The lights are on
Halfway into the first Dark Souls, I quit. I threw my controller across the room and it shattered to pieces. The infamous Ornstein & Smough boss fight proved the tipping point for my tolerance. About three months later, I tried again. I succeeded on the very first attempt, and the feeling of pure victory has gone unmatched ever since. That feeling is the core of the Souls series, the reason it has so many diehard fans, and it is resurrected perfectly in its latest installment.
As a disclaimer, the game has very loose connections to its predecessor, so I will draw comparisons between the two without trying to give too much away.
Where the game opens is very different from the first Dark Souls. After a stunning and deliberately ambiguous CGI cutscene, you are gently along a path to the hub town, Marjula, where you will spend the bulk of your time with NPC's found later in the game. Nearly every character has a service to offer you and factor into the overall key of the game: progression. The same item you use for leveling up, souls earned by killing enemies, is also the primary currency in the game, the means by which you not only acquire new items, but upgrade them as well.
From there, you are presented with a choice of where to proceed: either to a forest or a tower. Whichever choice you make, the game does not tell you whether it was right or wrong; you decide if you can live through your choice and come out on top, you fight each and every enemy, and you duel the boss. There are no blinking arrows, no golden paths, only yourself and your instincts. The only walls erected are placed deliberately to stop you from going into places which would disrupt the story.
Speaking of story, it's just as deliciously sparse as its predecessors, if better told. Echoing the original's theme of rebirth, you are set to secede the former monarch and sit upon his throne. Or so you are told. In order to gain his attention, you must find and kill four Great Ones and earn their Souls, which will brighten your own. From there, you are free to explore to your heart's content, endlessly grinding away or pushing forward, ever in danger of a wayward death.
You will die often. As a trademark of Dark Souls, the brutal difficulty is punishing yet rewarding once conquered. Mistakes are not easily forgiven, and a careless wound may cost Estus sorely needed later on. Every strike must be carefully planned, and the enemies require caution and a sense of alert in every encounter. The stamina bar is, as always, your savior and killer; you may have just enough left to eke out that final blow, or it may be drained, leaving you helpless to roll or block as a club heads your way. Newcomers would be wise to raise their stamina (Endurance) alongside their overall health (Vigor) accordingly.
Those two stats will never be more needed than in the brilliantly crafted boss fights. In these truly epic encounters, you are expected to take down opponents twice your size or more. Often capable of beating you to a pulp in two moves or less, the caution aforementioned is of the utmost importance here. Careful rolls, blocks, and, sometimes, parries, are the key to success. Accompanied by an astounding and truly unique piece every time, these fights are some of the most memorable events in the entire game, not just by the rage they will inevitably cause, but the sense of wonder at their defeat.
Wonder extends to the intricately designed environments which always impress with their detail as well as their variety. The closing hours contained perhaps some of the most awe-inspiring sights I have ever witness in gaming. Every aspect is carefully planned and executed marvelously, from the twists and turns of the Undead Crypt to the sunset visible from Heide's, every moment is a marvel.
There is one, and perhaps only one, gripe I have with this game. Back to the fighting, it sometimes seems as if the hitboxes are too big or too small. Dark Souls had the art of combat down to the most concrete rules, where every failure could be rightfully attributed to the player; when you were hit by a spear, you could see the spear slide across you; when you narrowly dodge a greataxe, you could screech at how close the blade came to your flesh. In Dark Souls II, it feels almost as if there's a buffer between you and the weapon, one that manages to steal your precious health even though, by your very eyes, it missed you by a wide margin. It's not all the time, but often enough that it should be mentioned.
This fault shines all the darker in not only some of the more difficult boss fights, but also in PvP. A cornerstone of the series, the Souls' online system returns, bringing with it a host of feared invasions and jolly co-operation. The details, I'll leave for you to discover, but the basics are this: there are a host of covenants, fictitious organizations within the game, that primarily exist to shape your online experience. The Brotherhood of Blood members pass their time invading random players worlds, hoping to kill them and amass more souls. The Heirs of the Sun leave their golden sign that they might be summoned by players having problems with certain areas and bosses. The Blue Sentinels are bound to the Way of the Blue, coming to their aid when they are invaded; this pairing is flawed, as, by my own account, I played the entire game as a Blue Sentinel and was never summoned once; it would be better if From Software merged these two into one, so that Sentinels could depend on each other and feel proud of their allegiance instead of committing themselves to useless vigilance or cowardly protection.
Those two faults aside, I cannot help but praise this game. Here, among all these cash cow annual franchises, stands a titan. Glorious, wonderful, and wholly uncompromising, Dark Souls II blends all of its facets together into a seeming illusion: one of perfectly tuned difficulty where every step is earned, where the final victory is all the sweeter for all the sour bits you swallowed along the way, where the thoughts of the dead translate into aid for the living. Despite all its faults, it could be nothing other than what it is, and it is all the more perfect for it.
As Adam Sessler would put it, a Death... out of Five.
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