A haunting and idiosyncratic niche Japanese take on the Western role-playing game, the success of Dark Souls simply defies logic. From Software tossed players into an unrelenting labyrinth filled with brutal enemies and opaque mechanics with little guidance and even littler probability of ever seeing the end credits roll. But people persevered and found something quite rare: a remorseless challenge that educated and rewarded in equal measure, delivering an incomparable sense of gratification with every yard gained. Dark Souls was unlike anything else.
A sequel then was not so much required as it was demanded and Dark Souls II delivers every bit the follow-up that fans could have hoped for: both overwhelmingly epic in scope and ceaselessly brutal in challenge, the only thing to come as a surprise about Dark Souls II is that, quite to our disappointment, it isn’t surprising at all.
If you’ve played through the original you’ll know what to expect: cast aside the broad misconception of Souls’ cruel difficulty and you’ll find an incredibly deep combat system buoying a carefully constructed gothic underworld where every turn delves further into its utterly incomprehensible but beguiling mythology. With punishment central to its gameplay philosophy, even the lowliest grunt is capable of killing a highly skilled player and there’s always a more fearsome creature waiting around the next corner capable of toppling your soul count back down to zero (with hours of progress potentially lost if you can’t return back to the spot you previously fell).
All of that returns here, albeit with a few changes and enhancements to core systems both in the service of simplifying (read: not making easier) complicated mechanics from its predecessor, while also ironing out some of its perceived technical issues. From the first moment you stride towards the sun-drenched clifftops of Majula – which serve as the main hub area of the game – it’s clear that From Software has set itself the task of clearing away the fog of confusion that accompanied many of the features introduced in the original. Here, in a ramshackle village populated by a few eccentrics, you’ll grasp a better understanding of covenants, levelling up and even the best initial route to take without stumbling unwittingly into an area of overpowered enemies.
Rather smartly, From Software has chosen to centralise upgrading to this area, with levelling up your character, weaponry and Estus Flask (the container that restores HP) all done around this sizeable location. It’s part of a straightforward approach that’s widespread across the game’s design, even trickling all the way down to a welcome refinement of the menus and interface that provide more specific details about the items, weapons and souls that you’ll collect along the way. The benefit of this is that it allows the player to focus more intently on getting to grips with survival, which begins with your class choice that will define your playstyle over the first ten-or-so hours of the game.
As anyone who played through the original will attest, combat is the core of the Dark Souls experience. It’s a system that revolves around patience, careful timing and using the right equipment for the task at hand. The latter isn’t quite as crucial or confusing as it was last time around. In Dark Souls II there’s quite a selection of decent weapons available from the start (if you look hard enough) that if upgraded at a decent pace will scale alongside player stats and can carve through the majority of the game without much trouble.
The biggest alteration, and what will no doubt prove to be the most contentious decision in the sequel, is the tweaking of the parry function. In Dark Souls several of the toughest enemies could be overcome with a well-timed parry, which would leave your opponent open for a special strong attack. There’s no such bonus here for pulling off the move successfully, instead your stamina meter takes a beating and you’re left reeling from the added exertion.
It’s a bizarre omission, perhaps aimed at curbing speed runners. But it also takes away one of the series’ fundamental strategic approaches, and its absence if felt in some of the tougher boss battles later in the game. Speaking of which, that’s one area that the game certainly isn’t lacking. From Software seems quite comfortable in upping the ante when it comes to boss battles and you can expect to find multiple fiendish encounters within spitting distance of each other. It’s here that the Japanese developer really stretches its creative muscle, both in terms of creating some of the series’ most horrific creatures and toughest scenarios.
Although, there is a slight sense of déjà vu: haven’t we seen these stone gargoyles defending the top of a bell tower before? Doesn‘t this lightning fast swordsman bear a striking resemblance to Ornstein? Weirdly, it’s hard to tell whether this is a significant reference to the dense lore that From Software has established or lazy design work in an effort to provide a sequel that bloats the original’s substantial gameplay length. Of course, while it’s much more likely the former, it’s an issue that spreads into the world design as well. An early stretch of opulent landscape bathed in sunlight that features several cathedrals could just as well be Anor Londo’s spare change, while The Gutter is more or less a carbon copy of the notorious Blighttown. More troubling is the general lack of cohesiveness to the world compared to its predecessor. While Dark Souls was packed with uniquely disturbing behemoths seemingly peeled from the bowels of whichever hellish district of the world you happen to be trespassing through, Dark Souls II’s enemies, from a visual perspective, seem randomly placed and occasionally cliché in design.
But it’s a minor quibble, though given the daunting and deceiving scale of Drangleic. From the starting point of Majula, the path appears much more linear than expected. However, it’s only after investing around twenty hours that the map begins to unfold in unexpected ways, with multiple routes, locked doors and unreachable ledges hinting at unseen alleyways and secret spoils that are likely to go completely unnoticed on first playthrough.
It’s almost embarrassing to admit that the lack of ready-formed Wiki guide left us fretting over items that we may have missed or entire areas ignored. No doubt the coming months will be filled with information spilling out of the interwebs concerning cunningly hidden super-weapons and those rare items essential to weapon ascension. We encountered one blacksmith who refused our custom until we brought him some mysterious ember we regrettably failed to discover, for example. And we can’t wait.
In many ways Dark Souls II’s world outshines that of its predecessor. It’s a sprawling rabbit hole of delights that continues to spill deeper into the abyss with every passing victory. And while it’s true that there’s nothing quite like the sense of achievement gained from defeating a Dark Souls boss (there really isn’t), that gratification is unexpectedly magnified here in a much more ambitious sequel boasting a world built as an elaborate jigsaw puzzle that demands to be carefully constructed piece by piece by the player.
And that’s where Dark Souls II fulfils its promise. It’s a world of suffocating isolation with only a glimmer of hope that you’ll emerge through the other side victorious, but its mysteries linger in the mind and spur you onwards through its toughest moments. It’s not a cruel game by any means but one that never wastes an opportunity to challenge and those preconditioned to its agenda will know to take every step tentatively, shield raised and hand steady to face whatever dangers lay ahead. For anyone who survived the ashen-grey trial of Dark Souls there isn’t a much in the sequel that will come as a particular surprise. What they will find instead is a lot of logic: a refinement to mechanics, an enhancement to the world itself and a few tweaks that both give and take a little greatness from the franchise. Dark Souls II is brilliant, cunning and utterly addictive game and worthy follow-up to one of the best ever made. Enter if you dare.