One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
Dark Souls II would be a fantastic game, if there was no Dark Souls. Dark Souls II falls short of the heights of its predecessor because it attempts to make both newcomers and veterans of Dark Souls happy. Steps are taken to make the game easier for newcomers, but steps are also taken to amp up the difficulty for the veterans of the franchise. These steps clash against each other and create a less satisfying experience.
Dark Souls II takes place in the world of Drangleic, some time after the events of Dark Souls (it’s unclear exactly how long). You are an undead who came to Drangleic to search for a cure to your undead curse. It is revealed that you are the chosen undead (shocker) and must replace the current monarch who has gone hollow. This is done by collecting four Great Souls (because four is the magic number in the Dark Souls universe) and ascending to the throne.
For those who did not play Dark Souls, your gameplay is the standard block, then attack. Wait for an enemy to complete its attack, then you attack when they’re vulnerable. Only thing is, enemies are significantly more powerful than you. So any misstep on your part results in death or massive damage. When you die, as you often will, you will lose all your souls (the in-game currency) and return to the last bonfire (checkpoint) you rested at. You can regain your souls, but only if you return to the spot you died last. Easy enough, except all your enemies respawn with full health.
Except not. Here’s the first major change in Dark Souls II. If you die enough time in a certain area, the enemies will stop respawning. This makes it easier to keep fighting the boss after you die, but I felt cheated. I felt like the game was judging me, something like “Oh, I see you’re not capable of defeating this boss as is, so let me ease it up for you.” Also, you can’t repeatedly kill the enemies to level up now.
This is the first instance of Dark Souls II attempting to woo newcomers, but failing. Grinding enemies to level up is important and necessary in order to defeat certain bosses. Simply removing the obstacles on the path to the boss, does not make him any easier. This only happened to me once in my initial playthrough. In the cursed woods (yep that stereotype reappears), there’s a boss you reach by slaying seven large mummies, then crossing a rickety bridge. The boss battle is difficult, and requires multiple steps. You have to slay skeletons, then two necromancers who keep resurrecting them, all while avoiding a massive chariot riding around the area that can instantly kill you. Naturally, I died often. But I just felt sad the first time I was heading to the boss arena and the seven mummies I was ready for weren’t there. The actual fight with the boss wasn’t any easier, but I felt like a failure became Dark Souls II decided I wasn’t capable of defeating the boss without help.
This is the first of several significant changes. Now, you can become human no matter where you are by using human effigies. So now, you can become human right before the boss battle, and summon NPCs or other players for help. This is a fantastic improvement and makes cooperative play much easier. But, now whenever you die, a small portion of your maximum health decreases, and you can only restore it by using an effigy, which are a finite and expensive item. That’s terrible and makes the game feel artificially difficult, since you end up running into boss battles with only half of your maximum health available. Also, Dark Souls II has healing items that you can use much faster than your regular Estus Flask (the healing potion you refill at bonfires). But now, you only start with one Estus Flask, instead of the usual ten from Dark Souls. Dark Souls II also added a light-dark mechanic that unfortunately ends up being meaningless. You can now replace your shield with a torch you can light at bonfires and use it to illuminate particularly dark areas. Lighting torches in areas will leave the torch there, lighting the room up. But I found it was easier to simply keep your shield and squint in the dark areas. Even the dark caves have some natural light you can use to guide your way, and there’s always the lock on button to see your enemies, even if the room is dark. There was only one area that absolutely required a torch. I understand that it was meant to make the game scarier, but all it really did was discourage exploration because I had no real defense without my trusty shield.
Here lies the major problem of Dark Souls II. By trying to make both sides happy, nobody really is. Every change that made the game easier, came with a change that made the game more difficult. Newcomers are turned off by the more difficult changes, like the lowering maximum health and only one healing potion, while veterans are disappointed by the easier changes, like the disappearing enemies.
The boss battles in Dark Souls II pale in comparison to the epic fights of Dark Souls. The number of bosses increased significantly, but they’re entirely forgettable. It felt like one giant knight in armor after another. I can barely remember any truly difficult or memorable boss battles. I was always just fighting one, and in the later areas two, giant knights. There was never the jaw-dropping moment of the gaping dragon from Dark Souls. Even the final boss is a letdown. As opposed to the ridiculously fast, fire-sword swinging king of Dark Souls, Dark Souls II has a giant skeleton woman with slow swinging attacks. That’s so much simpler and less satisfying.
The multiplayer remains mostly the same, with some tweaks. You have to be in human form to summon aid from NPCs or other players, but at the risk of invasion by a higher level player. Dark Souls II addressed the balancing issues with new covenants. There’s a covenant dedicated to protecting lower level players from invasion by unfairly high level players. It adds a nice balance to the game and helps you turn the tables on those predatory invader jerks.
The universe remains similar to Dark Souls, a dying and decaying world. But the quality of the level design dropped significantly. Now you can instantly teleport from a bonfire to any bonfire in the universe. This makes travel simpler, but the universe no longer feels interconnected. The world feels like a bunch of random areas stitched together, instead of a living, breathing interconnected world.
If there was no Dark Souls, then Dark Souls II would be a great game. The combat is fun, and there’s even more weapons now that you can imbue with various elemental powers. The boss fights, though forgettable, are still tense and challenging. The problem is that Dark Souls II must be compared to the original Dark Souls, and it falls flat in every category. By attempting to make both newcomers and veterans of Dark Souls happy, Dark Souls II succeeds in neither, and is an unsatisfying experience because of it.