Remember when games were a challenge? Remember when they tested you? Games used to be hard, you used to have to figure them out. Dark Souls was a return to that and Dark Souls II follows on from that idea to near perfection.
Dark Souls II drops you into a world, after a little bit of set up and then lets you loose. There is a point to the game, there is an end game, but there is no real guidance of how to get there. This isn’t a linear story driven experience, there aren’t any real corridor mechanics, nothing like that. It starts you off and tells you to work it out for yourself.
It is the gaming equivalent of your parent giving birth, telling you what the world is and leaving you to fend for yourself. What works here though, is that despite very little guidance you still understand what it is you have to do, you move through the world taking baby steps, figuring things out on the fly. It is trial and error at points, but hey, it is the same in life, you learn from your mistakes.
You will make mistakes, lots of them, time and time again, but you realise what those mistakes are and you learn from them. Taking on an enemy that will simply overpower you? Then you look for an alternative route, try to improve yourself before going back. You learn how to attack other enemy types, how best to approach a situation, you die, you return, you die, you return.
It is a mechanic that should be frustrating and if it was in any other game, it likely would be. However, because the whole concept of Dark Souls is built around this trial and error system, you don’t feel like you are becoming frustrated, you feel like you are being given important lessons and the game is all the better for it.
Early on, we spent a good few hours without seemingly getting anywhere, you come to a village and there are quests to complete, but these aren’t clearly marked quests that you need to tick off, they don’t even really tell you if they need to be completed in order to move on. You won’t find a marker on how to get to a quest, or exactly what you need to do to complete it. It is almost refreshing, that you walk up to an NPC and they tell you they need a key, but they don’t tell you where or how, just that they need it. You can spend an age wandering about, looking for ways to find this key, or you can move on, it is up to you.
Yet even without any real kind of checklist to refer to, you still have them in the back of your mind, you come to other areas and progress through them, only to think back to what you may have not finished earlier, you aren’t told you need to go back, nor does the game really care if you do or don’t. But you find yourself wanting to do things.
The sense of discovery is outstanding, you will encounter many dead ends, time and time again, but for every one of those you encounter, you will also find a new path to tread. This will take you on another path, that may open up more of the world to you, or it may be another dead end. You may find a path that you struggle to get through, dying multiple times, only to find it leads to nothing. But you are content with that, you may not have achieved anything obvious, but somewhere you have learned something, what that is, may not be immediately obvious, but it will help you down the line.
The combat in Dark Souls II is very satisfying and whilst not being as fluid as some other games, it does make complete sense. Run in and start attacking everything in sight and soon you’ll be back at a bonfire having to re-trace those steps, be too defensive and you’ll be back at that bonfire having to re-trace those steps. You get the idea. It is all about balance and learning the best ways to take on different enemy types. However, it is possible to unleash hell on some enemies, which can really throw you off, you get into a routine and having to change your approach constantly will test your ability to adjust on the fly.
Bosses are challenging, but beating them is satisfying. You know you have been in a boss battle, you know you have been tested and either found wanting, or proved yourself. Bosses aren’t a one time thing either, as many will come back as regular enemies down the line, which can be rather intimidating at first, but you soon realise that your levelling up, means you can take them down with much more ease than that original battle with them.
Unlike Dark Souls, this sequel feels like it a little more open and welcoming. It is still a huge test and it still does away with hand-holding, but it does seem to allow newcomers to step in. There is an early build up that isn’t easier as such, but is a little more approachable it doesn’t thrown its difficulty in your face and make you want to run away screaming. It is still difficult, but it teases you into making progression, you feel even through failure you are making progress, something that didn’t seem was there in Dark Souls.
As you level up your character, you open more abilities, based on your chosen class. You actually feel like you are becoming better and becoming better equipped to deal with what awaits. With looting you gain many items, that should help you on your way, better armour, weapons, magic and more. Your attributes make sense also, you upgrade the right parts and it feels like that is where the improvements have been made, nothing really seems like an arbitrary value, which is great to see in an RPG.
Again though, upgrading weapons and the like isn’t thrust upon you. It is up to you to deal with this, you must remember to go to menus and look at what you have, what you can upgrade and what you can discard. It is the same with what you carry, you are limited, but you aren’t held back. Make use of the bonfires to store items you may not need all the time, making sure you have quick access to the ones you do. Again this is all about learning and understanding, going back after suffering another death, working out what will best aid you as you tackle that area again.
The locales are visually impressive too, there are some very dark areas, ruins, dungeons, etc but there also seems to be a lot more brighter areas to wander around too. Majula early on is a lovely setting for example, with a wonderful coast to look out upon, green areas that a full of wonderful colour and so much more. This though makes going into the darker areas all the more effective, the is a stark contrast and it just makes the world in Dark Souls II fell that much more alive.
Dark Souls was a fantastic game, that felt impenetrable to many, which meant it wasn’t enjoyed by as many as it should have bee. Dark Souls II is an ideal refinement, it maintains all of the original game’s qualities, but opens its doors a little to allow a whole new audience to experience it. It is the perfect sequel.