Dark Souls 2

Game Review by Jodi Mullen | 30 May 2014
Game title: Dark Souls 2
Publisher: From Software and Namco Bandai Games
Release date: 25 April 2014
Price: £39.99

Dark Souls 2, the sequel to the seminal PS3 cult hit Demon’s Souls and its multi-platform follow up Dark Souls, has something of a reputation to live up to. Though the series of action RPGs has gained many plaudits for its meaty combat, hugely atmospheric game worlds and quirky multiplayer features, it’s the Souls games’ unremitting and unforgiving difficulty that has really imprinted itself upon the collective consciousness of hardcore gamers.

Death is an ever-present threat in Dark Souls 2 thanks to enemies who attack in packs, fiendish environmental traps and bosses who can insta-kill if the player gets their timing wrong. The flipside, however, is the unparalleled sense of achievement that comes from mastering the game’s mechanics, learning the encounters and finally bringing down the colossus that killed you on your previous fifteen attempts. Like the strongest of coffee or the most potent of liquors, Dark Souls 2 is not for everyone but those with the patience and strength of will to acquire the taste as often as not become fanatics.

For all its makers’ claims of improved accessibility, the first few hours spent in Dark Souls 2’s world of Drangleic may well come as a rude awakening even to hardened Souls veterans. After completing the obligatory tutorial zone and visiting the central hub area of Majula, players are quickly re-immersed in the series’ unique brand of masochism. The game’s early areas throw all manner of unpleasantness at aspiring heroes but it’s the new death mechanic that really hurts. After dying, you turn undead as in the first Dark Souls, only this time around you also lose a small sliver off your total health. With consecutive deaths, this can turn into a cumulative penalty of up to half your health bar missing until you either discover a way to become human again or find an item that partially mitigates the effect.

However, Dark Souls 2 does makes a few concessions to help players cope with this initial upturn in the game’s learning curve. This time around, enemies only have a limited number of respawns (I counted it at about 15 or 16) until they eventually stop appearing, allowing even the most cack-handed adventurer to make progress if they just keep plugging away. Moreover, the game’s bonfires - which allow players to respawn at that checkpoint upon death and replenish health, spell casts and certain health consumables - are more generously spaced than in the first Dark Souls and allow characters to teleport between them, making getting around a lot quicker and easier.

But after several hours of play, the deeper impact of the designers’ attempts to streamline some of Dark Souls 2’s core systems becomes much more readily apparent. The previous title’s summoning mechanic, which allowed other players to be called in your world to tackle bosses co-operatively or to repel hostile invaders in PvP, has been thoroughly overhauled and entirely for the better. Thanks to vastly improved netcode, more accessible co-op and PvP covenants and a less restrictive level bracketing system, it has never been easier - or more fun - to fully explore the multiplayer component of a Souls game.

Elsewhere, the item upgrade system has been significantly simplified, making it a rather more straightforward affair to imbue weapons from the game’s fearsome armoury with elemental enchants and status effects. Combined with the introduction of an item that allows players to re-spec and re-allocate their soul levels - a first for the series - Dark Souls 2 is a game that encourages players to experiment with character builds and weapon loadouts and enables them to role-play in their preferred style. The series’ unparalleled combat mechanics remain just as rewarding as ever and the numerous viable melee, ranged, magical and hybrid approaches make it a game that demands to be played through multiple times.

Although the PC port of the original Dark Souls was something of an afterthought in response to an online fan petition, community-made mods soon added a level of visual fidelity that put it head and shoulders above the console version. This time around, PC was the lead development platform and it shows in a much more polished release complete with support for high resolutions and much improved textures. The higher frame-rates and reduced loading times also greatly enhance the experience. Although it lacks some of the bells and whistles that hardcore players demand, and the mouse and keyboard controls still leave something to be desired, there’s little doubt that Dark Souls 2 on PC is very much the definitive version of the game.

While some Souls purists may grumble that the easing of the series’ legendary obfuscation strips away some of the sense of accomplishment that lies at the heart its unique appeal, From Software have managed to strike the right balance with Dark Souls 2, allowing more players to get the most out of the game without compromising on the fiendish difficulty that has become its hallmark. If you didn’t get on with Demon’s or Dark Souls, this sequel isn’t going to do the slightest thing to change your mind but for fans of the series, and of gritty action RPGs in general, this a treasure trove of riches and a whole new world of pain to delve into.