YOU DIED – two words that will be painfully familiar to anyone who braved the nightmarish world of 2011’s Dark Souls, a game that has become infamous for its punishing difficulty and sadistic tagline, “prepare to die”. Arriving in an era of blockbuster games that would prefer to play it safe and hold players’ hands than cause even a single minute of frustration, Dark Souls was unapologetically aloof and uncompromisingly challenging, a combination that earned the game a dedicated cult following.
So shortly after Dark Souls II was announced, when From Software co-director Yui Tanimura was quoted as saying he wanted to make its sequel “more accessible”, many fans feared the worst – that their beloved series would be neutered, its arcane systems simplified and challenges downgraded to appeal to a wider market.
They needn’t have worried: Dark Souls II will kill you, and kill you, and kill you again, and you will keep coming back for more because it’s just that addictive.
In many ways, Dark Souls II represents more of the same from From, which is probably all the hardcore fans ever really wanted. Players begin the game as a newly-undead Hollow who has arrived in the world of Drangleic for reasons unknown. Given the vague task of finding and defeating four kings, the player is set loose in the tiny town area of Majula that acts as the game’s hub, and left to explore the world for themselves.
A small tutorial area beforehand introduces the controls and the basics of combat, but key concepts such as levelling up, upgrading weapons, and how the online features of the game work are left for players to figure out on their own (although Dark Souls publisher Namco Bandai Games has put a lengthy, in-depth video tutorial online).
From Majula there are a few paths that can be taken at first, but players will find no prompts as to which way they should venture.
Getting beaten to a pulp by enemies too tough for the player’s current level is generally the only sign that there might be easier roads to venture down, but otherwise the emphasis is on exploration and discovery. As in the previous games, killing enemies earns the player souls, the game’s currency, which can be used to level up and buy equipment. But if a player is killed, all the souls they were carrying are dropped where they died.
They get one chance to make it back to the spot to reclaim those souls, but if they are killed again before they get there, the souls are gone forever. This cruel, delicious dilemma is one of the key mechanisms of the Dark Souls experience.
Its unique online functionality plays a major role, too. Messages from other players on the network will materialise on the ground in the player’s world, offering hints about upcoming dangers, tactics for bosses, words of encouragement, or even amusing lies trying to troll players into jumping off cliffs.
Players can also be summoned into one another’s worlds to take part in a spot of “jolly cooperation”, teaming up to take down tough bosses and being rewarded for success with items and souls. And then there are invasions, in which a player can forcefully enter another’s world to instigate a duel to the death.
There is nothing in the game quite so heart-pounding as being notified that you have been invaded by a Dark Spirit, and knowing that some evil bastard has broken into your game and is on the hunt for you and your precious souls.
To the experienced, this will all sound familiar, but the sequel does introduce a few tweaks to the gameplay that alter the experience in some interesting ways. Perhaps the most significant is that enemies will no longer spawn indefinitely whenever a player dies or rests at a bonfire (the game’s sort-of checkpoints). Instead, after beating an enemy around a dozen times, it stays dead, permanently clearing a path forward. The effects of this change are two-fold, for while it does make it easier for struggling players to make progress, it also means that souls are now a much more finite resource, adding more significance to each death, and making every soul that is lost along the way that much more anguishing.
Dying in itself also comes with higher stakes. Where in the previous game there were only two states of being for the player – human and hollow – in Dark Souls II being killed in human form begins a slow decline into zombification that chips away at the player’s health bar with each subsequent death, all the way down to a crippling 50 percent of its original total. This cumulative penalty makes each failure a whole lot more meaningful, and makes returning to human – through the use of precious items or as a reward for helping other players – so much more important.
Other changes include bonfire fast-travel being made available from the start of the game, which means less back-tracking is required. And levelling up is no longer done at bonfires, but via a character who resides in Majula, giving players a reason to return to the hub area often.
Perhaps most pleasingly, this time around it’s obvious that a lot more care and attention has been put into creating the game’s covenants – factions that players can join in order to take on various extra challenges, such as defending certain areas from intruders or acting as guardians for players who have been invaded. This is a really welcome move, since in the previous game covenants seemed a little underdeveloped as a concept. Now there is a much more balanced and fun selection, with covenants that play off one another or add some pretty great twists to the gameplay.
But really, the less said about them here the better, for Dark Souls II, like its predecessors, is a game that thrives on mystery. Its story exists not in flashy cut scenes or screeds of detailed encyclopaedic entries, but in the crumbling ruins of the landscape, and in the dreamlike ramblings of the few friendly characters that players encounter.
In the shadows of its imposing Gothic architecture are terrifying monsters lying in ambush, and fantastic secrets waiting to be discovered.
Dark Souls II can be a brutal, scary, and lonely game, but equally, the sense of community, of a multitude of lone adventurers working together against the game to conquer its world and uncover its mysteries, is a remarkable thing. And when a player finally triumphs over a boss that has disposed of them countless times before, the feeling of achievement is unrivalled.
Dark Souls II never coddles its players, and it doesn’t have to coax them forward with elaborate set pieces or patronising objective markers. It simply lays at the feet of its players an enigmatic world, a puzzle that begs to be solved and a challenge that only the determined will overcome. It trusts its players to have the patience to succeed against its sometimes grim odds, and it works by making accomplishment its own reward. Although perhaps not for the faint of heart or short of temper, Dark Souls II is, like its predecessor, a triumph of game design and one of the most satisfying and compelling games of its generation.