Dark Souls 2 review: not the end

Game Info
Platform PS3, 360, Win
Publisher Namco Bandai
Developer From Software
Release Date 2014-03-11

Dark Souls 2 is the most intimidating game I have ever played.

This may not come as a surprise to fans of the notoriously challenging Dark Souls or its spiritual predecessor, Demon's Souls. But it's not just the difficulty that had me wincing in fear during my playthrough.

Dark Souls 2 is unflinchingly ambitious in a way that few games are. Yes, the world is massive; yes, there are far more bosses than the last game; yes, I've spent dozens of hours playing, and I'm sure I still haven't seen close to everything. But where other open-world RPGs use that overwhelming size as an invitation to lose yourself in their world, with Dark Souls 2 it's a threat.

From Software has embraced the challenge they're known for while simultaneously cutting away a lot of the fat — bits of previous games that were more annoying than they were difficult. The result is the strongest Souls game yet, and one that's worth giving a shot even if you were scared away last time.

Dark-souls-2-screen-1a

Though it technically takes place in the same world as the first game, Dark Souls 2's plot and setting stand apart. Players take on the role of a voiceless, cursed character who has been exiled to a strange land called Drangleic. As time passes, the main character's body and mind will give in to the process of hollowing — basically, becoming undead. The only way they can stop it is to hunt down four great souls and discover the truth of why this kingdom fell.

Dark-souls-2-screen-1b

Though the setup is similar, Drangleic surpasses the first game's land of Lordran in every way. In addition to being larger and more varied, the environments in Dark Souls 2 succeed more often at telling a story. Each zone has its own lore that unfolds as you explore it, usually without the help of cutscenes or even dialogue.

The story being told expands across areas as well; plot points from different zones interlock with each other to form the greater narrative of the game. A room full of creepy dolls unsettled me when I first stumbled into it in a remote desert area; later, halfway across the world, I found myself fighting up a tower full of demonic mannequins that shared the same disturbing faces. By journeying across both of these areas, I was able to string together some theories about Drangleic's history without the game needing to make it explicit. It's an engrossing method of storytelling where players themselves are expected to do their fair share of the heavy lifting — not unlike the gameplay.

Number of times died in Dark Souls 2 for this review: 235

Across two previous Souls-branded releases, developer From Software has built a reputation for creating some of the most exacting third-person action games. Dark Souls 2 continues that intense style of combat, demanding near-perfection from players and punishing the smallest mistakes with huge hits to the life bar, if not flat-out death.

If you're not already an initiated fan of the series, it can be difficult to understand the appeal of this unforgiving approach. It's easy to focus on the punishment without also recognizing the rewards for success. Whether carefully inching through a new area full of death traps or fighting a new boss who's destined to kill me a dozen times, overcoming these obstacles not only pulled me through Dark Souls 2 — it was my primary reason for playing.

Dark-souls-ii-screenshot-01

EDITOR'S NOTE: Online Play

During our review time with Dark Souls 2, we have had limited access to the game's online functionality, which includes co-op and player-versus-player combat. What we can confirm so far is that the previous game's covenant system has been overhauled, seemingly for the better.

Joining a covenant helps determine whether your character will focus on competitive or cooperative online play, and against/with whom. Whereas covenants were a confusing, poorly-explained part of the first game, their function is much more easily understandable here. There's also a character in the hub town who will allow you to easily manage which covenant you're a part of, and the covenant ranking system seem to have been expanded, providing more motivation to stick with a group and perform their primary task.

We'll continue testing online features after the game launches and will update our review if they significantly impact our assessment of the game.

In a different game, I might be frustrated dying at the same part over and over again, because I want to see the next cutscene or get the next upgrade. In Dark Souls 2, figuring out how to progress is the reward.

It helps, as well, that progression in Dark Souls 2 is almost always determined by skill. From Software has cut down on the small annoyances that often tripped up new players in previous releases. For all that it did right, the first Dark Souls was full of unnecessary obfuscation — core gameplay concepts like "humanity" that the game never fully explained, or points where the single path forward was obscured and easy to miss.

Dark Souls 2 still contains plenty of secrets; people will still be picking apart its systems and level layouts and discovering new things for a long time to come. But the heart of the game is clearer and easier to grasp. The traditional half-hearted tutorial ending in a boss that's meant to kill you immediately has been replaced with a simpler, more effective and completely optional zone for learning the ropes.

Drangleic has plenty of secrets

From there, instead of being immediately thrown into an overwhelmingly gigantic world, you're only given two real paths forward, each extending from a hub town whose population will grow as you progress. It's a gentler introduction that still doesn't compromise the terrifying beast of a game you're about to get into.

Hardcore fans who are reading this may be worried about Dark Souls 2 being "more straightforward," but you needn't be too concerned. While the first 15 hours of the game is a little easier — dare I say it, even approachable — the game's complexity blossoms from there. What began as two paths sprouts into four, then six, then countless tiny offshoots, some leading to small bits of treasure, others to whole new zones and bosses. A much-improved fast travel system makes it a lot less intimidating to jump back and forth between multiple locations at once, which gave me a lot of leeway to simply move to a different area if I ever felt stuck.

The world seemed to build up organically as I explored, and there's so much of it. The sheer amount of content From Software has created is as impressive as it is terrifying — from massive castles where you can visit every room to a windmill that produces poison to a pitch-black underground lair full of rats. And 60-plus hours into the game, I was still discovering new areas, enemy types and insidious gimmicks that I need to adapt to if I hope to survive.

Wrap Up:

Dark Souls 2's brilliance is worth the exhaustion

But you know what? I did survive, and damn it, I'm proud of that. The Souls games have rarely been about fun, but Dark Souls 2's smart tweaks and concessions brought out positive emotions even amidst the pain and exhaustion. It's still a stressful experience, but it's easier than ever to recognize the brilliance in those moments of triumph that make it more than worth the struggle.

About Polygon's Reviews

Score History

9.0 PS3
9.0 360
9.0 Win
NEW! Update: 04/24/2014

Dark Souls 2 review update: PC

There was reason to be concerned about the PC port of Dark Souls 2. When From Software brought the original Dark Souls over to PC in 2012, it was hamstrung, limited to the same framerate cap and resolution as the console versions and tied to Games for Windows Live for online play. It took a fan-made mod to eventually fix the former problems.

Praise the sun, it seems like From Software has learned a lesson from that disappointment. The PC version of Dark Souls 2 may have taken a little more time to see the light of day, but it's a much more fully-featured port, with all the technical additions we've come to expect from the platform.

Most notably, Dark Souls 2 on PC looks incredible. Between the higher resolution and the solid 60 frames-per-second that it runs at, I was shocked and impressed by the difference between playing the game on PC versus playing on either console.

I've had limited experience with Dark Souls 2's multiplayer on PC, which is now run through dedicated servers. However, the new system has worked wonderfully on consoles — far better than the first game's peer-to-peer connections — and you no longer need to go through the extra step of logging in to Games for Windows Live.

While the upgraded visuals and performance don't change the core of Dark Souls 2 — this is still the same game it was on console — my latest playthrough on PC has without a doubt been my favorite. If you've been patient and have the option to play it on PC, this is absolutely the best platform for From Software's masterpiece.

9.0 PS3
Initial Review: 03/11/2014

Dark Souls 2 review: not the end

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