With Demon's Souls, Dark Souls, and now Dark Souls II, From Software has made providing gamers with challenging entertainment their overriding game design philosophy. The difficulty of Dark Souls II is both its greatest strength and also its greatest weakness.
For the uninitiated, Dark Souls II is an open-world action RPG. Players step into the shoes of some poor man or woman who has become afflicted with “The Curse” and has ended up in the kingdom of Drangleic. This is about as specific as the story seems willing to be, with the rest is a blur about a king, something about fire keepers, and giants. About three-fourths of the way through the game, the storyline inexplicably changes gears from trying to cure your character from The Curse to becoming the new king or queen of Drangleic. I was pretty confused when this happened, but being confused in Dark Souls II is the normal state of affairs. Also, I’d be lying if I said this game was about its story. The vague plot serves as an excuse to insert strange monsters and visuals.
To its credit, Dark Souls II looks incredible. It retains the aura of faded glory, despair, and hopelessness of the first Dark Souls, but it isn’t afraid to access a brighter color palate. Sunsets on endless oceans, soaring mountain peaks, misty forest vales, these locations all have distinct color schemes and feel unique. By extension, Dark Souls II stands out visually more than its predecessor, whose graphical styles ranged from dim to dark. I can believe that people, insane though they may be, live in the kingdom of Drangleic, whereas the denizens of Lordran seemed entirely out of place. The creature designs range from traditional fantasy fare like giant spiders and dragons to monsters that would be right at home in a remake of John Carpenter’s The Thing. For example, one of the bosses is literally a giant pile of corpses fused together to form a disgusting mass of grasping arms and legs. It’s gross.
The Souls series has constructed its identity around the idea that games should be hard, but fair; a game design concept that many console games in the 8-bit era of gaming strove to embody. Gameplay largely revolves around knowing when to block, dodge, heal, and attack. Most monster encounters consist of learning their timings and weaknesses. In the average Dark Souls II fight or boss battle, if you die, it is largely your own fault for being too slow to block or dodge. Dark Souls II mostly succeeds in walking the knife-thin line that separates a difficult game from a frustrating game, but it does have its fair share of insta-death moments. Random explosions, powerful monsters masquerading as treasure chests, one-hit-kill boss attacks, Dark Souls II has a number of cheap ways to die. At times, this game made me so mad I had to put it down for a couple hours so as not to pull my hair out in rage.
What mitigates the feelings of frustration and will keep you coming back for more punishment is the sense of accomplishment after conquering a particularly hard section or boss. It also helps that Dark Souls II is fully aware of how difficult it is and is designed to lessen the impact of its own betrayals. Sure, there will be numerous times when you die unfairly, but the penalty for death is simply dropping your souls, the in-game currency used to level up and buy items. These souls can be reclaimed by going to where you died and recovering them. Once you know something will instantly kill you, it is usually easy to avoid. After killing enemies a certain number of times, they will disappear forever. This is probably to prevent people from farming up souls, which you obtain by slaying enemies, and to help players make it through overly frustrating portions of Drangleic.
Another method of alleviating difficult sections of gameplay is by summoning other players to assist in combat. A player having trouble with a boss or a long stretch of enemies can use an item called a human effigy to restore their zombie-like form to its human state, allowing them to summon allies. Offline players are at a significant disadvantage when it comes to summoning, since they may only call upon the various denizens of Drangleic. These stalwart heroes are controlled by the AI and are not very smart. They’ll throw themselves at bosses with as much relish as Kobayashi at a hot dog eating contest and they won’t stop until they are dead. There is another problem with summoning, though, and that is finding the item that allows you to summon and be summoned.
You see, the majority of the problems that I had with Dark Souls II stemmed from just how oblique and purposefully confusing the game can be at times. The player is never told that one of the most essential skills in the game is just talking to the NPCs repeatedly until they have nothing new to say. At one point in my playthrough, I had explored all available sections of Drangleic and was stuck. After several hours of aimless backtracking I found that I needed to talk with a specific shop keeper multiple times, a shop keeper I had no reason to talk to and whose merchandise I couldn’t use. Talking with that specific character opened up an entire half of the game. Talking with other seemingly unimportant characters multiple times is also what nets players access to certain items, like the items required to summon help for boss fights. On numerous occasions I picked up an item, read the description, and was still completely in the dark as to its purpose.
Perhaps the greatest example of just how frustratingly obtuse Dark Souls II can be is found in the information it conveys to players regarding covenants. Covenants are essentially groups you can join that give you special powers or advantages. One of the earliest covenants players can encounter is The Way of the Blue which summons other players to your aid whenever your world is invaded by enemy players. This is by far the most useful covenant early on in the game. However, there is another covenant called the Company of Champions, which was the first covenant I happened to discover. Not really knowing anything about it, I joined. Dark Souls II game never explains what the Company of Champions does, so I played the game, remarking how incredibly difficult all the starting areas seemed to be. It wasn’t until I reached a boss fight half-way through that I began to suspect the purpose of the Company of Champions. It turns out that joining the Company of Champions amounts to ratcheting up the difficulty to eye-gougingly hard levels. I’m all for allowing players to discover things for themselves; that can be a beautiful and awesome thing if implemented correctly. However, a little more explanation would go a long way toward making Dark Souls II a more accessible and less frustrating experience.
On the one hand, I admire Dark Souls II. It is a game that is what it is and doesn’t bother trying to explain itself except in the broadest possible sense. Players must rise to meet its challenge; it doesn’t stoop to accommodate anyone. On the other hand, there are many occasions when Dark Souls II intentionally obscures itself in order to give the illusion that it is more meaningful and complex that it is. Difficulty should stem from gameplay, not from intentionally confusing the player. I enjoyed Dark Souls II very much at first, but it eventually wore out its welcome. If you enjoyed the first game or if you love difficult games, you’ll probably also enjoy Dark Souls II. If you don’t have a lot of patience or persistence, you should probably steer clear, or at least until the price drops significantly during a Steam sale or something.
Reviewed on Xbox 360