Review: Dark Souls II (**** stars) (Part 4)

Read Part 3 First!

With all of those elements covered, how do they combine as a whole? Let’s find out!

Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

Matthew 7:19

Unfinished or Undercooked?

Dark Souls II brims with ideas and improvements to the Souls formula itself as I think we’ve made clear, but one wonders whether some of these changes really needed to happen. By changing some elements, they inevitably change the rest by default, and not always for the better.

I’ll point out a particular example: one thing that the new directors made sure to mention in just about every interview was “accessibility”. Many were promised a more straightforward game overall, and that’s simply not true of the final product. In fact, it feel a little more obtuse than the first Dark Souls (then again, Dark Souls also told you where to go if you bothered to read item descriptions or talk to NPCs). The linearity obviously helps in some respects, but many of the aforementioned characteristics make it more difficult. My familiarity with the series makes it far easier to go in blind, but I can’t imagine being a newbie. It’s a good sequel paired with a bad marketing campaign.

Other factors also play into this. Demon’s Souls “health reduction” mechanic returns in the form of Human Effigies. Die, and you lose a percentage of your health permanently unless you restore your humanity using the Effigy. The game actively punishes you for failure, which sounds great from a Souls perspective, not so much from the standpoint of “accessibility”. Of course, it caps out at about 50% health, so you’ll need to traverse carefully. Honestly said, though, all you need to do is use a Human Effigy right before a boss and be careful the rest of the time. Demon’s Souls made for a far more punishing experience for failure, and you sucked it up. Dark Souls II, on the other hand, lets you die many times (the exact number isn’t clear to me or anyone else for that matter) before reaching that point. Clearly, it’s more forgiving, but it’s just not a big enough deal to worry about it at any length. That’s a big problem right there!

Limited enemy spawns sounds like it helps bad players, but don’t you need the skills learned from beating those obstacles for the boss? I understand the perspective that “you did these enemies twelve times, now here’s the path to the boss room free and clear”, but isn’t the whole point of respawns to foster consistency and resource management? Here, the concessions hurts the players in the long run; you’ll become a far better player by slowly taking out each enemy in the most optimal way, which will prepare you for dangerous boss encounters. Yes, you still need to beat the boss, but Dark Souls II often doesn’t foster the right skills due to these concessions to “new players”. Plus, the margin for error in combat is much reduced anyway, so what’s with all this talk of making the game casual friendly?

Furthermore, parts of the game clearly appear unfinished. The Torch system remains in the game, although there’s literally no use for it at all. Supposedly earlier builds forced you to choose between defense (shield) or total darkness when navigating your way through certain areas. Lighting braziers would keep light sources in dark areas, and all of this would massively increase the tension. However, since they increased the ambient lighting up to eleven, there’s literally no time when a situation necessitates using a torch. Still, those braziers and lanterns remain strewn throughout the levels as the gravestones of a dead concept. Plus, the game’s visual style reminds me (fortunately or not) of Devil May Cry 2’s washed-out Portuguese port city look. Seriously, the games almost looked identical at times, and the aforementioned ambient lighting problem certainly doesn’t help there.

The covenants feel as ancillary as they did before, mostly due to the lack of consequence for abandoning one and zero tangible benefit for joining outside of a PvP context. Even Dark Souls’ covenants had interesting rewards, but not so much here without engaging in PvP (and that is only a reality in New Game +, as I previously said). The covenant system didn’t make much sense or become necessary at all before, and now said systems look even more unnecessary this time around.

Again, it feels like a random jumble when the first Dark Souls felt like a holistically designed experience. You can’t get around the idea that, while much better in many aspects, it simply fails in the overall impression.

Dark-Souls-2-Bonfire-prayer

Conclusions

In sum, parts of Dark Souls II provides real refinements of an already great formula. On the other hand, it’s no longer a consistent experience, instead marred by strange design decisions that didn’t exactly mesh together. We can almost think of it as a bit of a misshapen product. There’s clearly heart and soul behind its genesis, and the general outline remains present, but there’s clearly something missing. I can abstract myself and enjoy the fighting, of course, but the little things tug away at my mind more frequently than I would like. Your audience should never emerge out of the game world thinking “why is that there?” In the most horrible pun ever, some of the Soul’s been lost.

So much of DSII sounds cool in theory, and fails in practice. I like the visuals and Drangelic in general though; at least the art design is still pretty top notch. Many areas were designed with the torch in mind, and they made a pretty drastic last-minute change because of framerate issues (which are still in the consoles versions anyway!). Even so, that wouldn’t fix every flaw that Dark Souls II shows in heaping quantities upon any critical reflection. Let’s combine these flaws together.

Dark Souls II  is moments of interesting, neat stuff surrounded by much tedium. They improved some elements, but then somehow forgot to compensate in the rest of the game for “fixing” it. It’s difficult to nail the exact “wrong” thing happening here, as it seems a combination of many little components. I think we can call them “stage gimmicks”. Oh, here’s exploding enemies. Oh, here’s archers that are annoying. Oh, here’s instant death thing. Oh, here’s ogre that kills you when you try to open a door that looks like every other door. What did I learn from this? Nothing. Contrast this to the original Dark Souls, where some keen observation could prevent a sticky situation (flaming barrels, dragon on the bridge scorch marks, etc). The death turned into a learning experience: don’t do this. The gimmicks kept it exciting; here, it gets tedious and annoying.

You could sort of say the same about the original Dark Souls, but at least there was a pacing and escalation to the design due to the space between bonfires. Here, they just plop a bunch of obstacles down and then put bonfires every fifteen minutes or so.  Even so, there should be more traps due to the bonfire placement, but that just doesn’t happen. The teleporting means they can get away with being lazy by basically making areas into giant corridors with a few off-path areas for good measure. Stages just consist of an obstacle course designed around a central gimmicky thing (after the first few areas) and then a boss with a pretty easy pattern or multiple copies. I mentioned Black Gulch on Monday Update, and it remains one of the worst examples of this problem.

We could call some areas of Dark Souls tedious, sure. But there’s an important difference between those gimmicks and the ones in Dark Souls II. The toxic dart shooter works as a sort of “checkpoint” – if you made it far enough to kill them, they don’t respawn. Dealing with further enemies in the same vein turns into a useful skill, since there’s plenty of them left to deal with! Contrast this to nearly ever other archer enemy in Dark Souls II, which requires the same old “fight enemy while in cover from archer” trick they pull in nearly every environment. Replace “archer” with “spellcaster”, and it’s still the same thing. Mosquitos and such are annoying, granted, but you could always find the Old Iron Ring first.

Compare the Anor Londo archer sequence on the roofing, which you only need to do exactly once. When you finish it, they’re nice enough to place a bonfire there and you get to open the shortcut. In other words, it’s a test to see how you handle this one sequence before progressing. Same goes for figuring out how to damage ghosts, Painted World toxic enemies (also an optional area, so I give it a pass), blobs, drakes, etc. You really only need to fight 1-2 Taurus Demons or Capra unless you want items/embers. I’ll admit the statues in Lost Izalith are pretty easy in general, but the other enemies in that area more than make up for it (along with the flawed Bed of Chaos fight, for most people anyway). Dark Souls found a way to make new situations out of the same materials, while Dark Souls II recycles a lot of the same designs for nearly every areas. And they’re short to boot!

In Dark Souls II, there’s not much of a learning process. I don’t need to know weakness or patterns of bosses; I just waltz in there and kill the thing because the pattern is so easy to decipher and they can barely damage me. That’s definitely NOT true of a first run in Dark Souls by a long shot. Then again, my perspective is skewed by being familiar with any Souls game. Then the annoying sequences which almost always have repops, and it gets much more tedious in a way that Dark Souls never does. The gimmicks have purpose in one game, while they’re just “there to be there” in the newer one.

With all that said, I think Dark Souls II succeeds rather well in spite of its problems. Though I see it as a distant third to the other two Souls series games, I can’t say that the game wasn’t enjoyable, nor could I say I ever wanted to stop playing at any point. I am just extremely cognizant of its problems and critical of its flaws because I see so much room for improvement.

The Souls series can improve, and can provide new experiences.  The problem comes from sequel expectations and how familiarity with the Souls series actually hurts the overall experience. If they can find a way to usurp the learned skills of veterans and completely surprise us (and that’s totally possible if they decide to switch things up, as Project Beast looks to do), then the Souls series will make process. If not, it will stagnate, and gaming will be the worse for it.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.