Dear father, forgive me for I have committed a cardinal gaming sin. I’ve never actually played any of FROM Software’s Souls series.
Amidst all the hype and fanfare around Dark Souls, its crushing defeats and murky dungeons had somehow managed to elude me – so with the imminent release of the second Dark Souls lurking just around the corner, I decided it was time to pay the Namco Bandai offices a visit and finally right this wrong. So after selecting my avatar and being subject to some spine chilling prophecies from an elderly, swamp dwelling woman, I was ready to finally enter the world of Dark Souls II.
Being let completely off the reins after the initial introduction is highly refreshing. Unlike the majority of games you’ll play, you’re not shackled to a linear path in Dark Souls, and are free to go whereever takes your fancy, whether that’s exploring a forest, an eerily abandoned castle, or…an even eerier looking castle.
While the dungeon feel and gritty fantasy setting is pretty reminiscent of Shadow of the Colossus or the Zelda series, the darker tone and bleak atmosphere makes the game feel chillingly unique. The world often feels abandoned and barren, and the sense of isolation is a powerful part of the game’s mood – which makes encountering the occassional NPC a welcome and relieving experience.
Within each area there are often multiple paths, tempting you to deviate from your current route and explore what lies off the beaten path, and after taking a few wrong turns I learnt pretty early on that sometimes a seemingly innocent looking path can lead you straight into the depths of hell.
After wandering through the tutorial cave section and slaying a few ghostly apparitions of bandits (and embarrassingly, being killed by some pigs – but lets not talk about that) I eventually made my way to the game’s real enemies.
While crossing a ruined bridge I was met by two armoured behemoths who didn’t seem particularly happy to see me. After walking a few feet, the closest armoured giant swung his sword at me and delivered a devastating blow to my poor little avatar. I managed to work in a few feeble jabs from my rubbish starting sword before the juggernaut landed its next blow – which proceeded to smash me into tiny pieces. It turns out that just like tackling the gigantic foes of Monster Hunter, the key to victory in Dark Souls 2 comes from learning your enemies attack patterns, and then making full use of the limited window of opportunity you’re given to attack them. Without memorizing their attack patterns you stand little chance of actually defeating these enemies, and just blindly rushing in will almost always result in your death.
Again, like in Monster Hunter (there’s a theme to my references here), victory only comes to those who are patient, and usually after you’ve had your rectum handed to you a few times.
The risk-reward factor of leaving every dodge and roll to the last possible second is a pretty nerve-racking experience, and the looming threat of death makes combat in Dark Souls 2 an incredibly tense ordeal. As if the risky combat mechanic wasn’t stressful enough the developers have decided to punish you further. As series veterans will know all too well, dying incurs a pretty steep penalty: you have to go back to the last bonfire you lit – which are quite often outside of the dungeon you were just in. This makes battles a daunting experience, yet the tension becomes even more unbearable after you’ve been killed. The reason for this is that if you are killed again when going back to collect your soul, you lose all the souls that you had previously amassed – for good.
For the uninitiated, In Dark Souls, when you kill an enemy you collect their soul. These souls function as an in-game currency and are pretty vital to progressing through the game, so losing all of them is a big deal.
This really isn’t a game for the faint hearted or easily frustrated – there are no Super Tanooki suits to save you here – and unlike in most modern games, Dark Souls II doesn’t go out of its way to hold your hand.
The voice acting is also surprisingly well done. Normally when there are British voice actors in games they ham it up a-la Fable, and you’re left with characters spouting cringe inducing cockney slang or sounding like constipated dukes. In Dark Souls II, however, the voice acting is well considered and in keeping with the game’s dark atmosphere, it’s subtly done and sounds convincing – which is more than most fantasy games seem to manage.
Dark Souls 2 offers players four new classes, as well as a whole new world to explore, but Namco Bandai tell me they were very set on making refinements rather than trying to reinvent the series. With such a pure and old school approach to gameplay I can see why. Dark Souls II has a distinctive melancholy and eerie atmosphere to it, that when combined with its uniquely unforgiving gameplay makes it a compelling proposition unlike anything else in gaming. If it isn’t broke, then don’t fix it. Dark Souls II will still break you, and you’ll love every second of it.
Preview based on attending Namco Bandai’s London office.