From Software’s Dark Souls took the internet by storm. While Demon’s Souls was the first in the series, it was Dark Souls that got everyone in the online space gitting gud. Almost daily I was seeing pictures of funny messages people left, gifs of people falling for its traps, and so much Solaire hype. It was infectious and what got me to check the game out myself. Then Dark Souls II came out and after a brief time in the spotlight, I was surprised to see people stick with the original a lot more. What happened? Was it just not good?
Not the same
If I were to summarize the story of Dark Souls II, the first word I’d use would be ambiguous. While the plot of the first game was grande and rich with history and background details, it was relatively straightforward in regards to what you actually played. The opening cutscene established the main characters and during the tutorial, the players are directed on a quest by a friendly NPC. It was clear what you were supposed to do and why you were doing it, but there was also a vast amount of side-stuff hidden within item descriptions and character interactions.
The second game goes in a much different direction and one I don’t wholly care for. The opening cutscene serves mostly to confuse, as you are told your character set out on a quest to the ancient kingdom of Drangleic without actually knowing why. Throughout the tutorial, you meet a number of characters, but they all speak in riddles and mock you. Once you arrive in Majula, this game’s version of Firelink Shrine, all you really get is one lady who asks if you want to be the country’s new monarch, but she too provides no real guidance on the matter.
It feels too much like a video game, as you really just start adventuring because that’s the kind of thing you do in a video game. In the first game it felt like all the lore you could find hidden throughout Lordran served to support the story, in the second it feels like digging up all these extras is critical to even understanding what’s going on.
The characters and the world are also much less interesting than before. Especially the characters strike me as weak, in a series that gave us beloved characters like Solaire, Patches, Priscilla, and Laurentius. Most characters I met wouldn’t even talk to me because I didn’t meet the requirements to have them sell me build-specific items. This stands in stark contrast to characters like Big Hat Logan and Petrus of Thorulund, which were intriguing characters first and foremost. Their use to the player as vendors came second to their place in the world.
Most characters you meet which are available for a chat just don’t have the same impact as those we have met before. Most of them similarly suffer from a degree of memory loss and are uncertain of why they are in Drangleic, but that just means none of them are much use in revealing more about your mission. That is not to say the characters are bad, just not as interesting as before. Pate and Creighton have a fun storyline going on, I liked Gavlan and the old merchant lady, plus Lucatiel is a cool companion throughout the adventure if you can actually find her. There is still good in there, it’s just a lot more sparse.
Story score: 6/10
You Died! Again!
In terms of gameplay not much has been changed going from the first to the second game. It’s still an action-RPG with a wide variety of interesting weapons, which also allows players to use magic, miracles, and archery if they prefer fighting in a different way. Players still respawn at bonfires when they die and explore large areas to find items, new bonfires, fight enemies, and make their way to powerful boss creatures. Staples like improving weapons and armor with titanite, using souls as a currency as well as your method of leveling up, and being able to play as a Hollow or a Human with different benefits to each are still in place.
As you seek out bosses you’ll once again cope with traps and various enemies. An increased amount of weapons and weapon types gives players an even wider range of options for dealing with these. In my first run, I went for a weaboo build with a distinctly Western character wielding a katana with dexterity specialization, whereas now I went with a big axe and had to run around mostly naked to compensate for its weight. The enemies also vary greatly, but each area has something to it that would be a major pain the butt. You might forget what some of these places are called, but you’ll remember each and every single one of them for how much they frustrated you in their, unique way.
Dark Souls II carries some quality-of-life improvements with it, most prominently the increased flexibility of your character. Rolling is now much easier to control and the jumping controls have been remapped to be more bearable to use. The menu structure is also much better, with more items being displayed at once and you have the option to use multiple items at once. On the other hand, a number of changes did strike me as particularly odd.
You get a whole lot more souls to use and leveling up is much cheaper, but to compensate for this DS2 has a whole lot more stats to it. Endurance used to increase your stamina and equipment load, but these are now bound to entirely different stats, meaning that if you want to both wear armor and move around effectively, you need to pour points into both. Of course, this goes on top of other stats like strength, dexterity, and health. Every level up felt like a chore because of this. And the new adaptability stat is the most ridiculous of all. Not only do you need stamina to roll, you also need adaptability to have invisibility frames, which makes combat as a whole more unpredictable. It also increases some other stats and resistances, as well as determining how fast you can drink estus flasks; it’s such an arbitrary thing to make variable.
Health is also reworked in various bizarre ways. You now lose a sliver of maximum HP each time you die and need to consume human effigies, the new take on humanity, to restore yourself to full. I am no fan of this because it just makes things you already struggled with before even harder and I don’t really get how that improves anything for anyone. You also now need to find your estus flasks out in the world, meaning you start off with fewer flasks, but eventually upgrade beyond the last game’s base limit of 5. An interesting rework made entirely redundant by the overabundant presence of lifegems. These cheap healing items can replace estus flasks entirely and you can carry up to 99 of them with you anywhere you go.
On a plus-side, bosses are a lot more plentiful this time around and there’s some good ones in there. While a number may be a tad generic, I was having fun fighting most bosses. Run-ups to boss-fights have also been made more bearable with only a few exceptions. A downside, however, is that enemies disappear if you kill them enough. Certainly, this makes it easier to get back to a part you are struggling with, but it feels like the game is mocking you and it prevents players from grinding if they need to. For me, this was a particular problem, because the katana I wanted for my first run never dropped no matter how much I tried. I literally exhausted the enemy respawns in the one and only area I could get this weapon, which would have ended my first run there and then if a friend hadn’t joined my game and dropped one for me.
Dark Souls II has a lot of annoyances and shortcomings that need some getting-used-to if you are returning player, but as a whole, I’d say the improvements it has made redeem these in the long-term. Me being grumpy about an enemy I find unfair will eventually fade, whereas I was thankful throughout the entire game for the improved menu and controls. The world and characters may have been less interesting this time around, but I had a much better time with creating a fun build and fighting cool bosses than I did in the first game.
Gameplay score: 6.5/10
Invisible, floating lava
Little has changed in my opinion on Dark Soul‘s presentation in regards to the visuals. The realistic art-style doesn’t do much for me and I find most areas look kind of drab. A few exceptions do exist, like the fog-filled Shaded Woods, and the exterior of Drangleic Castle, but the overwhelming majority of the game has nothing going for it visually.
Dark Souls compensated for this with the brilliantly-designed world where played constantly discovered how areas were cleverly connected to each other, forming a network of shortcuts that minimized travel time and made the world a coherent whole. Dark Souls II, however, offers warping between bonfires immediately at the start of the game, and it feels like the developers took that as an excuse to make the world a lot less engaging.
Each direction you go in feels like a linear path with only a few side-passages to explore. None of them connect in interesting ways and progression through them is often ridiculous. In Heide’s Tower of Flame you are navigating a castle that rises just a meter or two above the sea, then go down several stairs, take an elevator ride down, only to arrive at a wharf that is, somehow, still slightly above sea level. Similarly, Earthen Peak is a giant windmill, but once you reach the top there is an elevator up, not visible from the outside, the leads you to a castle floating in lava. There is absolutely no visual consistency and it makes Drangleic feel like a video game level arbitrarily stitched together, rather than a rich fantasy world like Lordran was.
You can still expect to see some great boss-designs and monsters, a few areas still offer nice vistas to observe, but it truly feels like there was less of a spark to create something truly special this time around. The presentation of Dark Souls II is just boring.
Presentation score: 3/10
Blood and bells
One feature I will totally commend Dark Souls II for is that new game+ has been reworked into something much more impressive. Rather than just beefing up the enemies on a second run through, this game really changes the layouts and spawns of the enemies. For example, in the very first zone you are already tasked with fighting a handful of enemies right as you spawn in, which are unseen anywhere else in the game. It’s a cool way to make NG+ more interesting, but personally I prefer just restarting the game entirely and trying a different build from scratch.
On the downside, a lot of the optional areas in Dark Souls 2 ended up being rather lame. The Doors of Pharros is a short run made for PvP ganks that has only a few upgrade items and one of the worst bosses in the game at the end. The Belfry Sol was similarly unrewarding. To compensate, there are a total of three DLC areas to visit with a number of great bosses, including some of my favorites in the series. The zones you need to traverse to get to them, though, are kind of tedious and storywise they aren’t as interesting as Oolacile in Dark Souls I.
The covenant system returns again, suffering much the same problem as before. 7/9 covenants are multiplayer-only, which I barely got a chance to participate in. Despite being removed from Steam, Steamcharts still reports that even the original Dark Souls still has five times the players this entry has. Dark Souls II just kind of hangs around in the three-digit range and I rarely found anybody to summon and was only invaded once, rendering these covenants useless on top of already being unappealing to me. The two PvE covenants are uninteresting too. One just makes enemies a lot stronger, exactly the kind of arbitrary difficulty that NG+ managed to avoid. The other has you play a number of extra levels before having you fight a boss, but every time you want to retry you need to pay one of the game’s finite amount of human effigies and replay the entire last zone. Not worth it at all.
Extras score: 4.5/10
Dark Souls II brought a lot of improvements to the game, yet every time it does something right, it makes sure to mess up twice. Lifegems, decreasing maximum HP, adaptability, many of the frustrating boss battles and the uninteresting world are but some of the many annoyances throughout the game. It’s still Dark Souls and offers the series’ unique flavor of challenging gameplay, yet it’s also undeniably the weakest entry in the series.