Ok, it’s not really summer, but it was Dark Souls time again. As all the addicts know, Dark Souls II launched this March. If Demon’s Souls was a bit of a platform-specific cult game, and Dark Souls was a sleeper hit whose audience grew slowly but consistently over time, the second Dark Souls came out of the box as a full-on AAA title with a large pre-existing audience. The question for the nerds then is: is the new game better, or did they dumb it down? As usual, I’m here to tell you the answer almost three months after the fact. I had to play the game to death to be sure, after all.
The Big Picture
Answer: Well, mostly.
Dark Souls II is the third game in the “Souls” series, which started out on the PS3 with Demon’s Souls and then moved to larger markets and more riches with Dark Souls on the PS3, Xbox 360 and PC. Dark Souls II launched on both consoles, and then later on the PC. As usual, console players got to play the game first, and with more friends, but PC players got to be smug about how much better the game looks on their special “rigs” when it’s not dumping core.
The Souls games are noted for a few points of style:
- Punishing difficulty and repetition.
- A fairly deep and interesting combat system.
- A narrative style that stays mostly in the background, and is almost optional, except when it’s not.
- Interesting world building and environmental moods.
- Lots of dark and creepy castles.
For the most part Dark Souls II delivers and expands on this style, although not always with 100% success. Overall I’d have to say that it is successful as a sequel and it mostly improves on the obvious weaknesses of the earlier games. But there are a few ways in which it has stepped backwards. Still, anyone who liked Dark Souls has to play this too. And if you were a bit on the fence, I’d say that you should try this one anyway because some of the improvements make it easier for you to get through the game (THEY DUMBED IT DOWN!!).
The rest of this review has a lot of gameplay and plot spoilers, so only read if you don’t care. In general you should not care, because the fun of Dark Souls is in its execution. Knowing what you need to do really doesn’t help you if you can’t do it.
You can warp everywhere from the start of the game. Woo. This has some other effects on the design of the game world that we’ll talk about later, but for the most part it’s a win.
Four ring slots is great. Three weapons slots per hand is also mostly better. Sometimes I just end up confusing myself and die while trying to switch to the item that I wanted.
There are a few interesting new twists in the combat engine. Duel wielding, the guard break stuff (sort of a parry-like “front stab” through a shield, I didn’t know it was there until people kept using it to beat the shit out of me in PVP), different animations for back-stabs and ripostes. These are all advanced techniques that I will never use because I’m too slow.
The online play is a lot better. There are still problems, but it’s a lot better. Recall that in Dark Souls if you were in “human” form you could summon other players into your game for co-op or PVP. You could also invade other players’ games to try and kill them because you are a dick. Dark Souls 2 has a similar mechanic, except that it works a lot better.
The major improvement is in the performance of the matchmaking engine. Here is what used to happen all the time in Dark Souls
- Oh look, a summon sign, I will use it…
- Summoning phantom….
- Hmmm, is anything happening? Let me step on it again.
- Hmmm, here is another one, I’ll try that one too.
- 5 minutes pass.
- Summoning failed.
In DS2, if the summon is going to fail you usually find out in five seconds. I think they have added state to the matchmaking servers to not even try to connect to the remote if there is reason to believe that the remote has already found a partner. You then wait another few seconds for all the signs to refresh and try again.
In DS2 you also get two items for offering your services as a co-op player. As before, there is the large white chalk. Here you are offering to jump into someone else’s game and help them kill the area boss. You only “succeed” if the area boss is dead at the end. Your reward for succeeding is souls, a token of appreciation, and you are restored to human form if you didn’t start out that way (this last bit is handy).
There is also the small white chalk. Here you jump into another game and only have to survive for a while and help the other player clear the zone. If you stay alive for a relatively short amount of time you are sent back to your world with souls and you are restored to human form (again, handy).
Because the game is still relatively new, there are online players everywhere. I have done a run through NG, NG+ and half of NG++. My character was level 211 or so and had collected probably 10M souls (the level matching system in the new game uses the number of souls you have ever collected as the “level”, rather than your character’s level, to do the matching) and I was still seeing co-op signs for every major boss, and most of the mini-bosses too. This, and the existence of a ring that keeps you human when you die and is repairable (spoiler: Ring of Life Protection), makes it pretty easy to stay in human form for an entire run through the game and co-op every boss. This is the main way in which the new game is more forgiving of your human foibles than the previous games in the series. You can buy things that save you time.
There is a way to re-spec your character as you play. This is a win. On the other hand, who doesn’t like a quick speed run through NG and NG+ to build a new PVP guy? Hmm? What? No?
The upgrade system for weapons is also better. There are fewer sorts of upgrade materials that require less farming to obtain. And the previous game’s system of 5 branching upgrade paths has been greatly simplified. On the other hand, FromSoft have balanced the availability of upgrade materials to make it harder to get a fully upgraded weapon before the later parts of the game. This will make SL1 and speed runs harder.
I’ve only dabbled in the PVP, but it seems mostly better, IMHO. The improved matchmaking makes it less frustrating to get into a match. There are matches all over the place and at all levels. You don’t get backstabbed every five seconds like you did in Dark Souls, and there are even items that prevent you from being backstabbed at all. The “stay human all the time” ring makes it much less costly to host invasions and therefore avoid gankers.
People will complain about a couple of areas (the Belfry and the two Rat caves) in the game where you are almost guaranteed to be invaded every time you run through. But these places do not bother me. They are optional. If you go there you know you are going to be fucked up. So just avoid it if you hate PVP. Of course, you’ll miss out on one of the more interesting fan-service optional bosses. But oh well.
The last thing that I can think of that is unquestionably better in DS2 are the boss soul items. These are items that you get by trading boss souls with the various merchants in the game. Against all odds, one of the shields and at least one of the weapons are among the best in the game, depending on your build. Many spells are also only available this way. In DS1 I can’t think of a single boss weapon that was actually worth building if you weren’t going to the trophy.
Of course, as with all second editions, not everything is sunshine and puppies. FromSoft has felt the need to tweak some things in the game that arguably did not need tweaking. On the other hand if they had not tweaked them we’d probably all be sitting here complaining that Dark Souls 2 was just another warmed over franchise sequel like Halo, bringing the same tired gameplay every new version and just changing up some maps and cut scenes.
Still, I have complaints. The combat feels slow and clunky, like you are stuck in a pool of water all the time. The adjustments to the roll mechanics never quite take off for me. You spend most of the first part of the game trying to roll dodge and instead rolling right into your enemy’s sword swings. As you level up you get larger dodge windows, which is sort of neat in theory but in practice just distracts. It’s just one more bucket into which you have to put limited stat points, so why not just have every character build out with 20s across the board?
Given that in the new system your character moves with all the grace and speed of Kendrick Perkins going up for a jump shot you really really really want to avoid fighting in two or three-on-one situations. Of course, one of the main ways Dark Souls 2 has upped the difficulty is to force you to fight in two or three or five-on-ones. This happens a lot and is infuriating early on. For about the first third or so of my first time through the game I was plotting the murder of the level design leads at FromSoft for doing this to me.
I feel like they’ve cut out some of the variety in the weapon move-sets and animations. This is probably my imagination, but the number of unique move-sets seems smaller, with most weapons falling instead into large generic buckets (halberd, axe, club, etc). One of the joys of Dark Souls was playing the whole game with the Zweihander, and then realizing later that you could do exactly the same thing with the Balder Side Sword, or the Black Knight Halberd or the Great Scythe, or the Reinforced Club and each time you’d get a totally satisfying but different experience. I haven’t had this experience in DS2.
In Dark Souls 2 I have only found three weapons that I really like, and they are all basically the Claymore in different forms. Even the weapon with the craziest move-set in the history of the series (Santier’s Spear, look it up) turns out to be mostly a gimmick for PVP and was not all that satisfying to use in practice. Maybe I just suck.
I’m not a fan of the new parry animations. They feel ponderous and plodding rather than sudden and deadly.
Something is wrong with how actions get queued when you “type ahead”… weapon and item switches used to queue up behind whatever you were doing at the time you hit the button. So you could, say, chug and estus and then remember that you wanted to switch weapons, and the weapon switch would queue behind the animation. This no longer works. And you’ll forget that it doesn’t work. And then you’ll try to cast a spell with your shield, or bash some large lizard-person with your magic staff, or swing your sword, only to punch empty air. Then you’ll be pissed.
Finally, my biggest complaint about the combat is what the game does with the ultra-great swords and the great hammers (Zweihander, Great Sword, Large Club, etc). In the past, these weapons would track your enemy so you could strafe around him and then when you took a swing the weapon would stay locked on. In Dark Souls 2 the weapon always hits in the direction that you are pushing the left stick when you swing it. This is terrible. You want to back off and then take a swing with your club? You have to remember to move forward first or you’ll swing at air. Same for left/right motion. It makes the large weapons almost unusable for me, which is a great shame because flattening people with a giant sword (or club) was one of the joys of Dark Souls.
OK. Nostaliga ranty mode off. I can always just go play the old game if I want to play with the old weapons.
What’s About the Same
Originally I was going to complain more about the navigation through the game world. The fact that they included insta-warp from the start of the game does mean that the early maps lose some of that connectedness that Dark Souls had. On the other hand, you don’t have to spend endless hours running through empty hallways. So maybe it’s a wash. I think the game lacks some of that feeling of closed-in isolation that you get in Demon’s or Dark Souls. But some of that is because the online play is so busy right now that you are never alone in your suffering.
The structure of the narrative is as opaque as ever. Some people have complained that “it makes no sense”, but Dark Souls kinda didn’t either, at least on the surface, so let’s get over that. As before the NPCs range from pretty interesting to quirky to just plain forgettable.
The bosses seem easier. But this is probably because you can still co-op all of them. But, the ones that I have soloed up until now still seem easier. Well, except for those two that almost made me throw the controller. OK, it’s probably a draw.
What I will say though is that there is no fight in this game as viscerally satisfying to win as either Artorias or Manus from the Dark Souls DLC. I also don’t think there is anything quite like the adrenaline-filled DPS race that was the Four Kings, but that’s probably the Stockholm talking.
The damage scaling for weapons is a bit wonky. There appears to have been an effort to make DEX weapons less powerful, since all of the truly overpowered weapons in Dark Souls scaled with DEX. In the new game DEX is nowhere near as effective. But I hear a buffed falchion still destroys lives.
There does seem to be some kind of strange hidden cap in the damage scaling. I don’t know how else to explain how a giant ultra-great sword ends up not doing that much more damage per swing than a Claymore.
I like some of the adjustments they’ve made to how the various stats contribute to damage. On the other hand, Magic and Pyro are not nearly as fun as before. On the other other hand, Miracles and Hexes easily take their place. I’m waiting for the Hexes to get nerfed , since they seem stupidly powerful right now. Great Resonant Soul with the right casting item hits harder than all five orbs of Dark Bead to the face did in the first game, and it can do so from range. To bosses (and lo, patch 1.06 just dropped and Great Resonant Soul is nerfed).
I already mentioned this, but being able to reallocate your stat points is great. Still, I was also a bit sad that on only my second try I hit on basically the optimal character build (for me, STR for melee, FAI and INT for hexes. This just destroys everything).
Overall, the major thing that is the same is that it still feels like a Dark Souls game. Not everything is perfect, and they took away some of my toys, but it still has the same basic mix of combat, narrative and sometimes enraging difficulty that keeps the addicts coming back.
Bottom line: the game was good enough for a few playthroughs, including getting the Platinum trophy on the PS3. I can’t complain. Too much.
One important note: The new gestures all suck. They took away shrug!! How could they do that?! There is also no well, what is it? equivalent.
One post-posting note: I went back and ran to Queelag with an old Dark Souls character. I was probably too hard on the new control system, as the old one now feels a bit jittery. So the first thing I did was run right off a bridge. I still miss fast rolls though. And one of the slower weapons in the first game, the Black Knight Halberd, still feels faster than anything similar in the new game.