on 31 March 2014
I am well aware that I am writing a review which is contrary to popular consensus. However, like Mugatu and his understanding that Zoolander's Blue Steel pose is the same expression as all his others, I appear to be highlighting something that other people can see, but seem resistant to acknowledge.
Dark Souls II is not as good as Dark Souls.
There I said it. Now to provide context to my bold and no doubt unpopular statement.
I am a long-time Souls fan. Back in 2009, when I first booted up an imported copy of the tongue twisting Demon's Souls into my PlayStation 3, I was instantly hooked by the masochistic world, where survival is slim and death is your teacher. I battled my way through Boletaria, learning and adapting, and when I emerged victor, I realised I had loved every gruelling minute. Fast forward to 2011's spiritual successor Dark Souls, and the same adrenalised excitement coupled with fear overcame me as I ventured into the beautifully oppressive world of Lordran. I remember the awe as I clawed my way through the incredible landscape, learning through death, and the overwhelming satisfaction when I finally felled Lord Gywn and claimed victory as the hero (or anti-hero, depending on your choice), that the game hinted I might become. With pure love, I dove straight back into New Game Plus for more punishment.
I wish I could say the same about Dark Souls II. After trudging my way through the game, at the end, all I felt was disappointment and confusion at the muddled mess I had just played. When I went in for New Game Plus, it was more out of a sense of duty than desire. It was around the same time that realised I had probably only enjoyed about a third of the game, with the other two thirds being a boring slog through uninspired locations where I was unfairly punished over and over by cheap kill mobs, cheaper bosses and sluggish controls. Most of the time, I didn't learn from death. Instead I learned that the developers From Software had focused their attention on ensuring you die as much as possible to continue the franchises' legacy as the hardest games on the planet, and removed fairness in the process.
But lets talk about the world itself first. The original Dark Souls' Lordran was a beautiful labyrinthine connection of tunnels, forests and decrepit castles that wound around each other in a way that was ingenious and believable. You would backtrack through a castle with a new key in hand and open that suspect door you passed early game, revealing a whole new section that took you deeper into the mire. In contrast, the world of Drangleic feels compartmentalised, with areas tacked on to one another seemingly at random, with no logic or clear route of progression. A village suddenly gives way to the sinking remains of a castle, which inexplicably leads through a sewer to a shipping dock. When at this point you have to be either picked up by a giant eagle or ride a ship to the Lost Bastille section in order to progress, its hard to shake the feeling that the entire area is completely cut off from the rest of the game, and might as well be set in another world entirely. Just because the title has the word 'lost' in it, doesn't excuse its jarring location. In addition, the size of the areas varies massively, with some taking only a minute to run through, while others take ages. Given that From Software openly expressed frustration that they weren't able to finish certain areas of the first Dark Souls due to time constraints - and that the sequel contains everything they wanted - this seems odd, as the latter definitely feels the more unfinished of the two games. The inclusion of bonfire fast travel from the start of the game (a feature only available towards the end of the first Dark Souls) only adds to this feeling of fragmentation, as there is no real emphasis placed on exploration between areas. You can simply shortcut to any area after you've visited it. The developers explained that this was to give the player more freedom, but honestly that feels like an excuse. A few times I decided not to use the warping, and was shocked at how many dead ends there are. The travel system isn't a convenience, it's a NECESSITY because the game is so badly designed.
Beyond the odd layout choices, the art direction of Dark Souls II is a far cry from the original. Under the visionary direction of Hidetaka Miyazaki, Dark Souls and the enemies that inhabited it often had a regal beauty to them, which made you admire as much as fear them. Dark Souls II is an ugly world full of ugly creatures. Instead of the mesmerising labyrinth that is the Dukes Archives or the dark, foreboding Tomb of Giants, we are given areas such as the bland Forest of Giants, or thematically muddled Brightstone Cove. The Shrine of Amana also stands as one of the cheapest, most frustrating areas of a game ever concived. Melee build? Good luck getting through the spell spammers. That is not to say the game doesn't contain any great areas, as pretty much everything post Drangleic Castle (with the exception of the aforementioned Shrine of Amana) being very cool, as well as the Iron keep - with its chained castle slowly sinking into the lava - being a notable standout. But these beautiful areas are too few and far between to make you forgive the lesser quality of several others. In addition, the much discussed graphical and lighting downgrade to aid the framerate only adds to this disappointment, with poor textures being evident. A perfect example of the poor graphics is after the Guardian Dragon battle, where if you look down, it becomes painfully evident that the trees below are nothing more than little X shapes that would not be out of place on a PlayStation 1. I kid you not. In addition, the exciting new risk/reward feature of the torch has been rendered unnecessary, due to no area beyond perhaps The Gutter ever being dark enough to actually require it.
In terms of enemies, instead of the awesome Black Knights, Wyverns and tormented Ghosts from Dark Souls 1, you have copycat Alonne Knights (which even feature the same soundbites as the original Knights), exploding prisoners (possibly the cheapest enemy in any game), mummified hunchbacks and snake/facehugger hybrids. At one point in the game a boss even pulls of its own arm to beat you with. Where is the majesty in that? Another boss is a direct copy of the elegant Wolf Sif battle from the first game, only replaced with a giant, toxic rat. It is clear that Hidetaka Miyazaki's departure as director has had a very negative impact on the game. Without his direction and restraint, its like all the enemies from the despised Blightown area of the first game have been gathered and thrown into almost every area of the second.
The combat is undoubtedly improved from the first game with more intricate attacking methods and styles of play available. Enemies are also more intelligent, and no longer can you simply strafe around them and backstab. You will be punished for attempting it more often than not. However, that actually leads to a new issue. The bad guys now have a tracking method to their attacks, where a weapon swipe will follow your player and land as you move around them. Unfortunately this has created a somewhat broken hit-box system where a successful roll or block will often result in the game believing you have been hit when you haven't and your lifebar inexplicably depleting. In a game where the smallest error results in death, this is a big problem. No doubt a patch will fix this issue, but for early players it is definitely frustrating to say the least. In addition to this, mobster attacks are frequent, with the game upping its difficulty through overwhelming the player rather than specifically difficult enemies. Certain moments will trigger multiple enemies, who will attack relentlessly, draining your stamina bar, stunning you and drawing the curtains on that play-through. There seems to be no way to avoid these, (especially as a melee character) and often luck needs to be on your side. Bosses have also taken this `more the merrier' approach. A glaring example of this is a repeat of the Belfry Gargoyles battle from the first game, where the two bosses have been replaced with eight. Sure they don't all attack at once, but it is undoubtedly just plain overkill. Another is Royal Rat Vanguard - an infinitely spawning stream of rats in a room full of statues that block your attacks, until you are lucky enough to find and kill the one with a mohawk who acts as leader.
There are several other things that could be mentioned, such as the intricate boss weapon crafting of the first game being replaced by a disappointingly simple soul/weapon trade, Or the fact that game progression routes are often unclear, with you having to speak exhaustively to a character to get them to move to a location you need, without any indication of them being previously relevant in that area. Sure, many will say, `but this is Dark Souls, it's supposed to be hard to work out what to do.' To that I say sure, but there is a difference between something being difficult and something being downright evasive for the sake of it.
As you can tell I am disappointed. But that is not to say Dark Souls II is a bad game. It isn't. It has some great features, bosses (Lost Sinner, Undead Chariot) and areas, and the online aspect is fantastic. Also New Game Plus (which I have almost finished in under 20 hours, so I'm getting more used to the style), is much better, with new item drops and enemies - many even say its the 'true' Dark Souls II experience. But it in my honest opinion, for all the advancements the game has made, it is definitely a step back for the series.