Welcome to Drangleic, a murky, forgotten land. It’s a place where souls may heal a troubled mind. You bear the mark of the curse, a curse which has left you undead (or hollow as it’s known in the Souls games), and drawn to Drangleic like a moth to flame. You’re not sure why you’re here, and your past is long forgotten. All you know is that you must search for the king, the one who built this once great kingdom.
You’re told all of the above in a gorgeous cinematic intro, before being thrust into Drangleic to begin your quest. After creating a character you’re let loose in a small area that acts as a brief tutorial. Signposts tell you basic commands; the square button uses an item, R3 locks on to enemies, R1 swings your weapon, and so on. There are some easy enemies to fight - just don’t stray too far toward the water where two large trolls are lurking, they pack a heck of a punch.
Where you go from Majula is entirely up to you as, unlike other Souls games, Drangleic is an open world. There are multiple paths open to you from the get-go, though the difficulty of each path is not exactly equal. This makes bonfires, which have ever played an important role in the Souls games, even more important than previously. That’s because as well as healing you fully, and restoring all gear to full durability, bonfires allow fast travel to any other bonfire you’ve discovered. If you’re finding an area too tough you can now fast travel back to Majula and try a different path.
Being able to fast travel from bonfires is just one of many changes made for this game, but there are plenty of others. Now, every time you die your max health drops a few percent. This continues all the way down to 50%, so if you thought the game was tough when you had full health… Getting access to the full health bar is as easy as using a Human Effigy, but these items are semi-rare, so you’re going to spend some time running around with a reduced health bar.
While carrying all those weapons sounds like fun, each one adds to your equipment load, and that load directly affects the speed and distance of your evasive roll. You’ll use the roll often, so keeping equipment load as low as possible is definitely to your advantage.
Another big change is enemies no longer re-spawn after a certain number of deaths (around the 12-15 mark). This change has been implemented to ensure any player can progress if they put in enough time and effort. Some have worried this change will remove the ability to ‘farm’ souls and grind levels. There’s no need to be concerned though, as there are plenty of enemies throughout the game, and with the ability to fast travel from bonfire to bonfire there are always more areas to collect souls.
Brave gamers can opt to burn a bonfire ascetic which increases the difficulty of nearby enemies (permanently), and also re-populates an area previously cleared out. Note that ascetics can’t be burned until you’ve killed an area’s boss however. Enemies in these areas occasionally drop rare items and gift increased souls, but whether it’s worth the increased difficulty is up for debate.
Further to this, each and every one of your numerous deaths remains a learning experience. You learn enemy moves and timing - when to attack, when to lower your shield to regen stamina faster, what you can and can’t block with your shield, or roll out of the way of. That feeling of satisfaction you get when you feel like you’ve mastered an enemy or boss is just as big as ever.
The Souls’ unique take on multiplayer remains intact too, and is perhaps more encouraged than in previous titles. Throughout your journey you can join up to various Covenants which reward you for certain behaviours, such as invading other worlds and killing the host, or summoning members of the same Covenant to help you in your journey. PvP has always been popular in the Souls games, and that is sure to continue here.
The game isn’t without issues however. Collision detection can be a bit wonky, or at least skewed in the favour of enemies, particularly bosses. Which is to say some attacks that have no right to hit you will do so. Fighting on stairs and uneven terrain can be iffy too, with most of your attacks pinging off stairs or missing inexplicably.
The camera remains a bone of contention, especially in close quarters combat near walls, or when you’re fighting a very large enemy. In each of these cases the camera zooms in, sometimes into a wall or enemy, so that your view is completely obstructed. This is rarer than in previous games, so at least there’s been some progress, if not enough.
The open world can result in problems too – some areas become very easy if you approach things ‘out of order’. On the flip side you can go ages without finding improved weapons, spells and armour, making some areas much harder than they could be. And finally menus are neater, and provide much more information than in the past, but disappointingly you still can’t compare your equipped weapons and armour to items in shops. This is a big no-no for any RPG!
The developers seem to have focused on giving the player as many glorious panoramas to view as possible. You’ll often find yourself fighting high up, and if you stop to look around you’ll be greeted with gorgeous views, lit by the setting sun. The last area in the game is especially good looking in this regard.
Characters and enemies alike move more naturally, and overall the animations look better. Combinations also flow more smoothly, allowing you to move from light to heavy attacks fluently, which hasn’t always been the case. Another plus is dead enemies no longer to stick to you, though they do sometimes stick to the environment. I saw one zombie fall off a cliff but get stuck halfway down, with his head embedded in the rock. Enemy design is excellent throughout the game, though if we have one complaint it’s that none of the boss fights, or bosses themselves, are quite as memorable as those of previous games.
With Dark Souls 2, From Software has attempted to make changes that refine rather than redefine what’s worked in previous Souls games. The reality is that no game can stand still and expect to remain successful, so changes are inevitable. For the most part the changes to Dark Souls 2 are positive, though some series veterans may not agree. There’s still room for improvement, but Dark Souls 2 immediately becomes one of the best action RPGs on the market.
Review By: Mike Allison