The Hollow Man
Dark Souls 2 gives you an achievement the first time you die. It’s a welcoming gift, a confirmation of what you (hopefully) already knew when you bought the game, that this would be a tough ride. Surprisingly that first death might not have come until an hour or so into the game. Comparing this with Dark Souls, where one of the first enemies you fight is a giant demon boss that can end your life in two hits, you might be forgiven for thinking this is an easier, more casual friendly game. Maybe you’d be right, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
As a third-person melee-focused action-RPG Dark Souls 2 has a lot of genre-related problems to sort out straight away. The camera and target locking are both handled reasonably well, with only one boss in the entire game that gave us any difficulty related to camera issues (a late-game giant that forces the camera to look up if you lock on, meaning you can’t see your feet or where you have space to dodge). Locking is simple with a click of the right stick, and flicking left or right letting you select different enemies. Considering how many quick movements you need to do and how vital they are it’s surprisingly fluid and you rarely get blindsided by something you couldn’t possibly have seen.
The controls are unusual, but make sense overall. You can equip two weapons, one in each hand, and the right bumper controls the main attack for your right hand and the left does the same for the left. The triggers are used for slower, more powerful attacks in general, or swinging your staff should be a magic user. ‘X’ is reserved for using consumables which leads to plenty of accidental wastes at first, and ‘A’ is the interact button. Possibly the most important button is ‘B’ which lets you sprint while running or dodge to the sides when you’re fighting. You and ‘B’ are going to become close friends. The d-pad lets you select weapons, spells and consumables (you can equip up to three weapons for each hand, a lot of consumables and as many spell as you have slots for) and finally the ‘Y’ button lets you switch your current right hand weapon to a two-handed stance, useful for Greatswords and the like.
Once you get a hang of the controls you quickly realise how in-depth the combat is in Dark Souls. Different weapons have different movesets and stabs, swipes, overhead swings, pummels, bashes and parries all react differently and are useful in different situations. My character is a sorcerer build that uses a fire sword for melee, so horizontal swings are really useful as it tends to hit a few enemies at once which is the only situation I really resort to the blade. Other characters are built around attack at range so stabs with a spear might be more useful, a character that helped me out with a difficult section was using a double ended blade and could sprint through crowds dealing out incredible damage at great risk to himself. You can even punch things if you like. There’s also shields to consider, early on you can get a shield that gives you 100% block against physical damage, so if you have the stamina to hold it against attacks you can simply stand your ground until an enemy finishes their flurry, landing your own attacks before retreating under the safety of a big piece of metal. Others prefer to roll out of the way of every attack, freeing up that second hand for another weapon or to give better control of their main. Everything in Dark Souls 2 is about options. It’s not however, about balance. Strong slower weapons are almost universally better than faster sabres and From Software clearly don’t care about that, but if you want to play a different way that option is available to you.
Being an RPG, options also come in the way of stats and the array is bewildering, even twenty hours into the game. Each time you level up (by spending souls at a specific NPC that is possible to kill) you choose a stat to increase and that in turn increases a number of secondary stats. So an upgrade to Vitality will upgrade your overall health, but then an upgrade to your intellect might also increase your health as well as your magic bonus. There’s complicated levelling curves for every single statistic which means putting levels into certain stats might be less effective from 20-30 than it is from 10-20 or 30-40. All of this might sound like a nightmare and there is no tutorial to help you get to grips with it, but that’s part of the fun of Dark Souls, that’s the essence of all of the Souls games. It’s not about combat so difficult you need to play perfectly to win, you definitely don’t. Instead it’s about discovering archaic systems and then trying to make them work to your advantage.
This idea carries through to the story, in Dark Souls 2 we played for 23 hours from start to finish on the PC version (after playing for a good 15 hours on the 360 version) and we still have no real idea what the story is about. There’s definitely something about an old civilisation and dragons and giants and a royal family. But beyond that we’re lost. It’s hard to tell if that’s a failing or not. There definitely isn’t an absence of story, there’s named NPCs who refer to each other, there are locations that are clearly steeped in history, but then there’s also so much that doesn’t seem to make sense. Why are there women that sing and disappear in the swamp? Why are a forest full of fog and ghosts, a castle and a mountain covered in dragons all within a few feet of each other? Why is your character seemingly known by some characters but ignored by others? There probably are answers to these and more, but many players enjoy hunting and speculating for answers rather than being handed them. Thankfully the combat and exploration is fun enough that even if this doesn’t interest you it never gets in the way of the gameplay.
One of the big flaws with the first Dark Souls was the shoddy PC port. Locked at 30fps and lacking graphical options we’re used to as an absolutely base standard, it was nothing more than a lazy port. From Software promised more this time around and in many ways they’ve delivered. The game looks spectacular, with the art style being allowed to shine under some impressive lighting and dramatically huge vistas. Often you’ll be in enclosed spaces but every now and then you’ll be able to see a whole area at once and it’s simply breathtaking. Character models are less exciting but the precisely matched shadows they cast on the wall are a nice touch. It seems as though every weapon and piece of armour in the game (of which there are many) have their own model so there’s plenty of chance to alter the look of your character across your journey – to the point where you’ll find yourself in a dilemma between a set that looks great and the set with the best stats. There is still a lack of really high resolution textures and in no way is Dark Souls 2 going to be pushing the capabilities of any high end machines, but running at 60fps does feel notably different from the console versions as combat feels more fluid and tells are easier to spot. On console the whole game can feel oppressively sluggish, possibly intentionally. On PC everything is as fluid as you make it, forcing you to look at your own skills when a fight becomes a janky mess, rather than blaming the hardware.
In terms of challenge Namco’s PR reps have long said that this is not a casual experience and they have stayed true to the hardcore nature of the series. We’re still not convinced that’s entirely true, but it’s definitely not a bad thing. We played through Demon’s and Dark Souls and didn’t complete either. Dark Souls 2 we flew through, rarely getting stuck on a boss for more than three or four attempts. Yes when you die you can still lose everything (the souls you gain from killing enemies are used to by everything as well as levelling up, if you die you drop them all on the floor and can pick them up again if you reach the same spot in your next life. Reaching that point again in one life is easier said than done!) but there are numerous items (we’ve found four) that let you cheat this mechanic at the cost of 3000 souls each time you die. Yes the bosses can kill you in one hit but for nearly every boss you can summon up to two other players in your world through the innovative and immersive in-game system, and many bosses are clearly balanced for one player, as soon as you have a tank everything is much easier. Yes some of the enemies now attack in large packs, but if you kill them twelve times they no longer respawn, meaning you’re never going to get stuck on trash for very long. The game no longer feels like hitting your face against a brick wall, instead progress is constant, but always challenging. The reward of defeating a difficult area is still there, but the frustration is largely gone.
Of course it’s not entirely gone, frustration can come in spades when it comes to the multiplayer. Through the game you gain a number of items that are used for the multiplayer features – only enabled when in online mode. A white stone will allow you to write your name on the ground and anyone around your level can summon you into their games where you’ll appear as a white phantom. As a phantom you are still your own character with your own stats, but if you die you’ll simply return to your world where you were (often with damaged weapons and a lack of spell uses). If you manage to help the player defeat a boss you’ll gain your humanity back (in the game if you die you become hollow, unable to summon help, you need an item to become human again) and get an item that’s marginally useful but serves as a counter for the number of players you’ve aided. Tackling a tough boss is much easier if you hang around at the boss’s entrance where white signs inevitably appear, and if you want some practice you can put down your own to have a go at the boss without worrying about death. Generally people are helpful and friendly, and although there is no real voice chat, there are gestures that people use to greet each other. Much more sinister are red stones that let you leave a red mark, allowing players to summon you for a fight to the death. Even worse are the red orbs which allow you to simply invade another player’s game. At any point another player could invade your game (even during bosses in New Game+) and murder you while you deal with already difficult enemies. Thankfully this is rare and the PvP combat is a lot of fun, but if you’re struggling to get through an area it can be a real annoyance. Of course the answer is to simply disconnect from the servers but even then there are some AI controlled invaders that simulate what it’d be like to be invaded by a player. Thankfully there’s other ways players can help like leaving orange messages on the ground (chosen from a bank of phrases and words) to give you advice. More than once I’ve been warned by these signs that an ambush was waiting or an item was hidden around the corner, but then again more than once I’ve been advised to jump off cliffs, even in the hub area.
There’s much more to Dark Souls 2 including covenants, enchants, upgrading items, new game+, ways to raise the difficulty, a character creator and hundreds of secrets and mechanics that we haven’t delved into detail with, but a huge part of the fun is finding out things for yourself. There’s no harm in using a guide for sections either as part of the game’s punishing appeal is that you can very easily waste important items or miss something vital (including your main way of regaining health) without it really being any fault of your own. This game is huge and incredibly deep, but without being tedious, something very few games have achieved.
If you’re a hardcore Souls player you’ll start as Deprived, burn a bunch of Ascetics and find your love in New Game+ and PvP. You’ll love the updated graphics, the frame-rate and the new weapons and bosses. If you’re a player that’s new to the series you’ll find the best way in to a truly unique game world that offers a real sense of accomplishment masked beneath a thin veil of cruelty. You definitely don’t need any prior experience with the other games to get the most out of it. Dark Souls 2 is harder than most games, it’s less forgiving and it never holds your hand as you try to work out what it’s trying to say, but that’s exactly why people like it so much.