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Dark Souls II: A Beginner's Look

 

       As someone new to the Dark Souls universe I spent my first day with Dark Souls II questioning the sanity of the Gameinformer staff. 9.75? For this? I had swapped Titanfall for Dark Souls II after only a day and a half in Respawn’s new sci-fi shooter and the regret was building by the second. After 4+ hours of banging my head against a digital wall I actually put the game and receipt back in the bag, fully prepared to return it the next day. Still frustrated that following day I took to the internet to try and figure out exactly what it was that I couldn’t see in From Software’s torture tool, but mostly, I was looking for some way to understand what was even going on. And then, from out of the YouTube heavens descended a video that not only saved my experience, but quickly elevated Dark Souls II up to the top of my all-time favorite games. If you are new to this game and cannot figure out what in the world is going on or what all the hype is, I have just the thing to ease you’re ailing enthusiasm. When you’re ready, click on this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ayDrTngtGL0. It’s almost 40 minutes long, but they set it up so you can quickly skip around to the things you want to know. If you’re new to the series though, I highly recommend watching the entire thing. And don’t forget to thank Jeremy (aka TheJunglist) & Michael (aka VaatiVidya) for taking the time to help us newcomers out. In the meantime.

       The first thing you should know about Dark Souls II is, you are going to die... a lot. The second thing you should know about Dark Souls II is, YOU ARE GOING TO DIE… A LOT. I don’t know any of the people at From Software personally, but I’m fairly positive that they don’t like me. In fact, I’m pretty sure that they don’t like any of us. If you’re not comfortable being hated, tormented, abused, and constantly kicked in the digital shins, you might want to steer clear of DSII. If, however, you are an RPG fan that loves a very challenging gaming experience, you cannot pass this game up. Not only is the game well worth the aneurisms, heart attacks, ulcers, panic attacks, stress, frustration, cost of replacing your controller, cost of replacing the windows that your controller has gone through, and the price of prolonged therapy, but the challenges within make each and every victory one of the sweetest tastes you’ll taste all year.

       The story behind Dark Souls II’s gameplay is deceptively simple. As an undead you wander the land of Drangleic in search of souls to keep you from becoming a Hollow: an empty, undead shell of a man, or woman. The story, however, is not told in any kind of traditional sense. The narrative does not lead you down a straight path from plot point A to plot point B, but instead gives you the freedom to choose your own path. Almost every piece of DSII’s story is found beneath the surface of your interactions with the world of Drangleic. The various NPC’s scattered throughout the world aren’t there to tell you what’s going on or what your goals are as much as they’re there to tell you their story (with a few exceptions). Within those stories are bits and pieces of Dark Souls’ story and lore. This isn’t to say that DSII is just an empty shell filled with swinging swords and flying Soul Arrows, because there is a foundation beneath it all. Since I haven’t gotten past Sinner’s Rise though, I can’t really give you a picture of the larger arc. Not that I would anyway. Part of the fun of DSII is being thrown into the world with very little clue as to what’s going on. Digging through the world to find the story and your way through it is what makes DSII one of my all-time favorites. 

 

 

       After the intro and your ill-advised jump into that swirling, watery vortex your path forward takes you to the Fire Keeper’s house where you choose your name and most importantly, your class. There are 8 different classes in all: Warrior, Knight, Swordsman, Bandit, Cleric, Sorcerer, Explorer, and Deprived (aka The Streaker). If you’re new to DSII you might be a little confused as to which class you should go with. In the end, it doesn’t really matter all that much. Starting with a Knight doesn’t mean that Spells or Miracles are going to be out of your reach anymore than starting as a Cleric puts swinging greatswords out of reach. This isn’t to say that they aren’t different, because they certainly are, but it really comes down to what kind of fighting style you’d like to start with. If you start as a Sorcerer you’ll have instant access to the  sorcerer's staff and the wonderfully useful Soul Arrows - magic arrows that you shoot out of your staff - and with a starting Intelligence level of 14, you’re already well on your way to being able to use stronger magic. Starting as a Warrior gives you 15 Strength and 11 Dexterity, allowing you to wield the bigger weapons sooner. So it depends on how you plan on approaching the game early on. Each class has it’s own strengths and weaknesses, but it helps to understand the Stats and what they translate to in the world of Drangleic.

       As you start taking down the wide variety of enemies and bosses in DSII, you collect souls from each enemy you send to the great hereafter… after. Different enemies yield different amounts of souls, and obviously the bigger they are the more souls you’ll get for taking them down. Souls act as your currency in DSII and they’re used for everything from purchasing new weapons, spells, and miracles to leveling up your character. The stats available for upgrading are: Vigor, Endurance, Vitality, Attunement, Strength, Dexterity, Adaptability, Intelligence, and Faith. Knowing which stats affect which characteristics is essential to constructing the character you want. So here’s a basic breakdown:

 

       As your lifeblood, the more HP you have, the more hits you can take before your HP bar drains and you’re smacked with the dreaded ‘You Died’ message. Resistance to Poison becomes more and more useful as the game moves forward and you’re confronted with enemies whose attacks can poison you, draining your HP until the effects wear off or you heal yourself with a Divine Blessing or other healing item that cures status effects.

       In DSII, the amount of stamina in your stamina bar determines how many swings of the sword, spells cast, dodges and rolls, and even blocks you can effectively use. In the midst of a fight, the more stamina you have the more you’re able to do before having to wait for the bar to regenerate. If your Stamina bar runs out quickly you will find yourself unable to strike the enemy, evade their blows, or even maintain a block without getting knocked off balance (leaving you wide open). The Physical DEF is your ability to defend against Physical attacks, and Poise is what keeps you on your feet when enemies attack.

       This is something you won’t be able to ignore forever. If you want to carry the big weapons, wear the heavier armor, or fill all of your quick access slots to give you the maximum amount of weapons during combat, you’re going to have to upgrade this sooner or later. How much you can carry determines how quickly your character can dodge enemy attacks. If you overload yourself you’ll find that rolling out of the way of an enemy’s attack is more like slowly falling over drunk than actually rolling. Since evasion is half of the fighting picture, balancing out your load is important. The higher your Vitality, the more you’re able to carry without being overloaded.

       The amount of spells and miracles you can equip to the UP slot and the speed with which you can cast them is very important to anyone that relies on magic in the heat of the battle. Resistance to Curses, and AGL (overall mobility and dodge) are certainly both helpful bonuses to your stats, but the main focus of Attunement is helping out your magic and miracles.

       The most important use of Strength is not only the strength of your attacks, but which weapons you can wield. The higher the Strength, the bigger, and often more powerful the weapon you can use. Weapons and shields have Strength and Dexterity minimum requirements to use them properly, and if neither are high enough for the item, you can’t use it to it’s fullest potential. You can equip any weapon or shield you want, but if your Strength doesn’t meet the minimum requirement, it doesn’t do, or protect your from, as much damage.

       Just like Strength requirements weapons also have Dexterity requirements. Any weapon that requires skills other than brute strength requires a higher Dexterity level. And just like Strength, if you don’t meet that minimum Dexterity requirement for the weapon it won’t be as effective as it otherwise would be. Poison and Bleed BNS (bonus) essentially means that the higher your Dexterity, the higher Poison and Bleed damage you can do with Poison and Bleed weapons. 

       In my opinion, the main benefit to a higher Adaptability level is the increase in Poise. Poise becomes very important as it affects how well you’re able to take hits and remain on your feet. Early on blocking a hit sometimes means getting knocked off balance due to your low Poise. The higher your Poise the more likely you are to stay balanced and avoid being interrupted while attacking and using items. In the attached video you’ll see just how important higher Poise can be. But Poise isn’t the only benefit to a higher Adaptability level. You receive bonuses to your Poison and Fire damage as well as resistance to Poison, Bleed, and Curse. Agility is an important component of your overall dodge and movement.

       If spells are in your fighting repertoire, you absolutely cannot ignore Intelligence. Like Adaptability it gives you status effect bonuses and defenses (most importantly magic bonuses), but the higher your Intelligence the stronger the spells you’re able to use. The Sorcerer’s starting Soul Arrows are the weakest of all the various Souls Arrow spells. The Great Heavy Soul Arrows spelll does much more damage but it requires a higher Intelligence level before you’re able to use it. Unlike weapons you are unable to even use a spell unless you meet it’s minimum stat requirement (Attunement is also required to open up slots in which to put your spells). If you want even basic access to sorcery you’re going to have to get your Intelligence up to 10. 

       Much like Intelligence, Faith comes with an extensive set of status effect bonuses and defenses. The most important result of raising your Faith though, is the ability to use Miracles. Miracles are similar to spells but they have their own distinct uses and effects. Lower level Miracles are based on healing, which as you can imagine is very important, but once you break into the 20’s, you have access to some very powerful magic like Lightning Spear (my favorite so far) and Emit Force. The boost to Cast Speed in each of the magic stats is very important, and when it comes to Miracles, it’s essential. Not only do Miracles take longer to cast than most spells, but when casting most Miracles, your character is stationary and exposed. The faster you can cast, the less time you spend exposed to enemy attacks.

 

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        While leveling your character is going to be essential to your survival, all of it is absolutely useless unless you can hold your own in a fight. One of my earliest problems on that first day of frustration with DSII was figuring out how to engage the enemy; problems amplified by my utter bewilderment and lack of a proper fighting education (I didn’t even know you could lock-on to enemies). I cannot stress enough the importance of studying your enemy’s attack and defense patterns. Diving headfirst into your enemy’s area of attack and unleashing a flurry of button mashing mayhem will almost always end badly as enemies get more and more difficult. Most enemies only have about 3 different attack patterns so it’s a good idea to lure them into battle and play a little cat and mouse until you have a solid understanding of their patterns and tells (you can sometimes split up groups by luring one at a time). Watch how they move before each type of attack, take note of any weak points in their stance and movement through which you can slip and dodge, and try to gauge how much time you’ll have to attack while they’re vulnerable. Timing is absolutely everything, and when you’re dodging and parrying it’s a matter of life and death. If you understand your enemy’s fighting style, a properly timed roll will make you nearly invincible. Parrying is a lot more risky, but with the proper timing you’ll be rewarded with a stunned and helpless enemy wide open to whatever you want to throw at them (for a few seconds anyway). It is an absolute necessity for newcomers to utilize the instructional areas in Things Betwixt (open up those mist gates right after you leave the Fire Keeper’s Dwelling), and the weak enemies make it a good place to get some much needed practice. Of course, the wide variety of enemies and bosses throughout Drangleic mean that you’ll constantly be shifting your approach and more or less perpetually practicing, but beating up on the little guys will do wonders for your bruised ego. They won’t be there forever though.

       One of the most punishing aspects of DSII’s gameplay is that any death or rest at a bonfire resets every single enemy in the game (except for bosses and some key enemies). If you sat there for 10 minutes grinding through enemy after enemy to make it to the boss battle, if, or rather when that boss puts you down, you have to grind through those very same enemies again.. and again.. and again. Now apparently in Dark Souls, this could go on forever. In DSII, eventually more and more of those enemies will stop respawning until you’re left with a clear path to the boss battle. While it sounds like they’ve made your life easier, the lack of a constant, respawning soul and item resource means that there is only a limited number of souls and items in the entire game. For an exceedingly difficult game this could cause some problems down the line. I’m not sure if anyone has the numbers yet on effective soul, level and item caps, but since I haven’t really gotten too far in the game I’m not running into any major problems just yet. I do get a little perturbed when I keep crashing against a boss only to have my soul resources dwindle, leaving me unable to keep leveling to a point where I’m able to comfortably take them on. I imagine that’s exactly what they’re trying to do though; remove your ability to grind until you’re a powerhouse. By forcing you, at least at some point, to win with what you’ve got, they’re ensuring that you remain as uncomfortable as possible. As much as it hurts to lose say, 10,000 souls because all of a sudden every enemy seems to have morphed into mini-bosses, I’ve come to appreciate the punishment; mainly in hindsight though.

       Another punishing aspect of DSII is Hollowing. Each time you die, your HP meter’s max gets reduced a small percentage. This essentially means that every time you die, the game gets harder and harder. Hollowing eventually stops at 50% of your HP, but that means that you are half as strong as you could be in a game that is far more difficult than most. Hollowing can be reversed by consuming a Human Effigy, but they’re in short supply so avoiding death is your #1 goal. Some people have complained that there are far too few Human Effigy’s, but I currently have 18 of them in my inventory. Of course I’m not very far into the game so I’m not sure yet if by the end of the game I’ll feel the same way. Another way to avoid or at least mitigate the effects of Hollowing is to find yourself the Ring of Binding. By wearing this ring Hollowing is essentially cut in half. Instead of it stopping at 50% of your health you’ll stop Hollowing at 80%, and the percentage drop for each death is much less. Now, if you want to know where the Ring of Binding is, I’ll give you a very vague hint; it’s right across the drawbridge. It’s a good idea to grab it early on, but of course early on it’s also more difficult to get to.

 

 

       It’s been a while since a game has dominated my attention and taken over my life the way Dark Souls II has. It’s not often that a game can make things like sleeping, eating, and designing pesky inconvenient distractions. But I do have some problems with the game. Actually, it’s just one rather large problem; the graphics. Drangleic is an absolutely stunning world. The introduction of light via your torch to the dark caverns and castles is a beautiful sight every time, but upon closer inspection of the environment and especially your character, things can look downright subpar. I’ve read that this was a last minute decision by From Software, sacrificing graphics for playability, and that it upset more than a few gamers. Since I wasn’t really paying attention to this game until a couple of weeks before launch I can’t personally say that I feel duped, because I didn’t know that they had led gamers to believe that this was going to be a stunning visual masterpiece. But I do feel a little disappointed in the graphics. Whether it’s because I own an Xbox One and my eyes are spoiled, or I’m just a visual snob I couldn’t really say (it’s the latter), but for such an incredible game to look the way Dark Souls II does up close and personal is upsetting. Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t change how much I enjoy the game, because I’ve gotten used to it, but upon first stepping into the game I was really, really disappointed. Actually, I was both impressed and disappointed. It’s a very strange experience to be so completely awestruck by such beautiful scenery and environments and at the same time so completely let down upon closer inspection. Apparently, as usual, the PC version will have none of these problems, so I’m hoping that they’ll eventually get around to releasing this on the Xbox One so that console folk can see exactly what they had hoped to achieve. This isn’t a review so there’s no need for me to put a number on it, but if it wasn’t for the graphics I’d have to completely agree with GI’s review. It has all of the components and potential to be a 10, but there are some other minor issues.

       Coming in at a very distant 2nd are my complaints about character customization. Outside of choosing your class you can choose your sex, size (fat to skinny) and a few hair, facial hair, eyebrow, and tattoo choices. That is it. You do have a RGB slider at your disposal so you can come up with some funky color combinations for you hair options, but other than that they seem to have decided that personalizing your character just isn’t all that important. Considering the multiplayer aspects of this game it seem like a pretty poor choice. Speaking of multiplayer, you may be asking why I haven’t mentioned a very, very large part of Dark Souls II’s gameplay. It’s simple really; I’m pretending it doesn’t exist. Well, at least for now.

       I’ve left this to the end because that’s exactly how I intend on approaching it, at the end of my single player gaming experience. In the world of Drangleic you are never truly alone. While it is essentially a single-player game, at any point in your gameplay your world can be invaded by other players looking to steal your stuff or just harass and annoy you on your journey. This is both a good and bad thing. While you can be invaded, you can also be helped. If you come across a particularly impossible boss you can leave a Summon Sign somewhere near the entrance to the boss and people will see it inside the world of their game exactly where you left it. They can then choose to come to your world and help you out, increasing your odds of success greatly. But invasions and helpful companions aren’t the only benefits of being plugged in. Both Bloodstains and Messages throughout your world can be very helpful in guiding you through the pitfalls and secrets of the world of Drangleic. Bloodstains, once activated, show you the last few seconds of someone’s life in spectral form, allowing you to possibly avoid their same fate. You and others can also leave messages for one another to read, and more often than not these are helpful hints from other players letting you know where treasure, traps, or other dangers may be. Honestly, I think the game is much cooler online and I really am looking forward to my multiplayer experience. But I’m sort of a lone wolf in my games so for the time being, I’ll be suffering alone. And suffering has never been so much fun.

       Dark Souls II is an absolute must-have for RPG fans and anyone looking for a difficult gaming experience. As a newcomer the learning curve can be quite steep, but with some patience and perseverance you’ll be rewarded with one of the best gaming experiences there is. Every inch of success in Drangleic is bought and paid for with your blood, sweat, and tears, making each and every victory a memorable triumph that remains with you long after the battle has ended. The choices you make and the path you take through From Software’s beautiful and abusive world will test every last bit of your gaming fortitude, but with a little skill and a whole lot of lives you may just be able to change your fate. Who am I kidding? You’re going to die, over, and over, and over again. Enjoy it.

 

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