Dark Souls II Review

Posted: March 16, 2014 by ryanlecocq in Reviews

dark-souls-2-02122014-23This man is masterfully employing the “Teddy Roosevelt” offense.


You should see the dark circles under my eyes right now.  I look like I’ve gone hollow myself.  After finishing my download at 2:20am on Tuesday, I spent the better part of the last 5 days playing instead of sleeping.  I went to work, came home, played Dark Souls 2.  I was determined to get my review up in a timely manner, since I think mainstream reviews often don’t really hit on the right points for the cult following.  I kind of specialize in games like the Souls series and have been playing From Software games since long before Demon’s Souls even gained it’s notoriety.  So I didn’t spend my forty-some hours with the game doing stupid shit like not talking to NPCs until they ran out of dialogue or trying to do things bluntly that obviously require another game mechanic to solve.  I also played online the entire time, which I believe is half the experience and required for a review.  In short this in not a newb review.  I sat here in steel-nerved discipline, defeating instead of rage-quitting to bring you a review that tells you what you want to know, while you may still be on the fence about buying it.


Is it Dark Souls?

I think that question isn’t actually the correct one and I have to explain why.  If Dark Souls was the first From Software game you had played, then no, to you this game will seem significantly different.  Most gameplay systems have been rebalanced, tweaked or completely retrofitted.  That’s pretty standard though for games by this development studio, regardless of the change in director.  Shadow Tower: Abyss is a huge overhaul from Shadow Tower and each King’s Field game often features entirely different style of world design (ie levels vs. open world).  So Dark Souls 2 changing the same mechanics is exactly what I would have expected and I was not surprised.  Like in all of the past games, some of the new elements immediately rang true for me, while others made me long for previous games.

Some examples of major changes:

The item for resurrection is now much rarer and should only be used for that purpose, so no more farming humanity for full-heals anytime.

You can respec (get refunded all of your levels) with a fairly rare item whenever you want.  This makes it easy to respec for the later bosses and then again when you start on NG+.

You can now teleport between bonfires from the start.

More specific stats, as in rolling ability and equipment load are now separate stats.

Rather than list all of the changes, I’ll assume you’ve already read up somewhat on the game, as most of it has been common knowledge for months.  The important differences are in how it feels and how challenging it is.  The gameplay design and how the game challenges you has changed very little.  Your primary adversaries are still negative status effects and hard-to-spot holes in the ground, not to mention all the mother-effing monsters.  The game has not been made easier in any simple terms.  I would have to say that it’s been made more forgiving though.  Things like having teleportation between bonfires from the start and being able to equip 4 rings make it easier to lose less souls, right from the start of the game, hands down.  On the other hand, in some ways the game is harder and meaner.  For example, like in Demon’s Souls your health now decreases a little each time you die and is only returned to full when you resurrect.

People can now invade you anytime, so going offline (not recommended at all) is the only way to cringe your way through the game.  I also found that I got my ass kicked a lot more often this time.  I believe that’s because the series is getting more popular and there are a lot more skilled veterans this time around.  I still claimed many a trophy, but I definitely got hosed with great shame on several occasions.  There are also many more covenants like Forest Protectors or The Princess Guard from DaS1, where they are summoned into your game to kill you under certain conditions.  Those conditions generally involve going through an area that is unavoidable or leads to an optional boss.  As the player connection process is also improved, this leads to you being attacked by several gray phantoms whenever you go to certain areas and usually black phantoms who know of the spot and want to hop into that final player slot and stab you as well.  Oh yeah and chests can now be trapped and are also destructible, so you can accidentally destroy the best items in the game.  So don’t let anyone tell you Dark Souls 2 is easy.


Does the framerate lick donkey balls?

Yes and no.  The game runs much more consistently at 30fps, but the drops are now much more crushing, as the new engine appears to render animations in-engine instead of as a separate process like in the past 2 games.  What that means in layman’s terms is that when the game chugs, it does not respond to your controller inputs during frames that it drops.  This is an age old scourge in video games that is most often solved by having physics and animation handled by a separate process that is just synced to the game’s framerate.  Many of you are probably used to compensating for the slowdowns in the original Dark Souls by slowing your own timing, that is only partially effective in Dark Souls 2.  Although it is rare that this harms you in gameplay as the game now rarely drops below normal framerates, it is still infuriating when death is not actually your fault.

While I’m on the topic of the new game engine, let’s talk about the graphics.  I’m really torn about the new rendering engine.  On the one hand it runs at an almost steady 30fps, with no areas like Blighttown that are just slow everywhere.  The momentary drops in framerate are a huge breath of fresh air after the first game where some areas where barely playable in addition to being difficult in general.  Dark Souls 2 can also render water that doesn’t look like a flat sheet of pixelated lava lamp.  On the other hand the shadow and texture resolution have both taken a fairly small, but very noticeable hit in detail.  The game’s color palette also seemed reduced, with less of the dark areas featuring the bold color relief we saw in areas like Darkroot Garden and New Londo Ruins.  There were many memorable locations though, including No Man’s Wharf (think Pirates of the Caribbean ride) or Harvest Valley with it’s evil windmills.  I often stopped to just gawk, as often as I have in the past 2 Souls games.  The art direction is still top notch, though I felt the enemies were a little weaker in their visual design.  In some parts I got the impression that the enemy design started with randomly picking two words and then adding evil.  That’s the only way you get things like hippo-cyclops monsters or guys with huge tumor bellies.


Online mode actually works?

In a word yes.  Besides when you touch a summon sign right after someone else already has, you get near 100% connection rates with a normal network configuration.  This is a blessing and a curse, believe it or not.  The good part is that it’s way easier to play with friends and strangers alike and you even get limited voice chat.  The bad news is that there are now dozens of situations in which people can invade you.  It is not uncommon to be facing two gray phantoms and one black, all by your lonesome.  I consider myself pretty decent at these games and I only survived one such situation and largely by luck.  Two of the phantoms spawned right between me and a large hole and the third I killed straight on.  Every other time this happened I got cut right down and then was immediately invaded again when I went back to the same area.  This generally only happens in short sections leading up to optional bosses, but it makes optional a far greater obstacle than in previous games.

There are also new mechanics like the Blue covenants that take the edge off invasion.  If you join the Blue Apostles, the Blue Protectors will be automatically summoned into your game when you are invaded.  Many players like myself join the protector covenant because we hate being invaded at the wrong time as much as you do and would love to help.  So I don’t want you to get the wrong idea that I spent most of my time being invaded every second and couldn’t make progress because of it.  It usually happens in specific areas that are designed to be obstacles, as much as any boss.  The normal random single invaders still happen at about the same rate, except they now happen even when you are dead (though less frequently).


dark-souls-ii-tgs-2Gimme that torch, scrub!


Bosses and loot.

Let me waste no time telling you what you want to know: there are more bosses, more items and more gear than in previous games.  By a large margin.  Not only are there armor and weapons for every taste and effect, but there are countless new usable items performing more functions than I could list.  Crafting items has been greatly simplified as there are now less different items needed to upgrade weapons and armor.  Even mechanics like trading with the crow(s) have been simplified, to make it easier to figure out without a wiki.  Invisible doors and a few other mechanics have been consolidated into a mechanic where you collect Pharros Lockstones to open secret paths to rare loot.  When you see one of the big stone faces, you pretty much know there’s a special chest nearby, rather than running around endlessly hitting walls.

Another different aspect of gear is that your equipment now has far less durability, but is repaired automatically at bonfires.   So now gear maintenance is more about pacing yourself between breaks, rather than remembering to repair every several hours of gameplay.  If an item runs out of durability and breaks though, you then have to spend souls to repair it as you did in Dark Souls.

The addition of 2 more ring slots is also complimented by the addition of many new rings.  The most notable being the ones for covenants that cause you to automatically be summoned to aid or kill other players.  Much like the Cat Covenant Ring in Dark Souls, except there are many more of them.  There is also an NPC in the hub town that lets you easily manage covenants, so it is possible to change covenants constantly so that you can invade for extra rewards in whatever area you are in.  Most of the popular rings also return, so you will be able to boost all of your stats and resist every type of damage, as well as increase your carry weight without wasting levels on it.  Having 4 ring slots also meant that I almost always had a spot that I could rotate in a new ring for every situation.  So I could generally just toss in fire or poison resistance without being torn over dropping equip weight or luck.

One addition I expected more from was torches.  Early coverage implied that torches would play a much larger role in gameplay and this was even supported in the network test version.  In the final game though, there are very few areas in which lighting the braziers is even useful and I found myself rarely giving up my shield arm for a little extra visibility.  Especially because torches attract most enemies (though they do repel a few others).


The best Souls yet?

I think once again that’s the wrong question.  Like every From game, there are changes to love and changes to be luke warm about.  Demon’s Souls came out at a time when it was a breath of fresh air to the adventure genre and Dark Souls added an even more finely tuned game engine on top of that.  Dark Souls 2 suffers from being the third child as well as having to take a few baby steps backwards because of starting with new technology.  It’s still a fantastic game, worthy of sitting beside its’ prequels, but I have to rate it slightly lower on overall impression.  Although it objectively does more than the past games, it lacks the fine tuning of the previous games.  There are just a few rough patches and areas in which the game under-delivers that make it just slightly less awesome in a series of nearly perfect games.



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