Saturday, April 5, 2014

REVIEW - Dark Souls II.

Between Dark Souls II, Dark Souls and the series' spiritual predecessor Demon's Souls, developer From Software have established themselves as the final word on the subject of pure action RPGs.  The game offers wide-open character customization, a misty, ethereal plot, a wondrous and sad world to explore, and sublimely gritty challenge.

It's a masterpiece, and an instant Game of the Year contender. Again.

"Son, you come like a beggar in the streets.
You might make it, boy, but by the skin of your teeth.
-The Silent Comedy - Bartholomew-

The world is far more populous, and the game is, aesthetically, brighter than its predecessors - likely because it was designed to be darker, at first.  Through most of the game you'll come across sconces and braziers you can set afire to provide beacons of light, and one gets the sense that the lighting across the entire game was once turned down very low to make use of this new gameplay mechanic, which would see the player inching forward in pitch-black, a torch held high for light - which must have been abandoned, as most of the game is downright bright.  

Dark Souls II is also a much... smoother drink.  After defeating any single enemy in the game ten times - the "little" peons blocking your way to a boss - that enemy will never appear again.  You can, effectively, clear out entire swaths of the game if you choose, to make your trip to the bosses easier (or, as a result of finding a boss particularly challenging).

This creates both a guaranteed sense of progression on the part of the player, and simultaneously limits the amount of souls that can be farmed from any given area, and enthusiastic Souls fans may view such changes as an affront to the perfection the series is heir to - but any any such bones of contention feel meaningless, compared to what's on offer, here.

It's different.  The flavor is different, but the qualities that earned the series its place in the collective gamer consciousness remain. This, too, is a masterpiece.

The Emerald Herald wants to believe, but has seen so many fail. 

I cannot count the number of times I muttered "man I love this game," as I played it.  The Souls games continue to tick off all the boxes we associate with them...
  • A totally original, seamless fantasy kingdom to explore, from dense forests to towering castles to the depths of the world.
  • Complete freedom in character development and customization.  Want to be a spellcasting barbarian with a gigantic hammer?  You can.
  • A unique bend on co-op and competitive multiplayer. 
  • Bosses that will kick the shit out of you, right up until you kick the shit out of them. 
  • An epic-length, 60+-hour campaign. 
...but it sidesteps the pitfalls of games that principally concern themselves with hitting buzzwords.  From Software possess some beautiful insight into what, precisely, makes their games so supremely involving and satisfying for the player - beyond the mechanics, beyond the bosses - and they never lose sight of it.  It is, I like to think, romance. 

These are supremely beautiful, romantic games - deeply sexy, in all but the literal sense.  The narrative, such as it is, is a pallid, secretive creature that only suggests the contours of its context, and coquettishly refuses to fill in the gaps - gaps that the player cannot help but paint full of passionate tones with their imagination.

Ours is not, here, to reason why - ours is but to do and die, and die, and die - and the trembling, enigmatic history of the kingdom of Drangleic is not, ultimately, the context that drives the player forward to explore Dark Souls II.

The player's real context, here, is only their own - the story one experiences as they push on against seemingly-impossible odds.  This is a soaring, towering adventure in the grandest sense - one infinitely far-removed from the deeply-scripted, microscopically-managed campaigns of any other action game you could name - and its value proves far deeper, as every tragedy and triumph feels so heavily authored by the player themselves.

These are your tragedies, and only your victories.

Much of Dark Souls II's joys come from the pleasure of exploring its mysterious world.  Of stepping out of a Bastille tower onto a two-hundred yard bridge to an even greater tower beyond, of stumbling your way through the inky black depths of The Gutter, of feeling out the edges of mist-shrouded woods.  Its art direction, unbound by preconceived notions or influence, remains oddly consistent as you explore vastly different areas, from sunken ruins lit with bioluminescent flowers, to gleaming sandstone castles, balanced atop needle-thin, broken foundations far above an angry ocean.

Supremely beautiful, romantic, and sexy.

And then, you die.

You'll die a lot.  The first little pissant enemies you meet will kick the shit out of you.
"They will kill you, always, again and again, until you learn to overcome them and step that much further into the swirling dark - stomach tight and shield raised. This world is bent to the task of your doom, but the immortal dead are uniquely well-positioned to learn its dark secrets."-from the Dark Souls review-

Each death strips you of all the unspent souls you were carrying (the game's XP and currency), and they wait where you died, for you to retrieve.  If you die, again, on your way to pick them up?  Poof, gone forever.  I have laughed like a maniac when I made some stupid mistake with an enemy I'd beaten a half-dozen times before, and let seventy thousand souls slip through my grasp.

But it was my mistake.  Every enemy, every room, every animation in the game is something to learn, something to file away in your muscle memory until, you discover, you're no longer afraid of the Old Ironclad knights and their impossibly-huge maces.

You know when he pulls that mace over his right shoulder, he'll do a single horizontal swing, and be open for attack.  You know when he pulls it over his left shoulder, he'll do four big horizontal swings in a row, and be open for attack.  You know when he raises it over his head, he's about to do an overhead smash, and if you attempt to block it or do a backward roll, it will flatten you.

And you know that, when he raises it over his head, all you need to do is dart to the side as it swings down, and he is open for your most vicious of replies.

Part of the beauty of the Souls games have long been the way the player slowly, through experience, intuits the rules of their world - from the way your sword will clang off a stone wall instead of, y'know, cutting through it, to the amount of time each swing of its more-ridiculous weapons require.

There is a balance to every item, every weapon in the game, and with enough experience under the player's belt, the rules and possibilities of Dark Souls II are as immediate and unconsciously understood as our own physical realm.

For example, the concept of beating a boss on our first meeting in Demon's Souls and Dark Souls is laughable.  Not gonna' happen.  Ever.

I beat at least a half-dozen of Dark Souls II's bosses on my first encounter with them - and several more on the second.  Which is kinda' weird.  When I came out of the top of Aldia's Keep and found myself confronted with the Guardian Dragon, I strapped my balls on tight, raised my shield and stepped up.   Kept my shield up when the fire breath came, slashed away at its legs and evaded when it tried to stomp.

"Fought a lot of dragons, have ya?"  Kayla asked when it went down.

"Actually, that was the first one I've seen."

Which... I'll be honest, strips many of the boss fights of their grandeur.  They don't feel very boss monster-y when you dispatch them with the same ease as a peon, but such examples are few and far between (and, one must admit, permits one to feel rather badass).  On the other end of the spectrum, though, are encounters that pushed me to the absolute limits of my sanity.

Well, an encounter.  An optional fight, at the top of a huge castle rampart stairway, guarded by the fiercest of enemies.

I fought that thing for over an hour, dying again and again, fighting my way back only to die anew, my beloved bearing witness to my shame as the ancient creature one-shotted me countless times. This side-thing I didn't even need to fight.

But when it fell..?  That, my friends, was the sweetest plum - the height of pleasures that Dark Souls II offers, but the same flavor that permeates the entire experience.

The game is a gigantic, epic, monstrous days-long fight across a beautiful, towering dark fantasy world - if you choose to rise to meet it.

There is nothing else like this.  No game you'll play will give you not just the adventure, but the feeling of a doomed hero, exploring crumbling, ancient structure no living eye has looked upon in centuries, intestines coiled tight, a sturdy shield in one hand and a trusted, beloved weapon in another.

Sequel it may be, a smoother drink it may be, but despite its familiarity, Dark Souls II offers an experience that remains profound.


  1. So that wasn't just me? I killed orenstine part duex, that pirate ship guy and the scorpion lady on my first try too. So i'm not out growing DS, there were just some stupid easy bosses. Good! That honestly makes me feel a lot better about 2

    Also, it feels like I'm 3/4's of the game through and I still haven't seen hide nor hair of the mirror knight. He can't be the halfway point... right? I'm pretty sure I have 3 lord souls.

    1. Ornstein was a first-try for me, too. To be honest, I don't specifically remember many of the others. Oh, there was a wizard and "his congregation" - they went down easy as pie.

      "His congregation" didn't do too well against a few wide sweeps of a man-sized sword - but I wonder if some bosses are simply built to be more trouble for some builds than others. I have a friend playing pure caster who got repeatedly stomped by bosses I had little trouble with.