Reviewed on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360
I say “almost” because developer From Software went a little too far with a penalty that decreases your max HPevery time you die. This can be counteracted by using a Human Effigy, but those items are few and far between in the early half of the campaign. While undoubtedly a hardcore feature, I found it frustrating because it slightly stifled my urge to explore the world with a fear of being too harshly penalized for failure.
The world of Drangelic is massive and filled with a wide variety of different locales. You'll travel between crumbling seaside kingdoms to marshes layered with thick coats of poison to what feels like the bowels of hell itself. While the variety in places to fight and explore is great, the world of Dark Souls II lacks a certain cohesion that was present in the original. 2011's depiction of Lordran felt it made sense in a geographic sense -- no matter how fantastical the setting got, it all seemed to fit together naturally. With the variety here and the ability to fast travel on a whim, Dark Souls II feels more like a large collection of levels than one natural single world.
Despite this schism, it’s definitely a nice world to look at. Dark Souls II's updated engine emphasizes the role of lighting in exploration. The game looks gorgeous when you're roaming around outside in a naturally lit area, or carrying around a torch. At any bonfire, you can choose to remove your shield in favor of lighting a torch. Not only does having a flame in your hand illuminate dark corners, but some enemies will cower in fear before your light. A choice that makes such a visible impact is cool, but oddly enough, the torch creates a strange tradeoff. Do you want to play it safe and carry a shield, or risk death and create a more visually interesting experience?
But these lighting conundrums don’t take away from just how great it feels to play Dark Souls II. It builds upon the challenge, scope, and mystery of the original in so many different impressive ways.
Oh, and remember how awful the frame rate got back in the original when you entered Blighttown? Dark Souls II runs at a steady 30 frames per second throughout the entire campaign without a hiccup. Even in areas brimming with enemies and environmental interactions, the game never slows down, meaning that you’ll never have anyone to blame for a “You Died” screen other than yourself.
The role of Covenants is also expanded and made good use of for multiplayer. For instance, joining the Rat Covenant gave me the run of an ancient tomb, including control of where to place poison pools, enemy rats, and other devious booby traps for the next non-Rat Covenant player that happens by to deal with. Think Tecmo’s Deception, and you’re pretty close to the new dynamics that From Software has created here. It’s an extremely satisfying way to express my inner evil genius.
Iconic bosses also provide a ton of memorable moments of pain and regret that eventually become triumph. They don’t have quite the same impact as those in the original Dark Souls, but to be fair, that’s probably because I was prepared for the kind of challenge they were going to throw at me. There are certainly standouts. The Mirror Knight, for example, is an amazingly tough battle set on a gorgeous tower, and features some super exciting uses of multiplayer and New Game Plus. They’re fantastic surprises I won’t spoil for you.
- +Rewarding challenge
- +Tough but fair combat
- +Great enemy design
- +Smart multiplayer
- –Annoying death penalties