Following up a great game is never easy. Fans expect more of what they loved from the first installment, peppered with the requisite originality to produce an experience all its own. Familiar, yet different at the same time. It’s a tightwire act few have safely navigated.
Following up Dark Souls is another matter entirely, for Dark Souls is no ordinary great game. Upon its release in 2011, it became a punishing beacon of hope in a gaming world many viewed as overly-fixated on accommodating the lowest common denominator. A community of like-minded gamers formed around it, drawn to the unparalleled agency and respect it affords players in equal measure; progress was won with observation, patience, and perseverance, though perhaps more important was the fact that it had to be won at all. Demon’s Souls may have been a revelation, but Dark Souls was a revolution – a touchstone moment where the series reached critical mass and claimed its rightful place among the cherished classics of the medium.
The shoes could not have been bigger.
Dark Souls II is far from the radical departure of its predecessor, offering instead an evolutionary installment that boasts those trademark features we expect from a Souls game while taking few bold steps beyond. It’s a relatively safe outing that seems less interested in filling those shoes than it is in avoiding an embarrassing pratfall while wearing them – more Twilight Princess than Majora’s Mask. While some will naturally be disappointing by an unambitious effort from developer From Software, it’s harder to bemoan what they have managed to deliver: another masterclass in the challenge/reward gameplay that remains the franchise’s calling card.
No one does combat ecosystems better than From, and Dark Souls II is their finest outing yet. Knowledge of enemy behavior and attack patterns are crucial to survival, as even the lowliest hollow can inflict horrible damage on an inattentive player. Knowing how any given enemy will act in combat has a dramatic effect on how you approach each situation: Alonne Knight Captains attack with frightening speed, but suffer from lengthy recovery periods that render them vulnerable to backstabs. The sword-and-shield-wielding Old Knights of Heide’s Tower are easily dispatched by circle-strafing around their predictable combos. Ogres hit hard and have a fatal grab attack, but are prone to losing their balance and falling over. Every enemy has its own unique quirks that demand a tailored approach.
Positioning plays a larger role than ever before thanks to the game’s penchant to put you at a numerical disadvantage – a fact that has sadly been lost on many a critic. Though the Souls combat system appears on its face to be designed for one-on-one fighting, spacing and manipulation are just as integral to the system as its Zeldaesque lock-on. As noted earlier, progress is won with observation, patience, and perseverance, and nowhere are those qualities more in demand than when facing off against multiple opponents.
The fight against Ornstein and Smough was one of the best in gaming because it demanded and rewarded excellence in every aspect of combat. Dark Souls II never hits that highest of notes, but many encounters recall a similar tune. In particular, the Ruin Sentinels, Throne Watcher/Defender, Dual Dragonriders, and NG+ Lost Sinner stress mastery of those aspects, rewarding the intelligent player who knows their enemy and strikes when the opportunity presents itself. It remains a cerebral exercise as much as anything else.
This holds true with the game’s more mundane opposition as well. Take, for example, what is often bandied about as one of the game’s “cheapest” encounters: the Lost Bastille’s Royal Swordsman army. Just prior to the area boss is a multi-tier room packed with no fewer than 10 of these enemies, each posing a legitimate threat. While their numbers can quickly overwhelm even veteran adventurers, it’s the design of the room itself that makes survival feasible; with a single stairway snaking down to the bottom floor, observant players will bottle the Royal Swordsmen up as they give chase; the situation becomes much easier to handle when only two or three enemies engage at a time. Reach the bottom, circle around, and repeat. Once the group is thinned out, the open space on each floor provides ample room to finish the job while keeping stragglers at sword’s length.
Observation, patience, perseverance.
Every encounter in Dark Souls II is so designed. There isn’t a single moment that feels half as unfair as the Large Divine Ember death chamber from its predecessor, which packed six Giant Skeletons into an inky black room roughly the size of a tennis court. Nor is there anything quite as silly as FC Taurus Demon prowling the fiery pitch of Demon Ruins.
That slavish devotion to balance sadly doesn’t extend to the healing system, and in this we can see the perils of the different. The immaculate Estus Flask/Bonfire interplay was anything but broken, yet From attempted to fix it anyway by introducing Lifegems: healing consumables that restore health slowly over time. It’s an awkward attempt to marry the Estus concept from Dark Souls with the grass concept from Demon’s Souls – a decision that only serves to trivialize the both of them. After just a few short hours with the game, you’ll have the ability to purchase an unlimited number of Lifegems for a paltry 300 souls each.
It’s easy to see what they were going for: Estus Flasks would be used in emergency situations when the player needed to restore a large amount of health very quickly, while Lifegems would serve as disposable band-aids to top off after minor damage. In doing so, they eliminated a large part of what made Dark Souls’ system so compelling. With a limited number of Flasks at your disposal, there was often a genuinely difficult choice to make after taking damage short of what a single Flask would heal. Do you use one, knowing that part of its potency is wasted? Or do you save it for later and soldier on with a chunk of your health bar missing?
Thanks to Dark Souls II’s generous bonfire distribution, that choice likely wouldn’t exist even without Lifegems.
In Demon’s Souls, the only way to measure tangible progress was by activating shortcuts, such as the elevator in 2-1 or the bridge in 5-2 (my dearest friend, that bridge). These shortcuts were often situated near the end of the levels, and took anywhere from 20 minutes to nearly an hour to reach. Dark Souls operated in a similar fashion, though the shortcuts were now as geographic as they were practical, weaving traversable threads through the sprawling world of Lordran. Bonfires became the new measure of progress, serving as Flask-restoring checkpoints that the player would return to after dying. Dark Souls II’s structure much more closely resembles the sectioned-off linearity of Demon’s Souls than the Metroidvania tangle of Dark Souls, yet it borrows the latter’s measure of progress.
And so follows the perils of the familiar.
The problem isn’t so much in the bonfires themselves — unlike Demon’s Souls, the levels are essentially tied together end-to-end — but in just how frequently they appear. Dark Souls’ 38 bonfires were appropriated spaced, making the discovery of each one an achievement in its own right; it often felt like you were desperately lunging forward into the unknown, Estus Flasks dwindling away as you sought the bonfire that would make permanent your progress. Dark Souls II, on the other hand, features 62 bonfires, some of which are almost literally within a stone’s throw of each other.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the mid-game area of Harvest Valley. Two rooms, three legitimate enemies, and a few Hollows are all that separate the Valley’s first two bonfires. Even on a first playthrough, they are no more than five minutes apart. It quite honestly seems like a concession to less-skilled players: keep the overall level of difficulty the same as it’s always been to placate the loyalists, while dramatically toning down the punishment for failure in order to attract a larger audience.
Remove that second bonfire, and the composition of Harvest Valley immediately becomes much more logical. Instead of being split by bonfires, the relatively-short Harvest Valley is bookended by them, the gap now closer to fifteen minutes than five. An area is traversed, a boss defeated, and a moment is given for the player to collect themselves before moving onward. It’s so much more sensible that one must wonder why exactly From saw fit to place that second bonfire.
It would be easy to cherrypick the most egregious example, but Dark Souls II is filled with bonfires that feature a similar proximity. The very next area, Earthen Peak, houses three bonfires. Shaded Woods: three bonfires. Drangleic Castle: four. Shrine of Amana: four. These are levels that often take less time to traverse than their counterparts in Demon’s Souls, where the most you could hope for was a shortcut here or there.
Bonfires, much like the save rooms from Resident Evil, are meant to serve as areas of respite and recovery, their significance amplified by the hardship endured to reach them. If that hardship no longer exists, then what purpose do they serve beyond glorified checkpoint?
Structure, then, is where Dark Souls II takes the pratfall it was so desperate to avoid. Much has been made of how patchwork Drangleic utterly fails to achieve the remarkable inter-connectivity and cohesion of Lordran, but it’s this ill-fitting system of measuring progress that all but destroys a fundamental part of the series’ demanding personality. That growing, gnawing sense of desperation – trademark of the first two installments – is nowhere to be found. Resources never become scarce. Progress is rarely at stake. It’s a staggering regression.
Dark Souls II is a game stuck between two worlds, stubbornly clinging to incompatible elements from its predecessors, unwilling to step beyond their shadow and shape itself as a singular experience. Yet this reticence does bring a certain surefootedness along with it; never are we subjected to baffling mechanics like World Tendency or jarring dips in quality like much of post-Lordvessel Dark Souls. Consistency is the king of this castle, and it’s in the execution we finally find the confidence of a game so insecure in its identity.
Neither revelation nor revolution, Dark Souls II is content to rest on its sterling laurels. Lucky us that contented greatness is greatness regardless.
A copy of the game was independently acquired by the reviewer.