REVIEW: Dark Souls II packs a heavy, ‘dark’ punch

Tower_of_flame[dropcap]Y[/dropcap]ou are the accursed.

As a fresh soul branded by the mark of the undead, you are an immortal doomed to wander a ruined kingdom in search of the life essences needed to sustain yourself. You will tear it from the hollow vessels that were once like you. With each death, your humanity will be stripped away, bit by bit, until you inevitably become that which you hunt. Just another empty husk in a sea of lost souls.

The Souls series has always been about maintaining a thick atmosphere of dread and despair, creating scenarios where players need to muster up every ounce of courage to press forward in the face of certain death. Dark Souls 2 continues the honored tradition of masochism, but with a few key differences.

In the spirit of things, let’s start with the not-so-good news.

The PC release of Dark Souls 2 was promised to be significantly improved relative to the quick and dirty port of the original Dark Souls where both the framerate and resolution were locked at disastrously low levels. This promise was “technically” kept. Dark Souls 2 supports a much wider range of resolutions and is allowed to run at a smooth 60fps.

However, the game suffers from a few glitches and misdirections. Many players have encountered an issue with crashing on startup that seems to stem from a problem setting initial resolution. There are bizarre workarounds available, and it will certainly be patched soon, but it’s still enough to turn some potential customers away with a rocky first impression.

Aside from the bugs, many are up in arms over the removal of the the superior lighting system that was demoed prior to release. It had been done away with for a more stable console experience, but it should be a relatively small feat for most of the PC crowd to perform. In addition, the keyboard controls and mapping were improved, but it’s no surprise that they are still vastly inferior to playing with a PC gamepad.

Now, if none of that particularly bothers you, it’s smooth sailing from here. Top off your estus flasks, equip the biggest shield you can cower behind, and let’s storm the gates of Drangleic.

Continuity-wise, Dark Souls 2 has little that links it to the previous game aside from a few fun easter eggs. It’s set roughly 300 years after the first Dark Souls and takes place in an entirely different location. The setting feels slightly more modern, but still retains a medieval theme.

In terms of design, the game is best described as a hybrid of Dark Souls and Demon Souls. There is a singular hub town from which a variety of zones branch off, each isolated from the other paths, maximum health is lowered upon each death, and in order to level up you need to utilize a specific NPC in town.

2449203-darksouls2Amongst all these old and familiar mechanics, a few new ones are slipped in. The first being limited enemy respawns. After any normal enemy is killed roughly 15 times, they will stop respawning. This is meant to discourage item/soul farming as well as give more casual players an easier time of progressing if they keep at it. If for some reason you absolutely need to kill more of a certain, despawned, enemy, you can use an item that restores them. The cost is that the restored enemies will be of New Game+ difficulty.

Soul memory is the second addition. It’s a controversial change, much like limited respawns, that seeks to further limit who players can summon and be invaded by. It keeps track of the total amount of souls you’ve collected and only allows players to interact with other players within similar soul memory range, alongside the usual +/-10 soul level limitation. This serves to prevent “twinkers”, who purposely stay at a low level and collect powerful gear, from invading new players, as their soul memories will likely not match up.

This can also severely limit the pool from which you can summon other players to help you. Whether this is the intended effect is not clear, but it has the potential to punish players who soul farm more than others, cutting them off from the rest of the playerbase. The good news is, right now, there’s not much to worry about in that regard. Being newly released and very popular, Dark Souls 2 is absolutely packed to the brim with players and you’ll have little trouble summoning or being summoning by others.

Continuing that topic, the game world is virtually littered with messages and blood stain death recordings. Almost to the point that it’s distracting. From its release only three days ago, the PC community has racked up a total death count rapidly approaching 20 million. I’ve seen people throwing themselves off the cliffs of Majula, presumably having gone mad.

As for summoning friends and strangers, it’s time to praise the sun! Gone is the broken mess and pit of sadness known as Games For Windows Live. The online component of Dark Souls 2 is now handled via Steam and much more reliable. I’ve already engaged in far more jolly cooperation in my 8 hours of DS2 than I was ever able to playing DS1.

And for those of you out there with limited data plans to keep an eye on, I can safely say DS2 is extremely data friendly. Even playing with others frequently, I rarely exceeded 5mb an hour.

Going more in-depth into your character, there are some changes here as well. A few new stats and/or changed stats are thrown into the mix, along with interesting alterations to healing.

Vitality no longer increases health, but increases carry weight. Vigor is the new health stat. Endurance purely handles stamina. Resistance is replaced with Adaptability, working largely the same save for also increasing the new sub-stat, agility. Agility is still somewhat mysterious, but it is currently known to slightly increase item usage speed and invulnerability frames during rolling. Dark and Petrify defenses have been added as well. In response to the larger number of stats to juggle, leveling is now easier as the soul cost doesn’t follow the old exponentially increasing model, but a more linear one.

Just to make things all kinds of fun, DS2 starts you off without estus flasks, the primary form of healing, and gives you a handful of lifegems that slowly heal you over time. Lifegems are limited and don’t “refill” at bonfires. You’ll receive one, and only one, flask once you reach the hub town. Additional flasks can be gained by hunting down the fairly rare flask shards.

Once you’ve adapted to the new changes, it’s still the same Souls quality we all know and love. There are plenty of terrifying zones to explore and bosses to rage at. Secrets and lore are scattered across the entirety of Drangleic and there are still a wide selection of covenants to pledge yourself to and betray. If there is any central theme to the revisions applied to DS2, I’d say it’s in the spirit of creating further tension through a greater need for caution and deciding how best to use much more limited resources.

Dark Souls 2 for the PC is a fantastic and darkly beautiful game that any newcomer or veteran fan of the series will be able to enjoy and I personally look forward to uncovering every inch of it in the days to come.

And if you come across a poor fool named Ghavos, give him a chance. He really needs the souls.