From Software’s sequel to the fantastic Dark Souls has been out on console for a while now, with the PC version released last week. We’ve played it extensively and while the game is amazing, it’s not without its faults.
Dark Souls 2 brings in new features and design concepts to the franchise which build upon the previous instalments in the series; however not everything is perfect in the land of Drangleic. Some of the changes From Software made are genuinely there to ease the notoriously steep entry barrier that the series has become known for, while other changes feel somewhat lazy or puzzling.
Dark Souls 2 is a sequel of course, so it’s to be expected that some themes and items would be carried over from its predecessor; but it turns out there is a little too much of Dark Souls in Dark Souls 2. The plot feels eerily similar, boiling down to obtaining the four large souls of power and finding the King to fix his wrongdoings. Why are you doing this? That’s even less clear than it was in Dark Souls, and as soon as the Emerald Herald meets you, suddenly you’re declared the “next monarch” with no real explanation. While many will appreciate being left to piece together the backstory of the world by themselves, Dark Souls 2’s story sometimes feels as though it’s obtuse for the sake of it.
The Emerald Herald is one of the main guides of the plot of Dark Souls 2, and she will frequently give you vague hints about your goal and what directions to take. Generally she will start every conversation with the same few lines. This becomes annoying rather quickly, as every time you talk to her she’ll slowly run through her opening dialogue before letting you into her menu tree.
Furthermore, you end up talking to the Emerald Herald quite frequently as she’s the only way of leveling up your character. Hearing her repeat the same lengthy opening is tedious at best. This is essentially a conceptual design choice harkening back to Demon’s Souls, where the player had to return to the hub area to level up. Dark Souls diverged from this concept by letting players level up at every bonfire, which felt like a good change from Demon’s Souls arduous leveling process. This return to the system used inthe original Souls game is therefore disappointing.
On some occasions, after letting the Herald run through her opening dialogue, her menu wouldn’t appear. We would end up standing and admiring the beautifully-crafted vista that is Manjula, before running away from her to reset the whole event and start again. This wasn’t a frequent issue – and it’s possible that it gets fixed in a post-release update – but it happened enough to make it worth mentioning.
While Dark Souls 2 changes leveling back to the hub zone, this time around From Software grants the player the ability to fast travel from every bonfire right from the start of the game. This change to fast travel essentially turns every bonfire into a spot to level up, except now you have go through a loading screen and the lengthy dialogue opening before you can do so, which can get rather annoying after a while.
This wouldn’t be a review of a Souls game without mentioning the difficulty, of course. Some veterans have voiced concern in this area, worried that the introduction of different difficulty settings would lead to a dumbing-down in the name of greater accessibility. The sequel is noticeably easier than the original Dark Souls, but not due to our skill of playing with the previous games’ mechanics.
Many of the changes made to the Souls formula are much-needed improvements that make the series more accessible for new players. Most famously – and controversially – From Software has added multiple difficulty settings to the game. Dark Souls 2 has an Easy Mode, a Normal Mode, and a Hard Mode that players can activate through in game triggers and items. There’s a Covenant that lowers how often you’ll get invaded, as well as slightly lowering enemy health and damage, none which is made clear when you join it. There’s also a Covenant that makes enemies harder and behave differently.
The problem with these difficulty levels is more than their existence, it’s the fact that they are under-explained and require player agency to seek out and activate. Furthermore, the base difficulty of the game is already easier than that of the original Dark Souls. New players to the series are not getting the full Souls experience, where a steep learning curve and the series’ unforgiving nature was a rite of passage.
Finally, adding and obscuring on/off switches for difficulty is something that would only appeal to the most advanced of players; most novice players will skip over or not even notice them. It’s a bit off to introduce a feature intended to make the game more accessible, only to then willfully obscure its existence. In Dark Souls, every player had to overcome the difficulties of the game to truly get the most out of it. Now, with the base difficulty lessened, the whole experience has been cheapened. What was once the default experience has been relegated to Hard Mode, which feels somehow wrong for a series that made a name for itself by eschewing the trend of developers making their games too easy on the default setting.
To tell the truth, by no means do we consider ourselves to be particularly gifted when it comes to playing any of the Souls games, but we never once felt that we couldn’t overcome any of the challenges they set. No, Dark Souls 2 isn’t easier simply due to experience, or even the existence of multiple difficulty settings; it’s easier because of several changes, many of which involve how enemy monsters behave differently than in previous games.
For starters, enemies rarely block or parry, which will leave them wide open for attacks, making dispatching them that much easier. They rely on brute force to break your stamina and guard to kill you, rather than timing attacks as before. Many enemies will either swing their weapon around wildly – with little regard for their own safety – or simply stand in front of you, meandering while you cut them down.
They also seem to rarely use their own Estus Flask to heal themselves. Elite Knights would heal themselves liberally in the first Dark Souls, to the point where fighting them could become an annoying war of attrition. Here, they seem to care little for their lives and as a result killing them sometimes lacks that satisfying sense of achievement that made previous games in the series so compelling.
While they do give chase if you attempt to run away, the leash on many monsters seems to have been shortened between games; many enemies will rarely stray far from their spawn position. Additionally, they won’t follow you close to a bonfire to prevent you from resting or using an Estus Flask. Enemies will get to the end of their leash and either stand passively, or pace back slowly to their starting location. This makes cheap arrow sniping all the easier to help clear out some of the tougher monsters, and we’re ashamed to say that yes, we did exploit the game in this way.
Not only are the enemies that populate Dark Souls 2 easier, there also seem to be fewer of them. To make matters worse after killing an enemy enough times, they’ll stop respawning. While this certainly makes the game more accessible to newcomers (and you can use an item to reset the spawn limit in the area around a bonfire – which has the additional effect of resurrecting bosses and increasing the difficulty level), as a veteran of the Souls series our initial experience of this change was jarring, running up a flight of stairs to find an empty room where just minutes ago it had been filled with monsters.
Players will no doubt spent plenty of time arguing the various merits and demerits of this new system, but in our opinion, removing enemies from the gameworld takes away from one of the key experiences of Dark Souls – carefully clearing your way back to a boss that could very will kill you and force you to do it all over again. Every single run through an area was fraught with danger. It was a great way to add tension to boss fights, as death cost you more than your souls – it cost you time to fight your way back to the fog wall (and potentially die along the way).
While it seems that there are fewer standard enemies in general, there is certainly an overabundance of Bosses. Almost every fog wall now hides a boss behind it, as well as many player notes warning you of the upcoming battle. Yet many of the bosses feel more like elite trash, rather than the epic boss fights of previous games. Out of all the bosses encountered, only three posed any substantial challenge, and two of these were only difficult because there was more than one monster in the encounter, essentially rehashed versions of Belfry Gargoyle fight and the Ruin Sentinels from the previous game.
Fans of the franchise have always had something of a love/ hate relationship with the series’ menus due to them being somewhat clumsy and low on information. Dark Souls 2 makes some strides with accessibility and explanations of the various aspects of your character sheet and equipment stats; however, these changes still pale in comparison to what we would normally expect. It’s an improvement, sure – and some will simply accept it’s shortcomings as one of the game’s quirks – but it’s a shame that many will still find it unnecessarily confusing and awkward to navigate.
Things aren’t helped by a noticeable delay when opening up the character menu. On occasion, the game even failed to respond to our button input for so long that we assumed it must have been bugged. We’d end up pushing the start button several times as a result, causing a backlog of command queues that would open and close the menu a few times before settling on one or the other.
This lack of responsiveness carried through to other actions as well; while unresponsive menus is simply annoying, the input delay becomes a much more dangerous problem when you try to dodge, or you desperately need to get an Estus Flask and nothing happens. How this problem made it past testing is puzzling, as the Souls games are generally known for their tight controls and responsiveness. Hopefully it’s an issue that gets resolved soon.
With so many players online, you’d perhaps think that you would find your game constantly invaded, but this hasn’t been our experience. Rarely did we find ourselves invaded by others, whereas in the first game we felt constantly threatened whenever we reversed our Hallowing.
There are probably several combinations of reasons for this, many of which could revolve around the fact that the game is so new for all players. Players who took part in PvP in Dark Souls spent a lot of time trying to find the most optimized specs and gear, as well as the perfect soul level to be overpowered compared to the average player. Constantly in Dark Souls we would run into very well-geared players who would kill us without skipping a beat. This time, we’ve not had much of a problem. People are still learning the ins and outs of the game, leaving it a very even playing field. Thanks in part to this, we’ve found PvP much more enjoyable this time around and have taken more of an active role in online play.
Unfortunately, outside of Covenant rewards there seems to be little incentive to invade others. There are no weapon rewards or Humanity (humanity has been removed in this game) rewards that we’ve noticed. In fact, much of the PVP has been channeled into more of the Covenant zones and rewards, much like the forest from the previous game.
Cleverly, players are able to set up traps and obstacles that will hinder players as you force them to be summoned into your world. This mechanic is a refreshing change on PVP adding variety and some decent rewards. However, this could lead to the decline in “open-world” pvp that was so prevalent in Dark Souls I, as many players are happier to set up shop and lie in wait to ambush others.
Dark Souls 2 is a grand and vast game, much larger than Dark Souls, but this is not necessarily a good thing. One of the most iconic aspects of the previous games was how compact and tightly woven its world was, with its regions and zones having several winding paths into and out from each other. The result was a world that felt cohesive and believable; one of the major enjoyments in Dark Souls was the near-constant sense of discovery and exploration.
Sure Dark Souls 2 is much better looking, and the zones feel well-established and beautiful when compared to many zones within Dark Souls – but we never felt the same sense of discovery that we did before. We kept waiting and hoping there would be some shortcuts between zones, but in the end, we simply made extensive use of the fast-travel system. Areas don’t seem to join together as seamlessly as before, either; and while this has allowed the developer to let their imagination run riot when crafting the world of Drangleic, freed from the need to have everything join up convincingly, a degree of immersion has been lost along the way.
We’ve mentioned a couple of bugs so far, but sadly they’re not the only ones. Seemingly at random the sounds made from actions and dialogue will cut out for a moment before returning. This happened frequently enough to bring us out from under the game’s thrall. It’s unfortunate, because the performances of the cast are generally high-quality, bringing a sense of charm to the cast of vague characters.
Now, we should clarify that we’ve barely been able to put the game down since we started playing it – a fact which has actually delayed this review. It’s possible that many of the issues we have with the game could be seen by some as nit-picking, but with two almost universally-revered games behind it, the Souls series is set against a higher standard than most games.
Perhaps we’re being too critical and elitist about Dark Souls 2. New players will get an amazing experience, and we highly encourage everyone to play the game. But in the end we were left a little disappointed, wanting more out of Dark Souls 2 than we got. Not all of its concessions to accessibility work for the better, while other areas that could have benefited from a re-think remain disappointingly clumsy. The re-use of many concepts from the previous game also disappoints.
However, despite its faults, Dark Souls 2 is still likely to be one of the best games released this year. It’s engrossing, it has plenty of replay value, and there’s likely plenty of secrets locked away in its depths waiting to be uncovered; but if From Software was hoping to top Dark Souls, they still have some way to go.