Dark Souls 2 Review: A Death Before Dying
Dark Souls has made quite a name for itself as being a brutally hard, unforgiving game. Death surrounds the title, both in gameplay and in the storyline and just like in real-life, there is no escaping it.
Anyone can develop a game that’s difficult, but creating a game that both pulls players in, and simultaneously punishes them while playing it, is something that only a handful of games in the past have ever accomplished. With the popularity of the franchise growing, a decision had to be made about the difficulty. Should it remain just as challenging and staying aloft from a wider dynamic? Or should the game be customizable, and broaden the base that will enjoy it?
There isn’t really a right answer to this problem, but there is one that will make more money, and that’s the choice that won. It turned the sequel into something, less unique, than the original but still terrifically fun to conquer. I absolutely would suggest jumping into “Darks Souls” before taking on the sequel, but that’s more for continuity and background with the characters and settings, rather than a comparison of the two.
As a cursed and undead-slave to your fate, the beginning of the game isn’t anything brightly creative from the original installment, but it stands as the initial plot-device to get things moving. To offer a deeper contrast later on, you are first met with traditional beauty and the sprawling landscapes of Majula. There is plenty of backstory to be learned from the town’s lowly poor, which offer personal insights to the world you are now living in, and acts as a recap of the story that came before Dark Souls 2.
Much of the gameplay requires a vast-amount of exploration, and to this end the game paints wonderful set-pieces, both harrowing and delightful, all while you nervously explore caves, castles and cursed locations. This time around there are more contrasting moments of stoic beauty and ravaging despair, which helps break-up and enhance the darker moments of the game. You aren’t just moving from dark to darker and back again.
Not too much has changed in the gameplay from the original, players harvest souls with brutal melee-attacks interrupted with quick dodges, blocks and counter-swings. The checkpoint system is still in place, a one-time use bonfire acts as your respawner, and you are revived back at the last one that had you visited prior to your death; only to start the fury all over again.
The game is a fast-tracked sequel, and by that I mean people liked the original title, so not too much had to be changed in order to offer an updated adventure. It’s really how much you didn’t want things want things to change, that I fell will be the only issue fans will encounter. Almost everything positive has been updated; graphics, sweeping background music, bigger set-pieces and a larger game, but it’s the subtle difference I imagine some people will get hung up on.
There is a new “quick travel” system, making it easier and more convenient to move about the map, and ‘easier’ I think is the root problem. I think some fans might harp-on about anything that is easier for this particular game, even if it makes sense, because the game itself grew to popularity by not being ‘easy’.
When you introduce fast-travel, the open-world concept of a game looses its finesse, you now are just jumping from place to place, and the exploration and dangers of crawling back and forth to locations is cutout for convenience. Hate it, or love it because you don’t have thirty-minutes to walk back to where you need to be, it will be up to you if you find fault with this choice in the design.
Coming from Dark Souls there were exact moments when I felt the game was being ‘too lenient’ with a few of the system mechanics. There were times that I found a bonfire only to wonder why it was there. Did I miss some path that lead to a giant fight? Is a hoard of enemies just down the road waiting for me? The presence of bonfires were a rarity before, and now it seemed like they were peppered-in for no reason at times.
Losing the souls that you collected is still a large portion of the game, but just like everything with a sequel, it’s not as hard to manage the second time around. I did love that the free-roaming, unrestricted destruction that you have over your fate and the fate of the others had returned. There is still that moment when you wonder “I can kill this NPC for annoying me, but will I need him later?”. As you travel you will still constantly find hidden moments and dark paths that lead to tremendous creatures, offering you a quick death as the price for your curiosity.
That’s why I love Dark Souls 2, and I find this one instance is the game’s most redeeming quality. The game feeds of curiosity, it forces the sensation upon you, then punishes you for acting on it. Almost every out-of-place object, path or treasure, taunts you. You know that the game doesn’t just “reward you” for finding things, you have to earn them. When you spot something out of the ordinary, you constantly have to ask yourself if its worth it. You have to move forward, you want to explore, and the game wants to kill you.
As gameplay is relatively stable throughout the single-player campaign, there is a difference when you decide to go online. The game just isn’t as smooth, but still impressive. The mechanics brought in for the online portion are mostly clues or messages left behind from the players that died before you, it would never stand as a standalone portion, but it was meant to be ‘an enhanced’ version for players that would enjoy the interaction.
Online is like having a strange ability to touch something and see the actions that happen just before it came in contact with you (for a nice sense of it watch Jeff Goldblum in Vibes, look it up if you’re too young).
You can find a message left behind to warn you of upcoming tragedy, or watch a player get mauled by peering into the bloodstained stones that lay at your feet. You also have giant player vs. player arenas in the shape of covenants that are starting to show their popularity with players. There’s your traditional battles, defending keeps and joining friends to thwart any opposition that comes your way, and it’s a great break from single-player should you need it. It’s a friend/team dynamic, not one for someone that may want to go online but mostly play solo.
Sequels in their own works can’t overcome the originality of the game that made them a franchise. The entire reason there is a Dark Souls 2 is because people wanted more of Dark Souls 1. This is the trade-off that we have to live with, an enthralling yet difficult game, but one that is slightly less awe-inspiring than you may have considered Dark Souls to be.