Since when has playing a game been this stressful, that was the initial thought during my play through of Dark Souls II and despite it I kept coming back for more. Why you ask? Well let’s find out.
Developed by FROM SOFTWARE and published by Namco Bandai Games, Dark Souls II is the third title in the “soul” franchise, whereby players are thrown into the kingdom of Drangleic in hopes of finding a cure for their cursed soul. Amusingly despite the impressive cinematic opening and it’s introductions the storyline isn’t that important, as it is soon forgotten when you progress aimlessly throughout unique and enticing environments.
It’s not often you can say “the story is not important” for a major title, but somehow Dark Souls II pulls through – for me it was about exploring the kingdom of Drangleic and forging my own path through the campaign, a campaign filled with dangerous enemies and constant death. As fans of previous titles will know death plays a big part in the franchise and in Dark Souls II it’s no different.
Dark Souls II is a traditional old-skool RPG Game with action elements, a game which sees you create your own character before exploring the gameplay world that allows you to interact with anyone you see fit. The character creation process is relatively simple and features eight different class types, each of which have their own unique stats and abilities. For instance Warriors, Knights and Swordsman will be stronger with physical attacks but are unable to perform powerful magic while Sorcerers have the ability to immediately wield magic but are vulnerable to physical attacks.
It’s about finding the right balance and what works best for you, but of course which ever class you choose they are fully customisable and upgradable, something which can only be achieved by using souls. Souls is the games form of currency, as each kill acquired in the game will reward souls and farming souls in a certain location will result in the pay-out becoming lower for that area. Alternatively souls can be found in various locations scattered around the world, but however you obtain them they are used to purchase everything within the game.
Upgrading stats, buying weapons or even buying replenishment items – all of it will cost Souls. Don’t expect them to be cheap either, as the cheapest items costs 500 souls. It may not sound a lot, but when a kill only earns you 50 souls you’ll soon realise it’s going to take a lot longer than you initial expected and that’s before you discover the game’s biggest penalty, death. Being killed will result in all acquired souls being dropped at the location you died at, and if you die again before being able to retrieve them then those souls will be lost forever. It’s the biggest punishment I have ever known from a game, and this is where the stress comes from, as you are constantly afraid of being killed and loosing all of the souls you have acquried.
Being killed and losing your souls is not the only punishment either, as each time you die your overall health is reduced, with the maxium penalty being 50% of your original health bar. The only way to reverse the effects is by using a Human Effingy, not only does this return your health bar to normal but it also returns you to human. Being human restores your full health bar but it also reduces the chances of other players invading your game via online co-op. Of course if you are killed while as a human then you’ll revert back to a hollow, but this time your health bar will remain at it’s maximum – that is until you die again.
Gameplay elements aside the overall controls for playing the game are reality simple, with both trigger and bumper buttons being used to attack (or defend) while the B button is used to dodge/evade attacks. Character and Camera movement is done via the analog sticks, just like any other third person action game, and luckily a target lock-on is offered making it slightly easier to attack your target. Advanced controls, such as using the D-Pad to navigate through various equipped items or X for using items, is also available for use. At first the controls can seem overwhelming and slightly confusing, especially when it comes to evasion and jumping, but after a while they feel quite natural. Fortunately a “missable” tutorial is included right at the start of the game, so even newcomers can learn the controls if they choose to.
The only real difficulty I discovered was navigating the menus and understanding how to use it effectively, especially when it came to the differences in item stats. Personally I could never quite work out which items had the superior stats, as the stats are displayed but there was no comparison with what you’ve got equipped and what you are equipping, so I could never figure out which was the better piece of equipment.
This wasn’t the only issue I had with the menu system, as while you are using it the game is still running which means that nearby opponents may travel to you and attack. This may not seem like a problem but you need to back out of the menu all together in order to attack back and by then it might be too late. It’s not a “game-breaking” issue as you soon learn to only access menus in safe areas, but it is puzzling to see this approach being used especially in a game where it is so easy to die.
Equipping items or upgrading weapons isn’t as simple as you’d expect either, as unlike in traditional RPG games equipping the most powerful weapon and strongest armour will not yield the best results, instead it hinders you. If you do not have enough strength or stamina then you will be unable to equip the item, however in some cases you can equip it but you will not be able to wield it effectively, thus in turn not dealing any damage to your opponent.
It’s not just about equipping the correct weapons either, as stamina is another important factor of Dark Souls II, more so than the punishments earned via death. Each command (attack, defense, evade) uses some of the green stamina bar located under your health bar, if you have no stamina left then you are able to do anything other than walk. It’s not a simple hack & slash styled game, you have to be clever and tactical with your movements as one wrong move or a strike missed could result in your death.
When playing Dark Souls II you are always “on the edge” as no matter how strong you are, or what items you’ve got equipped, you’ll always find yourself in a situation that sees you attacked from all sides and awaiting death. Don’t try to cheat your way out of it either, as the game periodically saves your game and with no pause button you can’t simply “back out and try again”. It’s a scenario that happens quite often during the first few hours of playing the game, but after a while you learn to accept that you will die, it’s just a matter of when and where.
Luckily to aid players in their progression of the games campaign are the bonfires. Bonfires are another important factor of the game, as not only are they used to travel between distant locations but they are also used to replenish your health – however they come with a price. Each time a bonfire is used all of the enemies once slaughtered will re-spawn. It’s this re-spawning ability that allows souls to be farmed from the same location, but at the same time it adds more danger and suspense to the gameplay.
You may be asking why would re-spawning enemies cause suspense and danger? Well imagine you’ve just spent 30 minutes defeating several large opponents and you’ve got no recovery items left. If you proceed forward and die you’ll revert back to the last bonfire used, but all of your souls will be lost however if you choose to rest the enemies will re-spawn but you’ll keep all of your souls. It’s a dilemma that will appear constantly throughout the game, and with each new area explored the opponents become stronger and attacks more varied. It’s a constant battle for survival but its this kind of immersive entertainment that keeps you hooked and wanting more.
Even when you’ve got acustomed to equipping items, levelling up and protecting yourself from death these are all just a prelude to the insanely large boss battles that you’ll encounter throughout your journey. Each boss battle brings something different and unqiue to the field, and no matter how strong you think you are it’s not enough. For instance a level 25 Warrior died instantly at the hands of the Last Giant Boss Battle and so a tactical approach was needed. Fortunately help can be had by summoning phantoms, if you’ve unlocked the ability (usually by speaking to a guild member in Mujala) you can summon a pantom of pate who will aid you in battle. These phantoms, in my opinion, are cruical to an easy victory as it distracts the boss from yourself, but of course this is only one way of being tactical about your attacks.
In all honesty this is only the tip of the iceberg of what to expect from Dark Souls II, as there is so much more to explore and experience. It’s a vast world with a nonlinear approach to storytelling, but in short Dark Souls II offers much more than stress and death, instead it provides a complex but highly addictive experience that I’ve yet to find in any other game and where death is not the end, but the beginning.
– Extensive replay value
– Variety of areas to explore
– Variety of equipments and magic to use
– Rewarding, but challenging, gameplay experience
– Personalised progression of the campaign
– Simple gameplay controls, but difficult to master
– Outrageous, but highly memorable, boss battles
– A memorable gameplay experience like non-other
– Complicated experience to newcomers of the genre (Stats, Menu layout & Lack of Guidance)
– Graphics / visuals seem dated compared to current titles and contains a few glitches
Dark Souls II is now available for the Xbox 360 and PS3 with a PC version to follow next month