The stigma of direct sequels haunts even the greatest games and it is how great series are born. However, at the same time, it’s not unsafe to say that there are many problems when creating a sequel. The fresh idea that first made the original so great is gone and the new additions and changes might divide the fanbase and alienate both veterans and newcomers alike. Dark Souls overcame the hurdle of the being bound to the greatness that was Demon’s Souls by making changes and additions that were great and took the series in a bold new direction while keeping the essence of its predecessor. While Dark Souls II remains to be a great game, its inability to shed its identity from the original while improving upon the gameplay fails to ascend the sequel to super stardom status.
The strength of Dark Souls II is the implicit storytelling. At its core Dark Souls II uses many of the methods that the previous game used to convey the various plot threads that hang over you as you travel Drangleic. However, much of the game’s story feels eerily similar to its predecessor. The quest to find large souls. Overcoming being a hollow. Being that one special person that fits the puzzle. It’s sad that main story is a mirror to the original in so many ways but replacing the land of Lordran with Drangleic. Even the lore of Drangleic is completely uninteresting in many ways as the story of each arc feels short. Still, the story of Dark Souls II is merely a disappointment in comparison. The journey that you make is still a wonderful one and while it may not be a completely memorable one it is one that will make the end trip worthwhile.
Every action you take drains a certain amount of stamina and as a result, resource management is a huge part of the game. Do you attack repeatedly draining your stamina or do you attack and roll away? Every decision you make such as slashing your sword, raising your shield, or even running away has a huge impact on whether you live or die. It is this very reason why the gameplay is so addicting and compelling. You never really fell like the game is copping out on you in regards to the combat. You are given the tools to manage each encounter and how you approach the fights and actually execute them is still as fulfilling as ever.
There are a variety of ways to fight which is one of the more compelling aspects of the game. Magic was a prominent component of the original and in its sequel it’s even moreso. Pyromancy makes a return but curses are the new source of magic that will give veterans a run for the money. Much like faith spells curses allow you to dish out a whole different type of spells that inflict ailments alongside direct damages. All spells are beautiful to look at.
Unfortunately, there are drawbacks of the game’s combat and this is because many of the encounters, including boss fights, feel extremely cheap. Choice is the name of the game but often times you are placed into situations where you are extremely outnumbered and you just might not be able to deal with the situation forcing one to farm. Even then farming is not a viable option as enemies and mobs disappear after killing them a certain amount of time.
Speaking of boss fights, the boss encounters lack the personality that its predecessor held. Many of the bosses have the same wide sword swings and are extremely easy to predict and dodge. Lack of move variety and unpredictability between each boss encounter makes the boss fights rather mundane. To further add to the issue of the bosses being an issue, the areas they are fought in are also similar in issue. Many of the encounters rely on a certain gimmick such as respawning enemies, a dark room making it difficult to see, or a poison filled room. It cheapens the experience when the areas themselves pose more of a threat rather than the entity you’re actually fighting against. Even so, the bosses are not some cheap enemy you can steamroll over. In fact they pack a punch and one wrong move can be a fatal one.
Recovery items are scarce and players can’t rely on Estus Flasks to alleviate the painful journey either. They do not heal nearly as much and not only that but the usage has gone down severely. The Flasks themselves must be upgraded with shards and these are scattered throughout the world. In other words, one mustn’t rely on healing items to get out of each encounter alive but rather his or her own combat skills. Healing is a luxury item at best and while you can view it as an item to save yourself in a pinch, you have to also view it as a hindrance as it now means you won’t survive future encounters.
Multiplayer is the biggest focus in the Soul series whether it be through the bloodstains that reveal another player’s last moments or the messages that are littered throughout the world often times being reliable hints. Interacting with a variety of players is a blast and it can both be a blessing and a curse when traveling through the dangerous areas in Drangleic. You can summon players when you lack a maximum health penalty and you can be invaded by other players. The interactions you create and encounter in Dark Souls II is a joy and feels a trek in a given area much more memorable but more importantly unique. It’s a dynamic world but at the same time is one that is static. It’s a subtle balance and while I’m sure the community will find ways to guide players on their initial journey, at the same time the community will also find ways to troll them as well. It’s all in good fun. To a degree.
The lighting is much more dynamic this time around and this is due to the stark contrast of lighting a torch in an extremely dark room. Torches are one of the new features this time around. While they are not plentiful, torches are necessary for many of the areas you will be traversing. They can be lit from fiery sources but the important part to note is that it leaves you handicapped since one of your arms are being forced to hold the torch. It’s an interesting dynamic and while they aren’t mandatory, some areas feel like it. You must sacrifice your combat capability or approach combat in a way you’re unfamiliar with. The whole idea behind the torch is to create a visual wow but also to take people outside their comfort zone. It is both a success and a failure and it’s on a case by case basis sadly.
Dark Souls II is a mixed bag. In many ways the experience you’ll get out of it will be based on whether you’re a newcomer to the series or not. Some of the questionable design choices and changes may not be so questionable to the new players but at the same time, they might be easy to overlook. The land of Drangleic has a lot to offer and most of it is due to the legacy and ideas upheld by the franchise itself. The independent merits found in Dark Souls II are few and far between. Even so, the experience of going through another land gruelling with brutal enemies is something that the gaming industry needs. Dark Souls II stands as a testament to the success of the Souls series even if it’s not the best.
Versions tested: PlayStation 3