Monday, 17 March 2014

Back Into The Abyss - Dark Souls 2 Review

After what feels like decades, the much anticipated sequel to From Software’s Dark Souls is finally upon us. Dark Souls 2 throws us back into the brutal action and unforgiving necessity for learning that made the first game so successful. A few drawbacks pull this game away from perfection, but these are minor, and can even be overcome. Dark Souls 2 is an addictive experience that will make you struggle to pull yourself away from it for any extended period of time.

After an opening that feels a little slow in comparison to that of the first Dark Souls, you are instantly given the freedom to explore the land of Drangleic. You start off in Majula, the equivalent of the Firelink Shrine or the Nexus. This area acts as your hub, and as well as being one of the only places that you are completely safe, also offers easy access to merchants, covenants, and the Emerald Herald, who gives and upgrades your Estus Flask, and allows you to level up.

This is where the first issue comes in. For some reason the ability to level up at bonfires has been removed, forcing you to head back to Majula and speak to the Emerald Herald. This doesn’t really impact the game as a whole, but it certainly gets tedious. Fortunately, there is a fast travel system available straight away, allowing you to travel to any bonfire you have lit. This makes traversing the huge world far easier, and trust me it is huge.

It’s here that Dark Souls 2 displays one of its most impressive feats. The whole world, which is far bigger than that of Dark Souls, is completely seamless. Some areas are blocked off to start with, but once you have opened everywhere, it’s possible to move from one side of the world to another without encountering a single loading screen along the way.

This is all the more impressive when you realize how visually diverse the world is. Dark Souls 2 has some incredibly memorable locations, and each looks great in their own way. One that springs to mind is a forest shrouded in fog, obscuring anything further than a few steps away. Anyone who has played a Souls title in the past will know that something scary will be lurking in the mist, and this makes for one of the most gut-wrenchingly tense moments I’ve experience in a video game.

Whilst the world is entirely new and fresh, the game itself isn’t. If you’ve played a game in this series before, you will know full well what to expect here. Advancing slowly, learning enemy locations, attack patterns and weaknesses, and of course, dying. A lot. This isn’t a bad thing. It’s worked great in the past and holds up the standard here. A few tweaked mechanics - such as better controls for  bows – add a little to it, but if you weren’t a fan before, Dark Souls 2 won’t change your mind.

The most notable difference comes in the form of the multiplayer. You can still summon other players to help you, or invade them to steal their souls, as well as the bloodstains and messages, but things have been changed up a little. Summons now have timers on them, meaning you can’t just summon someone then hang out in an area for a while farming things. Sure, it might add a sense of urgency and increase the intensity of a multiplayer session, as your partner could vanish at any time, but I personally enjoyed the relief at summoning someone, knowing they could stay with me until I finished off the area boss.

Also, you can now summon other players to an area, even when the area boss has been killed. This offers help if you want to explore the area more, or farm souls for a short while until the phantom is returned home.
Whilst Dark Souls 2 incorporates elements that make the game easier, such as the summoning or the new systems that stops enemies from respawning if you kill them enough times, there is one particular update that ramps up the punishing difficulty to new levels. Dying not only strips you of your souls and human status, it now also removes a small portion of your maximum health. Similar to Demon’s Souls, it cuts off at 50%, and stays there until you restore your humanity.

I found this to be a little unnecessary, as it just makes any area that you’re struggling with even harder next time around, and for the first time in Souls history, I felt like it crossed the line from strict, to unfair. A balance of patience and skill can overcome this problem, but in a game so heavily focused on trial and error, where you must continue to die and try again, this felt particularly harsh – even for dark souls.

Dark Souls 2 is an amazing game. Visually striking, with addictive gameplay and online multiplayer that still holds up brilliantly, the elements that bring it down can be overlooked. My final criticism comes in the form of one or two recycled bosses – one is actually the same boss as you face in Dark Souls whilst some others are just reminiscent. However even these sparked a feeling of familiarity and excitement at a link, rather than repetition and boredom. From the get go, fans of the series will be happy with this instalment, but it’s not going to change the minds of people who don’t like it.

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