Aggedly you draw breath, as the final moans of the vanquished fade away along with their corpses. How many times have you trod these halls, these arteries of a forsaken monument to a past barely remembered? It doesn’t matter. Drangleic is a world of the present drowned by the memories of the forgotten, and no matter how many times you’ve succumbed to the claws and swords and snarls of those around you, things never seem to change. They say that death is a transition, a transformation of being. You’ve discovered otherwise. It’s a place of echoes and knowledge gained through a perilous price. Drangleic is a world filled with death, and there is so much more you still need to learn. Grimly you grip your sword with rotting hands, ready to march towards your next lesson.
When Dark Souls first launched in 2011 on the PS3 it took the gaming community by massive surprise. The spiritual successor to the moderately successful Demon Souls, From Software’s masterpiece seemed to be everything modern gaming was not, a brutal unapologetic throwback that never once held your hand through its countless hours of agonised joy. Not once were you ever spoon-fed, not once did it give you cheap thrills of victory. It was a game that rewarded perseverance through challenge, and because of this it achieved a cult status seldom seen in these times. It was for this reason though, as the release date for Dark Souls 2 drew closer and the whispers of capitulation grew louder, many began to fear that From Software would cave to the expectations of the industry, and the difficulty that had become the hallmark of the series would be lost in favour of accessibility. Rest assured, Dark Souls 2 is every inch a worthy successor.
Ostensibly set in the same world as its predecessor, Dark Souls 2 once again sees players take up the role of an undead desperately trying to cling to his sanity. Stumbling from a limbo world with the taunting cackles of three hags following you, gamers are once again thrown into a land filled with death and shattered hopes. The setting this time though is Drangleic, a decaying kingdom that at once feels both eerily familiar and wholly alien to the corroded realm of Lordran. It’s a feeling that extends throughout the entire game actually. Subtle but distinct changes abound in Dark Souls 2, and many of them are apparent in the setting alone. While the plot is revealed in the same manner, through pieced together conversations and carefully hidden landmarks, Drangleic is a kingdom in its final throes of death, where rot and
decline are juxtaposed against the glories of ages past. Marjula, the first town you find and the closest thing to home a walking corpse can have, is a clear example of this; a sun-bathed hamlet on the cliffs that nevertheless manages to feel haunted and abandoned. The varied and vast locations you visit after this will do nothing to shake this feeling off, and the dark mood that Dark Souls 2 sets is both rich and enrapturing.
There are core changes to the gameplay as well. Dark Souls 2 is far more open in the beginning stages than the original, a fact that can leave you near paralysed with uncertainty. Almost no direction is given as to what the correct path is, and as in almost everything about the game, trial-and-error will prove to be your greatest teacher. This indecision isn’t helped by the fact that players can travel between lit bonfires right from the start, meaning that almost every discovered area can be revisited at whim, and you will find yourself frequently travelling to Marjula and back, as this is the only location at which you can level up.
The meat of the game though will always lie in its combat, and it’s here that Dark Souls 2 sees next to no deviation from the format. Fans of the franchise are likely to de disappointed by the tutorial area, which truly aims to introduce the game to newcomers, with no gargantuan, horror-inducing demon in sight. This frail veneer of clemency is soon pitilessly ripped away however, and within the hour dying and respawning will become a bleakly familiar companion. Even basic enemies are a lethal threat, and before long the sight of an unlit bonfire will have you weeping with joy. This is a game that will punish you, over and over again, until you learn the nuances of every opponent, and in this trial by fire, expect to be burned more times than you can count. The highlights will always belong to the boss battles however, and in this Dark Souls 2 doesn’t disappoint. There are a huge number of them to be fought, and while a few tend towards the generic, these epic encounters will leave you yelling with exultation as you watch your foe finally fall to the ground. Make no mistake, you will die many, many times in the trying, but each death will leave you a little wiser to the battle than before, and the euphoria gained when victory is finally achieved is nearly incomprehensible.
While past players will be no stranger to this, From Software have seen fit to try your soul even further than before, most noticeably through the fact that every death will leave you with fewer total health points than before, until you return to human form through the use of a human effigy. To compound this, the game provides only one estus flask to begin with, though more may be acquired later, and enemies will stop respawning after you have killed them a certain number of times, meaning that dungeon runs become easier but soul farming is far more perilous.
Online interaction has also seen a change. Many of the basic mechanics are still present, with ghosts of other gamer’s playthroughs still flickering in and out of sight, providing both companionship and warning of imminent threat, and scrawled messages still litter the floors. Summoning has been altered however, and being hollow no longer provides protection against invasions from players. Likewise, you can only summon and be summoned for a limited amount of time now, which varies according to the material used to write your signature, and voice chat is now possible for the first time. Covenants still play a central role in PvP, and you will find the possibilities much expanded upon depending on which covenant you choose.
Dark Souls 2 is not a game for the weak-willed or easily angered. It’s an experience that few other games can provide, a relentless challenge that never once lets up. With its simple but superbly implemented controls and brilliant level design though, the level of difficulty is always based upon the skills you’ve accumulated and the knowledge you’ve paid for in blood, and never once should you feel that your death was cheaply gained. Persevere through the innumerable moments of suffering you will face, and the reward gained will be utterly unlike anything you’ve experienced before.
A brilliant addition to the franchise, Darks Souls 2 is everything fans should expect from the series
Developer: From Software
Publisher: Bandai Namco Games
Platforms: PC, XBox 360, PS3