Early Impressions: Dark Souls 2

Defeat is the greatest teacher, and in Dark Souls you learn a lot. The infamously hard action RPG has changed the way people think about difficulty, inspiring folks who never appreciated it before to seek real challenge in their games. With its passionate fans and impressive (especially considering its niche) sales, Dark Souls can absolutely be considered a success. And just as defeat offers many lessons, victory offers very few… so while its players may have received quite an education, Dark Souls 2 shows just how little From Software has learned about the Souls games flaws. It’s a game with a lot of changes, but while they make huge improvements in areas of presentation, the changes to how the game actually plays are mostly for the worse.

Dark Souls 2 is, for a last gen game, quite pretty. The dynamic light sources lend fantastic atmosphere, as the orange flicker emitted by torches and sconces will have you jumping at your own dancing, elongated shadow. The models and textures are a definite step up from Dark Souls, and the hilariously bad ragdolling from the first may not be gone entirely, but it isn’t nearly as everpresent or mood disrupting. The art style is as classy as ever, with attractive armor and weapons mixed with grim, almost disturbing designs. Staring at the faint phantoms of other players, I’ve seen everything from greatswords eight feet long, notched with use, to maces made out of the upper jaw of a massive reptile. It’s unlikely to win any awards for graphics, but DS2 has stepped up its visuals significantly.

The UI, too, is massively improved, easing the management side so that you can focus your efforts on playing, not navigating menus. The translations and explanations in the Souls games has always been iffy, ranging from vaguely confusing to actually dishonest and misleading. Dark Souls 2 is as mum as ever about explaining the workings of many of its systems, but the times when it does decide to break things down for you, the language used is clear, consistent, and helpful. The flavor text often hints at a greater purpose for key items without giving the game away, and I look forward to puzzling out what some items are for over the course of my adventures. I always thought Dark Souls had pretty good menus- DS2’s are fantastic. With tons of sorting options, items cordoned off by category, and a clear breakdown of stat changes, it’s easy to find what you want, even if you don’t know what you’re looking for at first.

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But when it comes to actual gameplay, the story is much less positive. The most jarring change is how the game handles enemy respawns. One of the great comforts in the Souls games has been that enemies always respawn. Any time you die, or rest at a bonfire, any enemies you’ve taken down, save for bosses and a few special enemies, will respawn. At first glance, it’s hard to see this as an advantage- naturally, it means that any time you want to fight a boss, you have to fight everything inbetween the bonfire and the boss as well. In truth, though, it takes some of the pressure away. If you ever feel too weak, can’t afford an item you need, or just need to practice with new gear, there are always old, familiar enemies you can fight to get Souls and learn how your items work. You’re never stuck- even if you just can’t beat a boss, you can always work for a few more levels, or a better weapon, and try again. It’s never game over.

Dark Souls 2 strips this comfort away. If you kill enemies enough times- the exact requirements are intentionally unclear, and the internet has not quite pieced it together yet- they disappear permanently. No more grinding for levels or gear. No more easy practice with a new weapon. And if you die and lose a ton of souls, guess what? They are gone, period. They are never coming back. It’s a finite resource, and you have just flushed some of it down the toilet. In a game so full of pressure, danger, and ways to screw up, this is taking it too far. The Souls games always demanded a lot of the player, but at the very least, they never said “That’s it- you’re done. No more tries.” With this introduction, there is the very real possibility of a game over- a situation in which you simply cannot progress, and have no choice but to start over. It’s a ballsy change, and while I respect the courage in making it, it changes the game for the worse. Dark Souls always felt like it was on your side, and it asked a lot, but it ultimately wanted you to succeed. Dark Souls 2 feels like it’s willing to tolerate you until you use up its patience.

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What I don’t have much respect for are the changes to hitboxes. Simply put, they’re bad- attacks will pass through enemies, your attacks hit the walls more often than not, and the go-to of any pro, the backstab, is now about as reliable as a Chevy Nova. I can’t conceive of any argument that these new hitboxes are some kind of artistic statement, or attempt to encourage different strategies. They’re just bad design, frustrating and depressing. Mileage varies wildly- in my limited play, it appears to be very specific weapons that have terrible hitboxes, whereas others are completely fine. Regardless, it was never a problem in the previous games. Some weapons attacked in ways you weren’t a huge fan of, but if they looked like they hit, they hit. DS2 is not so generous, and this is to its detriment.

Other than that, it just feels like a lot of missed potential. From Software went out of their way to tell everyone that dual wielding would be a viable strategy in DS2: I ended up restarting with a new character because fighting with two weapons was so ineffective. They promised that bows would be a practical way to play- almost nothing about how bows work has changed. The summoning system still completely unbalances the game. You can now only level at one location in the game for no conceivable reason, and the NPC that lets you do so has the same four lines of dialogue to harass you with every time you do so. The new hollowification system where you lose a little maximum health every time you die is hugely demoralizing and downright maddeningly unfair, piling punishment on top of failure to make any challenge that bested you even more insurmountable. It’s a lot of really clumsy, poorly thought out changes to a fantastic game.

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And it is a fantastic game, despite all this. Is it worse than Dark Souls? I’m far from having beaten it, but yes, I would say it’s definitely worse. Frankly, most games are- Dark Souls was a truly incredible game, one that many designers now cite as inspiration. The combat is deep, the environments are pictures of grim beauty, the game’s myriad mysteries are fascinating beyond belief. Despite all the love for the Souls games, there’s still nothing quite like them- attempts to capture its magic like Dragon’s Dogma miss the point (while being worthwhile on its own merits). There are two other games like Dark Souls 2- Dark Souls, and Demon’s Souls. That’s all. And if you want more of what these games have to offer, there’s nowhere else to turn.

So, for as disappointed as I am with the way they’ve taken things, Dark Souls 2 still comes very highly recommended. At its best, it’s a sublime experience, where the controller melts away and all there is is you, sword and shield in hand, facing down an otherworldly being set on your demise. It doesn’t always play fair, and you’ll lose your temper with it many a time… but you’ll keep coming back, because even a Souls game that misses the mark is an experience you just can’t miss. I doubt I’ll ever know enough about this incredible, vast game to ever write a proper review, but I’m going to have a hell of a time trying to learn. And Dark Souls 2 is eager to teach, one death at a time.