Review: Dark Souls II (**** stars) (Part 3)

Read Part 2 First!

For You have tried us, O God;
You have refined us as silver is refined.
You brought us into the net;
You laid an oppressive burden upon our loins.
You made men ride over our heads;
We went through fire and through water,
Yet You brought us out into a place of abundance.

Psalm 66:10-12

RPG Elements

So does our expose of Dark Souls II continue. Even its RPG elements test you…but does it do so in a good way? Absolutely!

As for the RPG elements, From Software’s new directors have limited a person’s ability to comprehend the statistics system due to the new eight part distribution. Seriously, there’s one state for health, one for item/equipment load, another which raises resistances but also contains hidden effects, and the standards slow weapon (STR), fast weapon (DEX) dynamic with a similar magical balance between Faith and Intelligence. Because of the distribution, you need to think about what intangible benefits you want, since you can’t assume building a STR build gives you the item load necessary to equipment them in the future! Yes, you can equip a two-hander with a giant shield, but now that some equipment requires STR, this means a HUGE item load (Vigor is the stat you want). They want to limit overpowered options, and that makes perfect sense; the more options, the more difficult the decisions!

I know, before anyone says anything, that you can respec your character at a cost, but I honestly don’t see how that applies except for New Game + PvP builds. Certainly, you could try new things, but it’s not like the previous two games were impossible even with bad stat point distribution; that’s still true here.

On the other hand, the process whereby you do level said stats makes no sense. Apparently, the bonfire system meant returning to Majula was easy, and therefore they could localize leveling right there along with all the vendors of various useful items. Unfortunately, I still don’t understand why this is necessary. Of course, the Emerald Herald mirrors Demon’s Souls and its Maiden in Black, but the Nexus made sense in the context of the story and linear “choose your stage” design as the primary “level up” spot. Dark Souls didn’t have that component, so it let you level up at any bonfire. Here, you must travel to Majula, skip by Emerald Herald’s chatty dialogue, and then level up. This quickly becomes a nuisance; what if I just want to level up and use my Souls rather than return to Majula? The convenience in terms of teleporting versus adding this new inconvenience makes zero sense from a game design standpoint, not to mention the egregious loads times on console (far less of a problem on PC). Stick with one design philosophy rather than adding an aggravating incentive to return.

I do like the new weapon durability system – in Dark Souls, literally nothing ever broke unless that item had “Crystal” affixed to it. Here, your weapons WILL break; if they do, you must go back to a blacksmith to repair them, as you lose use of them. You have a good incentive to do so, as repairs for items cost a lot of Souls put to better use elsewhere. Mostly, you just need multiple weapons and swap accordingly, but I think this system gives you incentives to try new things (if just for fear of breaking your best line of offense right before a boss). Certain areas also intentionally break your gear, so you’ll need to watch yourself. Course, you could see this as an annoying way to get you to use multiple weapons, but it worked for me!

The blacksmith and upgrade systems also got a semi-large overhaul, due to one thing in particular: scarcity of resources. For one thing, you can’t just grind materials in the same way Dark Souls let you. Each bonfire extends to a certain radius of enemy spawns (I believe the number is twelve, but certain enemies never respawn at all), and only that limited number. Eventually, enemies will simply fail to respawn again, and only a special item (Bonfire Asetics) will bring them back as New Game+ equivalent spawns. Unless you want to try your hand at harder enemies when your equipment isn’t even as good, you must work with what you’ve got, and mostly this means sticking with certain gear from the get-go. Again, this forces you to make permanent decisions or grind a whole lot (which, again, is hard to do).

Additionally, there’s no vendor selling an unlimited amount of Titanite Shards like Andre of Astora or the Giant Blacksmith; instead, there’s a limited number and you need to make them count, especially in the early game. Upgrades actually matter, and since you can’t just grind souls and materials all day (well, theoretically, you shouldn’t need to grind anything), it makes for something far more interesting when vendors get limited stock. As the game goes on, and such items become obsolete due to how many items you pumped into your primary weapon, they eventually become quite plentiful, but never in a game-breaking way. Dark Souls almost made it too easy to upgrade everything to full and waltz through many areas, and this is an excellent way to prevent players from getting great gear too early in the game.

I’d call these notable improvements overall. Part of the Souls experiences lies in obscurity, in a whole lot of hidden esoteric knowledge that only makes sense with experimentation and experience. These changes seems to promote both in equal measure, and may even let you think outside the box at times. To give my example, I used a Broadsword for a long while until I discovered how much Maces scaled with STR. Given that my sword broke, and with no alternatives, I shifted gears to the Mace, and found it scaled incredibly well with my build. So there you have it – I learned something new due to external pressures and optimal strategy.

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Online Play

I’m honestly not very good at PvP, but I feel that the online experience adds a lot to Dark Souls. There’s always the sense of danger that someone, somewhere wants to invade your world and kill you. Even safe areas like a bonfire turn off during such invasions, so you need to kill the invader or lose all your Souls. That’s what makes Dark Souls tense even when the situations lacks tension – invasions could happen. Add that to the limited enemy respawns, and there’s even more risk this time around.

Or, there would have been, anyway. Unfortunately, it seems that PvP fell by the wayside sometime during development, pushed back almost exclusively to New Game +, if at all. I can’t remember a single time in my 32 hours that I was invaded by someone other than an AI dark spirit. Clearly, From Software reigned back on the constant ganking and kills so that people could get through the game, but they’ve almost removed the element of hostility that made the sense of isolation and danger so palpable. In a masochistic way, I really missed having my butt handed to me when I wasn’t expecting it. Replacing invasions with AI people just isn’t the same as being attacked by a naked dude with a poison whip, you know? Perhaps things change substantially in New Game +, but these changes basically invalidate the covenant system for your first playthrough (more on that later).

Even so, there’s a bigger problem in the form of messages. In Souls games, online play offers you the benefit of other players leaving hints here and there. The limited text system meant that, at best, the hints either confused the heck out of you (what is a beanpole or a fatty?), gave you useful information (bonfire ahead), or simply trolled you beyond belief (illusory wall ahead). This meant that, while players could help, you still needed to piece together the solution.

In Dark Souls II, however, they’ve massively expanded that vocabulary for the worse. Sometimes they’re just far too clear and provide way too many hints. It breaks the sense of surprise and dread when you see a bunch of messages saying “Don’t You Dare” right before a switch. You lose the fun of figuring things out. If I had to go back and do it again, I’d just play the first time offline to avoid the massive spoilers. Sometimes you’ll just activate them by accident though, and you’ll wish you hadn’t.

Furthermore, don’t summon other people or NPCs for regular play or boss fights. I realize that they want to encourage people to play together, but trust me. Any sort of summons on bosses basically trivialize the encounter, even when they get a larger health pool. When they focus on another player, they ignore you entirely, giving you free reign to do whatever you want. This became incredibly obvious when I did it on the Earthen Peak boss fight, and I felt incredibly cheated at how easy the fight became. Don’t make the same mistake as me!

In sum, the online leaves much to be desired (if necessary, I’ll add a NG+ addendum to clear things up if it improves the online a lot). Sometimes, it’s better not to ask for any help at all, and Dark Souls II makes that apparent. If you don’t want to ruin this experience at all, it’ll take some hard work on your part. The spoils, however, remain as that intangible sense of accomplishment and conquest. Still, there’s a few more things to discus…

Part 4

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.