I don't like to consider myself a "hardcore" Souls fan, even though I've played each game in the series (in order, multiple times each, starting with Demon's Souls) and consider them among the most satisfying, entertaining games I've ever played. Demon's Souls was a real gem of a game, and its cult status made it easy to love and praise, but when Dark Souls came along and everybody started jumping on the bandwagon, I found my interest and appreciation waning a little. The community's obnoxious fandom ruined certain aspects of that game for me, but the whole thing just felt a little underwhelming compared to Demon's Souls.
Since Dark Souls proved to be such an immensely profitable venture for publisher Bandai Namco, it was inevitable that they would seek to produce a
cash-grabbing respect-worthy sequel, and thus, nearly three years later, we have Dark Souls II. If the first Dark Souls felt "a little underwhelming" to an avid Demon's Souls player, then Dark Souls II can only be described as an outright disappointment. Don't get me wrong -- there's a lot to like about Dark Souls II, and it's worth noting that a "bad" Souls game is still a much better gaming experience than the average video game -- but there's an awful lot to dislike as well.
With Dark Souls II, my hope was to play a game that blended the cohesive world style of Dark Souls with the tight mechanical precision and bleak atmosphere of Demon's Souls, in a more refined package that cleaned up and improved upon some of those games' notable shortcomings. In a way, Dark Souls II feels like a faithful blend of those two game styles, but it's a lukewarm, half-hearted mixture that never achieves the brilliance of either of its predecessors while also feeling significantly sloppier in the process.
My intention with this article is to review Dark Souls II in direct comparison to its predecessors, but this isn't going to be a thorough "Demon's Souls vs Dark Souls vs Dark Souls 2" type of article because I've already done that with my Demon's Souls vs Dark Souls article. It would be redundant for me to make an entirely new article of that sort to include Dark Souls II in the comparison, so instead I'll direct you to read that article for some background on my thoughts going into this review, which will focus mainly on Dark Souls II using examples from the previous games to compare and contrast Dark Souls II's relative strengths and weaknesses within the series.
Before we get into the full review, I'd like to point out that I've tried to make this review as spoiler-free as possible, seeing as the game is still very new. That said, I need to use examples from the game to illustrate my points, so minor things are still liable to be spoiled if you've been trying to stay completely in the dark. I tried not to include any major spoilers for the plot or important discoveries that the player is supposed to make on their own, so I feel like this review is safe to read without the game being completely ruined for you, but even still, do so at your own risk.
Story / Atmosphere
I'm not sure if I'm in the minority or majority of players here, but I don't pay that much attention to the lore or story when I play these games. For me, the Souls games are all about the gameplay, the meta-game experience of being presented with an open class system and an open world to conquer, and making good decisions about how to approach various situations. That said, I do like a good story, and I think a game's premise and story progression can be crucial factors in elevating a "good" game with good gameplay to a "great" game with good gameplay.
Having said that, I don't go out of my way reading every little item description for everything I come across, trying to hunt down the game's backstory or the significance of current events. I'm not afraid of doing a little bit of reading in my video games -- I played Planescape: Torment, one of the wordiest games in the history of ever, and absolutely loved it -- but it really disrupts the flow of gameplay in a Souls game to stop what you're doing, open the inventory screen, and read a couple of sentences for every single item you pick up. The story is not the focal point of these games, and even if you were to read every little thing in the game, it's intentionally designed to be as vague and obtuse as possible.
I'm not going to theorize about all of the game's hidden meanings because, quite frankly, I don't care. It doesn't interest me. What matters to me is the overt "story" that's told about the player's journey from beginning to end -- why the player is doing the things he (or she) is doing.
The intro cinematic for Dark Souls II
Dark Souls II is the first game to give your character a slightly more concrete backstory. Apparently you were a nice family man before becoming branded with the mark of the undead, somehow, and so you set out to Drangleic to cure yourself of the brand, falling into a swirling vortex while Cyndi Lauper sings "Time After Time." This intro doesn't do a whole lot for me except solidify the idea established in the first Dark Souls that the entire point of the story is that you're a dead guy who doesn't want to be dead anymore. It's nice that there's no longer any pretense about destiny or being "the chosen undead," but it subtly told me from the very beginning that I was to expect nothing original from the story.
The player then meets some old firekeepers, who serve almost no other function in the game than to bring up the character creation window, before moving on to
Medulla Majula, the game's central hub. There you meet the Maiden in Black the Emerald Herald, who seems to serve no other function in the game than to bring up the level-up screen and to upgrade your available number of healing flasks. She tells you to collect the four souls of the Old Ones and visit the king at the castle, but he's not there so the queen sends you to talk to a dragon, and then he sends you into some giant's memories, and then you fight the final boss and watch the ending cutscene, which seems to come from out of nowhere.
Throughout the whole thing, there's no explanation for what your ultimate goal is supposed to be or why you're doing the things you're doing. As you later find out, the four souls of the "unutterable Old Ones" are necessary to open a door to reach the king's castle, which feels like a completely arbitrary, meaningless video game trope. Why are there four old ones and not three or five? What makes the four so different from the other bosses? Why are these souls needed to unlock a door? Why should I be interested in talking to the king? Why didn't you even bother telling me the purpose of collecting these four souls before setting me out on this quest?
Saulden, the Crestfallen Warrior, talking about the four Old Ones.
Demon's Souls had a pretty clear cut goal, which served as a good motivation guiding your actions moving forward: slay the archdemons to break the seal guarding the Old One beneath the Nexus, and defeat it to put a stop to the spreading fog. Not the most complicated plot there is, but the level layout gave you a good sense of progression as you worked towards the conclusion. Dark Souls was a little more obscure in its storytelling, but it gave you a concise goal from the beginning: ring the two bells of awakening, which you later find out wakens
Peter Frampton Kingseeker Frampt, who sets you on the course of filling the Lordvessel with the souls of the old lords in order to enter the Kiln of the First Flame and rekindle the flame.
The difference, here, is that the previous games informed you of your ultimate purpose and gave you some reason for why you're doing the things you're doing, as flimsy and arbitrary as those reasons may have been. In Dark Souls II, you just wander around aimlessly, looking for the next unexplored area, with no sense of direction or purpose. That aspect is pretty satisfying from a pure gameplay standpoint, because you have to explore and deduce where you're supposed to go and what you're supposed to be doing, but it's pretty terrible from a storytelling standpoint. When I reached the ending cutscene, I had no idea why my character did what he did, and I had no idea that that's what I was striving to do this whole game.
The story itself doesn't feel very original to me, and in fact seems to parallel both Demon's Souls' and Dark Souls' plots. The story of King Vendrick in Dark Souls II feels rather similar to King Allant in Demon's Souls, except told in a Dark Souls type of structure: complete some arbitrary goal to reach the castle, meet a female royalty, then complete another goal to inherit the former King's legacy and usher in a new era. There aren't a whole lot of unique twists on either of these plots except for the flashbacks where you enter the memories of the fallen giants, but these are so short and feature so little actual storytelling within them that they're not enough to make up for the general shortcomings in the plot.
The view inward of the continent, as seen from Majula.
Atmospherically, Dark Souls II feels a bit closer in style to Demon's Souls than the first Dark Souls, which I appreciate. Everything was decrepit, dark, and depressing in Demon's Souls -- exactly the mood it was trying to capture with its theme. Dark Souls, on the other hand, felt like it was going for a more generic fantasy theme with locations like the Crystal Cave, Darkroot Garden, The Duke's Archives, Anor Londo, and the Demon Ruins. Although Dark Souls II features some of the same basic types of environments, they tend to feel darker and more sinister than the majestic awe-inspiring vistas of Dark Souls.
Majula, for instance, is a seaside town with a brilliant golden sunrise lighting up the sky, but that visual theme is juxtaposed with the murky brown, crumbling buildings and the dead grass and trees. Speaking to the Crestfallen Warrior paints a far bleaker, grimmer picture than speaking to the Crestfallen Warrior in the first Dark Souls. Other NPCs seem to speak with a kind of sullen despair you'd expect from Demon's Souls, but I find it absolutely mind-boggling that you have to summon NPCs to boss fights in order to pursue their side stories, because that completely contradicts the way I want to play the game.
I'd been intentionally not summoning NPCs to boss fights because I wanted to experience the challenge and satisfaction that comes from defeating a boss on my own, as it was established in Demon's Souls, to give me that feeling of being alone and helpless in a desolate world, and since many boss fights become trivially easy when you have a second person to distract the boss. It kind of pisses me off that I have to play the game in a way that runs totally counter to the way I feel it should be played, just to see all of the story. I had no idea how much of the game's content I was actually missing until I'd finished my first playthrough and started looking things up online. It's not a big compliment in the game's favor if it requires a guide for the player to actually see the story.
Level Design / Exploration
The level design in Dark Souls II feels like it's taking direction from both Demon's Souls and Dark Souls. On the one hand, we have a persistent landscape that requires you to explore and physically reach new locations before you can warp there; on the other hand, you're free to warp anywhere you've discovered, from any bonfire, right from the start of the game. Selecting which area to warp to from the bonfire fast-travel menu feels a lot like selecting subworlds from the archstones in Demon's Souls (the window is even laid out with a hierarchy of "worlds" and "subworlds"), but at the same time it feels like Dark Souls because of its open world structure with zero loading screens.
The pinnacle of level design in Dark Souls II has to be the Lost Bastille, an area that feels reminiscent of the complex level design in Demon's Souls. The Lost Bastille is a pretty large area that features a whopping five bonfires with multiple interlinking paths, two possible ways to enter the level, a variety of enemies to fight (including demon dogs, royal soldiers, exploding mummies, and patrolling wardens), three useful NPCs, and connections to three different bosses. It was the only area in the game that gave me any sense of dread as I wandered around, deciding which ways to go and wondering when I'd find the next bonfire as my estus flasks slowly depleted and my weapon condition slowly deteriorated.
A hand-drawn map of Heide's Tower, courtesy of the Dark Souls II wikidot.
The vast majority of other areas, though, are really disappointing, consisting entirely of linear paths with only one or two enemy types to battle. Heide's Tower, for instance, is literally a single path to the boss fight with six armored giants along the way, and one single deviation in the path that leads to another boss fight. The Iron Keep is a linear series of rooms with very minor deviations that quickly converge along the main path again. Areas like Sinner's Rise and Aldia's Keep are literally straight hallways to the boss chamber with small rooms on the side. These areas are so simple and straightforward, with so little to actually do within them, that there's no satisfaction to be had from completing them.
The thing that really kills the levels, though, besides their short length and simplicity, is that there are bonfires around practically every corner. There's a bonfire at the start of Huntsman's Copse; you walk along a path with no enemies, go through a dark room containing a few enemies, then along another path with two enemies, and you're at another bonfire. You go through two or three room-sized fields with a couple of enemies, cross a bridge, and you're at a third bonfire. Granted, this third bonfire requires a key to access, but that key is located in the cave literally right next to it.
In the Shaded Woods, you find a bonfire immediately after you gain access to the place, which is only a short walk from the bonfire in Majula. From that initial bonfire, you walk along a short, completely linear path fighting about 10-12 basic enemies, and then you're at another bonfire. You then go through a small, enclosed field fighting basically nothing (you run through it ignoring the enemies because you can't really see them), and you're at another bonfire. They're f**king everywhere, and it kills any sort of tension the player might feel of being between bonfires, low on health and supplies, and carrying a lot of souls. Except for the Lost Bastille, I never felt like I was very far from a bonfire, and I could usually count on there being a bonfire immediately up ahead if I ever needed one.
A bonfire in the Forest of the Fallen Giants.
Couple this overabundance of bonfires with the instant warping system available to you from the very beginning of the game, and you never have any reason to see certain parts of the environment more than once. The thing that made Dark Souls' world work so well was the feeling of immersion you got from being so physically involved with it, learning its layout in intimate detail as the game forced you to trudge around on-foot from place to place until you finally unlocked the fast travel of the Lordvessel midway through. In Dark Souls II, you spend the entire game warping past everything, which would seem to defeat the purpose of having the persistent landscape in the first place.
Entire sections of the game are an unmemorable, transient blur to me, either because I only saw them once and then perpetually warped past them, or because they were so short and simple that they never left any impressions to begin with.
It also makes you wonder why they bothered with the persistent landscape approach if they weren't going to bother connecting areas in an interesting or even realistic way. Unlike in Dark Souls, where each area seemed to unlock multiple shortcuts to other areas as you advanced through the game, the majority of places in Dark Souls II just branch out in multiple directions and eventually terminate in a dead end. The transitions between areas don't always make a lot of sense, and there are a few glaring transitions that completely defy logic, such as when you ride an elevator from a windmill on top of a mountain up to a castle built on a sea of lava, or when you ride an elevator hundreds of feet down from a castle ruin already at sea level, to a wharf that's somehow also at sea level.
It's really disappointing how many areas are connected by long elevator shafts. These are about the least creative, least interesting ways to connect two different areas, and so it comes off feeling incredibly lazy. When you look at the files for the level construction, you even notice that areas are placed literally one on top of the other, such that they actually overlap with one another. There's no care for the overall world structure; it doesn't feel convincing at all, so it's difficult to feel any sense of place or immersion within this world. In the game's defense, the overlapping layout isn't blatantly noticeable when you're playing the game, but seeing the map viewer after the fact shed new light on part of the reason why I wasn't feeling as enthralled by Drangleic as I was by Boletaria or Lordran.
A 3D map-viewer showing the placement of areas in Dark Souls II.
Meanwhile, a lot of thematic areas seem to repeat themselves throughout Dark Souls II. When I stepped into Heide's Tower -- one of the only two areas available at the start of the game -- I was instantly reminded of the architecture and scenic vistas of Anor Londo. I felt a little bummed that such a unique, memorable location from the first Dark Souls was now getting a half-assed rehash in the sequel, but then I stepped into areas like Drangleic Castle, Aldia's Keep, and even the Dragon Shrine, and found that same towering, majestic architecture. When it's not majestic castles, Dark Souls II likes to throw repeated instances of ruined forest temples at you in the form of The Forest of the Fallen Giants, the Shrine of Winter, the Shaded Woods, and, to a lesser extent, Huntsman's Copse, Harvest Valley, and the Earthen Peak.
Part of what made Dark Souls such an enjoyable game, even though I didn't like it quite as much as Demon's Souls, was that it introduced a variety of new thematic areas to explore. Areas like Anor Londo, the Duke's Archives, the Crystal Cave, the Darkroot Garden, the Painted World, and Ash Lake felt totally different from places we'd already seen in Demon's Souls, and each area felt totally distinct from the next. In Dark Souls II, a lot of areas feel kind of samey, with the few unique areas somehow managing to be the most annoying areas in the game.
The Shrine of Amana is probably the high point of the game in terms of aesthetic design. It's an underground cavern with fluorescent blue vegetation reflecting off the surface of the knee/waist-high water that floods the area. It's beautiful to behold. In a similar fashion as Ash Lake, the Shrine of Amana even features a melancholy singing accompaniment as you explore, which just goes to showcase the power that music can have in making an area more emotionally salient, unique, and memorable. It's also one of very few areas in the game that makes practical use of the new torch mechanism FromSoft added to the gameplay. And yet this area is otherwise ruined by its obnoxious level design and enemy placement.
The dark, murky water is designed to obscure hidden monsters that pop out at you once you get close, as well as the ledges that drop-off into underwater pits of death. You're meant to carry a torch so that you can see under the water more clearly, but this of course comes at the expense of carrying a shield, an off-hand weapon, or two-handing your primary weapon. It's a good idea in theory, since you have to weigh the pros and cons of exchanging better visibility for better offense/defense, but the torch goes out the second you roll, and since you're in waist-high water reducing your mobility to a slow walk and you have no shield with which to defend yourself, you have to roll to avoid taking damage. They sort of force you to use their fancy new gameplay mechanism, and then punish you for using it, while inevitably making it worthless, anyway. It's just an all-around terrible design.
Using a torch in the Shrine of Amana, about to be hit by a homing soul arrow.
The Iron Keep, though, has to be the worst-designed area in the game. Every trollish thing that could be done, they put in Iron Keep. Traps? Check. Lava floors? Check. Fire-breathing statues? Check. Great bow archers placed everywhere in inaccessible spots? Check. Mimics? Check. Hidden knights designed to aggro you through walls? Check. Pieces of terrain that inexplicably explode in your face when hit? Check. Fighting a fatty on a tiny, narrow bridge? Check. Small two-foot ledges creating one-way points-of-no-return? Check. Eye-straining fluorescent lava? Check.
In the Iron Keep I was killed by: exploding terrain, with no warning that it would (or even could) explode; a flame jet that burned me alive after my character got physically bumped to the side due to a collision error; a platform dropping out from underneath me into lava with no indication that the platform would (or even could) give way; an invisible wall that pushed me back while I was trying to drop down onto a ledge suspended over lava; another collision error that suddenly bumped me three feet to the left and into a pool of lava when my attack caused me take one step forward into the same space as occupied by an enemy on a narrow platform; as well as probably many more that I didn't bother to write down.
These were all completely unexpected, fluke, accidental deaths that were absolutely not my fault, and it was so rage-inducing that I had to leave the area and come back later. I died so many times in that area that the game turned into Pity Souls and stopped spawning the enemies. The only way the Iron Keep could possibly be any worse is if the archers were shooting poison/toxic/cursed arrows, but that's OK because FromSoft more than made up for that, considering the fact that virtually everywhere else in the game has enemies and environmental hazards that induce status effects, including the Shaded Woods, Harvest Valley, Earthen Peak, the Black Gulch, Saint's Grave, The Gutter, The Doors of Pharros, and Brightstone Cove.
Bosses, meanwhile, are encountered almost as frequently as bonfires. The short, simple levels rarely ever feel like full, complete levels, which makes the bosses seem to come and go without much rhyme or reason. Certain bosses feel random and out of place, and the level design does a pretty poor job of building up to the boss battles. In Demon's Souls, you knew you were going to be facing a boss at the end of every level; every level built up towards that climactic encounter. The bosses felt kind of like the colossi in Shadow of the Colossus in terms of the anticipation, the puzzle of how to beat them, and the significance that each one played. In Dark Souls II, you just kind of stumble into boss fights haphazardly. In each case, I didn't even realize I was fighting one of the four Old Ones until after I'd beaten it and the words popped up on the screen saying "Great Soul Embraced" or "Primal Bonfire Lit," which just goes to show how poorly the bosses are implemented in this world.
Combat / Difficulty
The combat system and controls remain virtually identical to the systems in place in the previous two games, except for minor tweaks meant seemingly for the sole purpose of tripping up veteran players by making them relearn the nuanced mechanisms all over again. Most weapons feature a slightly different moveset, in most cases for the worse, it felt. All weapons now can be used to "guard break" a shielding target by tapping forward+light attack, which dislodges their shield and leaves them in recoil for you to follow up with a critical attack, sort of like a backstab or riposte. There are a few new weapon types, including lances and twinblades, among others, and weapons can now be dual-wielded much more effectively.
Of all the combat changes, dual-wielding is probably the biggest and most notable addition. In the previous games, using a weapon in your off-hand only allowed you to use one, additional, clunky attack that took no consideration of that weapon's unique moveset. Now, in Dark Souls II, using a weapon in your off-hand allows you to perform that weapon's entire range of moves, using the left-hand triggers for light and heavy attacks. In addition, if your stats are 50% higher than the weapons' base requirements, you can "powerstance" the two weapons together, which opens up entirely new moves that utilize both weapons together.
About to fight a Mastodon while powerstancing two ultra greatswords.
The combat in Dark Souls II feels as mechanically satisfying as it did in either of the previous two games, which should come as no surprise because the system was already long in place -- from a development standpoint, if you just don't mess with it too much, then you can't possibly screw it up. And yet, despite FromSoft's numerous refinements to the system (some of them very welcome, like dual-wielding, improved poise functionality, and the guard-breaking shield counter), combat in Dark Souls II somehow manages to feel quite a bit sloppier in execution.
For starters, hit detection feels incredibly "janky" in this game. There were numerous times when I felt sure I was at a safe distance or had perfectly timed a roll dodge, only to find myself dead when killed by an attack that physically never made contact with me, or when an attack somehow managed to bypass my shield in a fluke programming accident. I can't count the number of times I found myself yelling "What?! How did that hit me?!" as I watched the "You Died" screen for the nth time.
The controls also managed to get me killed on a semi-regular basis when intended prompts and button-strokes produced no effect or, in some cases, the completely wrong effect. There were numerous times when I was attempting to perform a jump attack or a guard break on an enemy (forward+heavy attack / forward+light attack), only to find myself doing a regular light/heavy attack, leaving myself totally exposed and depleted of stamina. At other times I was back-pedaling from an enemy while low on health, pressing the "use item" button, only to find a second or two later that I hadn't actually used my estus flask, having now lost precious few seconds to heal safely, as well as other times when I intended to roll dodge but apparently held the button down for a millisecond too long and instead did absolutely nothing, standing there like an imbecile while a giant sword plunged through my face.
When Dark Souls made the conceited effort to enhance its difficulty, it did so primarily by restricting the player more. The biggest changes came in the form of new limitations to healing items and the number of times a spell could be cast, because some of the challenge in Demon's Souls was admittedly negated when you had an essentially limitless supply of healing items and spell casts at your disposal. Dark Souls II continues this tradition of nerfing the player's toolset and abilities -- and takes it to an all-new extreme.
Fighting the Pursuer, one of the first bosses in the game.
In Dark Souls, you started with five estus flasks and could upgrade that to a maximum of 20, five at a time; In Dark Souls II, you start with one and can upgrade it to a maximum of 12, one at a time. In Dark Souls, estus flasks healed you instantly once consumed; in Dark Souls II, estus flasks are slower to drink and regenerate health over the course of a few seconds. To compensate for this significant reduction in healing, FromSoft added "life gems," which you can buy from merchants or collect from enemies to restore your health at much slower rate. Life gems are best used in the calm downtime between battles to top yourself back up to full health, but can also be valuable in the middle of tense boss fight, because they don't take as much time for the initial activation as the estus flask.
The changes to healing have the effect of giving you more options in how you want to heal yourself, which can only be a good thing, because you have more resources to manage and have to weigh the consequences of using an estus flask versus a life gem. The other effect is that healing during a boss fight is significantly harder, because you rarely have enough time to sit there chugging an estus flask, and the life gems might not heal you enough to survive another hit. This change is acceptable because it adds an extra layer of strategy to the game and doesn't feel too hindering.
Other changes include a semi-permanent reduction of maximum health every time you die, until it maxes out at -50% -- this is another change I approve of, because it feels more like Demon's Souls where there are actually consequences for dying and being in your undead form, whereas there were basically no penalties in the first Dark Souls. Weapons now have significantly lower durability, so you have to actively mind their condition during levels rather than topping them up once every few hours as an after-thought. You can be invaded while hollow; resources are harder to get; stamina for sprinting is nerfed; backstabs are nerfed; enemy AI is improved and much more aggressive; rolling and blocking are nerfed; the list goes on.
In my Demon's Souls vs Dark Souls article, I complained that Dark Souls upped the difficulty primarily by restricting the player more, rather than by creating genuinely challenging new content. Restricting the player's abilities is certainly fine if those abilities are deemed to be broken and over-powered, but at a certain point you cross the line of "fair and balanced nerfs" and end up in a territory where the player restrictions feel like arbitrarily and artificially inflated difficulty. It's almost as if you beat a tough encounter, and then the game says "Well done, now do it one-handed." It's a little aggravating to feel your abilities getting progressively worse in each game while the actual challenge you face escalates to a level of unrealistic absurdity.
Killing a near-invisible white phantom in the Shaded Woods.
Enemy tracking, for instance, has gotten to a point where it's just not fair any more. Say you're fighting a huge, heavily-encumbered enemy; it pulls its weapon back over its head preparing to do a vertical, overhand attack on you; as you strafe around its side, the enemy rotates in place -- not even moving its feet -- perfectly keeping up with you, and when you roll around to its side at the last second, it instantly spins 90 additional degrees, crushing you in place unless your dodge was timed perfectly so the attack hits you during the roll's split-second of "invincibility frames." Then the enemy has an almost instant recovery time, leaving you barely any opportunity to attack it before it goes into a counter-attack measure designed to prevent players from engaging its flank.
Arguably the most challenging bosses in the previous games were the ones that featured multiple enemies -- the Maneaters in Demon's Souls, plus the Capra Demon, Ornstein and Smough, and the Four Kings from Dark Souls -- and so FromSoft has increased the difficulty of bosses in Dark Souls II by including an unprecedented number of multi-enemy bosses, to the point where it feels like every other boss you face has a horde of minions at its disposal or divides itself into multiple powerful entities that all attack you simultaneously. For the most part, the only reason these bosses are a challenge is because of the additional threats you have to face -- remove the other enemies and they'd become pathetically easy. It says a lot about the game's lack of sophistication, considering the only way to make the bosses harder was apparently to turn them into a bullet hell nightmare, having to dodge countless barrages of enemy attacks from every direction.
Other bosses, like the Darklurker and Ancient Dragon, are the epitome of cheap, disgusting boss design, where random luck seems like the biggest determinant of success or defeat. The Darklurker is another case of a multi-enemy boss: at 50% health, it splits itself into two identical forms that remain for the rest of the fight. Each Darklurker has a number of different AOE projectile attacks it can unleash on the player -- some of them are really hard to dodge, and if the two Darklurkers randomly decide to use a certain combination or pattern of attacks in off-set (or even simultaneous) intervals, it can spell game over for you, whereas if you're lucky and they don't trigger that particular combination, the fight can be managed quite easily.
Finally beating Darklurker after dying no less than 27 times.
With the Ancient Dragon, his primary attack is to fly up into the air and rain instant death upon the player in the form of a wide AOE blast that fills up most of the arena. It's literally a one-shot kill -- it doesn't matter how much health or fire resistance you have, you will die if it hits you. This is a boss where there's literally no room for error, and it just feels aggravatingly cheap that the only way they could make him challenging was to make his attack a near-undodgeable one-hit kill. Both of these bosses are optional, so at least these brutally unfair fights aren't forced on the player, but being optional is not a good excuse or justification for their broken difficulty balancing, and in no way makes them fun to fight or satisfying to beat.
I complained about the difficulty in Dark Souls feeling much less fair and therefore "cheaper" than the difficulty in Demon's Souls, but Dark Souls II brings it to an all new level. A lot of enemies are just no fun to fight because they have virtually no exploitable weaknesses, which makes every fight with these enemies a grueling slog-fest rather than a fun back-and-forth exchange. Things that worked in Demon's Souls and Dark Souls no longer work, and certain areas like the Iron Keep, Aldia's Keep, and the Shrine of Amana feel like they were designed specifically to be cheesed by players in order to get through them.
After a certain point, I felt forced to invest in a bow and a massive stock of poison arrows, because it just wasn't worth the hassle to fight through certain areas as a pure melee fighter. I don't recall ever feeling forced to rely on ranged combat in the previous two games, but there are numerous areas in Dark Souls II that practically necessitate the use of a ranged combat option. That's especially disappointing to me, because I always prefer melee combat since ranged options are generally so much simpler -- you just hang back, point, and click without nearly as much regard for timing, positioning, or stamina management.
Cheesing a cyclops in Aldia's Keep through a narrow doorway.
And yet, despite all of my complaints about the cheap difficulty, several arguments could be made that difficulty of Dark Souls II is actually much easier than the previous games. For instance, there are bonfires practically everywhere, so you're never far away from a complete restore; you can warp anywhere you've discovered in the game from the very beginning, so you never have to worry about falling down a one-way hole and getting trapped, forced to work your way back up to the surface; there are many more NPC phantoms to summon for bosses, so there's almost always help available for any boss you might struggle with; the Rings of Life/Soul Protection have infinite uses and can be abused to prevent yourself from going hollow and losing your souls; and enemies even stop respawning eventually, if killed enough times, so if you die enough times in an area it will eventually become easier for you.
In practice, this made incredibly long sections of the game feel like a complete cakewalk to me. The vast majority of the game was a pathetically easy joke, wherein I never felt challenged except for a handful of areas/bosses where the difficulty spiked so high and so suddenly that all progress came to a screeching halt. Even though Demon's Souls and Dark Souls were never quite as difficult as Dark Souls II's hardest parts, the pacing and overall difficulty balancing felt much more consistently challenging all the way through. Whereas Demon's Souls and Dark Souls felt like you were carefully but quickly working your way through an obstacle course with hurdles and obstacles at every step of the way, Dark Souls II feels like a high-speed car race that has you randomly slam on the brakes when faced with a stop light.
Online Components / Multiplayer
In Demon's Souls, it was a fairly consistent guarantee that I would be invaded by another player if I played through a level in human form, and it was also a fairly consistent guarantee that I would be killed in an invasion because the invader would be a more experienced player who knew how to get the best gear and cap himself at a low level so he could invade newbs. It was brutally unfair, but that was the whole point of the game and it made me legitimately scared to play the game in human form, but wary of playing in soul form because of the reduced health cap.
In Dark Souls, I decided I would play through the entire game in "PVE" mode and then jump into the PVP after beating it once; I was never invaded and suffered practically zero consequences for playing the game in hollow form. When I reached the end-game, I then found I had no real interest in the PVP because the covenants and peer-to-peer connection system felt so restricting. Demon's Souls still has the best invasion system of any of the three games, with its completely open system that let you invade anywhere at any time, and to this day I've had the most sheer fun PVPing in Demon's Souls compared to either Dark Souls game.
Compared to the first Dark Souls, though, Dark Souls II is a tremendous improvement. The online components are much more prominent in Dark Souls II -- so prominent that they're completely unavoidable unless you completely disconnect your computer/console from the internet. Some of the major changes to the online system include the fact that you can be invaded even while hollow, and you're guaranteed to be invaded when entering certain covenant areas, even while hollowed. The covenants are much more accessible and facilitate getting into PVP much better, and in fact, you practically have to join covenants and defeat other players in order to harvest certain valuable resources, because they're so rare otherwise. These are all good things that got me much more involved in the online scene than I ever was in the first Dark Souls.
Being summoned to the Doors of Pharros as a gray phantom.
Having said that, the covenants still aren't quite as good as they really should be. Invasions are extremely rare in your first playthrough, unless you go into any of the four areas guarded by specific covenants, because the cracked red eye orbs that allow covenant members of the Brotherhood of Blood to invade worlds are relatively hard to come by, especially early on, and they're all single-use. As a result, a majority of PVP happens in covenant-designated gank-zones, covenant dueling arenas, or player-driven "fight clubs" using summon signs.
This also has the effect of making the Blue Sentinels covenant practically worthless. If you're in the Blue Sentinels, then you're supposed to be summoned to defend members of the Way of the Blue covenant when they're invaded by a red phantom, but since there are so few Brotherhood of Blood invasions due to the relative scarcity of cracked red eye orbs, you're rarely ever going to get summoned for PVP. I spent a few hours running around with the Blue Sentinels ring equipped in my first playthrough and never got summoned, whereas I was ganked relentlessly trying to get through the four covenant-defended areas of the game. I really liked the idea of being "the good guy" in PVP who helps weaker players against invasions, but it just didn't work out very well in this case.
The other notable change FromSoft made to the online multiplayer system is the inclusion of a new character metric called "soul memory." In previous games, matchmaking was based on your "soul level," a value determined by how many times you've leveled-up, and you could only invade or be invaded by players of around a similar soul level. It was possible, particularly in Demon's Souls, to build an over-powered character and cap it at a low level so that you could invade low-level newbs with it. With the new system, all of the souls a player earns and spends goes toward his "soul memory," a cumulative value that continues to grow the more he plays, meaning if you try to build an over-powered low-level character, it will end up matched with higher-level players with similar soul memories.
Getting ganked 2v1 in the Belfry Luna.
The intentions are noble, but the execution is practically game-breaking. It used to be that players opted to keep their soul levels at a certain level (around 120-125 in Demon's Souls) in order to consistently match up with other players; while it was possible to level up significantly higher than that, doing so would put you into a much smaller pool of players and you'd thus have a much less active online scene. The limits players placed on themselves for soul levels also ensured that every character would have limited stat points to spend, and thus would necessitate the use of certain character builds. A large part of the fun was custom-tailoring a character's stats for the way you wanted to play it in PVP -- pumping up your intelligence to do insane magic damage came at the cost of increasing stats like vitality or endurance that dictate your health and stamina.
There were basically two groups of people in the PVP scene of the previous games: people who wanted to cap themselves at a certain level for balanced PVP builds, and people who wanted to keep leveling. The soul memory system in Dark Souls II favors the second group while forcing the first group to fight the second group. If you're in that first group and you get matched up with people in that second group, then you'll be at a significant disadvantage because your stats will be significantly lower, in which case you may as well pump up your stats, too, or stay out of the random PVP scene altogether. In order to stick to a balanced PVP system, you basically have to coordinate with other, individual players in fight clubs -- you can't reliably expect to connect with randoms at a certain soul level and get a fair/balanced fight.
Otherwise, it then reaches a point where players all have 50+ in each of their stats and can do anything and everything, with no discernible weaknesses. A high soul memory mage could in theory wind up with enough vitality to wear the strongest heavy armor in the game, giving him insanely high physical defense against melee characters. He could then cast Great Magic Barrier to have insanely high magic defense, while wielding a giant ultra great sword. Eventually, everyone could conceivably end up running the same build because their stats become so bloated that there are no trade-offs for anything they do, therefore having the potential for the entire PVP scene to become much more stale and static the longer you stay with it.
More Abundant Recycling in Dark Souls II
One of the things that annoyed me the most about the first Dark Souls is how much content was blatantly copied from Demon's Souls. Even things that were completely original within Dark Souls got repeated ad nausam in later sections of the game, making entire sections feel like a letdown because you'd already seen and conquered that particular scenario. Fortunately, there doesn't seem to be as much blatant recycling in Dark Souls II, but there's still enough of it to piss me off.
This section contains some major spoilers, so I'd suggest not clicking the button below if you want to avoid the spoilers. Just know that there are a handful of bosses from the first Dark Souls that are directly copy and pasted into Dark Souls II, as well as various bosses that are mechanically similar to pre-existing bosses in other games. Certain bosses that are original within Dark Souls II also get repeated numerous times in later parts of the same game for no real reason. Otherwise, click below to see the expanded list.
- Ornstein / Old Dragonslayer: The boss fight against Ornstein and Smough is lifted directly from the first Dark Souls and dropped into Dark Souls II, except without Smough. Ornstein's movesets remain the exact same, except he uses dark attacks instead of lightning, and it takes place in a similarly-themed environment.
- Maneaters / Belfry Gargoyles / Belfry Gargoyles: The Maneaters from Demon's Souls have now found their way into all three games in the series. The Belfry Gargoyles from Dark Souls were an adaptation of the Maneaters, and they reappear in Dark Souls II in the exact same rooftop arena with the exact same music and the exact same movesets, except now you fight three at a time instead of only two.
- Quelaag / Scorpioness Najka: Quelaag, which felt thematically similar to the Armor Spider from Demon's Souls, has now been replaced with Scorpioness Najka. In this case, both bosses feature a woman's torso attached to an arachnid body, both bosses do devastating melee attacks with their multiple appendages, and both bosses can fire ranged magic attacks.
- Ceaseless Discharge / Old Iron King: These bosses are mechanically similar, and even take place in similar firey, lava-filled environments. In both cases, the boss sits on the other side of a ledge and swings its flaming appendages at you and spews fire attacks at you.
- Sif / Royal Rat Authority: The boss fight against Sif, the Great Gray Wolf, from the first Dark Souls has basically been repeated in Dark Souls II, except instead of being a wolf, it's now a rat of a similar size and similar moveset, without the giant sword, and four additional toxic rats.
- Garl Vinland / Velstadt: In Demon's Souls, Garl Vinland was part of the Maiden Astraea boss fight -- he was the proud, loyal knight defending the maiden even after she's become cursed with the demon's soul. In Dark Souls II, Velstadt has the same squid-like helmet and the same Bramd-like giant mace, and he, too, defends his master after he's withered away in hollow form.
- The Valley of Defilement / Blighttown / The Gutter: The Valley of Defilement from Demon's Souls has now made its way into all three games. In The Gutter, you walk along narrow wooden platforms suspended over a huge pit, in dark conditions, with poison-inducing hazards all over the place.
- Flexile Sentry / Flexile Sentry: The boss for No-Nan's Wharf appears later in the game, for some inexplicable reason, in the Shrine of Winter -- a place where he has absolutely no reason to be, except that the designers wanted a semi-tougher challenge than basic enemies and were too lazy to come up with something more original and appropriate for that location.
- Pursuer / Pursuer: This boss can actually show up in three different locations of the game, though you can only defeat him twice. He shows up originally in the Forest of the Fallen Giants and becomes a boss after you've found the Soldier's Key, and then he inexplicably shows up later in the Smelter Demon's chamber after you've cleared that boss.
- Dragonrider / Dragonriders: You fight the Dragonrider by himself in Heide's Tower, and then he shows up again later in Drangleic Castle, except now there are two of them, one who stays back and shoots a bow at you while you fight the other, until eventually joining in the fight.
- Ruin Sentinels / Ruin Sentinels: You fight the original three Ruin Sentinels in the Lost Bastille as a boss fight, and then you later fight five of them in Drangleic Castle for no other reason than the designers wanted a challenging mini-boss and were too lazy to come up with something more original for that area.
I'm sure there are others I've forgotten or overlooked, but in general, most of the bosses in Dark Souls II feel very similar to previous bosses in the series. Some of them have one or two notable twists which make them just barely different enough for me to keep them off the list, while others felt similar to other bosses without appearing like blatant rehashes.
Dark Souls II's recycled content doesn't feel as insulting to me as the first Dark Souls' abundant recycling, though that may simply be because I've gotten used to it and resigned myself to the inevitability, but there are fewer truly unique, memorable bosses to encounter in Dark Souls II. The other thing that's worth mentioning is that, in all but two cases, when a boss gets repeated, it shows up with multiple additional copies of itself. This just goes to further demonstrate the lazy difficulty balancing already outlined in the above section, wherein FromSoft's main trick for increasing the difficulty is simply to copy/paste more enemies into the scenario.
The most positive thing I can say about Dark Souls II is that it makes me appreciate the original Dark Souls more, which in turn makes me appreciate Demon's Souls even more. Dark Souls II is as mechanically satisfying as either of its predecessors, which means it's still automatically worth a purchase if you enjoyed either Demon's Souls or Dark Souls and are looking for "more of the same" -- I just wouldn't recommend buying Dark Souls II at full price.
The biggest problem with Dark Souls II, I think, is that it's trying too hard to be like both Demon's Souls and Dark Souls, rather than trying to be something completely original. Even though I didn't care for Dark Souls as much as Demon's Souls, I appreciated that it was trying to do something different. With Dark Souls II, it feels like a weak rehash of both Demon's Souls and Dark Souls, and never captures the excellence of either of those two games.
The treeline of Huntsman's Copse.
With this now being the third game in the series, the "wow" factor has significantly diminished. Demon's Souls remains my favorite game, in large part because it was the first one I played -- for a lot of gamers, their introduction to the series was Dark Souls, and that game remains their favorite. Whichever one you played first, it most likely felt refreshing and eye-opening compared to the other games you'd played in your lifetime; going between Demon's Souls and Dark Souls, there are enough differences that you can appreciate them as separate but equal entities, but going into Dark Souls II, it feels like a noticeably weaker reiteration of the same things we've already seen and done countless times before in the previous two games.
It's worth mentioning that some of my complaints about Dark Souls II, such as needing a guide to see all of the story's contents or the arbitrary "kill X number of big bosses to open a door" motivation, are equally applicable to Demon's Souls and Dark Souls, but with this being the third game in the series, those problems are now becoming more noticeable and less excusable.
As it stands, Dark Souls II is plagued with boring linearity, nonsensical geography, and poor difficulty balancing, all suggesting that the people at the helm didn't understand what made the Souls games so special in the first place. There are plenty of welcome, new additions to the series' mechanics, but for every one worthwhile thing they added, there's one or two things they subtly screwed up. Dark Souls II just didn't feel as satisfying to play as the previous two games in the series for me, and it proved an outright letdown at numerous times along the way.
In the grand scheme of things, Dark Souls II is not a bad game -- I'd take two or three Dark Souls II's over Skyrim any day of the week -- but it feels like a particularly weak Souls game, and certainly failed to live up to the hype it generated pre-release.