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Review: Dark Souls 2 is torment perfected

By Matt Sakuraoka-Gilman on Tuesday 11th Mar 2014 at 8:30 AM UTC

Dark Souls 2 Review / Version tested: PS3 / Release date: March 11 (US), March 14 (UK), March 14 (Aus)

If Dark Souls taught us anything it was that it's not safe to go alone. When you review a game before release there are no guides to refer to, no wikis to point the way. And so our experience with Dark Souls 2 has been that of an explorer stepping forth into unknown dangers. We'll try not to spoil anything, but let us share what we've learned from a remarkable game that ends a generation on a high.

After all, Dark Souls 2 is a game that is all about sharing, just like its forebears, whether that's in immeasurable triumph or in sadistic misery.

Lordran is far behind. Now we're in Drangleic, a land said to hold the cure to your player character's undead curse. Upon arrival you're given, in typical Souls fashion, a barebones reason to go forth and explore. You're simply told to gather Great Souls and to find King Vendrick. But just like in the original, there are plenty of narrative discoveries awaiting those who delve deeply enough into the world and hunt for items around them. While FromSoft's take-it-or-leave-it storytelling tactics remain the same, there's plenty that has changed.

There is plenty to learn about Dark Souls' underpinning narrative for those who delve deeply enough into the world

The first thing you're likely to notice is that healing and Humanity work entirely differently. Estus Flasks return, though they now take an absolute age to glug down, leaving you exposed to attacks. A new healing item type, Life Gems, allows you to return to a fighting stance quickly, though will only refill your ailing health bar over time. These gems are also limited in number and won't recharge at bonfires. You'll need to measure up, often during edge-of-your-seat combat situations, whether or not to use one.

Meeting your maker is still a major theme. Each time you die here though your maximum health shrinks, potentially down to a half. To regain human form and rejuvenate, you have to use a Human Effigy (in place of the previous game's Humanity).

"Maximum health shrinks each time you die, potentially down to half of a full bar"

This essentially corrects a design flaw in the original Dark Souls; Where once you would happily wander around the world of Lordran rotting away in undead form, now you're rewarded more readily for staying in the land of the living. Online features have also been moulded to strengthen your desire to retain fleshy outer layers.

You can now be invaded by other players online regardless of whether you're in human or hollow. But don't panic just yet: if you just want to play through the game by yourself, with no help or hindrance from others, you can choose to stick to offline mode (we played through much of the game like this as servers didn't turn on until just before we published this review). It's totally possible, though still maddeningly difficult, to play through the game solo.

Covenants, Dark Souls' online community groups, have been reworked to allow for more roleplay-friendly situations. If you join the Way Of Blue Covenant, for example, it's possible to summon friendly players to come and help whenever you're invaded by online PvPers. For every moment of progression-halting frustration then, there's a story to tell of how you were saved at the last second by some kindred spirit. Or, perhaps, a story of how you played the savoir.

Combat, meanwhile, has been tweaked as opposed to changed. Parrying is much harder to pull off, requiring mastery of weapon or shield and a quicker eye for predicting your enemy's movements and attacks.

It's easy to see why this aspect has been made harder. Dark Souls veterans would have approached this sequel with their parry times already perfected. With these tweaks, even the most hardened of experts will find themselves approaching every new corner with shield raised and a familiar, welcome sense of exhilaration and dread. Throw in a load of new combat animations, including a satisfying array of possible backstabs, and you've got the same weighty combat, only enhanced.

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When building your character there are plenty of new game-changing elements to consider. First off, Poise, which governs your ability to withstand attacks without staggering, is now attached to Adaptability, a specific levelling stat, instead of an armour bonus. Not only that, all of your elemental resistances are bundled in to this one category to boot. So while armour is still important, especially considering some of the hazardous environments you're expected to deal with, the introduction of this new option loads every levelling choice with more consequential heft.

Return to the hub bonfire in Majula to level up and you'll find yourself looking at every possible stat permutation with eager eyes. They're all worth investing in, though in one playthrough alone you won't manage to sink collected souls into each possible direction. One of the most momentous changes, and one of our favourites, ensures this really is the case.

Estus Flasks return, though they now take an absolute age to finish drinking, leaving players open to attack

Everything in Dark Souls 2 is finite. In the original game, if you found yourself in need of a few souls or Titanite Chunks to level up your gear, you could always escape into one of the farming areas to grind away at respawning enemies and gather the necessary goods. This time, however, the game can sense when you're farming.

There's an evil omniscience behind Drangleic watching your every move, or so it feels, and once you've killed the same enemy a few times in a row, that foe will simply disappear. It's possible to use an item to reset enemy spawns and thus enable soul gathering, but even these are in short supply. Also, when you do use them the freshly repawned foes that appear do so packing numbing NG+ levels of difficulty.

"This time, the game can sense when you're grinding through easier respawning enemies to pick up health and items. These foes will simply disappear after a few kills"

The knock-on effect is two-fold. First off, this leads to owning fewer of everything. There are only so many souls you can gather freely, only so many materials you can farm without recompense. But it also means that, on your twentieth time running towards an area boss, you'll have free reign of the level. FromSoft gives with one hand and takes with the other.

The constant pressure of limitation, with the anxiety knowing provisions will be exhausted, sits almost perfectly with the Dark Souls formula. However, the effect won't be the same for those who refuse to explore the game, as it is possible to lazily suicide-run through entire areas.

At one point we found ourselves facing off against a particularly tough boss, a snake-tailed headless lady with magic lasers and endless stamina situated in the middle of a poison lake. In the run up to her misty door lied some fire-balling witches, and in our haste we found that we could run in and activate one of these witches' magical attacks then use it to wipe out all three enemies at once, as well as ourselves.

Sure, we died, but if we kept at it then the way would eventually be clear. It felt wrong, like we were cheating, but then the game allows for it. Perhaps this is intentional on FromSoft's part; a rare occasion when they allow you to make the game easier when you're up against it.

Both Demon's and Dark Souls had the occasional gimmick boss fight - fights where to win you'd have to perform a sequence of specific actions rather than engage in legitimate combat. In Dark Souls 2, these are particularly rare. All but one of the bosses we encountered in our trail to the finish involved fluid combat. There are more to slay this time, too, each one tantalisingly capable of dealing out death and that eventual, inimitable dose of post-win satisfaction. In true Dark Souls fashion, these bosses require deaths in order to best. You will die, there's even a grin-provoking achievement for your first time: "This is Dark Souls," the pinging notification reminds you.

Aside from the waves of satisfaction that come with beating these bosses, there's the world itself to drink in.

The way Drangleic is laid out had the potential to tarnish everything that was great about the interconnected weavery of Lordran. Before the fateful day when Dark Souls 2 arrived, we were chiefly concerned about one potentially deal-breaking new element: fast-travel. Lordran was so well put together, flowing seamlessly into a mental map which we could constantly refer to and connect with. The idea of breaking that up into chunks felt like a backwards step. Fast-travel in the first game was a reward bestowed only when you'd managed to push out into the corners of the map on your own.

Drangleic is staggeringly vast, consistently unfolding before you, and simply so immense that breaking it up with warping makes sense

While Dark Souls 2 does offer A-to-B bonfire warping from the start, it's by no means worse off for it. Drangleic is staggeringly vast, consistently unfolding before you, and simply so immense that breaking it up with warping makes sense.

There are several occasions when you reach a perceived impasse. You beat the final boss of an area, head back to the main hub of Majula and wonder: where to from here? The game's playing with you, as you'll inevitably discover multiple paths yet untrodden.

Each area you traverse is distinct and wholly enrapturing. Glance at the screen as another lost soul plays and you'll instantly know where they are, from the neon green poison clouds of Harvest Valley to the fiery metallurgy of Iron Keep. To go with their visual identities, many of these areas force you to play differently too.

The telling inclusion of a Soul Vessel, an item used to redo all of your stats, allows for some character building leeway as you come to terms with these new areas. We found ourselves returning to the starter hut and respec-ing into Adaptability in order to overcome that previously mentioned snake lady, for example. These respec-ing items are in severely limited supply, though, and thankfully don't threaten to break the necessity of careful decision making.

Early worries that the game would be easier prove unwarranted. It's not, by any stretch of the imagination, easy. We can see threads of the game being made more accessible through the passive leakage of necessary info or gear. Heading into the toxic towers of Earthen Peak, you'll find nearby spear-wielding foes drop armour useful for slowing down infection.

"Early worries that the game would be easier prove unwarranted. It's not, by any stretch of the imagination, easy"

One particularly nice touch was when we entered a room with a enormous painting of a woman in white. When we approach it, a murky cloud of Curse (not as harrowing an affliction as its Dark Souls progenitor) wraps around us. We dodge it and survive, but the knowledge is there: beware of lady with curse-flavoured powers.

Despite the incredible, fast-travel necessitating size, FromSoft has managed, through Metroidvania-style gating, to endow the world of Drangleic with that familiar sense of a realm desperate to be explored. There are hidden doors and pathways in abundance throughout every area. This culminates brilliantly at around the halfway point.

In place of the first game's warp reward at Anor Londo, you now find yourself gifted with puzzling greyed-out blocks on your existing fast-travel menu. These represent areas you've somehow not managed to discover. The number of them, considering you've 'defeated' many of the areas they're assigned to, is both dumbfounding in scale and exhilarating in promise. Unlike Dark Souls, the second half of which tailed off slightly, Dark Souls 2 just keeps getting better the further you fall into it.

It'll prove impossible for veterans of Demon's and Dark Souls to not debate which is the best of the three. In truth, this is the near perfect amalgamation of its predecessors. The central hub plain of Majula has more in common with Demon's' Nexus, while the rest of the world taps into Dark's connectedness.

It even plays on these mental links you're destined to make. Near the start of the game, for example, you'll come across a skeleton in a basement, and anyone who's played Dark Souls will know that discovering a skeleton near the start of the game means you should back away slowly. When we return to this area later on, what we find has us grinning. It's almost like FromSoft is there at your shoulder nudging and winking knowingly. We won't spoil it for you.

Whether or not you come to believe that this is better than its predecessor will likely depend on how blindly you accepted the former game's faults. Dark Souls 2 irons out those flaws, and its world expands in ways that fans won't expect, but will undoubtedly appreciate. Its layers of depth, and colossal scope for challenge, community and discovery, is a gaming event of such impact it'll be referred to time and time again for years to come.

The verdict

Dark Souls 2 is a landmark action RPG that is unforgettable for so many reasons, not least its immensely deep challenge framed within a sprawling, beautiful world.

  • Despite the despair there's a warm community experience
  • A fantastically designed, unforgettable world
  • Resolves design flaws of its predecessor
  • Combat is clear, fair and varied
  • Mercilessly difficult
PlayStation 3
From Software
Namco Bandai
Action, Adventure