Dark Souls 2

April 29th, 2014

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…

Posted in games by Joe Abercrombie on April 29th, 2014.

16 comments so far

  • Tony says:

    Great review!

    But I do feel that they hit the difficulty just right with Dark Souls II. The first was such an artificially hard game, being more tedious than actually difficult with mobs re-spawning every time you save. Where sometimes you’ll die several times BEFORE a boss and consistently have trouble making it back.

    Still a hard game, but much more forgiving which is what’s needed for newer players. If you don’t like it, then you can make the game harder by choosing certain options like new game + and starting with nothing.

    Always look forward to your reviews. Keep it up! 😀

  • Melanie says:

    I just don’t understand why they couldn’t have spent just a few more hours filling out the story. Just a tidbit here and there to help make the hours and hours of dying seem like it was worth it, like it was leading somewhere at least interesting. A friend of mine said “they fixed everything about Dark Souls I that wasn’t broken and left a giant gaping hole where even the most superficial of plot lines would have been welcome”. Also, why is the dialogue sooo slow and bizarre? I admit that I may have become accustomed to better dialogue writing in my fiction, but seriously….if I have to hear the four lines of script required to get to the menu screen for the level up lady, I may have to gouge out my own ears. Why would they do that?

  • Joe Abercrombie says:

    Demon’s Souls especially did seem unreasonably, unfairly, wrong-headedly frustrating at times it’s true. Difficulty was better, but I do feel they lost a couple of things – especially the world didn’t feel so connected as it used to. You used to see a tower in the far distance, then end up there later, now the different areas seemed totally unconnected, which was a shame.

    I’m getting the feeling you didn’t play the other two? The weirdly ponderous and repetitive dialogue has always been a feature, and if anything there was more plot this time around…

  • Melanie says:


    I did play the one previous to this, and I liked it; I guess I just don’t understand why you would intentionally skimp on story. Granted, I teach literature at a community college, so I’m clearly biased, but I just kept thinking as I was playing that it would have been so easy to hire someone, after the game was finished to insert story on top of all of the things that are great about the game. I’m sure it’s just a genre convention that I don’t get. I suppose I’ll just have to wait for the next Witcher game to come out to get my complicated plot fix.

  • Josh says:

    I have to say, defeating Old King Allant in Demon’s Souls with nothing but a sword and my wits is one of my favorite gaming memories.

    I haven’t finished 2 yet, but I agree with you that I miss traipsing through the tomb of the giants and seeing Ash Lake far below… or looking down from Anor Londo and seeing Blight town. Hopefully the next game will bring some of that contextual exploration back.

    As for story, there is a LOT of story to be found in these games. It’s just hidden in snippets of dialogue and item descriptions instead of being handed to you. I personally find a lot of enjoyment in that.

    A lot of fantasy wants to explain everything, when it’s really the unanswered questions that make some stories truly last in the minds of fans.

    Besides, it’s a game, and you’re stuck within one character. It helps with the immersion to not know everything.

  • Game says:

    Very much so! The world do not feel as connected and well written this t ime over. It felt more shallow and cryptic. The first game was cryptic but in a good way I say. This one just feels to disconnected? That is what we can call it?

  • Chris says:

    The Souls games are some of my favorite of all time. I have to say that I totally agree with you on the smoothing down of some of the edges this go around.

    Looking at the series as a whole; Demon’s Souls was great and really proved out the idea that some players still appreciate a challenge. Most of the games we grew up on had no save points or clear narrative. This to me, felt like a throw back to everything I loved about those games.

    Dark Souls took that proof of concept and turned it into a real game with a real world and lore. Like you mention, DS had a much more connected world and realizing that connection as you moved through the space was part of what made that game so good.

    DS2 is great. More accessible, addicting, and mechanically an all around more refined experience. However, the fact that they moved back to a central HUB like in Demon’s Souls really pulled me out of that experience. I do feel like the narrative was easier to follow and even introduced a nice little twist at the end but for the most part I felt the bosses were kind of uninspired. Most of them felt like humanoids with a weapon or copy/pastes of DS1 bosses. There were more of them this time…which was fun.

    Joe, I’m actually really interested in what you think of the Souls’ lore/narrative. While each game seems to have a very thin story, its actually pretty robust. The more I dig around on the internet, the more connections I find that people have made between the 3 stories. The Lord Vessel is supposedly in pieces in the basement of the house in Majula where the skeleton is. There are several bosses that are supposed to be reincarnations of great souls in DS1. Some people think the Throne of Want is the Kiln of the First Flame. Apparently, Drangleic is Lordran. It goes on and on. There’s a lot of story to be found in this series. I’m looking forward to playing NG+.

  • Mike Cobley says:

    Joe, I cant remember if you’re a fan of the Stalker games but…have you heard of Stalker Lost Alpha? Its basically the original Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl with all the original stuff left in (rather than the cut-down version that eventually released). Anyway, Lost Alpha is available for free – its a standalone, not a mod, but is in post-beta state so a sequence of patches is due soon. If that kinda thing floats ya boat!

  • Simon says:

    It has some of the connectivity between places in there. From Majula you can see Heide’s Tower of Flame and Drangleic Castle for example. It’s just a different approach,I feel. DS1 has some really great level design where you can loop back on yourself, but let’s not forget it also has paths that just lead to dead ends (Crystal Caves, The Abyss, Lost Izalith, Tomb of Giants..), so it shouldn’t be classified as a new thing in DS2. The way DS2 approaches it, kind of makes it feel like it’s a wider world, as you’re going off in these different directions. No better or worse than DS1 just different.

    Don’t think any game will compare or be as intense as your first Souls experience and to that end, I don’t think DS2 will be better than DS1. Don’t get me wrong, DS2 is a fantastic game, probably my game of the year, but DS1 will always be truly special that few games can compare (Metroid Prime is the closest) I find DS2 slightly easier overall, but that is someone who has hundreds of hours put into DS1. New Game + sounds like it’s a different beast altogether in that aspect so really looking forward to see what the rest of the game offers and eventually resort to Youtube lore videos to see what detail you can get from the story.

    It was cool to read your thoughts Joe! Got any other games you’re playing at the minute?

  • Dan says:

    Joe, I’m glad you were able to finally finish one of the Souls series games. That being said, I would really enjoy a review of the “Scrotum-witheringly difficult” NO DEATH Dark Souls 2 play through. Trying a no death run drove me completely insane. After 6 really good tries, I finally gave up. But, even if you don’t try this challenge, I’m glad that you enjoy my favorite RPG series. Currently playing A Realm Reborn, and I’m enjoying that as well.

  • James says:

    I’m of roughly the same opinion. The disconnection between the areas I think is a side effect of being able to teleport about between the bonfires, though there are some egregious examples of impossible geography.

    I think they got the difficulty about right. The “hardcore” players might moan a bit about it being easy, but there is always New Game+ (and ++, +++ etc) to challenge them. I can quite see myself playing through this several times with different builds. DS1 I finished once, but I couldn’t face playing again – without at least working out the “speedrunner” routes to avoid the irritating parts like Blighttown.

    Another thing I like is that they have made it much easier to stay human, and I’ve done a lot more coop as a result. Makes most bosses a bit easy, but its fun, and isn’t that ultimately the point?

  • Ken says:

    I read somewhere that the story and lore are deliberately obtuse. When he was younger, the creator spoke only some English, but really like reading fantasy novels in English. Because he wasn’t fluent, he would miss big sections of the story, lore, and exposition, and so would be left in the dark about a lot of the books. So, he had to fill in the blanks on his own or make connections between the sections he actually did understand. Pretty interesting, and I think that approach comes through in the games (haven’t played DS2 yet).

  • Morrigan says:

    Huge, HUGE fan of those games since Demon’s Souls here. And Demon’s Souls is honestly the easiest of the three. Seriously. You can get overpowered very early, with very little effort.

    If you think Dark Souls II is too easy, I suggest you try the covenant “Company of Champions”. It’s basically hard mode, and disables all coop (you can’t summon, not even NPCs, and cannot be summoned either, so no easy revives!).

    It’s hard to say which of the 3 games I prefer. For the PvP, Demon’s Souls was the best, hands down, despite the poor netcode. The other two games have messy hitboxes and too many broken shit to it. For the PvE, my favourite area is probably the Painted World of Ariamis and the Tower of Latria, followed by No Man’s Wharf and the Lost Bastille, all of which have absolutely amazing atmosphere and level design. I do miss the interconnectedness of Dark Souls I from II (the funniest moment was that elevator in Earthen Peak leading up to… Iron Keep volcano? Wot? XD), but it makes up for it by having so many awesome secrets to plunder… and impaling animation for poles and spears (come on, who doesn’t love this?!), and…. beards. Beards. You should see the strength build I made. So sexy. *nods*

  • Morrigan says:

    Oh yeah, you said you completed it til the end and found it easier… but have you beaten the optional bosses? The Ancient Dragon, King Vendrick, and the Darklurker? Or the Belfry Gargoyles redux? 🙂

    Darklurker (and the Gargs) is piss easy with magic, but melee-only… yikes. And if the others don’t give you a taste of brutal difficulty, I don’t know what will. S&O, Maneaters, Manus and Kalameet from the Dark Souls 1 DLC is like a pushover compared to those.

  • Alejandro says:

    Due to the birth of my second daughter (planned date is today) I have shifted this one to fall/winter.
    I want to be able to fully immerse in that kind of game what is not so easy with a newborn.

    @ Joe: Somehow it sounds contradictory that you called Dark Souls 1 too hard to finish and Dark Souls 2 losing some of its charm due to being more accessible.

    However I am looking Forward to playing this beast. 2014 Looks a bit dry regarding Releases of good games. Maybe Dragon Age Inquisition will deliver but the next game in which I am fully interested will be The Witcher 3 Feb/March 2015. Lords of the Fallen and Bound by Flame could become sleeper hits but I am sceptical.

  • Kreso says:

    I dig the review and I can get behind most of it.

    That said, Dark Souls 2 is the best game in the last 10 years or so, along with modded Skyrim.

    It doesn’t have the amazing level design Dark Souls 1 had, but they made the game a bit more accessible and yes, even a bit easier in New Game.

    New Game+ though, is a completely different story.

    Instead of just enemies hitting harder and having more HP, in DkS2 you get new items, new enemies, new boss mechanics, etc.

    New Game+ is what makes this game jump from really, really great to legendary.

    To me, anyway.

    Also, the lore in the Souls games is FANASTIC and they made you read if you wanted to connect everything together.

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