[19 March 2014]
Dark Souls reputation certainly precedes it. In conversation, it well known as a game that is “punishing,” “hard,” or simply “impossible.” The Souls series (Demon Souls, Dark Souls, and Dark Souls II) series is known as the extreme opposite of casual gaming due to its difficult, yet rewarding experience. As past reviews have indicated, it is because of the difficult, challenging, and punishing nature of the game that its victories feel like real accomplishments.
This reputation is important for the Souls series, as it gives it an identity in a sea of Action-Adventure RPGs. Even From Software themselves poke fun at the reputation of their game. The PC version of Dark Souls had the subtitle “Prepare to Die,” and when one first dies in Dark Souls II, an achievement is unlocked called “Welcome to Dark Souls.” Yet this reputation, while setting the game apart from so many others, also overshadows the overall experience of the game. Discussions of Dark Souls II in early reviews has, as usual, revolved around its difficulty, or more playfully, its “sadism,” despite the fact that Dark Souls II is one of the most polished, complex, and expansive games to come out in years and marks an incredible step forward in the genre. Dark Souls II is an experience like no other.
Dark Souls II‘s combat system is mostly a carry over from Dark Souls, featuring only a few changes improving an already great system. Dark Souls II‘s combat stresses patience and an understanding of one’s enemy and is almost always fair. If you die, which you will, it is because you messed up. If I could create a pie chart of my approximately 200 deaths (of which the game keeps track of through a playful counter) probably 75% of those deaths were a result of being overzealous in attacking my enemies and extending myself too far. In Dark Souls II, a stamina bar is depleted as you perform actions and block or dodge attacks. If it runs out or you are hit when your stamina is low, you will become extremely vulnerable. As a result, stamina management is incredibly important to victory. This makes knowing your own moveset, as each weapon has different attacks and your opponent’s movesets incredibly important. You need to know what you can get away with and what you can’t. For instance in a boss fight later in the game, I realized that it was only during the boss’s most dangerous attack that I could get solid, unpunishable hits on him. After my half hour struggle, this realization made him fall like a fly, as long as I was patient with him.
In other action-adventure RPGs, difficulty is ramped up by giving enemies and bosses more hit points and making their attacks do more damage. This is a sort of shallow difficulty. While it certainly makes a game harder, it hardly makes the game more challenging and encourages the player to use cheap, yet reliable strategies. In Dark Souls II every enemy and especially every boss has a different moveset, reacts differently to your intrusion, and must be treated in a different way. No two enemies can be defeated in the same way, especially later in the game when the enemies start playing with your expectations. They will use delayed attacks to catch the player off guard or set the player up to think that they are vulnerable and then hit them with an unknown attack.
This creates a deep difficulty that forces the player to think on their feet and improvise against new enemies. Yet while the system is complex, it is rarely overwhelming, as nearly every weapon is viable against any given enemy and every enemy has weaknesses. This deeper combat system forces the player to learn while they are playing, teaches patience instead of bullheadedness, and focuses the player’s attention on the immense amount of detail within the game.
This attention to detail is worth focusing on and expands to other areas of the game. Dark Souls II has what initially seems like a sparse plot and narrative. The player is given little knowledge of their character and the world other than that they are “cursed” to become hollow or undead and are looking for a way to reverse the curse. Instead of making its story immediately clear to the player, Dark Souls II slowly opens up and allows the player to understand its plot through a more subtle narrative told through the game’s environments, which concerns the descent of man into greediness and a lust for power.
One of the most potent examples of this is the ironically titled area “Harvest Valley” a once fertile area filled with windmills and farmhands that has become flooded and ruined by a poisonous liquid. As the player explores the valley, they realize that it is the windmills themselves that are creating the poison, indicating that this once peaceful area was perhaps changed into an industrial zone to create the poison in a war against the giants, which plays a large role in the plot concerning Drangleic and its king. The player is always coming in after the fact, and every area in the game tells a story. However, it is up to the player to discover this story. By discovering rather than just watching, the narrative becomes much more potent. Just like its combat, Dark Souls II does not spoon feed the player its plot.
This attention to detail also extends to the multiplayer in Dark Souls II, which seamlessly melds the single player campaign with multiplayer elements. If the player is struggling with a boss, he can summon other players to fight alongside him. The cooperating players are rewarded with souls (in game experience and money). This is also a double edged sword, as the player can also be invaded by other players looking to kill them for their souls. The multiplayer allows the difficult game to become easier and also adds tension for even the most seasoned veteran of the Souls series.