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Dark Souls 2 Review: The Bonfires are Burning Bright
If you loved Dark Souls, chances are you’ll love From Software’s Dark Souls 2 as well, and if you are new to the series you will find the game to be a bit more accessible than its predecessors. The newest entry in the Souls series remains relatively unchanged, similar to how the original Dark Souls was with Demon’s Souls. Why fix what isn’t broken, right? Thankfully though, From has found a balance and made enough small changes to give us some variation while still retaining what we love about the game. As with the previous games, the harsh difficulty serves as both a major selling point and barrier to many, as it refuses to hold your hand in any way whatsoever. And we wouldn’t have it any other way, because those who manage to break through are in for another excellent experience that few games nowadays try to capture, let alone succeed.
Once again we play as a cursed undead doomed to eventually hollow as their memories fade, and they are left as little more than a monster hungering for souls. The player travels through the kingdom of Drangleic searching for answers and perhaps a way to halt the curse’s effect upon themselves. The players are left to fill in the gaps of the story themselves with the small amounts of answers you can glean from the characters within the world, as well as reading the descriptions found on items which help to paint a picture of the world and just how Drangleic came to be in the state that it is. Sounds similar to the last game right? It is. So what’s different about Dark Souls 2 then that sets it apart?
Combat has had some minor changes made to it that allow more options. While combat still maintains the same harsh but fair stance that rewards patience, now there is some variety to how we can go about our encounters. Besides shield and sword, big weapon, projectiles, and magic (which were the main staples of the first two games), dual wielding is now much more functional than in prior games (plus the handy power stance for people dual wielding two weapons of the same type). A lot of people will be glad to hear about this option, since it opens up a lot more variations in builds and characters. Magic as well has been changed, and now consumes stamina so mages and casters now have to find a balance between dumping levels into caster stats and physical stats. Players must be cautious when taking a sip now from their trusty Estus Flasks, as monsters become more aggressive and go for the player’s throat while trying to stop them from healing.
Rolls, a dodge mechanic, have also had some invincibility frames removed and are not as effective in Dark Souls 2 as they were in previous games. Worry not; rolls are still usable, but the timing has become more strict. In addition to rolls being nerfed, death itself carries more penalty than before. When they die, players will notice that their maximum health will be reduced by 5% (this caps at 50% of your maximum health) in addition to the normal effects of hollowing, where you lose your human form. This offers certain bonuses and losing all souls which your character was carrying. With rolls being more exact and requiring better timing than in previous installments, as well as fewer enemies with better AI and shields that block 100% of damage and rather high stat requirements for a starting player, you get combat that is more dangerous than before as it encourages the more thoughtful and patient approach fans have grown accustomed to.
This is a good thing. When a player died in Dark Souls they lost their souls, but that was it. Frustrating to be sure, but not that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things. You could always get more souls. The souls can be picked up by touching your corpse-equivalent bloodstain like before, but to regain that health and human form you lost, you must consume human effigies which remove the HP penalty in addition to restoring your humanity. Be warned though, as these items which restore your health and humanity are finite and needed for other things as well. While death is something we’re accustomed to in this series, this looming penalization of death adds more tension in a good way, as your health’s rapidly decreasing size is an excellent way to deter players from going deep into that horde of great sword-wielding undead guarding the corridor to a boss fight.
Covenants (in game factions the player can join) return once again and remain mostly unchanged, albeit with new names and a few new methods of interaction. Players can choose from nine covenants that offer variations on the gameplay and co-op interaction with other players. Several of the covenants include the Dragon Remnants who duel other players for specific items, the Way of Blue who summon other players to aid them when they are invaded by hostile players, and the Rat King Covenant which pulls players from their world into your own and forces them to try and kill you for a reward. Most of the covenants have an emphasis on PvP or co-op and offer incentives that allow players to raise their covenant rank by performing certain acts like aiding other players in boss fights, or successfully invading games. Online connection issues never seemed to come up, and things were relatively smooth when I engaged in jolly cooperation, although if you choose to enable the ability to play with anyone across the world in the options menu, you are risking your chance of lag.
Dark Souls 2 isn’t all good, though. Changes to the Poise stat do not seem very intuitive compared to some other changes. For those who are unaware, Poise in these games measures your ability to take a hit and not suffer hit stun (think super armor in fighting games). In Dark Souls, your poise was tied to your armor, but now you need to invest levels into a stat to raise it. This makes battles take longer, since you will be investing less into your damage, stamina, and health. While playing the game this is not a huge issue, but the proble is most evident when players are invaded by NPC phantoms and other players. Personal experience has shown me that in these circumstances, the fights quickly boil down to who can stunlock the other player first. It’s not bad per se, as it encourages caution, but being taken from full to dead by one string of attacks from an enemy player is certainly disheartening.
During my playtime through the game I actually experienced delay with menus as they seemed to take their time pop up at times. This was especially evident with certain NPCs such as the Emerald Herald, and in a couple of areas as well. While this is not necessarily a big deal in some situations, it can mean life or death in others. Thankfully though, the lag is restricted to the menus, and never plagues combat outside of when connecting to other players around the world.
The game also lacks any linearity in the early parts of the game. Players are free to explore the world and experience and fight bosses in whatever order they see fit. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, a little direction wouldn’t have been bad before we are turned loose in Drangleic, similar to how Dark Souls became less linear as the game progressed until the very end. Too much freedom ended up getting me lost on where to go. At points, I had beaten all the bosses in zones I had been to, but had no idea of where to go and had to resort to talking to every single NPC in hopes of finding some way of fixing the problem.
Dark Souls 2 is what sequels should be. It tweaks some things, but doesn’t drastically change the formula we loved while still feeling like this is just the natural progression that the game was always going to take. Is it perfect? No. The menus lagging at points can be hazardous to your health, and the lack of any sort of direction causing players to get lost rather easily can quickly frustrate the less patient, but these issues are few and far between compared to what the game does right. If you want a challenging game with smooth tactical combat and some fun boss fights then you can certainly do worse than Dark Souls 2.