Dark Souls 2 review: An addictive puzzle wrapped in a nightmarish PC action game
At a Glance
This review was originally published March 11 for the Xbox 360. Updated April 24 with PC impressions.
PC REVIEW UPDATE:
It's no secret the original Dark Souls was lacking when it came to the PC port. Locked at a blurry 1024x720 resolution and a subpar 30 frames per second, the Dark Souls port hearkened back to lackluster PC ports of old. It wasn't long before the mod community fixed the problems, but From Software's initial effort was, frankly, bad. So we thought it prudent to check in on Dark Souls II for the PC release and see if From Software learned its lesson.
The PC port of Dark Souls II features a wealth of not just graphical options but control scheme tweaks also. It's still not a gorgeous game, by any means. That pre-release footage? Dark Souls II on PC does not look like that footage.
But there's no doubt this is the definitive version of Dark Souls II. If you have the option to skip the console version and go for the PC, do so. The game supports any resolution that your system supports, and you'd be amazed (or maybe not) what even a middling implementation of anti-aliasing can do for the game. Oh, and the game scales up to 60 frames per second like a proper PC title.
The PC version of Dark Souls II is clearer, smoother, and (quite simply) better in every way.
As far as the game itself? Everything remains the same as the console version—which you can read in the review below.
There's an unspoken rule of reviewing games: You finish the game before you review it. It doesn't matter how good, how bad, or how buggy the game is—you do your damnedest to see the credits.
I will never finish Dark Souls II.
Since attaining my review copy of Dark Souls II I have ranted. I have raved. I have screamed obscenities at my Xbox 360. I have slammed my hand on my desk in rage. I have drank. I have become resigned. I have shut off the console in a fit of rage. I have ruefully turned the console back on mere moments later to try my hand once more.
"This is Dark Souls," the game reminds you upon your very first demise, the achievement popping onto the screen like an extra punch in the face. Like its predecessors, Dark Souls II is an ultra-hard third-person "action" game where you'll spend quite a bit of time dead, staring at loading screens.
You're cursed, a person who feasts on other creatures' souls to hold onto your humanity. Even fifteen hours into the game I have very little clue what the story is—something about a magic kingdom of Drangleic that crumbled to ruins. You'll wander through these ruins, looking for something important.
Mostly you'll fight your way through a veritable army of enemies that want you dead. These enemies range from small demon pigs to enormous serpents that spit fire at you. Combat is fairly realistic, governed by a stamina meter that always runs out right when you need it most, leaving you to get murdered by a giant's ill-timed sword blow.
Condemned to repeat it
For two hours, Dark Souls II became the same stretch of ruin for me. First I'd run up the stone stairs from the bonfire I'd lit, which served as a respawn point. I'd murder the waiting giant with the longsword. Then I'd walk up more stairs and get murdered by the giant with the oversized mace.
Finally I killed the giant with the longsword so many times he disappeared forever. This is a new mechanic in Dark Souls II to prevent players from grinding low-level areas for hours on end—after you kill enemies a certain number of times they disappear. Each enemy is different, clearly, since once I defeated the giant with the mace a single time he never came back.
So then Dark Souls II became run up the stairs from the bonfire, run past these two empty areas, run past the giant with the longsword who wouldn't attack unless I got too close, sprint down the crumbled remains of a once-proud walkway, and enter the circular arena area.
Inside the arena were three giants—two with swords, one with an enormous cleaver. And, inevitably, the cleaver guy would kill me. So I'd run all the way back to him, desperately try to pick up my souls off the ground before he killed me again, and then get killed again. And killed again. And killed again.
Each time it took me a solid thirty seconds to run back and engage in battle again. Each time I got a bit more frustrated. Dark Souls II loves when you're frustrated. Frustration leads to impatience. Impatience leads to make mistakes. Mistakes lead to more murder.
Even when I beat Cleaver Man, one of his sword buddies would smack me down. But I started to learn. Despite my instinct to play safe and stay back from the giant, I found it was smarter to get in close—he couldn't maneuver as well, and I could get out of the way faster. And so I started winning more often.
This. This is what Dark Souls is really about.
Dark Souls II looks like an action game, but it is not. It is a puzzle game. It is about outsmarting opponents—about learning and exploiting patterns, about gaining something from failures, about solving disparate problems with a limited and underpowered skill set.
There's still nothing else like it. Despite From Software's claims of making the game "more accessible," Dark Souls II is simply an extension of Dark Souls—nothing more, nothing less. Some of the items seem better explained than previous games, and the menus a bit clearer, but that's about it in the "accessibility" department.
The playable classes have been revamped. Gone is the newcomer-friendly pyromancer class from Dark Souls. I played as a Warrior, because I like the sword-and-shield dynamic, but there seems to be a class fit for any range of magic-and-melee you choose to employ.
Characters can now equip three weapons on each hand, allowing you a bit more flexibility to hot-swap in the middle of battle. The camera also seems improved from the last game. Locking on to an enemy no longer left me staring at a wall in the midst of a tense fight, which is appreciated.
Covenants—pacts that regularly draw you in to participate in the game's unique "invasion"-style multiplayer, where players drop into each other's worlds to help or murder each other—also look to play a bigger role in Dark Souls II. Even the first area you enter gives you the option to join a covenant, warning that it will set you on an "arduous path."
You can fast travel right from the beginning of the game this time around, a handy addition since you no longer level up at bonfires. Instead you'll have to travel back to the town of Majula and speak to the Emerald Herald to boost those stats.
Oh, and if you die the game just gets harder. Did I mention that? Each time you die, you lose humanity. This, in turn, leaves you with fewer health points. In previous games the tradeoff was that you couldn't be invaded by enemy players. As a result, many people played through Dark Souls in the "hollow" state to avoid online interactions.
Well now you can be invaded even while undead, and you'll have fewer hit points. So it sucks all around. Might as well burn those human effigies and return some of your humanity before it's too late.
Worth the wait?
The PC version of Dark Souls II was delayed until April 25, so I played on the Xbox 360. While Dark Souls has never been a graphical powerhouse, it's particularly jarring to go back to the old hardware now.
Even playing through my 24" monitor, Dark Souls II is rough. Screen-tearing and aliasing abound, and many textures are comparable to late-PS2 era. It's not something that will significantly impact your enjoyment—Dark Souls has always been more focused on mechanics than graphics—but it's something of note if you're debating whether to wait for the PC version.
It's especially frustrating because there's so much promise to the graphics. Ruin-dotted vistas look downright gorgeous in the pale-orange sunset glow of Drangleic. And then you move the camera and for a second it's an aliased, screen-tearing mess, and you wish you were playing on a better system.
Add to that a decent amount of frame-hitching even in the early areas, and I'd say you're well-advised to wait for the PC version. I can't say for sure whether anything in Dark Souls II gets as laggy as Blighttown since I didn't see everything in the game, but I'd rather wait for the PC version myself as someone who has that option.
It's Dark Souls. Did you like the original? Did you like spiritual predecessor Demon's Souls? Then I feel confident in saying you'll enjoy this entry also. It's still incredibly unfriendly and utterly addicting in a marvelously difficult way. In a nutshell, Dark Souls II is everything you'd expect.
Your only question, if you're planning to play, is whether to wait for the PC version or not. I haven't played it yet, as all preview events so far took place on consoles, but based on my time with the 360 version I'd advise waiting.
April 25 can't come soon enough. Maybe I'll turn on my ailing 360 just one more time tonight...