Dark Souls II

EDGE - - GAMES - Pub­lisher Namco Bandai De­vel­oper FromSoft­ware For­mat 360, PC, PS3 (ver­sion tested) Re­lease Out now (US, JP), March 14 (EU)

360, PC, PS3

We are among the first to set foot in Dran­gleic, and we are quite help­less. There are no wikis, fo­rums or videos to guide us when we hit a wall; no fel­low ad­ven­tur­ers with whom to ex­change whis­pered guid­ance; no mes­sages on the ground from other trav­ellers. It is a ter­ri­ble, ter­ri­fy­ing, won­der­ful feel­ing to be this alone. Af­ter our first fa­tal mis­take, when the screen goes dark and we see the words ‘You died’ for the first time, the tro­phy popup says it all: wel­come to Dark Souls.

That mes­sage proves to be telling. Ev­ery­thing in Dran­gleic is new, of course, but this world of end­less blind cor­ners is also fa­mil­iar. The minute you set foot in Ma­jula, a beau­ti­ful, sun-parched coastal set­tle­ment with a con­spic­u­ously placed bon­fire, you know you’re in this game’s Fire­link. And you know that at least one of the paths branch­ing out from this cen­tral hub will lead to an area that you’re not yet ready for, put there by FromSoft­ware with the sole pur­pose of mak­ing sure you know your place. And you’ll in­stinc­tively at­tack ev­ery chest in the game be­fore try­ing to open it.

As such, your first hours in Dark Souls II are about iden­ti­fy­ing, and adapt­ing to, the sub­tle dif­fer­ences be­tween it and its pre­de­ces­sor. Ma­jula’s black­smith, for in­stance, doesn’t carry an in­fi­nite num­ber of the Ti­tan­ite Shards you use to im­prove your gear. He has just ten, and up­grade ma­te­ri­als re­main scarce through­out the early part of the game. In­deed, most mer­chants’ stocks are limited; you’ll wish you could stock up on the Hu­man Ef­figy – this game’s Hu­man­ity equiv­a­lent, which now not only lets you sum­mon help for boss bat­tles but also re­stores a health bar whose ca­pac­ity de­pletes af­ter ev­ery suc­ces­sive death – but you can’t.

The only item avail­able in un­lim­ited quan­ti­ties from the out­set is the Lifegem, a new heal­ing item whose very ex­is­tence caused con­cern among the Souls se­ries’ ra­bidly pas­sion­ate com­mu­nity. Given out like candy in pre­re­lease demos and the net­work beta, it’s a rarer com­mod­ity in the fi­nal game: an un­com­mon drop and sold by mer­chants for 300 souls apiece. It’s an es­sen­tial tool early on, given that at the out­set your Es­tus Flask can be used only once. That mea­gre limit can be raised by find­ing Es­tus Shards locked away in Dran­gleic’s dark­est cor­ners, but our flask was good for just eight swigs by the end of the game, com­pared to the first game’s 15. Heal­ing op­tions aren’t just well bal­anced in terms of sup­ply, but us­age, too: Lifegems are quicker to use than your Es­tus, but they re­fill less of your health bar and take sig­nif­i­cantly longer to do so. It’s just one more thing to con­sider in a com­bat sys­tem that’s an end­less pro­ces­sion of split-sec­ond life-or-death de­ci­sions and which of­ten feels more RTS than RPG.

And it’s in com­bat that we find the most in­stantly ap­par­ent changes. Even the low­est ranks of en­emy are a good deal smarter now, and un­less you’re wield­ing a

It’s in com­bat that we find the most ap­par­ent changes. Even the low­est ranks of en­emy are a good deal smarter now

high-sta­bil­ity shield, block­ing an at­tack won’t stop them in their tracks, but sim­ply de­lays the next hit of their combo. If you try to get a hit in, you’ll ei­ther get hit first or hit each other si­mul­ta­ne­ously. The bat­tle sys­tem it­self is harder to ex­ploit, too: the parry win­dow has been tight­ened up, and if you try to lure a sin­gle en­emy away from the group with your bow, you’ll ag­gro the lot of them. The back­stab is still in­vin­ci­ble, but starts with a whack on the en­emy’s shoul­der, dur­ing which you’re still vul­ner­a­ble – get hit and you’re knocked out of the an­i­ma­tion. And that also ap­plies to walk­ing through fog doors, thwart­ing our at­tempt to dash through a room of tough en­e­mies on the run-up to a boss. On top of all of that is the threat of a di­min­ished health bar if you die. It’s go­ing to take a lot more than a new heal­ing item to mit­i­gate such pro­found change.

Lit­tle bal­anc­ing acts ex­ist else­where, thank­fully. A chest in an early area holds a ring that re­duces HP loss af­ter death. At first, bosses drop gen­er­ous amounts of souls, let­ting you level up and im­prove weapons and ar­mour at a fair lick. In Dark Souls, only the for­ward roll had in­vin­ci­bil­ity, but now the back­ward one does too. Un­less our tim­ing was flaw­less, there are even a few frames on the side­ways ver­sion.

Most sig­nif­i­cantly of all, en­e­mies even­tu­ally stop respawn­ing. This serves two pur­poses: shut­ting down soul farm­ing, and re­mov­ing the frus­tra­tion of mak­ing a mis­take against a grunt you’ve al­ready killed a dozen times on the well-trav­elled route from bon­fire to boss. It’s one of the few help­ing hands FromSoft­ware of­fers, ac­knowl­edg­ing that you’ve learned all you need to from that group of en­e­mies, and get­ting them out of your way. It doesn’t make the game eas­ier or less re­ward­ing than its pre­de­ces­sor. Af­ter all, the ela­tion at beat­ing Orn­stein and Smough had noth­ing to do with the times you slipped up against the Knights on the ap­proach.

It does, how­ever, un­der­mine Dran­gleic’s sense of place. Lor­dran was a con­sis­tent, co­her­ent space, its en­emy place­ments for­ever fixed, its in­di­vid­ual ar­eas loop­ing back on them­selves and each other. We could guide you from the top of Anor Londo to the bot­tom of Tomb Of The Gi­ants turn by turn, and tell you ex­actly what you’d face along the way. For all that you’ll wel­come despawn­ing en­e­mies when strug­gling against a Dran­gleic boss, it’s a dif­fer­ent mat­ter when you re­turn later on and find that a place that was once teem­ing with Un­dead is now a ghost town.

Worse still is the abil­ity to fast travel be­tween bon­fires you’ve vis­ited from the very start of the game, which has had pre­cisely the ef­fect on Dran­gleic’s de­sign that we feared. Each of the paths branch­ing out from Ma­jula will lead to an area that flows into an­other, and pos­si­bly an­other, but even­tu­ally you’ll reach a dead end and a bon­fire from which to warp out. Bon­fires are more

gen­er­ously placed, and for the first half of the game you’ll find one al­most im­me­di­ately af­ter killing each boss. Given that you no longer level up at bon­fires, but in­stead by talk­ing to a Ma­jula NPC, the first thing you do when you set foot in a new area is to fast travel out of it to spend your souls. Only later in the game does FromSoft­ware start mak­ing you tip­toe gin­gerly through a new area, inch­ing round cor­ners with your shield up, ter­ri­fied of los­ing thou­sands of souls as you seek the sanc­tu­ary of a sword em­bed­ded in a pile of ash.

Yet fast travel brings its own ben­e­fits. Aban­don­ing the need for a co­her­ent flow – the way Un­dead Burg so nat­u­rally be­came the Par­ish, the way The Depths so log­i­cally segued into Blight­town – lets the vivid imag­i­na­tion of the level de­sign­ers run free. The re­sult is a game of re­mark­able vis­ual va­ri­ety, one that takes you from sprawl­ing forestry to a claus­tro­pho­bic crum­bling prison, and from a murky net­work of cav­erns to an enor­mous Gothic cas­tle sur­rounded by a lake of fire. It may not co­here as el­e­gantly as Lor­dran, but Dran­gleic is more di­verse, more beau­ti­ful and a good deal big­ger. By the time the end cred­its had rolled, there were al­most 30 ar­eas on our travel map.

That doesn’t tell the whole story, ei­ther. Just as you’re start­ing to feel that the end is in sight, it tran­spires that FromSoft­ware has other ideas. The dif­fi­culty ratch­ets up yet an­other notch, the world de­sign team sends you to greater heights and new depths, and you re­alise that the sin­gle great­est way in which Dark Souls II dif­fers from its pre­de­ces­sor is that, rather than tail­ing off to­wards the end, it just keeps get­ting bet­ter. This late-game rug-pull piv­ots around a sin­gle mo­ment in which not a sword is swung nor a word is spo­ken. It’s a re­mark­able scene that serves to re­mind you what FromSoft­ware does bet­ter than any stu­dio in the world – find­ing beauty in the dark­ness and majesty in the grotesque.

The first playthrough is only the be­gin­ning, of course. Fin­ish the fi­nal boss and you’re not im­me­di­ately dropped into New Game Plus, but sent back to Ma­jula, free to ex­plore and mop up be­fore start­ing your sec­ond jour­ney. And when you do, FromSoft­ware gives you all of five sec­onds be­fore bring­ing you back down to Earth with a bump. Let’s just say that a new game is about far more than big­ger en­emy health bars and higher dam­age out­put. Good luck – and try run­ning away.

What, then, of the in­fa­mous claim that Dark Souls II would be more ac­ces­si­ble? Well, friend­lier bon­fire place­ment helps and, af­ter a cou­ple of spikes, the dif­fi­culty curve is a good deal smoother early on. The abil­ity to re­spec your build us­ing a rare item will help those who un­wit­tingly level them­selves into a cor­ner. Yet for all its lit­tle tweaks, Dark Souls II is, fore­most, a game made for Souls play­ers. It is a game that asks ev­ery­thing of you and gives so much back, keep­ing its cards close to its chest, and re­veal­ing them only to those pre­pared to die and die again. It is made to be played for hun­dreds, if not thou­sands, of hours as you try new builds, ex­plore PVP and ex­per­i­ment with covenants, all the while slowly peel­ing back the lay­ers of its lore. Some of its ideas work bet­ter than oth­ers, and Dran­gleic is no match for Lor­dran’s in­tri­cate de­sign, but Dark Souls II is, like its pre­de­ces­sors, bril­liant, beau­ti­ful, and ab­so­lutely es­sen­tial.

ABOVE En­e­mies hit hard, but the fre­quency of bon­fires in the early part of the game gives am­ple op­por­tu­nity to im­prove weapons and ar­mour or level up. By the fi­nal cred­its, our greatsword could dish out over 600 dam­age per hit. LEFT Hold the left stick in a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion while locked on and you’ll swing your blade off-tar­get. It feels awk­ward at first, but with prac­tice helps you dis­patch groups while keep­ing an eye on the prin­ci­pal threat

BE­LOW Dark Souls’ Bot­tom­less Box was an un­wieldy thing, but now sur­plus gear can be dis­posed of at any bon­fire with a but­ton press. You can also use items with­out leav­ing the in­ven­tory screen

ABOVE The Emer­ald Herald, who you visit to level up, is the clos­est thing to a guide, oc­ca­sion­ally of­fer­ing vague ad­vice on where to go. But click­ing through stock di­a­logue to get to the level-up menu soon grows tire­some

The Py­ro­mancer was Dark Souls’ eas­i­est start­ing class, but there’s no equiv­a­lent here; we didn’t even find a Flame un­til around half­way through. Sor­cery’s been nerfed, too, with a hefty stamina cost for ev­ery spell cast

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