It is without a shadow of a doubt dark, it undeniably involves souls, but the 2 is something of a lie, as this is actually the THIRD in From Software’s super dark, totally soul-related, and super duper unforgivingly hard connoisseur’s choice RPG series.
The first was Demon’s Souls, which I very nearly completed some years ago but gave up at nearly the final hurdle after describing it as ‘scrotum-witheringly difficult’. The second was Dark Souls, which I put some forty hours into then gave up once again saying, ‘the unrelenting, punishing, hurting darkness and pessimism of the whole thing, unlit by any apparent spark of positivity doesn’t help.’ Which makes Dark Souls 2 the first of these games that I can say I have actually honest-to-goodness-ly played through to the end.
The basic tone and gameplay haven’t changed hugely. Once again you are a cursed undead dropped into a mysterious, ruined world for reasons unknown, having to harvest the souls of small monsters, middle sized monsters, and flipping enormous monsters in order to improve your stats, assisted by messages from other players and occasionally by those other players themselves as you wrestle your d-pad in a slightly clunky 3rd person action adventure style through assorted dark forests, dark ruins, dark towers, dark caves, dark castles, dark temples, and well-lit toy emporiums. One of those is a joke. Can you guess which?
As with previous entries in the series, the strangely hopeless tragic gothic mood is highly effective. The designers keep you mostly in the dark (knowledge wise as well as graphically), but they have a real knack for making the fragments of background and mythos they feed you seem fascinating and mysterious rather than just, you know, mumbo jumbo. Enclosed spaces are sometimes a bit bland, but you can get some spectacular vistas and there’s a great visual imagination at work. It’s still often intensely difficult, requires iron will and concentration and a willingness to play through the same section or boss twenty times, and initially this game seems very much like the previous two, but over time you start to notice quite a lot of subtle differences. You can now quickly transport between bonfires (save points). There’s a sort of central base area where useful NPCs tend to gather. Once you’ve cleared out a given area a dozen times or so the monsters start to thin out, then disappear entirely. There seems to be a little bit more of an understandable backstory to be pieced together. The world’s a bit sunnier, a bit less unremittingly gloomy, there are more people about and they’re not quite so universally pessimistic and down about everything.
The overall effect is to make this game a good deal more forgiving, a good deal more accessible, perhaps, than its forebears, and in many ways that’s a good thing. But in smoothing off some of those rough edges it does feel like they’ve lost a little of what made these games so unusual and arresting. It’s like that crazy-ass band you admire for doing stuff like no one else who suddenly come out with a more commercial album. Yeah, there’s still a lot of the heart there, and yeah you can see why they did it, and maybe you even play that album more than you did the others cause, you know, they were hardly easy listening were they? But somewhere at the back of your mind you’re just that little bit disappointed that something so strange and extreme has become that bit more like everything else…