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Dark Souls II Initial Impressions

Well jeez, I wasn't prepared to die this much.

Like many other small gaming outlets, PixlBit didn't receive their copy of Dark Souls II until the Friday before the game's March 11 release. This didn't afford much time to play the game to meet embargo; however, that's no big deal, because it's affording other opportunities, like this article! Until resident Souls master Chris Yarger has time to crank out his review, I figured that I'd provide some initial impressions for those waiting with bated breath for PixlBit's review of From Software's latest masterpiece.

If you're familiar with past entries in the series, you'll quickly realize that Dark Souls II is the demonic spawn of the unholy union of Demon's Souls and Dark Souls. This should come as no surprise as Chris and I mentioned the connection after the beta some months back. Healing items are one of the more obvious traits of the progeny. In Demon's Souls, you needed to heal with a variety of grasses of varying strength, while Dark Souls forced you to use the refillable Estus Flasks. Now, in addition to Estus Flasks, you'll have access to Lifegems of varying types, which slowly refill differing amounts of health. Furthermore, the Estus Flask concept has been slightly tweaked to make things tougher. Rather than just getting five at the outset that refill whenever resting at the bonfire, you start with none and need to collect and redeem Estus Flask Shards to add flasks to your inventory. Even after about fourteen hours of gameplay, I'm only up to four.

One of the more bothersome changes I've encountered is the removal of the level up function from the bonfire. Like in Demon's Souls, there is a Nexus-like area called Majula where you must level up with a character equivalent of the Maiden, the Emerald Lady. Of course the ability to fast travel from the very beginning makes this a minor change, but one that necessitates sitting through a loading screen while you fast travel to Majula, and then yet another while you fast travel back to wherever you came from each and every time you want to level up (or cash in those aforementioned Estus Flask Shards). In Dark Souls, those two loading screens (and the Emerald Lady's stupid dialog) were completely avoided by doing that stuff right at the bonfire. 

Sometimes it's hard to tell if form drives function or if it's the other way around, but Dark Souls II features labyrinthine level design with many branching paths. This makes the fast travel ability a necessity from the outset of the game, though it could very well be that From planned to include fast travel at the start and developed the levels with this capability in mind. Regardless, you'll find yourself going to the end of various paths until they either converge or lead to an entirely new area. In classic Souls style, many of the areas are intertwined and you can reach their boundaries from different pathways. That being said, the Drangleic setting never feels as tightly constructed as Dark Souls' Lordran did.

If there's one thing that's abundantly clear about Dark Souls II from the very beginning it's that it's a much harder game than its predecessors, which appears to be one of the objectives of its design. Every death will hit your health bar until it's eventually knocked down to 50%. Early in the game, Human Effigies (which restore humanity and your health bar to 100%) -- akin to the Stone of Ephemeral Eyes from Demon's Souls -- are hard to come by, which means you'll be running the early game at half health most of the time. Furthermore, eliminating a boss won't restore your humanity this time around, so you're forced to use the effigies whenever you're not making it through with your reduced health bar. Even leveling up isn't simple business as stats have been split up. You're now forced to dedicate precious souls to new stats to ensure that you have the stamina and agility you need to block some hits and dodge enemies, or the right amount of vitality so you can equip that beefy armor.

However, like the other games, you will eventually get over the hump and get both the stats and equipment you need to even out the challenge, but it's going to take getting through a few boss fights before you feel like things are starting to tilt in your direction. Even then, things are still pretty damn tough and the bosses are always a learning experience.

Naturally, co-op is available if you're hitting a wall, so that definitely can make a difference if you're struggling. I've put in a few hours helping other players and it's been great fun. While in other worlds, I've found that I'm not quite as powerful and because I didn't do much co-op play in past games, I can't recall if things functioned this way in the past. For instance, my Bastard Sword+2 would deal around 180 damage to a given enemy and as a phantom I'd only dish about 80-100. From my pre-release research, these systems have been completely rebalanced so it's entirely possible that this works differently than before.

The game has been very challenging, but still very entertaining and a worthy sequel to the expertly crafted Dark Souls. Everyday I look forward to my kids heading to bed so I can go another round in Drangleic; I can tell From Software did something right. If you're also playing along, be sure to share your chronicles in our forum mega thread or let me know what you think in the comments below!




03/17/2014 at 07:24 AM

I'm surprised the game is actually harder than its already notoriously difficult predecessors, especially when early rumors had hinted of an "easy" mode or more accessible gameplay. At least the co-op option alleviates this somewhat, although it also seems to stand in strong contradiction to what the games have always been about--a perilous, lonely journey only surmountable by the warrior's own will and imagination.

Nick DiMola Director

03/17/2014 at 10:18 AM

Regarding Dark Souls and challenge: Yes, they are tough games, much tougher than most stuff that releases today that requires no strategy or effort. However, they are completely surmountable by playing smart and observing the environment and the enemies. As a matter of fact, perfecting your skills, and developing strategies to best tough foes is the entire draw of the game.

Now, Dark Souls II is definitely tougher than past entries, at least at the start of the game. After a number of play sessions this weekend, I've found that I've gotten over the hump, which has been something that's happened with both preceding games.

I think that the whole "easy mode" conversation was a result of bad translation and misinformation. There was no way this game was ever going to have such a function, nor was it going to be nerfed so anyone could play. They did add an optional "tutorial"-like area at the beginning to acclimate people and teach them the ropes, but it's basically the only concession you're getting from the Souls games.

On the topic of co-op - it's truly my favorite implementation of it in the history of gaming. Between the blood stains from felled hollows, to the written notes, to the ability to summon or be summoned before a tough boss, it's like this perfect intersection of worlds. Before the release date, I was playing it without any of this stuff and it's amazing how different it makes the game feel. You really do feel alone, whereas now, you always feel the faint presence of other players as you proceed.

I love throwing my soul sign down to be summoned to other worlds. I don't really bring people into mine because I like to overcome the challenge of the bosses (and the worlds) alone.

However, through a few token gestures and a short battle with a comrade, you feel more connected to your summoner than you do with anyone you could connect with via voice chat in another game. It's such a fantastic co-op system, I can't possibly put into words how much I love it. After finishing this game, I fully intend to head back through and continue to do co-op with others because of how rewarding and fun it really is.


03/18/2014 at 02:53 PM

Really looking forward to playing this game.  I made the mistake of thinking that since I've bought literally over a couple dozen games for my newly purchased 3DS over the past few months (not to mention a dozen or so games I've recently downloaded off the PSN), that I would be able to wait for several months for a price drop.

I could only make it two days after it came until I broke down and went to some nearby stores at lunch to buy it.  Unfortunately the places I went had already sold out, so I decided to order it on-line.  Most places were sold out and amazon was selling it for $10 more than normal for some reason.  I waited a couple more days and Amazon's price went back to normal, but it had a note about how shipping would take longer than normal.  It still hasn't shipped yet!  The wait is killing me.


03/30/2014 at 12:24 PM

there's just something about this game that doesn't grab me the same as the original Dark Souls did.  Having sampled both, I really dig the first more.  if for nothing else, for nostalgia.

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