April 21, 2014
Dark Souls II takes us into an entirely new kingdom, Drangleic, to explore the nature of the undead curse and discover if it may have a cure. The trek will take players through woods twisted by dark forces, into kingdoms abandoned and reclaimed by the undead, and of course against creatures spawned of nightmares desperately clawing to a world starved of resources. It's bleak and depressing, made a little more so as you get to learn how each of the NPCs you interact will eventually share the same fate.
Of course the best way to prolong the curse of the undead is to collect souls, and there are plenty of those to be found in Drangleic. As an undead yourself. you spend most of the game trying to survive the world's various dangers, slaying beasts and other undead and while gathering souls for each enemy defeated. Souls can be used to either level up the strength of your character with a boost to individual stats or to purchase/upgrade equipment, and depending on what class you play as ranking up different stats can make a huge difference on your individual play style. The more souls you acquire the more you can advance your character; although be warned that dying will cause you to drop all of your souls with only one chance to recover them should you make it back to the place you died.
This is the core of the Souls franchise, a delicate balance between dying to learn how to manipulate the game's many enemies and fighting to preserve the souls you've acquired until you get a proper chance to use them. In some ways Dark Souls II makes this easier by linking bonfires so that players can quick-travel from one location to another. Other minor changes make the game more convenient, but not necessarily easier. Items are more convenient to organize and use in the menu and item stacks are less of a hassle to sort through or consume. Additional ring slots have also been added to the player, which confers a bit of extra protection in addition to making you feel pretty baller.
Beyond the joy of dying (or dealing death) is that of exploration, which is could be considered one of the biggest selling points of the game. Whether it's hidden items, secret bosses, unlockable spells or titbits of lore, the world created by From Software is as rich as it is deadly. Perhaps it's because players know that there can be nothing gained without some kind of sacrifice, but using death as an educational mechanic really just encourages every location to be scoured of knowledge. Finding treasure in an unexpected location can often be just as rewarding as defeating a difficult enemy and the developers did a phenomenal job in their crafting the world to encourage a good balance of both.
Another big change to the series is Covenants, which are now used primarily to encourage multiplayer events. Invading other realms or defending a location is largely done through these sects, which can be aligned with throughout the game. For players less enthusiastic in PvP, there are also rewards assigned to each region for joining a Covenant, fully accessible even if you don't plan on ruining another player's day. For the PvP enthusiastic there are arenas designed for 1v1 combat as well, a great change from standing around in New Londo trying to organize via forums.
Of course the best change comes not in the form of new features or abilities, but enemies. Ranging from the predictable to the wildly imaginative, foes in Dark Souls II make the game worthwhile from start to finish. Learning how to best them, which to avoid and discovering the hidden traps that sometimes summon foes is all a part of the game’s thrill, and a major factor in difficulty curve. In normal mode players should find that most enemies are a definite challenge to tackle, but Dark Souls II takes things further by introducing a more advanced New Game Plus system on top of that.
New items and stronger enemies make New Game Plus a fairly different experience from the normal game in addition to giving your already levelled character a little more purpose. It’s particularly worthwhile to experience when you consider that most of the lore in Dark Souls is uncovered by the player through item details, so an increase in items naturally means additional depth to the lore. Motivation for players of any level at its best.
Overall Dark Souls II is an improvement on everything its predecessor had to offer, a rare sequel that lives up to its every expectation. Expanded items, more replay value, an equipment and UI overhaul all sit on top of a brand new world that’s harder than ever to fight against; if you enjoyed the first game there’s absolutely no reason not to pick up the second. And if you’re new to the series? Well, there’s never been a better time to die.
Dark Souls II was reviewed on the PS3. You can read more about GamingUnion.net's scoring policy here.