Review: Dark Souls II (**** stars) (Part 2)

Read Part 1 First!

The refining pot is for silver and the furnace for gold,
But the Lord tests hearts.

Proverbs 17:3

Combat

In the same way which I am testing Dark Souls II in the fire, it equally tests your abilities in combat. On this note, I can safely say that this sequel met with much success in this regard, barring a few glaring flaws.

The lack of necessary focus on the level design led to an overall positive effect on combat in general. Let’s say that Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls alike tended towards the easy side once you figured out the timings. Fighting enemies in Dark Souls II feels much more tight and stressful than before, but never due to your inability to wrangle with bad controls. No strange button delay glitch here, my friends! Lock-on switching works as well, if not better, than both previous games, and you’ll need it.

I use a heavy armor build with a greatshield to go through most of the game, and they’ve made subtle changes that make the game far harder with that build than in Dark Souls. Poise will no longer let you attack through enemy attacks unless you stack it astronomically high, and even if you could heavy armor doesn’t reduce your damage toll enough. Enemies, especially bosses, hit quite hard, so you really need to pick your shots. This becomes more important and necessary due to the seemingly endless situations in which multiple enemies attack you at once. Though this is definitely a throwback to Demon’s Souls, they’ve made it much more engaging and substantial. Many of these circumstances allow enemies with different attack patterns to attack at the same time, making each moment important. Ranged attackers add to the challenge, requiring you to find cover or eliminate that threat before engaging.

Frankly, the combat situations often come together brilliantly, and really teach you the virtue of patience, stamina monitoring, and not getting greedy when the time comes to attack. If you get staggered when two giant guys want to smack you around, that’s a recipe for disaster. Most enemies can, and will, finish their combos without giving you any opportunity to roll or block, so you better make sure it’s going to hit. Enemies hit quite a bit harder too, and do far more stamina damage to boot when you block. These are excellent changes which force a patient hit-and-run strategy, but an exciting one! The tension-release becomes quite high-strung during boss fights where you multi-task several enemies at once!

Combat also forces you to learn the fundamentally new dodging system, which has far less invincibility frames. Now, rather than figuring out said I-frames, your time will be better spent detecting the exact hitbox of enemy attacks and their patterns. Sure, you can raise your I-frames through ADP (Adaptability), but it takes many points to reach a level equivalent to Dark Souls’ incredibly forgiving roll. At first, the whole thing will feel unbelievably awkward and strange to Souls veterans, but give it time – it makes total sense, and makes the game far more exciting when you can’t just roll through a sword slash like it was nothing.

I suppose that also goes for the backstab and the parry, both of which give you far less invincibility and require much more precise timing for a far greater damage reward. Parries knock enemies down now, and backstabs can one-shot many enemies vulnerable to them without much in the way of stat increases. The forward kick, which used to stagger lower level enemies, turns into a shield bash which breaks an enemy’s guard (depends on weapon and shield setup, of course). There’s also an overall movement speed increase, and you can even sprint with full heavy armor; the curve of encumbrance feels much more gradual, so there’s no magic percentage that gives you a fast roll versus a slow roll.

The healing system works, again, like a combination of Demon’s Souls with Dark Souls. Add Demon’s Souls’ purchasable healing items with Dark Souls’ Estus Flask and you’ve got Dark Souls II in a nutshell. The big caveat this time around comes in the actual use of said items: Estus Flask are, to put it bluntly, SLOW. You could buy many, many Lifegems (and their more powerful upgrades), but they heal slowly over time. It’s nearly impossible to stack enough Poise to heal through enemy attacks, meaning you need to pick your healing spots. The Adaptability stat will speed up Estus Flask drinking, but it’s not actually necessary if you time it just right in the heat of combat. Now healing turns into a wonderful test of your patience and nerve, choosing the right spots to heal even when you’re a hit away from death.

1365616389-dark-souls-ii-playstation-3-ps3-2

All of these elements give you many, many options and weighty choices – all good! The same weapon and attack variety exists here as well, so sorcerers and melee-mongers alike will certainly enjoy it. In all, the combat definitely ups the ante from the previous two games. Whereas Dark Souls presented almost too many one-on-one situations (which you could control just by pulling enemies from afar), and Demon’s Souls presented multiple enemy combat that was still too easy, Dark Souls II finds a way to make both together interesting.

Of course, I have my equal share of complaints. First, there’s some strange enemy hitboxes in this game! I’ll point out two in particular that really stuck out: Elite Giants and the Old Iron King. Both of them use attacks that, in the original Dark Souls, you could perfectly block with zero problems. However, it seems that either the hitboxes are extremely large and glitch or such attacks hit overhead, because I couldn’t ever block either of them. This is especially weird with the Elite Giant who does a side swipe motion, and it hits behind you. Frankly, the effect isn’t “oh, I’m learning where it hits”, but “there’s no way that should have hit given how that looks!” Honestly, other people had similar problems with Royal Rat Authority and various other enemies, so there’s clearly a lack of precision for the hitboxes. Compare this to the impeccable design of the previous Souls games, which rarely had this problem (if at all).

You can certainly bug many enemy encounters out. Most enemies don’t fall off ledges like the previous games, so at least they fixed that. However, the bigger problem is the aggro system. Most groups come all at once, rather than being pulled one at a time from range. This naturally means that the game forces the enemies to return to their posts once you run back a certain distance. In other words, you can completely cheese out most multiple enemy encounters if said enemies are tied to that point, and they’ll be none the wiser as poison slowly kills them. Since they can’t move beyond a certain point, poisoning them and moving away can take care of many situations – boring, but effective. It probably does not help that an optimal strategy seems intentional in some cases as well, given the levels sometimes provide perfect sniper vantage points.

We can add, further, that the “multiple enemies in a boss encounter/spawns during a boss encounter” formula gets pretty old by the end of the game. Some of them are just outright kite fests as you circle strafe waiting for two enemies to synchronize their attacks. Between Ruin Sentinels, Belfry Gargoyles, Looking Glass Knights, giant spiders, and whatever else you want to add to this list there’s just far, far too many of these encounters that require the same exact strategy. The previous two games used that format sparingly, whereas here it crops up all the time, making it less novel and more a tedious exercise in patience. I count eleven of these incredibly similar encounters, about third of every boss fight in the whole game, and that’s just far too many in a thirty hour game! Ornstein and Smough worked because it came as a shock and a surprise that you had two enemies as bosses; here, you see it so often that the gimmick wears off far too rapidly. Once you adapt to multi-enemy targeting, it just turns into the same old boss fight with a different coat of paint. Course, they still remain difficult, but they’re boring.

You might think that there’s a different problem here, and one that many people bring up. Some might complain that Souls wasn’t designed for multiple enemy combat, and those people would be quite wrong. That line of thought assumes that a player cannot juggle lock on targets and switching between them as necessary, or even taking it off to beat a hasty retreat.  As with many things in these games, the fundamental difficulties lie in teaching the player to observe, and then by observing to do the correct action in response to that observed phenomenon. That’s a rather basic component of game design in general, but we seem to forget this when it comes to situations we don’t like. Multiple enemies adds a much needed layers to Souls combat, and Dark Souls II refines this very well. At base, the multi-enemy formula still works. Still, it’s a lousy way to inflate the difficulty if not measured in sparse quantities, and cheese tactics still work far too easily, but it’s still quite challenging and fun.

I’ve seen so many people complain about the game being “unfair” when it’s really a matter of expectations from modern games. Dark Souls II hearkens back to a model of experimentation and exploration; if you don’t like the test, it’s still mandatory if you want to see what all the fuss is about. The combat only fails when you fail, and that’s the important part.

Part 3

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.