No writing log for you today, friends. I just got (the collector’s edition) Dark Souls II last week, and I’ve been playing it a lot! Not to the exclusion of my other responsibilities, fortunately—I’ve gotten a lot of good work done on Wayward Son XD However, I think I’ve made enough progress that I can offer a few decent thoughts on it. Not a full review, though—I haven’t finished it yet!
I have, however, played the previous two games in the series (Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls I), so at this point I think I can make a few comparisons. For those of you who don’t know, Demon’s/Dark Souls is a fantasy action-RPG developed by FROM software and published by Namco. The series is known for its extreme, punishing difficulty, which some say is a throwback to the “old-school” days of super hard Nintendo games. Indeed, that’s one of the of not the primary selling points for the games; the original Dark Soul proudly boasted that its players must “prepare to die,” and Dark Souls II had a similar marketing campaign. All these games are killed with tough, vicious enemies, labyrinthine levels bristling with traps and bottomless pits to kill you instantly, and plenty of tough jumps you have to execute perfectly or plunge to your death. Adding to the difficulty is how death works in these games. See, every time you kill an enemy, you get souls, which are this series’ equivalent to both experience AND gold. You can use souls to level up your stats (by increasing your Soul Level) or buy equipment or things like that. However, if you die, you have to start over at the beginning of the level (in Dark Souls I and II, these are marked by bonfires) AND you lose all the souls you were carrying! You can get them back if you return to where you died and touch a glowing bloodstain at the location, but if you die again while trying to get there, your souls will be lost forever! That makes the games ever harder, since death can really punish you.
Beyond that, the games are also notable for their unique multiplayer. In most MMORPGs or action games, you’re either constantly online with other players in the game world, or wait in a lobby to be teamed up with other players. In either case you can chat freely with everyone else or your party by typing in the chat box, or voice chat, or whatever. The souls series, however, has no similar chat function. It engenders a feeling of isolation in the player. For the most part, each player is in his or her own world, but what keeps the game from being entirely a single-player experience is that different players can communicate with each other by leaving messages on the ground. You can’t type them out, as they’re all premade, but you can put warnings on the floor, like “*** ahead,” where “***” can be a choice of words like trap, treasure, enemy, and so on. Sometimes players lie, so that’s why you can also rate messages you see. If you see an accurate one, rate it, and avoid those messages with low ratings, as those will try to deceive you. Also, whenever you die you leave a bloodstain on the ground. It glows for you, but it’s just an ordinary bloodstain for other players. If they touch it, though, they won’t get any souls, but they will see a brief animation of your death, which will show them what to be careful for in the future.
There’s one more way players can interact in the Souls series—a very involved way, which is a rather unique spin on co-op and PVP play. See, whenever you die in these games, you usually end up losing your body (in Demon’s Souls) or turning into a sort of zombie called a Hollow (in Dark Souls I and II). To cure yourself, you can leave a special message called a Summon Sign on the floor. It will show up to players who still have their bodies in their worlds, and if they stand over it, they can summon you into their world as a phantom ally! A blue, white, or gold phantom ally, specifically. Once again, you can’t talk to them directly—you can only use gestures like pointing and shaking your head to give them advice, at least in game. Still, you can at least help them directly, and if you succeed in guiding them through a stage and beating its boss, you’ll return to your world get your body back! Of course, if you die, you won’t get anything, and if they die you’ll fail as well. On the other hand, if you want some PVP, you can use certain items like “Red Eye Stones” to invade another player’s world as an enemy. You’ll show up as a black or red phantom, and your job will be to kill the host player (and any blue or white phantoms they summoned to help). If you succeed, you’ll get your body back. It’s a very interesting system and loads of fun, IMO. Summoning other people to help really gives you a sense of camaraderie, even if you can’t talk to them directly, but running the risk of being invaded by a red phantom suddenly also adds to the tension. Dark Souls also introduced a covenant system, which lets you join certain in-game factions that help multiplayer connections; joining a guardian-type covenant makes it easier to be summoned as a blue phantom, for instance, while certain evil covenants give you benefits for invading people as red phantoms.
Now, Dark Souls II shares these characteristics with its predecessors. But what does it do differently? That’s what I’ll be talking about today.
Let’s start with the good. The best thing about Dark Souls II, IMO, is how BIG it is! I’ve put in nearly 40 hours and I’m not even halfway done with this first playthrough. Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls took me about that much time to finish. There are so many more areas and bosses in this new game! There were about 22 bosses spread through 4 (or 5, if you count the last place) stages in Demon’s Souls, but from what I’ve read, Dark Souls II has 31 bosses and nearly 30 areas. Some of which are optional, too. It’s a lot less linear than either Demon’s Souls or the original Dark Souls, with more hidden areas, secrets, and choices in progression. There’s also much more equipment, weaponry, armor, rings, and all sorts of nifty stuff. It’s just bigger in every way.
The voice acting is also pretty good. They got a professional actor to do one voice (Peter Serafinowicz), but all the characters sound interesting and convincing. I think I prefer the voice acting for the original Demon’s Souls the best (especially the voice of the Maiden in Black <3) but Dark Souls II is good enough.
The level design, as well, is quite nice, IMO. The stages look beautiful; my personal favorite is Heide’s Tower of Flame. The image of mysterious ruins half-submerged in a deep blue ocean under a soft orange sunset tickles everything I like. So far, all the levels have traps, pitfalls, and enemies hidden in all the right places to keep them challenging while not *overly* frustrating. There’s also a real sense of satisfaction to be gained in navigating these stages—expanding where you can go by finding a special key or managing to lower a drawbridge gave me quite a thrill. Other places are also pretty atmospheric and scary, like No Man’s Wharf and the Undead Purgatory. However, I should note that the graphics on the PS3, at least, are somewhat worse than what we saw in pre-release trailers and demos.
A last note on something good and bad. In Dark Souls II, unlike Demon’s Souls and the first game, enemies no longer respawn indefinitely when you return to a stage or after you die. In the previous games, if you died, or came back to a stage, all the enemies you killed would return to harass you. This added to the challenge, since there was so much you’d have to redo if you died and needed to get back to your bloodstain. In Dark Souls II, however, enemies only respawn for about 15 or so times. After that, they’ll never come back again. At first glance, this may seem to make the game a lot easier, as if someone’s bad they’ll be able to smash their way through a level after making 15 attempts at it. However, it also makes the game harder because there’s no more “Grinding”—i.e replaying a stage and killing enemies over and over again for more souls indefinitely. Now there’s something of a limit on the souls you can get in one play through (at least without doing co-op), meaning you have to be careful about how you level up and what equipment you spend souls on. So I think it’s an okay change overall.
Now, for the bad.
There’s a bit of lag and choppy framerate in some parts of the game. It got annoying during the very beginning, for instance, though nothing game-breaking. And online, sometimes I hit an enemy and it takes a second for the attack to register. This isn’t serious, since all multiplayer online games have those issues. It’s just a wee bit irritating, at least for me. Maybe it’s my internet connection…
I also don’t think the game has changed *enough* from the previous entries in some respects. Specifically, the characters. Both Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls I had some very similar NPCs in the beginning areas. You had a crestfallen soldier who was really pessimistic and doomed to wither away, a bird hidden in tree who’d trade items with you and had a cute girly voice, and of course a woman in the central “home base” area who’d help you level up and things like that. All of them are back in Dark Souls II, almost exactly as they were in the previous two games, and I’m getting a *little* bored of them. I wish there were at least a couple small changes to these characters to make them a little different. Maybe you could have the trading bird be a lizard or a bat instead, or have the morose soldier be female rather than male, and have the level-up lady be an older matriarch rather than a young girl, or something like that. Little differences might make the characters more appealing rather than giving a sense of “I’ve already talked to these guys so many times…”
The other thing I’m not really liking is the story. Now, I haven’t mentioned the story/settings for any of the games, so I’ll do so here. The plots for this series are generally very minimalistic, there aren’t too many expository cutscenes or anything like that. Most of it is left to the player’s imagination or told through dialogue and item descriptions. Anyways, in Demon’s Souls, the King of Boletaria got greedy for power and unleashed a terrible demon called the Old One. It’s spreading a fog across the entire world, and that mist is inhabited by its minion demons, who steal human souls to add to their own power. You play as a random hero entering the mist-shrouded kingdom of Boletaria to kill the most powerful demons so you can kill the Old One and stop the mist from overtaking the world. In Dark Souls, the first king in the world, Gwyn, fought to liberate it from the dragons. With the help of death god Nito, the great witches of Izalith, and Scaleless Seath (a Dragon who betrayed his own kind), he prevailed. Gwyn and his knights then set themelves on fire as kindling for a great flame at the center of the world, which gave life and warmth to all its inhabitants. Now that flame is failing, however, and the people are losing their lives and turning into undead beings called “Hollows.” You play as a special “Chosen Undead” who must travel to a land called Lordran and kill Nito, Izalith, Seath, and 4 corrupted kings to take their souls and use their power to re-ignite Gwyn’s flame.
Yeah, as you can tell, these plots are kind of vague and have a lot of blanks, it’s up to the player to fill those in. Even so, I think they’re meatier than the plot of Dark Souls II. The opening cinematic just tells you you’ve been cursed as a “Hollow,” and the only way to regain your humanity is to go to the kingdom of Drangleic. When you get there (after the tutorial), you’re then told you need to get 4 special souls, just like you needed in Dark Souls. It’s more confusing, however, because you’re only given vague descriptions of the bosses you’re supposed to fight (I won’t describe ‘em here to avoid spoilers) and the reason they’re important. Unlike in Dark Souls, where you see Nito, Seath, and Gwyn in the opening cutscene, as far as I know you never receive much description of the important bosses until you actually fight them. Maybe it’s hidden in the dialogue, but if it is I haven’t got there yet.
Also, there’s a mechanic called “Soul Memory” in Dark Souls II that’s kind of annoying. Remember what I said above, about how souls are both experience and gold? Well, the way PVP and co-op works is that you can only invade or be summoned by people close to you in Soul Level. This is so beginners who just started at level 1 can’t be invaded by level 100 guys (or get help from level 100 guys). However, this system didn’t take into account equipment. If you spend your souls on equipment rather than leveling, it’s possible to have a level 1 character with incredibly powerful gear, which allowed people in Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls to “twink” and harass newbie gamers who didn’t have overpowered equipment.
To stop this, the Soul Memory system was implemented. The game keeps track of the total number of souls you’ve gotten, and in addition to soul level you can only invade people with a similar amount of total souls as you. I don’t *think* the Soul Memory applies to co-op, but I’ve heard contradictory things about it. In any case, though, I think the Soul Memory system, though well-intentioned, isn’t the most efficient way of dealing with high-level bullies.
Instead, I would make (PVP matchmaking, at least) based on equipment. To give a rough example, you need to be a certain minimum level to equip many of the stronger weapons. For instance, a super huge sword requires 40 strength to wield, meaning you’d have to be around level 40 to equip it, meaning you could only invade people around level 40 with it, so it’s fair. However, “twinks” spent all their souls on enchanting weapons. For instance, a weak short sword, which is useless but only requires like 1 strength, can be powered up to +10 with enough souls, making it much stronger, and if you invade level 1 people with it you’ll have a marked advantage. That being the case, I would make it so that the more you reinforced a weapon, the higher soul level you’d have to be to equip it. The short sword in my example, for instance, would require you to be at Soul Level 10 (whatever your specific stats were) to use it, meaning that you could no longer invade level 1 people with it anymore. J
As another small note, I’m not very happy with the character models in this game. While it was difficult in both Demon’s and Dark Souls to create a decent-looking character, I’d say it’s even more difficult to do so in Dark Souls II. The male models aren’t that bad, but the female models and faces look really silly. You can only customize the face extensively; there are just a handful of bodies to choose from, and all the female bodies look pretty manly, which is pretty weird if you want to make a cute girl character.
Finally, the music in this game is sort of disappointing. I absolutely loved some of the songs from Demon’s Souls, like Theme of False King, and liked some of the ones from Dark Souls, like the Firelink Shrine theme. But nothing I’ve heard in Dark Souls II has stuck out for me. Maybe I’ll find some good tunes later…
You may have noticed my list of critiques is longer than my list of praise. Size isn’t the only thing that matters, though, remember that! Though they’re fewer in number, the good points (especially the diversity and amount of areas, weapons, secrets, etc), outweigh its bad points for me. I can tolerate the small amounts of lag and choppy framerate, as well as the less-compelling story, simply because the world of Drangleic is so big, beautiful, and well-designed. So, overall, I’m definitely happy with my purchase and invite all of you to play this game with me! I just wish they could have solved some of these smaller problems, like soul memory, lag, character models, and a confusing story, while keeping the great size and level design. ❤