Dark Souls 2 is the latest addition to the cult hit Souls series, a series that only two years ago was barely recognised in the majority of gaming circles. The players that dove in hard were rewarded with one of the most fulfilling games they’d ever played, but those that only scratched the surface feared the ‘difficulty’ of these games and steered acutely away from further interaction. But with the PC release of Dark Souls in 2012, that player-base increased significantly. We live in a world now in which Dark Souls is a name that everyone recognises, and that’s amazing, if very weird.
• Developer: From Software
• Publisher: Bandai Namco
• Reviewed on: PS3, PC
• Also Available On: Xbox 360
• Release Date: Available Now
During an interview last year, one the game’s producers was quoted as saying that Dark Souls 2 would be more accessible for new players. This caused a great deal of discussion across gaming forums worldwide. Are they making the game easier? Are they going to hand-hold us through learning the mechanics? Are they going to tell the story in the same way that every other game tells a story, i.e. Like a movie? These questions surrounded the game for some time, and the network test late last year did very little to answer them.
At this point I like to think I know my way around a Souls game. Am I among the best players in the world? Absolutely not. But I have put over 300 hours into Dark Souls and at one point was able to speedrun it at a personal best of 1 hour and 38 minutes. I’m not informing you of these stats to brag, but I feel like they provide necessary context for the following information.
Dark Souls 2 took me about 50 hours to complete. This excludes some approximate idle time, and by ‘complete’ I mean the story and the vast majority of the optional bosses and areas. I died over 400 times during that playthrough, and I’m here to tell you right now that — in my opinion — Dark Souls 2 is a harder game than both of its predecessors. Some will agree with that assessment, others may not, and quite frankly my experience could be getting swayed by my stat allocation choices. This brings me to the biggest sticking point and the best argument to steer away for a while if you’re new: The Stat Mystery.
Dark Souls 2 has made great improvements to the traditionally poor UI and menu design of the series thus far, and some commendation is absolutely deserved in this regard, but the underlying mechanics and behind-the-scenes numbers being crunched in these games are still hidden away in FromSoft’s impenetrable vault of secrets. For example, there’s a new stat called Adaptability, and it is described in the menu as being primarily responsible for adjusting your character’s Agility. Well, it quite clearly does that, but at no point does the game quantify what that means. It certainly doesn’t make you faster, that’s for sure. Even now, over a week after release, the die-hard community are running frame-by-frame experiments on different animations and effects to nail down exactly what Adaptability and by extension, Agility are doing. Current theory is that it expedites item consumption animations and increases the number of invulnerability frames granted during a dodge roll, specifically countering the negative effects on that number at differing levels of encumbrance, and if you didn’t understand a word of what I just said then that just goes to prove how absolutely impenetrable this series is, and how Dark Souls 2 falls mostly in line, and how hardcore fans of this series are maniacs.
The good news is that you don’t necessarily need to know about those numbers, though. The game is absolutely competent at teaching you how to survive — via attrition, for the most-part — and giving you a lot of points to throw wherever, and a lot of gear to equip however you like. And you could probably tank your way through the game like that. It’d certainly be more of a challenge, but given the reduced effort required when not including build plans and optimised equipment modification, I’d almost argue that a slightly harder run is preferable at this point. You’ll get the most out of Dark Souls 2 if you dive into the bottomless chasm of its background maths and ridiculous idiosyncrasies, but you know what? It’s still a completely rewarding experience if you just play it like a god damn video game.
Let’s get away from the crazy stuff and talk design for a bit.
The Souls series can be criticised for a lot of things, but that list has never included level, artistic or combat design. The level design in Dark Souls 2 is not as eloquent as it was in Dark Souls, in which every area kind of integrated into two others and then eventually wrapped around on themselves. It gave the player a true sense of place, the realisation that this land could actually exist, minus the dark fantasy setting. Dark Souls 2 is instead more akin to Demon’s Souls, in which you begin at a central hub, and can choose a path to progress down, one zone at a time. It’s the kind of simplistic design that should be applauded, and more-so because each zone is designed intricately, with various shortcuts and hidden areas to open and explore — or to completely miss if not paying enough attention. This — as a side note — is something I’ve always admired about these games. The developers go to a lot of trouble to design some of these areas, characters and dialogue opportunities, even boss fights, but they don’t force everything down the player’s throat and insisting that you see everything they put effort into. Instead, they give you complete agency. Don’t like the most useful NPC in the game? That’s cool, you can straight-up murder him/her at any time, and that decision may lock out incredible content, but at least it’s up to the player.
In terms of sound and visuals, well, the soundtrack and audio effects are just as spectacular and engaging as they have been previously, but visuals have taken a step up even further. Now, when I say ‘visuals’ I don’t necessarily refer to raw graphical power, like hi-res textures. In this case I mean the incredible things they’ve done with lighting (especially when using the torch), as well as the architectural and character designs. Some of the boss monsters look utterly vile in the absolute best way, to the point of making me wince every time they’d move in a certain way, but at the same time I fully appreciated how difficult it is to provoke that in a person playing a video game in this day and age. And as for the architecture? There’s no better artists working in the industry today. Parts of this game are as stunning as I’ve ever seen from a sheer artistic standpoint, and I can’t wait to see how they will look in the PC version in 1080p.
This brings me on to my favourite subject if my podcast appearances are to be believed: the frame-rate. As I understand it, the Xbox 360 version runs at a pretty steady 30 frames per second throughout, albeit with some screen tearing in certain areas. Unfortunately, the PS3’s split memory architecture has reared its ugly head again, and while there is never any noticeable tearing, the frame-rate is all over the place, sometimes dropping down into the teens and launching upwards of 60fps in less intensive areas. It’s not overly jarring, but in a game that often requires reaction times measured in frames and milliseconds, that unlocked frame-rate can be harmful. And if the frame-rate on PS3 wasn’t bad enough, the loading times are titanic. This is alleviated in the digital version, however, since the infamous bad disc-read speed on the blu-ray drive is the culprit.
Dark Souls 2 is ultimately the game it needed to be. It pays homage to its core audience and simultaneously allows new players a less intimidating introduction — on the surface, at least. Level progression is far more obvious this time, but it firmly holds to its roots in as much as the player must exhaust all dialogue with NPCs, and read all key item descriptions in order to navigate the latter third of the game first time out. The developers have honed each of the 34(!) boss fights into finely crafted encounters, with none of them dealing in the chicanery of the notorious Dragon God, or Bed Of Chaos. And the online components are more meaningful now, with PvP invasions becoming unpreventable and each of the nine joinable covenants revolving flawlessly around that, perfectly balancing the whole affair. This really is the complete package, and by that I mean as complete as any Souls game could possibly be without sacrificing what makes it unique and beloved. It’s a game that — if given the opportunity — people will fall in love with, and its depth will potentially keep them coming back for playthrough after playthrough.
Dark Souls 2 is so good that I’ve barely even touched Titanfall… I probably could have just written that line at the start and saved a lot of time.
UPDATE: Today sees the release of the PC version, and having been playing it for a week I can confirm that it does indeed look and run better than its console counterparts, as predicted by everyone ever.
The resolution change to an optional 1080p makes a noticable difference on its own, but there are other standard video settings that advance the look further. Even at 1080p, with all settings notched up to High, the game runs at a smooth 60fps throughout on a modest machine (gone are the days of the infamous Blighttown and Ceaseless frame dumps!).
The Windows 360 wired controller works out of the box, as expected, and you can even play with mouse and keyboard if you so choose (this is a much more viable option than last time around).
This is definitely the quality port that From Software had promised, thus making that month-long wait absolutely worthwhile for those that partook. My only issue, small as it is, is that the mouse cursor will always draw centre-screen whenever a menu is brought up, but this is easy to overlook given the quality of the rest of the product.