Following up in the Souls series is not an easy task, as Dark Souls proved when it followed up Demon’s Souls back in 2011. Dark Souls II, as a more straight forward sequel as opposed to a spiritual successor of sorts, faces the challenge of being something new, while not changing up the classic Souls formula. In this regard, I think Dark Souls II succeeds in just about every way.
If you’ve played Dark Souls or Demon’s Souls, you’ll find yourself on familiar footing. You’re thrust into the land of Drangleic, a cursed land whose king has gone missing, and you’re tasked with finding him to reverse said curse. As with Dark Souls before it, the story isn’t just laid out in as simple terms, but must be found by exploring the nooks and crannies of the world, reading item descriptions, and talking with NPCs. Nothing is spoonfed to you, especially in regards to story, and the air of mystery in Drangleic is one of the most appealing aspects of this scarred land.
Past that, Drangleic is simply beautiful, and holds several different areas to explore that vary wildly from one another. From castles surrounded by lava to misty forests full of thieves waiting to stab you in the back, there are several locales that took me by surprise. The art direction here is the real star, and you can see the beautiful concepts brought to life from gorgeous sunsets to high peaks in foggy mountains to the eerily quiet Drangleic Castle itself. The stellar levels go beyond just great vistas, but also better placement of enemies, secrets, ladders and hidden doors. For example, the game never tells you that you have to press a button in order to open illusionary walls now (X in the Playstation version), but once you’ve made this discovery, levels take on a whole new light with dozens of secrets you may have never seen. Dark Souls fans will also rejoice at the fact that no lands in Dark Souls II cause serious performance issues, and the framerate will not drop into the teens as you make your way through them.
The real crux of Dark Souls II, as always, is in the gameplay. The stamina system has returned from previous entries, and still represents a give and take to combat. You’ll still juggle the options of taking as many swings with your weapon as you can, preventing attacks with your shield, or the riskier maneuver of attempting to roll out of the way to avoid the attack altogether. Souls combat has always been notoriously hard, and Dark Souls II is no exception. Gone are the invincibility frames that let you literally roll into attacks to avoid taking damage from them, as in the original Dark Souls. Even sneaking up behind an enemy and backstabbing them no longer provides any length of invincibility. This is an improvement, I think, because you can’t really “cheese” the game, and every challenge can’t be solved with a well-timed roll into an attack.
Also, weapons have been reworked so that each weapon or pair of weapons feels separate and different from the others. The sword and shield combo has it’s own flavor now. You can functionally dual-wield swords and other assorted weapons, allowing for ferocious offense at the expense of defense. Magic has been giving new life, with better stats to support it that actual shorten spell-casting time and make spells more viable in one-on-one combat. Everything feels generally improved; faster, easier to approach, and harder to master.
Where I think Dark Souls II actually outshines Dark Souls isn’t only in the world and the level design, but also in the general streamlining of its mechanics. I mentioned the improvements to the combat, but generally everything seems improved. I didn’t feel like I was viciously getting invaded constantly, ala Dark Souls, or that it was impossible to find someone to help me fight a boss or get summoned into another world. The menus have been completely reworked to be much easier to understand and provide you with all the information you need in a concise manner. When you level up, it blatantly tells you exactly what each stat gives you when a point is put into it. All of these improvements were desperately missing from previous entries in the series, and Dark Souls II feels like a competent, modern RPG, without losing the insanity and illusion that made it special in the first place.
I should touch on the fact that visually, Dark Souls II doesn’t shine as much as its predecessor. Though the environments are gorgeous, character models and enemy detail clearly took a hit in favor of performance. Though I find performance to be much more important, it may deter some players away. Also, there is still plenty of Dark Souls jank to be found, but significantly less. Sometimes enemy reach will seem ridiculous, out of the ordinary, or even absurd in the worst cases. The game also gives you little-to-no direction, something to be wary of because it can cause hours of confusion, frustration, and even boredom when at its worst.
Dark Souls II is very much still a Souls game, for better and for worse, and will viciously kill you time and time again. It’s beautiful, it’s brilliantly designed, and a ton of fun, while still very difficult. It’s a massive game that took me over 40 hours to finish, and holds still more secrets to see. From Software has streamlined what was already great to make it more fun, more exhilarating, more challenging, and more approachable, all at the same time.
This review is based on the PS3 version of the game.