Dark Souls II
System(s): Windows (Also available for Xbox 360, PS3)
Release Date: March 11, 2014
Publisher (Developer): Namco Bandai Games (From Software)
ESRB Rating: “Teen” for Blood and Gore, Mild Language, Partial Nudity, Violence
I have a friend who dreams of playing Dark Souls while he sleeps. To him, discounting certain mechanical bugs which are heavily alleviated in the “sequel,” Dark Souls is nothing short of the perfect franchise. In a game that shirks the notion that players need their hand held, he’s a good ally to have.
So, in the interest of meeting a deadline, we decided to do a cold run of Dark Souls II together. But even to the over initiated, danger lurks as an ever present possibility.
We poke our way through the game, cautiously checking for traps, constantly fearing invaders. The two of us climb a flight of stairs and pause to take in our surroundings. I hang back as he tests the waters. For a moment, he is silhouetted against a heavy fog that obscures a lush forest. And then he is gone. Neither of us know how deep these woods go, but we don’t want to expose my character’s gentile but essential mage flesh to the unknown; I’m hosting and it can be a bit of a pain to connect to a specific player.
“I can’t see shit,” he says. “This is so fucking cool.” And he begins to head back my way. I see his silhouette again. And then I see another, but is my friend aware of his stalker?
“Holy shit!” he cries, his character rolling forward and away from the unacquainted body. He turns to destroy it.
As it turns out, this particular area is haunted by nearly transparent spirits. These spirits bear a remarkable resemblance to the occasional glimpses we get of other players as their spirits flicker into our world. The end results is that they’ll swing at us, mistaking us for a foe, which will in turn spook us into thinking they’re malicious and corporeal. But we can’t altogether ignore them, because there is the distinct possibility that what we see swinging at us is capable of doing damage.
So we elect to trudge on, expecting the unexpected. Such is life in Drangleic. It’ll all make sense momentarily.
Until Hope Has Finally Withered
“Bearer of the curse, I will always be at your side until hope has finally withered,” is the fatalistic promise of the Emerald Herald, a benevolent female entity who will assist the player in their journey through Drangleic. She’s the only force in the game that one might identify as “good,”and even then an instilled sense of cynicism at the hands of Dark Souls makes it difficult not to question even her motives. As for every other character, their alignment is questionable at best. It’s peculiar that within a game that insists on precision, character relations are largely grounded in guesswork. This nuance allows Dark Souls II to transcend its fantasy genre and embrace elements of realism rarely found in video games.
To set the stage, the land of Drangleic is one of scarcity, inhabited by feral creatures, demons, the hollowed, and a sentient, human-like race of undead. In order to prolong their sanity and memories, the undead collect souls from defeated enemies. The player character is among these pitiable undead and possesses a signifier known as the Darksign.The flavor text in game describes the Darksign thusly:
“The Darksign signifies an accursed Undead. Those branded with it are reborn after death, but will one day lose their mind and go hollow. Death triggers the Darksign, which returns its bearer to the last bonfire rested at, but at the cost of all humanity and souls.”
With circumstances so dire, Drangleic is a land that has become void of social contract. Glimpses of its former grandeur can only inspire nostalgia; there is simply nothing left to hope for. The world will be destroyed and the cycle will eventually begin again, except the hero won’t be there; he’ll be dead or at the very least, something else. It’s interesting rhetoric that renders every character decision that much more important. In a dying land with nothing left, do you let your morals slip as well? Is there even room for morality? The gear I plucked off a freshly slain merchant in the interest of saving some precious souls forces me to wonder.
The characters you do happen across in Dark Souls II are often burdened with the same curse as the player character. As they hollow, they forget themselves, and that can make it hard to figure out just who they are or, indeed, were. It is, however, tragic to watch their mind decay into madness as they adhere staunchly to motives they don’t remember their reasons for holding. Even the most contemptible of characters invokes a sense of empathy in the player, making Dark Souls II almost humanist in its design. Its complicated cast may be doomed, but are they beyond redemption? In a land such as Drangleic, is it even fair to judge their actions? And ultimately, how much do their actions even matter? As mentioned before, the end of days is nigh for them and salvation doesn’t seem to be an option. The catastrophic state of the world serves as the center theme of Dark Souls’ narrative, even as it inhibits it.
You see, the world of Dark Souls II leaves little room for a forward moving narrative. Without hope or, indeed, a future, how many causes and effects can there be to further the plot? Drangleic is reaching its end, and most of its story has already been told. But just because there are limited plot points during the players bleak march to the end of the world, doesn’t mean there isn’t a rich story to uncover. Where Dark Souls differs from its contemporaries is in its ability to tell a story implicitly, without the need to spell things out for anyone. Even in regards to narrative, that handholding I alluded to earlier is decidedly absent. As a result, much of the lore is speculative or left up to interpretation. In fact, communities spring up online to critically analyze the Souls franchise in an effort to reach some kind of consensus. Few games can make such a claim.
Whether or not this method of storytelling is welcomed will vary, but it’s refreshing to see From Software trying something different.
Precision, Exploration, Frustration, Damnation
In Dark Souls II, player realms are stacked upon one another online, and this feature is referenced in the game’s lore. What this means is that other player characters are accounted for canonically. And, as mentioned before, the Emerald Herald is willing to help them out in their quest as well, be they sinister trolls or noble knights. There are moments when you can see these other players appear as translucent spirits, their world sort of bleeding through to yours. You can’t interact with them in this spectral form, but the atmosphere it lends the game is eerie. There are, however, times when they are able to cross over to your realm as phantoms, complete with corporeal form and questionable motive.
This mechanic manifests itself in a variety of ways. A variety of joinable covenants within the game will summon players to other worlds with the interest of defending certain areas. Some will send players out on quests to purge the worlds of the guilty. Other times, players will invade entirely of their own volition.
Players can also invite friendly phantoms into their world to assist with tricky areas. Defeating a boss alongside another player will reward the summoned phantom with highly cherished humanity. Or, if one is feeling feisty, players can willingly invite invaders into their world in an attempt to slay them. Almost all of these player interactions result in souls which are the solitary currency in Drangleic and are used for leveling up, upgrading weapons, or making purchases. Unspent souls are also lost on death, which can be incredibly frustrating at times.
Perhaps the most ingenious implementation of phantoms comes in the form of a boss battle. Around the game’s halfway point, assuming you progress in a linear fashion, is a boss who wields a large mirror shield. When he slams the mirror to the ground, the visage of a phantom appears within and, with a panicked sort of flailing, attempts to get out. If the player doesn’t destroy the shield within the allotted time frame, that phantom will join the boss in battle. Dark Souls is hard enough as is without the presence of fully geared, potentially skilled players harassing you in its most treacherous of moments.
Defeating a boss yields a unique soul that can be crafted into various spells and weapons. The weapon system itself has been vastly improved from the original Dark Souls. This time around, almost all builds are viable. Bows and dual wielding aren’t just fun, they’re lethal. And no weapon can be considered completely useless as they all possess different move sets. In a PVP situation, it is often better to have a weapon with moves that suit your playstyle than it is to have one with higher damage output. The sheer variety of weapons also ensures that players will be able to take another by surprise through the use of an oddball build or weapon choice.
In terms of atmosphere, Dark Souls is unrivaled. Despite its strife, the land of Drangleic is a quiet, beautiful one. Friendly characters are rare and there is a remarkable scarcity to the enemies that makes every locale feel haunting in their emptiness, even as mindless, ravenous creatures seek to quench a bloodlust brought on by a plague-like madness. Sprawling architecture of giants, serene forests, and a once bustling castle flooded by lava offer a variety to the locales; indeed, most of these places are as beautiful as they are chilling. Still, one can’t quite shake the feeling that what’s left to discover is the hollowed husk of a once great world that was destroyed by struggles long since passed. The player character, locked in an active progression of hollowing, is left to explore an equally hollow world that exists in the aftermath.
And exploring is what makes the adventure through Drangleic as worthwhile as it is. Sure, gluttons for punishment can claim that overcoming challenges that once seemed insurmountable is the primary appeal but, really, butting your head against a wall long enough will wear down the wall with time; anyone can beat this game. The difficulty that serves as Dark Soul’s claim to fame, instead, reinforces the sense of danger one might expect when wandering into unknown territory. Every path may yield a worthwhile item, a magnificent view, or an ambush. Even the treasure chests can be rigged to poison, maim, shoot, or attack you as a mimic; a reinforcement of the kind of unpredictability that Dark Souls requires in its formula albeit on a smaller scale.
A Proper Finale for Last Generation Consoles
So how does it compare to its spiritual predecessor? Exceptionally. A lot of the mechanics of the first game have been reworked to be more precise. In terms of leveling up, the game is more flexible and allows for players to have more fun with their characters. The PC version, this time, wasn’t a shoddy port and the visuals themselves look stunning. Few moments in Dark Souls are as tranquil as seeing the soft glow of a bonfire on a floor or wall after a particularly long and arduous expedition.
The only qualm I have this time around is that with characters suffering from varying degrees of memory loss, they feel somehow less rich than they did in the original Dark Souls. But that’s my only issue. Dark Souls II is amazing and is the perfect send off for the last generation of consoles.
If you’re interested in obtaining a free copy of Dark Souls II, be sure to follow @BenjaminMaltbie on Twitter and then tweet a link to this review. Make sure you mention him in your tweet. A winner will be announced June 5th, 2014.