Recently, I have been playing Dark Souls 2 for the PS3 and I will admit, I have been thoroughly enjoying myself. Even though I’ve struggled a bit and have only just last night, finished the main game, I thought I would take this opportunity to give you all, my most recent thoughts and opinions on this latest entry into the Souls series. Keep in mind, even though I have been an ardent fan of From Software games, since the mid 90’s (see my King’s Field Retrospective for a bit more info on that series) it doesn’t mean that I will blindly give this game a free pass. So, let’s take a look at Dark Souls 2 and explore my thoughts on this new world of Drangleic.
A Brief History of the Souls Series
Before we get started on Dark Souls 2, let’s take a brief look at the history of the Souls games. Don’t worry, I’ll try and make this quick as I can.
The Souls series began with Demon’s Souls, published in 2009 and released in Japan, the United States and Europe. As a PS3 exclusive game, it was labeled as the “spiritual successor” to the King’s Field series, which had been released some fifteen years earlier, for the PSX. Released in the U.S. by Atlus, the game gradually gathered a strong cult following, made up of dedicated, hardcore, challenge seeking gamers.
From the control scheme and game mechanics, to the games brutal difficulty, Demon’s Souls laid the ground work for what we now know as a Souls game. It also re-energized the From Software brand, propelling them out of obscurity. I spent hours and hours on this game, exploring the world, learning spells and fighting along side my fellow PSN friends. That was one of the key reasons why I liked Demon’s Souls so much, it had a fantastic multiplayer setup, combining a thrilling system of co-op PvE and intense PvP. It was like nothing I had ever played before. It was absolutely fantastic.
Similar in design, play style and visuals to that of Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls was said to be its spiritual successor. (From Software really likes to use that term ‘spiritual successor’, don’t they?) It was released for both the PS3 and the XBOX 360 in 2011 and finally for the PC in 2012. This time it was Namco Bandai, who took the publishing reigns, releasing the game in both the United States and Europe, while From Software handled the Japanese release.
Dark Souls built upon the success of it’s predecessor, keeping alive the Demon’s Souls style of brutal game play, while adding a few new game elements into the mix. Now, depending on your play style, not all of these changes were seen as a good thing, for example Namco Bandai decided not to use a dedicated server and instead went with a Peer to Peer type player connection. If you wanted to play with a particular friend, it was very difficult to accomplish this with 100% accuracy and many players found that annoying. On the plus side, this method allowed you to play with anyone from around the world, but many of my friends had no interest playing with random players.
Now on with Dark Souls II….
Dark Souls II was released on March 11, 2014, for both the PS3 and the XBOX 360. While it has been stated that this game is NOT a direct sequel to Dark Souls, there are obvious connections spread throughout the game, linking both these storylines together. Of course, the entire story has yet to be fully flushed out by the online community, but they have made huge steps in that direction.
So far, this game plays very much like the other games in the Souls series. The graphics are slightly improved and the storyline seems to be far more cryptic, but all of the core elements that made the Souls franchise, are still intact. What are those core elements you ask? Well let’s take a look…
So far, all of the Souls games have been brutally difficult and extremely challenging. They don’t pull any punches or coddle the player in any way. They force you to focus and to think about each move you make. Diving headfirst into a fight and not being aware of your surroundings WILL get the player killed. Being rash is not a good mindset to have with any Souls game. Remember, in these games, everything wants you dead and your enemies are willing to sneak up on you, overwhelm you, shoot you from a distance, set you on fire, push you off of ledges, drown you, eat you, poison you… the list can go on and on.
Yes, Dark Souls II is punishing and unforgiving, but that isn’t a detriment to the franchise. The game wouldn’t be a Souls game if it wasn’t difficult. That might sound strange, but it is true. In fact, most of the fans that I know, crave its brutal nature and the challenge and frustration that these games bring. It has become a staple of the series and a major selling point.
Of course, since these games are very difficult, you are far more prone to killing off your character and losing progress. We fans have come to expect this facet from a Souls game, but it can be a rude awaking for the more casual gamer.
With that being said, death in Dark Souls II doesn’t feel empty or meaningless, like in some games. As long as you are paying attention, each and every death teaches you a valuable lesson. To illustrate this, what follows is a small list of ideas that I have personally discovered, while playing the Souls series and DkS2:
- Always be aware of your surroundings.
- Don’t assume anything.
- Never think that you are safe from death, even in the early parts of the game.
- If an enemy looks like it can kill you, it probably will.
- If an enemy looks like a pushover, he’s probably going to kill you.
- Never be rash.
- Never drain all of your stamina, if you can help it.
- Take your time. Never try and rush through an area or try and speed things up.
- If you get stuck, try thinking out of the box, try new approaches.
- And never, EVER carry large amounts of souls on your person. Especially if you are going into an uncharted area or new boss room.
I’ve learned all of those things (and much, much more), just by playing the game, by trying new things, testing my limits, exploring my surroundings and watching others play. The game didn’t hold my hand. It didn’t coddle me. It tossed me into the fray, into the cold and unforgiving world. Sink or swim, it is all up to the player. I love that; being left up to my own devices, going at my own pace and doing things my way. It is quite empowering!
I have always found it fascinating how FROM Software can tell us a story, without really telling us anything. Sure we might be given the bare minimum of basic world information, but everything else, the rest of the puzzle is discovered entirely through lore, item descriptions, dialogue and visuals. Players aren’t generally given much more than basic world information, but that is just enough to get you to want more. Players tend to discover and stumble upon the story, rather than be slapped in the face with it.
If you doubt the extensiveness of FROM Software’s storyline in DkS2, just look at all the work the online communities have done. They have collaboratively pieced together an epic and fascinating story, connecting plot lines and story points across the entire game. Also, they have done all of this with only the smallest bits and pieces of lore, spread throughout and around the new Kingdom of Drangleic. That is pretty impressive.
Personalizing and Identifying with Your Character
The Souls games have always had a great, fully customizable character creation system that allows the player to chose and adjust a host of features. You can tweak almost everything about your person: gender, body type, hair style, hair color, eye shape, cheek shape, check color, skin color…. If you can name it, you can probably adjust it. It is as in-depth and as powerful as you could ever want.
Now, if you are anything like me, you might spend far to much time on this part of the game. Don’t feel bad, the last time I built a character, I spent almost an hour playing with different settings. Why did I spend so much time on her? Simply put, I like to feel connected to my character. I feel more in tune with an avatar that I have painstakingly created, then I ever do with those average, generic, stock creations. It keeps me rooted in the game and get’s me invested in my choices. Since I never want anything bad to befall my character, I find that I am more careful and deliberate with my actions. That means less deaths and more fun. Maybe that’s just me, but either way I usually have fun with the whole process.
Online / Co-op Play
Like the other entries in the Sous series, DkS2 has a very in-depth system of online play. For me, its main appeal is co-op PvE, but there is a strong sense of competitive PvP as well. Starting with Demon’s Souls, the Souls series has had some of the most heart pounding multiplayer that I have ever experienced. If you have never played it, let me try and give you an idea of what it is like.
Imagine this, you are going about your business, killing monsters and exploring the dark corners of the world, when out of no where, you are invaded by another player. This is called a Black Phantom. He is there for one reason, and one reason only….to kill you! What do you do? Do you run? Do you fight? Do you hide and hope he won’t find you? What do you do?
Then you see him. A ghostly figure, shrouded in a red and black mist. He is looking for a fight and you have no choice but to defend yourself.
Being jarred out of your quiet, solo experience is one thing, but to have another player, violently hunt you for sport, is a totally different story. An invasion always got my heart pounding.
DkS1 had a very similar feel to that of Demon’s Souls , but with a greater emphasis placed on online interactions. They instituted the idea of player covenants, added different types of invading phantoms and gave PvP players a variety of ways to battle other PvP’ers. They also made an attempt to legitimize invasions, by creating a covenant reward system that added a reason for these types of interactions.
Covenants were designed to enhance and add depth to the online invasion system, but I’m not sure how well it really worked. It did introduce some very interesting ideas, but the system was not as easy to utilize, as it should have been. I ended up hardly participating in multiplayer for Dark Souls 1, due mainly to the very limiting P2P server set up, that Namco Bandai had instituted. Plus with the increase in lag and connection instability, multiplayer became just plain frustrating.
In Dark Souls 2, multiplayer is back in full force and it has taken a lot of the ideas from Dark Souls 1 and placed an even greater emphasis on elements like PvP, covenants and dueling. Fortunately, with Namco’s decision to utilize dedicated, region based servers, multiplayer actually works! Summonings have been greatly increased, invasions are more frequent and there are even a number of items to increase the ease of joining your friends! There seems to have been a great attempt by the publisher and developer to appeal to as many types of players as they can, giving everyone something that they can enjoy about the game’s multiplayer system.
Over all, I’m pleased with FROM’s latest entry into the Souls game and I plan on playing this one, for a long time. That is not to say that this game isn’t without some minor issues. For example, the auto-target system is very twitchy, sometimes jumping from enemy to enemy, at the worst possible time. Camera angles will sometimes move erratically, disorientating the player. Some bosses seem to have inconsistent AOE attacks, that end up dealing damage to the player, at unexpected times. Controller input can sometimes lag slightly, causing you to panic-press the same button and end up swinging or rolling, WAY more than you intended. But, despite these issues, the game is very well done and it is a lot of fun to play. If you haven’t played it or were still on the fence about it’s worth, I would recommend giving this one a shot. Now, if you will excuse me, I have souls to collect….
I’ll see you in Drangleic.