How do you follow up an adventure often described as the hardest game ever made? Why, by dropping you, a cursed hero, into the mystical land of Drangleic and letting you figure everything out for yourself, of course.
Dark Souls II in an unapologetically old school action-RPG by acclaimed Japanese developer From Software, which offers little in the way of prompts or tutorials. The only way to learn is to die, then die again. In short: you’re on your own. In detail: you’re on your own, and completely screwed.
Knightmare, Dungeons & Dragons, Ian Livingstone choose-your-own-adventure books: Dark Souls II is the modern embodiment of these classic role-playing favourites. With one vital twist: you need to be a borderline sadomasochist to enjoy it. This is Livingstone without numbers, D&D without dice, Knightmare without falsetto guides screeching spells and doing their best blind-leading-the-blind impressions.
You choose a character class, and can amass an array of items and spells to help you along the way. But even when kitted out with the best armour, sharpest sword, or most powerful magic, combat remains merciless. I died 11 times in my first 90 minutes with the game, too many to count thereafter. Sounds fun, right?
To die for
The weird thing is, death is kind of fun. Partly because it’s the only way to improve - by learning enemy locations and behaviour patterns in a manner that hasn’t been necessary since the heyday of Spectrums and C64s. But also because you lose ‘souls’ (the game’s currency, basically) on every death, and can only retrieve them by retracing your steps to where you last perished.
Get there and touch your bloodstain, and all is restored. Fail, and said lost ‘souls’ are gone forever. This mechanic lends an intensity to every step you take (pipe down, Sting), and also makes every victory – from successfully hunting down a bloodstain to seeing off a variety of preposterously-OTT bosses – all the more rewarding.
Exploration and conversation take up a huge portion of the game and aren’t nearly as soul-destroying (literally or metaphorically) as combat. Some NPC discussions lead to puzzles such as tracking down keys to locked doors, others are left to your own interpretation, yet in both cases they provide a welcome relief from the coffin-nail-tough monster mashing.
And searching the almost countless number of wonderfully atmospheric environments – barren woodland, monumental palaces, dimly-lit lairs, sun-kissed cliff tops, so many more – only becomes more enchanting as you flesh out your inventory. OCD completionists will be in their element. I should know – I am one, and seeking out meaningless (but so pretty!) trinkets in gloomy caverns became one of my favourite elements of the game.
The appeal to noobs with emo alter-egos should be clear, but returning players who’ve beaten Dark Souls 1 and want a greater challenge are catered for, too. The more you die, the more your life bar shrinks (note to those noobs: carry a Human Effigy from the outset to restore health). Plus there are items you can purchase to make the game even more difficult.
For instance, it’s fitting that the Redeye Ring sounds like street slang for haemorrhoids: it makes your character even more easily detectable to enemies, so is guaranteed to repeatedly leave his backside raw. A brilliant find – if you’re the type of person who enjoys plunging sewing needles into voodoo dolls. Of yourself.
Dark Souls II looks magnificent throughout, to the point that I sometimes forgot I was playing on PS3 rather than next-gen. Mo-capped animations eliminate the rigidity often found in the original, light and darkness are manipulated in ways that startle with wonder at times and unsettle through fear at others, and even deaths look weirdly satisfying.
One of my personal highlights is being catapulted off a cliff by a pack of wild dogs, like something out of a Will Ferrell movie. Comic moments are few, but they’re critical in preventing you from just giving up when a scythe-wielding bag of bones slices through you for the umpteenth time.
Dark Souls II verdict
As good as adventuring gets on current-gen, in terms of exploring a fantasy world packed with unconventional enemies and comic-book-inspired locations – but one for only the most patient of minds.
From Software has created unquestionably the most challenging game around; but the few dedicated enough to survive it will also find it one of, if not the, most rewarding.
Review by Ben Wilson - @BenjiWilson