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Dark Souls II (Xbox 360) artwork

Dark Souls II (Xbox 360) review

"A 'sense of discovery' is only effective if what you're discovering is cool. Context can go a long way."

Dark Souls II (Xbox 360) image

It took me a whole two and a half years to push myself beyond the deliberately unwelcoming first few levels of Dark Souls, and even now, after punching through the whole of it in a mere four days and developing a begrudging respect for the game, I'm not convinced that it's truly great. As enveloped as I was in the lore and design of Lordran – I have, in fact, never been quite so absorbed by a game as I was with Dark Souls – it was unwelcoming to a fault, firstly by an ultra-punishing difficulty curve that clashed with its emphasis on free-flowing exploration and discovery, and secondly by being overrun with technical issues that made its frequent annoyances even less tolerable.

I know I'm in the minority among the hardcore for thinking so, but nevertheless, both of these points have been addressed in Dark Souls II, a sequel that's both more forgiving and more stable than its predecessor. Mechanically, it is exactly the Souls game that I've been wanting to play for years. And yet the series still hasn't quite reached its potential to me.

That shouldn't be the case. For one thing, while little on the surface has changed – the combat is still heavy and calculated, and reading the menus is practically a game in and of itself – numerous minor tweaks to the framework make the inevitable frustrations of Dark Souls II surprisingly tolerable. For one thing, you can now fast travel between any checkpoints you've reached right from the start, meaning that you no longer need to laboriously slice through hoards of enemies that you've already killed whenever you want to backtrack. And on that note, enemies will now actually stop respawning after you've slain them a certain number of times, but it takes long enough for this to happen that you'll only really notice the change if you're either actively grinding or genuinely stuck on a segment and no longer want to waste your time retreading material that you've clearly mastered.

Even more importantly, though, Dark Souls II performs wonderfully. While clear concessions have been made where modeling and texture work are concerned, the trade-off is that I never experienced a single framerate drop while playing Dark Souls II. Two of my other biggest complaints about the last game – the troublesome camera and frequent collision problems – seem to have been addressed as well, and it beckons the all-encompassing keyword that comes up anytime someone defends the series' difficulty: "fair." Dark Souls II still demands full mastery of its systems, but it puts nothing else in your way. Add to that my growing comfort level with the combat after three whole games' worth of it, and Dark Souls II is probably the most outright enjoyment that I've had with the series so far.

Yet Dark Souls II still leaves me just the slightest bit cold, and that's because it's lacking one key ingredient: the connective tissue.

Remember Blighttown? People hated everything about Blighttown: the narrow walkways, the poisonous swamp water, the giant insects, the little children firing darts at you. And yet, despite all of this, it had geographical purpose. It was built into the wall of the Lower Undead Burg; you needed to descend it to reach one of the bells, around which Quelaag had built her nest. You could look off the edge of Blighttown at any time and see her lair waiting for you at the bottom, growing closer with every ladder that you climbed down. Getting through the area was a chore, but it made sense. That's where you need to go; this is the route that you need to take in order to get there.

Dark Souls II has a Blighttown equivalent. It's called the Gutter, and it's a retread on virtually every level, an enormous network of rickety scaffolding that players are forced to explore in near-complete darkness while enemies fire poisonous projectiles at them from off-screen. It's just as off-puttingly gloomy and every inch as tedious to explore. The difference is that now, there's no context. Since Dark Souls II is little more than a succession of largely unrelated regions (albeit a branching one), every new area is simply an arbitrary obstacle. Why do I have to trek through the Gutter to reach Black Gulch? Because the developers wanted to put something in my way.

Dark Souls II (Xbox 360) image

See, while Dark Souls II is the most refined and least frustrating of its kind, this is still a Souls title that we're talking about. It's still full of design decisions that feel implemented for the sole purpose of annoying players. It still presents solutions so arbitrary that many people would probably give up were it not for the emphasis on shared knowledge built directly into the game's online architecture. It'll still hit you with things that you won't be ready for, and it'll negate some of your hard work in doing so. It's still a brutal experience, as it always was. But last time, the thrill of unraveling the network of Lordran made it all worthwhile. It was one of the few proper 3D realizations of the Metroidvania formula, deserving of mention alongside Vagrant Story and Metroid Prime.

In contrast, Drangleic, the setting of Dark Souls II, just isn't very interesting. It cycles through the usual medieval fantasy rolodex of locations – including, by my count, at least four different castles – and a few of the areas, particularly one near the end, are jaw-droppingly pretty in ways that transcend technology. But it's still a relatively dull human kingdom with little of the majesty or historical depth that Lordran had. A "sense of discovery" is only effective if what you're discovering is cool. Context can go a long way.

That kind of extends to the bosses, too, many of whom are just big, armored bipedal guys tasked with protecting whatever it is that they happen to be standing in front of. I don't want to discredit the art team, whose work in Dark Souls II is characteristically and painstakingly detailed, but I can only fight so many towering knights before I start losing interest. Most of these guys can be beaten in relatively the same manner, too: close in, circle, attack, recover stamina, repeat. What should have been a showstopper of a late-game battle against a particularly shiny knight in a gorgeous location is diminished because, at that point, I'd already been through about a dozen other scuffles that played out roughly the same way.

Dark Souls II is also considerably shorter than its predecessor. Not that 38 hours (my completion time) is anything to scoff at, but it feels like content is missing. After spending most of the game chasing clearly-underlined (relatively speaking) objectives, your final directions for triggering the final boss are both overcomplicated and poorly-explained. And I couldn't believe that it was the final boss – no buildup, very little relevance, and it's not even a particularly challenging fight. I was in shock when the credits started rolling. It's cut-and-dried application of the term "fizzles out," a disappointingly weak send-off for an experience that feels altogether somewhat non-momentous.

But I said that the game is fun, right? Yeah, it is. I also mentioned that it's pretty fair. Something I learned in the first Dark Souls was that there's always something else to do; if I ever truly hit a wall, I can always come back later. That's doubly true for Dark Souls II, in which the biggest hair-pullers are optional boss fights. The soon-to-be-notorious Executioner Chariot is like a greatest hits collection of bad boss design: multiple phases, instant kills, swarms of respawning smaller enemies, the nearest checkpoint is a mile away, etc. Had this been a mandatory battle, I'd have been furious. But it was a total dead end, only there to quench hardcore Souls fans' thirst for just one more large-scale brouhaha. If you don't like it, walk away. It's optional.

The same is true for my other least-favorite battle, which is essentially a retread of Great Grey Wolf Sif if you took away everything that made Sif cool. It's a context-free scuffle against a massive doglike creature who moves way too quickly, whose attacks have entirely too much range, and who calls upon the help of smaller enemies who can toxify you. Aggravating. Infuriating. Optional.

And what of the repeat of the notorious rooftop gargoyle battle from the first Dark Souls, only now we're fighting five of the damn things instead of just two of them? Aggravating. Infuriating. Optional.

Dark Souls II (Xbox 360) image

Having said all of that, I do find myself shrugging off the notion that Dark Souls II is in any way more accessible than its predecessors. Even some of the basic, fundamental mechanics aren't explained properly – I had to do some asking around just to figure out how to level up – and the early areas, particularly Heide's Tower of Flame, are full of enemies that will absolutely crush you if you're not 100% comfortable with Souls combat already. And even speaking as someone who finished the first two games, there's this expectation that Souls is designed as both a very harsh and very social experience, and that, more so than with other games, there's no shame in getting help and figuring things out as a collective whole. That's why players can team up for bosses or leave messages for one another. It's a single-player game, but we're in this together.

That fact mercifully saves Dark Souls II from full-on pixel hunt status in spots, when "solutions" to "puzzles" become laughably obtuse. My favorite instance of this is a boss fight set entirely in a pool of poisonous water. It's borderline impossible to bring the boss down as-is, since the poison chips away at your health too incessantly (and I say "borderline" because, yes, I do know of someone who managed to win the battle this way). The fix is to head back to an earlier area of the level, get out your torch, and set fire to a windmill that you would have no cause to believe isn't just an elaborate bit of scenery. Doing so drains the poisonous water. In and of itself, that's dumb; you'd only know to do this if you're carrying your torch around, which you wouldn't be, because this area is well-lit. But all it took was one crazy person to figure this out and suddenly said windmill is surrounded with player-left messages saying "try torch."

This social mechanic isn't new, but this is the first Souls game that I didn't play long after the fact, and there was an undeniable thrill in truly discovering Drangleic alongside everyone else. Unfortunately, it only served to make me wish I'd had the same experience with the vastly more intriguing Lordran. It's a shame, because great care was obviously taken in making this the smoothest Souls experience yet, and it shows. But the major driving force of the series so far – the reward, the sense of accomplishment – is nullified when there's no view from the top. I enjoyed Dark Souls II, and it sounds like other people are enjoying it, too. But the first Dark Souls has become an institution of our language as gamers several years later, whereas I imagine that its sequel will be swiftly forgotten.


Suskie's avatar
Freelance review by Mike Suskie (March 26, 2014)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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