Dark Souls II is the latest instalment of From Software’s digital torture chamber, published by Namco Bandai. As rich in complex story, adventure and exploration as it is in loneliness, depression and frustration. It forces you down two roads of thinking – should you just give up, or does happiness truly await?
Taking a step away from the world of the first Dark Souls, Dark Souls II takes the opportunity to deliver a fresh story entirely. Your hero – should you be confident enough to consider them that – has wandered far in search of a cure for his curse and in the moments you assume control, the general tone is one of despair and lost hope. Pressing on through the forest of Things Betwixt, you meet the three firekeepers who, as well as allowing you to create your character, will add to the foreboding sense of dismay and send you on your way through the optional training area before arriving in Majula, a small coastal town that serves as a central hub for your quest in the land of Drangleic for a cure. At this point, your journey stops being guided. Your path is not laid out for you and whatever happens is on you. Though little can help you aside from your own diligence, tips go a long way here. With that in mind, here’s your first: do not leave Majula until you have found an Estus Flask and an Estus Flask Shard.
A popular misconception when it comes to the Souls series is that it is unfair and intentionally designed to be as off-putting as possible. This is not the case, you’re always outright told what you did wrong to meet your maker. It would be closer to the truth to say that it is intentionally designed to make you earn your way to success and add weight to the little things we as gamers tend to take for granted. Be patient during combat, you are not Dante, you are not Kratos. You are the bearer of the curse. A simple human being. Be thorough, and I can’t stress that enough, you’re more likely to find that legendary weapon or chest piece in a hidden corner than you are to find it behind a dragon at the bottom of a mountainous pile of gold.
As far as story is concerned, Dark Souls II hits all the high notes that have come to be expected of any further successor to the series. It’s rich and plentiful, but buried amidst flavour text, short cryptic dialogue, varying covenants – and their motivations for existing – and environmental oddities, leaving the player to deduce what’s going on and why Drangleic fell so far from it’s hay-day. It carries the same dreary you-don’t-stand-a-chance tone, aided heavily by the soundtrack, while bringing a wide variety of new, and notably insane, characters, places and bosses to encounter. Gameplay is not wildly different from the last iteration, as there wasn’t anything specifically wrong with it before. Instead, From Software have simply fine-tuned what they already had and brought it much closer to the standard of perfection they (and I) want. Little things like simple button rebinding for less finicky jumping, more impressive backstab animations and a slightly wider hitbox for pulling them off, amongst many other minor but extremely welcome refinements making the experience no easier – as the experience is predominantly to feel small, weak and, most of all, human and go on to overcome that fact – but at least a little more comfortable.
A personal highlight is in the overall design. So many stunning locations, from crumbling, forgotten ruins, skyline breaking, citadel-like, marble walkways, sunken bastille’s and untended forests are here to be found in abundance and so much more. Armour sets and weapons carry not only stat advantages but the look of filthy, jagged, monolithic, mythical and razor sharpness that only serves to add more depth to this incredibly atmospheric title. And, saving the best for last, if you’re sick of seeing Hydras, Beholders and Dragons mark your “ultimate encounter” when playing a game, Dark Souls II ( as well as Dark Souls AND Demon Souls) are games you should be playing. Almost every boss is something you would least expect and this is no exception. Just putting it this way, the first boss I encountered was a giant tree man – not to be confused with an Ent – with a hole in his face that I could only assume was a result of centuries of decay and weaponry sticking out of various parts of his body… and he was not happy to see me.
If your kind of game is something that is incredibly deep and layered to the point where after 200 hours of gameplay you’re still discovering new stuff, then this is a game for you. It’s not going to hold your hand, it’s not going to pull any punches and it is going to be harsh. However, there is a community and they are helpful. The many (MANY!) blood stains you find will show you the spirit of a fellow Bearer’s death and as a result, you can learn what they did wrong and incorporate that into your strategy. The notes on the floor will give you advice, encourage you and even congratulate you when you reach a place that’s hard to get to… OK, sometimes they’ll troll you, but one of the most important things to keep in mind is that if it’s happened to you, it’s happened to a million others. While you may feel alone, you most definitely are not.