Dark Souls II, from Namco/From Software, is an action RPG that continues the gamer-beat-down that began with 2011’s original and hugely successful Dark Souls.
You play the role of a “hollow”, which is basically an undead revenant whose tasked with killing living things and taking their souls for sustenance. That’s pretty much it. The game opens with an in-game character build screen, where a gaggle of creepy old crones give you the option to choose from several pre-built classes that start at around level 12ish or you can create your own custom build. Once that’s done, the crones warn you that each time you die you’re going to lose some of your essence and then they basically tell you to go out and kill stuff.
I didn’t play the original Dark Souls, so when I was given this relatively bare-bones intro to the world, I was a bit confused. I was expecting more of an RPGish intro to the grand quest I was about to embark on, but basically it was “Have fun storming the castle!” So with a shrug of my shoulders, I hefted my sword and embarked. Then I started dying… a lot. Each time your character dies, you lose max hit points and the game gets that much harder until you can reclaim your corpse and refill your HP.
Dark Souls II is unflinching in its brutality and ability to inflict harm upon gamers and provide you with opportunities to die. Like I said, expect to die, a lot. Every encounter with a monster and every footstep in a new area has the potential to end your poor character’s undead life. Combat isn’t simply a mash of buttons but a nuanced series of weapon swings, dodges and blocks while simultaneously trying to figure out what your enemy is doing. This game is challenging.
Because this is such a difficult game, I found it rewarding to survive encounters and get to new areas and be able to explore the amazing world that the game takes place in. Bonfires (aka checkpoints) are available at the outset of the game and enable you to travel to any unlocked location instantly, but that’s about all the help you’re going to get.
Again, this game is hard. At first I found it off putting because it’s markedly different than any other type of action RPG I’ve played. Dark Souls II is noteworthy just simply because it pulls no punches. But as one progresses and gets better at it, the journey and exploration become rewarding and it’s easily a 60 hour play-through plus countless opportunities to explore the hidden cracks and crevasses of this expansive world. There is a dark and creepy quality to the environments, but they are richly detailed and each little revealing tidbit to the larger story gives one the incentive to fight on and explore new areas.
The downside for me, other than the steep learning curve, was purely technical. I reviewed the Xbox 360 version and I found the controller setup to be pretty cumbersome. Some menus are navigated with the d-pad and some with left/right sticks in a very non-intuitive way and certain character movements and actions are a pain in the butt. For a game where you really have to pay attention, having to deal with issues like this took me out of it.
That said, Dark Souls II is one of the most challenging and unique game experiences I’ve had. It’s a very tough game, but the game world is brilliantly realized and has a very foreboding and dark quality that really enhances the ass-kickery that it delivers to gamers.