Everyone remembers their first time. For this reviewer it was a moment born of optimism and stupidity. Sneaking up upon a huge blue monster that was minding its own business, a quick sword slash was countered by being grabbed and quite literally consumed, followed by the soon to be familiar message ‘You Died’.
For just like both Demon’s and Dark Souls, you will die. A lot. Oddly though, the game is initially a lot more forgiving than its predecessors and if you can resist the urge to tackle the more challenging opponents straight away it might be some time before you see that nevertheless inevitable message for the first time.
Yet Dark Souls II remains very much a sequel to Dark Souls, coming across initially like a lot more of the same. All too soon though, some subtle changes begin to make themselves known and substantially change the way you play. Most notably, each death in a Hollow state removes a slice of your maximum health meaning that continual deaths will gradually erode your ability to stand up to enemies effectively. And since the Human Effigies required to restore your humanity are in much shorter supply than Dark Souls’ Humanity, a much more considered approach is required. An easily acquired ring negates this issue by limiting the drop in health but this then restricts the amount of other stat or ability boosting rings you can wear. As such constant reassessment of your equipment and abilities is required in order to counter new situations. Make no bones about it – sacrifices are going to be made.
Yet this is countered by the sheer volume of helpful items that are easily available from the start. Surprisingly powerful weapons and good armour builds can be found by those willing to explore whilst enemies initially drop the new Lifegems like sweets allowing for a decent stack of the recovery items to be built up early.
Bolstering Dark Souls II’s initially generous nature is the inclusion of an item that allows you to respec your character. A boon to anyone who’s spread their stats too evenly and tried to be a jack of all trades rather than mastering one, this ensures that players that have reached a plateau and are unable to take down the later enemies can at least try another approach rather than starting the game all over again.
Moreover, it even allows players to try a wholly new path should they for example find the new hex based builds more to their liking. Yet the items remain rare enough to prevent continual abuse through constantly changing your character to meet either a whim or the demands of a particular boss. You’re still going to have to specialise, it’s just a little more forgiving.
Furthermore, enemies no longer respawn endlessly each time that you visit a bonfire. Keep visiting the same area either to kill enemies for their souls or (more likely) because you keep dying and eventually they will start to disappear. It’s a curiously double edged sword however. For whilst it’s good that you don’t have to kill those same enemies time and time again and certainly speeds up the focus of the game since you can’t just endlessly farm areas for souls in order to level up (such as in Dark Souls’ forest), it can result in areas becoming utterly devoid of enemies making them feel – hollow.
Yet again, an easily obtained item can alleviate this by restoring the enemies but this also makes them permanently more powerful, cleverly adding yet more risk against potential reward whilst maintaining the feeling that everything the player does affects their world in a more meaningful way than almost any other title.
Of course, areas being devoid of enemies is less of an issue since players can now fast travel via bonfires right from the start which also removes the need for any backtracking or having to fight some of the low end enemies again and again. Whilst initially liberating, it does however mean that the game feels a lot more hub based than its predecessor. Indeed, it’s annoying to have to return to Majula constantly in order to both level up and improve your equipment. It would have been much better being able to do this at any bonfire which would have enhanced the feeling of progression. This is also the case in the areas themselves where they frequently reach dead ends instead of opening out into another new area which can be particularly troubling when it’s not clear where to go next. Indeed, at times the game can be wilfully obtuse with much of the lore, covenants and even the plot continually occluded. Items are easy to miss and experimentation and practice are the only way to get the most out of your weapons, spells and equipment.
This isn’t going to appeal to everyone and when combined with the unrelenting yet never unfair difficulty level, it’s going to be an absolute deal breaker to some. For those who are sick of seeing gameplay prompts and incessant handholding however, it’s absolute bliss. After being told exactly what to do in almost every section of the otherwise brilliant Assassin’s Creed IV, it feels like a breath of fresh air to be left to your own devices. Even the training section at the beginning is entirely optional since you can walk right past it.
And when genuinely stuck, the now iconic online element really shines. Other players are keen to leave messages highlighting hidden treasure, secret passages and even combat tactics whilst the new covenants make it easier than ever before for players to help each other out against bosses. Meanwhile, the PvP has really been tightened up with invasions all the more likely since this can happen even whilst Hollow and far more enjoyable since the glitches which would see an enemy suddenly disappearing only to appear behind you for a fatal blow now seem to be a thing of the past. The absolute genius of the Bell Keeper covenant that sees other players effectively serving as the area’s enemies is only really scratching the surface. Suffice to say that there are some real surprises and rewards awaiting the player.
Combat itself remains as brutally uncompromising as ever. Failing to guard or risking that one extra hit against a stubborn boss can leave you open to a lethal counterattack meaning that the game remains one of the most tense experiences outside of an actual survival horror title. Keeping your shield up whilst nervously exploring a new area is however always set against the satisfaction of discoveries be they new areas, secret weapons or even a new covenant.
On the subject of bosses though, it’s sad to say that they seem a little less imaginative than before. There’s more of them but this seems to have diluted their impact a little and whilst remaining tough opponents which require a lot of tactical thought, they just aren’t as jaw dropping as those seen in the previous games.
Then there’s the repetition. Some of the characters such as Pate, we’ve seen before under a different name whilst other parts are blatantly recycled from Demon’s and Dark Souls. Really? Another multiple gargoyle fight on the roof? Thankfully, such moments are in the minority but they do leach a little enjoyment from what is otherwise a near perfect title.
Yet nothing can detract from the unparalleled joy in finally felling that boss who’s killed you more times than you like to admit and aside from its predecessors, it remains an experience like no other. Horribly addictive and life consuming, through its streamlining and refinements it just manages to edge ahead of Demon’s and Dark Souls in terms of quality making for an exhaustive yet rewarding experience. So what are you waiting for? Get in there and start getting killed.