It’s always interesting when you go into a game and you aren’t expecting to enjoy yourself. There’s this slow burn at first, where you can’t wait to get into the game so you can find stuff to complain about. Then you start pointing out every little thing there is that bothers or annoys you so you can tell the world how badly they suck. But the best part comes when you realize that the game is actually pretty good. That moment when all your misplaced annoyance fades only to start enjoying yourself? Priceless. Such was my experience with Dark Souls II. A game I expected to hate made me enjoy myself a whole lot. A fact which made the pain of its few, glaring, flaws even harder to stomach.
Normally we’d talk about the story to Dark Souls II but that’s pretty irrelevant. The game essentially seems to take place in the future of the first game, several thousand years after the fact. You wouldn’t be able to tell by looking at the place since there’s no resemblance other than a few easter eggs for those who know to look for them. So enjoy adventuring in the land of Drangleic, slashing and blasting your way through an army of enemies. The game doesn't even really explain how you got to this land until you're most of the way through so don't expect much story to be given to you.
If you’ve played the previous game in the series then you know exactly what to expect here – the two games control almost exactly the same. The changes are in the minor details though with lots of tweak to control sensitivities, movement… the whole spiel. The game just plays better than either of the previous entries. A few changes don’t seem to work quite as well though: notably I had some serious issues getting the shove move to work. Since this is the only reliable way to break the guard of an enemy hiding behind a shield, especially in PvP, it’s quite a big issue. Sadly I’m not sure if this was my own problem, due to a faulty controller, or an issue with the game responding so I ultimately chose not to hold it against the game.
Unfortunately this general feeling of “improving on something but it may not work entirely” seems to run throughout the game.
For example the game doesn’t really make the best first impressions with its level design. The first area is ugly, drab and the grass looks pixelated enough it could be in an 8-bit game. When you finally start getting into the first area, The Forest of Giants, it’s almost a slab to the head with how lush the greenery is. It remains that way for much of the early parts of the game with interesting levels featuring some rather attractive design to them.
Then you’ll hit Black Gulch and it all just gets kind of sickening. Trying to harken back to the days of cursing at Valley of Defilement and the Tomb of the Giants, this area mixes the annoyances of both of these areas to the worst possible effect. Its pitch black so you’ll need a torch but it’s also a giant vertical climb down to the bottom with various drop-offs and ladders to use while enemies repeatedly try to knock you off. In a few areas I found myself walking in circles entirely unsure of how to proceed forward because I didn’t notice one small area I could make a running jump to or that I needed to fall down in a particular area to get to some treasure. So instead I spend twenty minutes running around, wasting valuable time on my torch, when I could have been progressing in the game.
Then the game follows it up with another, just as annoying but much shorter, area full of poison that’s designed to make you crawl through it. If you just ran from end to end it’d take all of three to five minutes but it’ll end up taking you closer to twenty thanks to the damnable stone statues. Even worse is the game betrays a core concept of Dark Souls – defeating your enemies grants you souls so no matter how much effort you expend to beating them, you still gain something from it. But not the “enemies” in this area.
The area only has five or six soul giving enemies in the whole thing, instead tasking you with the arduous process of destroying forty or fifty statues that spit poison at you. These statues give no souls, poison you in two hits and are so tightly packed, near pools of poison, which end up making you use your precious poison antidotes and damaging your weapon enough to risk breaking it. It takes what should be a simple trip from a bonfire to a boss fight into busy work of the highest order and, should you not find the hidden bonfire near the boss you’ll have to do this every time you die or leave the area for any reason.
Why would you leave the area? Because to level up you have to return to the main hub town. This is a returning idea from Demon’s Souls, that of making you return to a hub to buy supplies and level up instead of finding vendors or leveling up at each bonfire you find. The trade-off here is that there’s a lot more bonfires to be found in the world than there were in the last game. So how well does the trade-off work? Depends on how much loading screens annoy you. I personally wasn’t bothered by them but it does feel like it adds a bit of chore to the gameplay. However by the end I understood why they placed such significance on this NPC that they force you to visit her. It makes sense but it’s still annoying.
But perhaps the biggest example of kind-of working but ultimately failing the experience is the way the game itself is designed. When playing Dark Souls there was a feeling of wonder every time you unlocked a door or kicked down a ladder and found that it led to a previous area. Suddenly there was a shortcut to a bonfire that wasn’t there before or a path around a trap you could now easily avoid. It added a feeling of the whole world being one big, connected entity that flowed organically into each other. During the creation of Dark Souls II the developers clearly wanted to bring back the more “sectioned” approach to the game that Demon’s Souls had. So the world tends to have shorter sections with regular enemies, a boss, another shorter section and so on until you’ve cleared the whole area. There are only a few areas of the world that aren’t like this and it lends the game a feeling of artificiality since this is supposed to be a kingdom like the last game but yet it feels more sprawling and segregated than the integration in the previous entry. Where one could argue that DS1 was almost a gated open world Dark Souls II is open world only in the sense that you can pick which direction you wander off in.
But this lends itself to its own problems. Because you can go in any direction at any time much of the game is balanced as if you went in every direction at once. There are a few areas that put strong enemies in them to ward you off and ensure you’re tough enough to pass through but these only happen a few times. Otherwise the enemies and bosses all feel like they’re underpowered. This isn’t the game being dumbed down so much as it is just bad level design. Out of the few bosses that are tough to beat many of them are more annoying than they are difficult, tending towards cheap shots or gimmicky design that forces you to exploit openings or use cheap strategies in return to defeat them. A few good examples of this are the two Rat bosses and the Ruin Sentinels which is probably one of the most annoying boss fights in Souls history.
That’s not to say that there aren’t some parts of Dark Souls II that I found incredibly well done. Drangleic Castle is incredibly well designed in an almost M.C. Escher manner with great ambushes and traps, to say nothing of the tough but fun bosses therein. Brightstone Cove Tseldora is another high point due to its unique design standing out from the rest of the areas in the previous games. I also found the final boss fight in this game to be much more enjoyable and challenging than any of the previous final boss battles in the other games. Other highlights are The Last Giant, Lost Sinner and the secret boss, The Darklurker.
Last, but most certainly not least, are the controversial multiplayer changes. Where in the last games you would be able to opt-out of the multiplayer by dying and staying Hollowed but that has been removed. This makes getting invaded a constant looming threat at all times. The idea behind this is seemingly that the other players are able to act as an impediment to your progress, like randomized monsters in the world itself. This idea is expressed in two ways: making all players easily invaded at all times and by introducing more alliances based on PvP combat.
The ease of invasion is both a blessing and a huge curse. Since anybody can be invaded at any time if you’re doing poorly at the game, using up your generous stock of revival items these invasions will hurt you to most. Instead of being able to take some solace in dying and being hollowed you’re forced to run the risk of being invaded at any time. So even if you’ve died a few times recently, your health is down to 60% of its maximum length and can just barely limp your way through a difficult level say hello to an invasion.
But on the flip side of that since the invasion potential is so high many people are going to whole game without a single invasion occurring. They’re just not in the right range at the right time to be invaded and thus lament missing out on it. Others get it happening constantly when trying to pass through some areas. The only way to dull this pain is by burning one of the Human Effigies at a bonfire but this also cuts you out of co-op. Oh and those much vaunted blue alliance guys who are supposed to help people who don’t want to be invaded? Don’t count on it. I’ve never once seen a successful counter invasion when I was a member of the protectors or the protectees.
The PvP alliances on the other hand work incredibly well. One is a generic invader alliance, one has you counter invading the invaders, one offer duels to fellow players and two are dedicated to keeping people out of specific areas in the game world. The aforementioned guardian PvP alliances are, in my opinion, one of the bigger highlights of the game. There is something highly entertaining about acting as guardian for a bell tower and working with fellow guardians to gang up on “invading” players. It’s even more entertaining when you lose a three on one fight. Perhaps my favorite though is the Rat King Covenant. Here you don’t just fight other players alongside your covenant and the otherwise enemy occupants of the tower. No, in these areas you fight alongside the enemies sure, but otherwise you can set traps or modify the level itself. Retract some bridges, extend others, open doors to allow monsters out or even just inconveniencing your opponents. It’s mischievous and fun.
So sure, the graphics may have been downgraded noticeably from what we saw in the beta. Perhaps it doesn’t look as good as it could, looking worse than the original in some spots. That doesn’t impact the gameplay or the experience itself and the experience itself is a solid one. Perhaps the only loss from the previous games is the music which instead of giving action packed tunes for each boss fight often tends to feel like its recycling previous ones. I don’t believe this si the case but it lends itself to a repetitious feeling to the music which led to me turning off the music entirely and supplying my own soundtrack. The Demon’s Souls one. Irony that.
Dark Souls II made some rather terrible design decisions on its way to production and while I felt that those decisions would ruin the game, they actually don’t. Unfortunately a bigger issue is that they do nothing to actually make the experience any more enjoyable, leaving it as a zero sum gain by and large. Unfortunately for anyone actually affected by these changes the whole thing falls apart quickly, leading to a whole bunch of aggravation. To me that speaks of a change that wasn’t worth it. But none of that impacts the fact that this is still the Dark Souls series we've come to love so the changes, by and large, shouldn't affect whether this is a purchase or not.