into being forced to PvP, especially since fighting “Bellboys” and “Brodents” is rarely a “fair” 1v1 matchup.  Long story short, if you don’t want to get rather vulgar hate mail from other players, I suggest that you don’t join either of these Covenants.  And, if you don’t want to be forced to PvP, I suggest you don’t play online while you’re in these Covenants’ respective territories.

There is also one Covenant that will reward you for invading other players’ games in pretty much any area of the game at all.  However, this is fairly rare on your first playthrough (I think I got invaded by “red phantoms,” as they are called, maybe half a dozen times total), and it is also at least a fair fight most of the time.  The only advantage red phantoms have is that enemy NPCs in the invaded player’s world will not attack them, and it is even possible to acquire an item that will reverse this advantage.  You can also join the Way of Blue Covenant which, if you are a member, will sometimes summon other players as “blue phantoms” to fight red phantom invaders with you, which is a significant advantage for the invaded player. For these reasons, I would not recommend playing offline just to avoid getting invaded by red phantoms, especially because then you will miss out on all the “jolly co-op” play.

Covenants aren’t just for PvP.  There are a couple Covenants that reward the player for cooperative play, usually in the form of being summoned to other players’ games in order to help them defeat a boss or complete a particularly difficult part of the game.  For some bosses I would consider summoning almost mandatory, such as the Ruin Sentinels fight.  There are three bosses, and they aren’t afraid to attack you all at once.  Thankfully, you don’t even have to be a member of any co-op Covenant in order to summon other players or be summoned to their games.

The Upshot

Dark Souls II gameplay is unforgiving but fun, with unique player interaction systems. You’re not given much in the way of handholding—there’s very little explicit information in the game itself about how to play the game or understand the story. That said, it’s a rewarding title for gamers who are up for a challenge.

Chris Jaech

About Chris Jaech

Chris Jaech is a voice-over actor and writer. His voice-over work is featured in HER Interactive's video game Nancy Drew: The Silent Spy. He lives in Seattle.