Here we go again. I’ve hitched up my pantaloons, pulled on my most heavily-armoured codpiece and have gone venturing forth into a world beset by despair, devastation and strange messages on the ground that say cryptic things like “destroy but hole,” and “try jumping” right next to vast chasms. I tried leaving my own message once in response, but they didn’t have any of the words I was looking for. Clearly Drangleic doesn’t know Urban Dictionary.
Yes, it’s Dark Souls II: Scholar Of The First Sin, a game that was not warmly received by the fans who had already purchased the older, inferior version of the game and weren’t getting a tune-up for free. No skin off my nose, I didn’t have the money for it at the time and got this edition when it was on the Steam Summer Sale. So now I’m playing the successor to the incredible Dark Souls, what’s changed?
To start with, it’s set in a new world called Drangleic, or at least I think it’s a new world. It might just be the original kingdom of Lordran, because I’ve heard that it’s at least a few hundred years since the first game and there’s little elements that harken back to the old days. However, I’ll be bloody cross if that’s the case. I spent so much time desperately trying to fix the world back yonder that it’s annoying to think that nobody took the time to keep it in good nick whilst I was away. See, this is why we can’t have anything nice.
Now I admit I haven’t completed the game yet, because a Dark Souls campaign is traditionally something you don’t so much play, as get married to. It’s a long, tough slog that can go on for days. It’s more of a commitment than amputation, and about twice as painful.
Which isn’t to say I don’t love it. Dark Souls has always brought out the masochist in me and about a million others, with its tightly-designed core game loop and matronly tough-but-fair gameplay. So let’s get to the nub of the matter. Is DSII better than DSI? No. Is it still worth playing? Hell, yes.
I remember feeling a bit confused at the idea of a sequel, honestly. I didn’t know how the gameplay could be much more refined than it was, and basically I was right. Nothing at the core has been changed, it’s all stuff around the edges. Enough to make it feel like a sequel, not a massive expansion pack, but only just.
Of course, considering that I knew how to play already, I decided to get that back-to-basics feel by making a completely different character build to the one I had in the first game. And so began the adventures of Sparkly Bert, the red-headed sorcerer with his staff in one hand (careful) and a sword in the other. No more heavy armour and shields for you, Mr. Franey, and you can put that halberd down while you’re at it. You’re going to be soft and quick, a bit like a raspberry and roughly the same colour when a giant sits on you.
So it’s the classic tale of dodge, block, fail to parry properly, backstab, get mashed into the floor, lather, rinse, repeat; but the formula’s been tweaked, sometimes in good ways and sometimes not. One thing I like is that there’s an easier entry for new players, something that bugged me about the first one. You have to do a few hours of basic combat before you fight a boss, and a comparatively easy one at that.
Which isn’t to say that Dark Souls II has no teeth, only that it starts you out on the smaller molars before you get to the larger fangs and as mentioned there are things that help and hinder. For a start, the new hub area, Majula, has any merchants and blacksmiths congregate there once you’ve met them, which makes for a useful central point with which to stock up for when you go out battling, whereas Firelink Shrine was basically useless but for the world’s roundest cleric. Some people might claim this is too much of an advantage (they always do), but you don’t get any chums until you’ve found them in the wild and it’s just about convenience, not difficulty.
I even think it suits the tone somewhat. Majula is the one point in the game that isn’t completely hostile, and it’s not like the NPCs are throwing a big BBQ every night. They’re slumped inside individual buildings, refusing to acknowledge each other like a bunch of distant relatives at a wedding. It’s not even a community, it seems more like a resentful refugee camp. They’re all engaged sullenly in their own activities, forging metal, tending to supplies, studying maps or licking themselves. No, seriously.
Another interesting fact is that you can warp from bonfires at the outset, but I suspect this was only done to cover for the rather odd change to the levelling system. Rather than level up at bonfires as before, you now have to warp back to Majula and chat up the drugged-sounding girl in the green hood who will burble meaninglessly into your ear for a moment before remembering that you want to give your stats a boost. This doesn’t change anything mechanically, it just breaks the flow as you have to warp back home to get a quick pump-up before bamfing back to whatever you were doing previously.
And whilst I’m at it, there are other nitpicks I have. For one thing, enemies you kill enough times don’t respawn when you use a checkpoint, and whilst this is useful in the short-term for getting through tough areas, it means that you can’t grind anywhere for very long, and in a game all about the cycle of “kill baddies to get upgrades to kill baddies better,” putting a cap on how often you can kill enemies means that you can’t get as strong as you’d like or practice moves on weaker enemies indefinitely.
In fact, grinding comes with a second issue. Now when you die, you lose a bit of your maximum health each time. Get splatted about a dozen times and you’ll suddenly realise you’re at half your max HP. You can reset it by turning human, but the “human effigy” objects for doing so are rare and limited, so suddenly each death comes with a sense of panicky frustration. The beauty of Dark Souls was that your death was consequence-free if you could get back to where you dropped your souls, and now it becomes harder and harder to achieve that every time you get killed. I dread to think what happens when you eventually run out of effigies, you’ll just have to stay depowered and suck it up.
I also feel a bit less enthused over the visual design as a whole. Most of the enemies I’ve fought have just been knights, other hollowed walking around in various styles of protective clothing. Four of the five bosses I’ve killed have basically been blokes in armour and helmets. Come to think of it, one boss was a trio of knights working in tandem, and another was two knights mashed together.
It’s kind of dull, I’ll be honest. Did all the concept artists get the same memo or something? Where is the spark of originality that fuelled the gorgeously drab design of the first installment? What happened to the big pile of bones that shuffled around in a fur coat? Or the demon with centipedes for hands? Or the dragon that was just a big mouth with a few limbs added on, like the evolutionary destination of somebody who shops at Iceland? It feels less creative, less awe-inspiring than the previous Dark Souls. Of course, it’s still miles ahead of most games, but it is a step backward nonetheless.
Right, let’s talk about something I like. Weapon degradation has changed a bit, in that your equipment now has all the physical resistance of a paper plate, but restores itself automatically for free whenever you rest at a bonfire, whereas DSI basically taxed you for wanting to keep using your favoured murdering tools. Now it’s a matter of considered, calculated strikes, keeping an eye on the little bar that symbolises your weapon’s integrity and swapping it out when it finally gives up the ghost.
This might sound irritating, but it inspired something that nothing in the whole Dark Souls series has inspired in me before – experimentation. When my favourite dagger became unusable, I was forced to sheath it to draw a sword and what do you know? It was just as good, if not better.
I like that it makes you try other tools in your kitbag, because otherwise I wouldn’t have left my comfort circle. The issue is that because the stats in Dark Souls II don’t feel that they have to explain themselves to the likes of you, it means that players feel reluctant to try anything they don’t already know, especially with death now having real consequences. The series design has always squashed trial-and-error gameplay because you need to be using something that is guaranteed to work, and by the halfway point in the game you’ve got a stylised build for your character and you can’t use anything aside from what you’ve been training with.
But now there’s a little more of this “make do with what you’ve got in a dangerous situation” angle, I realise I quite like it. Dark Souls was always about making do with what you had, and nothing makes a player wet themselves like taking away that small allowance right when they need it most. Besides, you never have to use your second-tier stabbers for very long, so it’s never massively aggravating. There’s not as much of a gap between bonfires this time round, you see, so you tend to fight more densely packed clusters of enemies for shorter amounts of time.
However, I don’t think that was a conscious design choice, more a necessity when they saw the environments they were working with. Dark Souls II, by all accounts, seems… Smaller. In every sense of the word. There’s nowhere with the same feeling of scale as somewhere like Blighttown or Anor Londo, you don’t spend much time in any one place before you’ve left it and the pathways loop back on themselves quickly enough that it doesn’t have that satisfying feeling it did before, when you’d walk fifty miles though eighty terrains and finally come full circle to the beginning once again.
In fact, Dark Souls II really has all the hallmarks of a game that was made in less time than its ancestor. It’s smaller, less creative in design, not as innovative as it should be and it doesn’t have the same weight to its history or elegance to its craftsmanship. Some of the new mechanics don’t feel like they were thought through properly, and the already problematic ones weren’t revamped when they should have been. For example, the jumping controls have been changed. They used to be absolute arse, and now they’re even worse, mapped to L3. Christ, was that thought up by a man with a tire iron lodged in his head?
However, these quibbles don’t hide the fact that it is still a superb game, and I don’t blame the creators for trying to shake up the formula a tad. Besides, none of the problems are dealbreakers, and DSII is still far superior to the dime-a-dozen schlock you’ll get most days. I’m having a blast with it, and if you have a brain in your head, you will too. Of course, any Dark Souls game will try to forcibly remove that brain, but that’s the way it goes. No loved one is truly perfect.
A worthy successor to the original modern classic, though a little less refined and polished in its execution. Whilst the bad alterations outweigh the good ones, there’s definitely enough going to keep it fresh and worth playing.