By William Shelton
Release Date: March 11, 2014
Systems: PS3 (Reviewed), Xbox 360, PC
Developer: From Software
Metacrtic Score: 91
Dark Souls 2 is disappointing to the point that at first I thought it was just a bad game. It’s not, but the lack of creativity and passion here really diminishes the experience as a whole. Where the previous “Souls” games filled me with a sense of wonder and triumph as I marveled and slowly defeated their challenge, Dark Souls 2 only ever managed to keep me just entertained enough to keep playing.
The issues start right as the games begins with it’s over long and dull opening cinematic. As deep and interesting as Dark Souls lore can be, few would say the games story was it’s main draw. The original game got around this issue by focusing it’s opening on the games most interesting characters, showing some great tableaus (Nito holding the flame, Seath on the mountain of dead Dragons ect.) and most importantly, getting to the point with haste. Dark Souls 2 does none of this.
The stories first mistake is that it focuses on the single most uninteresting element it has: the player character. For all Dark Souls talk about “prophecies” and “chosen ones” it was always made clear that the player character was just another undead hopeful. Here, however, the entire first cinematic is dedicated to talking about you and your place in the game world while saying nothing of interest. No real lore is explained, no villains set up, no reason given as to why you’re headed to Drangleic, just “you’re undead, go here”. What’s worse is that this scene just drags on. It may only be about as long as the opening to the first game, but it feels so much longer as there’s so little of interest happening. In the end, I may not have cared about Dark Souls lore as I played, but I cared enough too look into it and find out what was really going on. Here I just don’t care.
Gameplay wise things get better, but barely. In a lot of ways the game feels like classic Dark Souls with its tight controls and finely tuned combat, but the little changes all add up to a much less enjoyable experience. For example, there isn’t a shield in the early game, robbing players of any defensive options early on. This would be fine if the game was aiming for a more aggressive combat system like what From would go on to do with Bloodborne, but it’s not; the combat is still based around the slower and more defensive oriented system they had with the first two Souls games. Another ill-advised change was to the estus flask. You start the game with only one of the refillable life giving potions but a new consumable item, life gems, can be obtained and used in a pinch. However, these restore health so slowly that using them when you really need them (like in a boss battle) is functionally useless as you will rarely gain enough health in time to not be killed the next time you’re hit.
The new death mechanic is also an interesting but flawed idea. Upon death, instead of losing half your life you lose a small portion. The more you die the more of your life that’s eaten away until you’re down to half health. This can be avoided by using a human effigy which brings you back to life and too full health. The issue is that early in the game they are too few and far between (you don’t gain them as you beat bosses anymore) and later they’re too abundant. Because of this, I had to beat early bosses with out taking a hit and latter bosses weren’t an issue as I had so many human effigy’s I could just keep using them to make sure I was at full health.
Fast travel has also been reworked for the worse. From the start of the game you can teleport between any bonfire you’ve lit. While this does ease some of the pain from needless back tracking, it also made the world much less fun to explore. Seeing how everything was connected in the original Dark Souls was always a delight in my opinion, but that’s sadly not present here. Worse yet, enemies will start disappearing as you kill them. This is meant to encourage players to move on instead of farming souls, but I couldn’t help feel that it just made the world feel that much more empty.
Yet all of that could be forgiven if not for one major flaw: the game simply isn’t as rewarding as the original. It’s not “easy”, don’t get me wrong. But as I overcame challenges I never felt the same high I did in Dark Souls. In the original game after nearly every boss I beat I took a second to congratulate myself and bask in my accomplishment. Here I just moved on with out a word. I never had that real “Hell yeah! I did it, I can do anything!” moment. This could be do to the over use of humanoid enemies. While there are still interesting foes and patterns to learn and recognize, having nearly every enemy be some kind of human both diminishes the threat as well as give the player a baseline for what to expect. I know I can beat a human in a fight, and I know how a human is supposed to behave, so seeing just another big dude standing in my way just doesn’t feel as threatening. However, I wouldn’t mind the dull enemies if it wasn’t for the absurd number of copy-and-paste boss fights. Several bosses from the first game make an appearance with only minor changes to their look to differentiate them from their original counterpart.
With all of that said, I still enjoyed most of my time with the game. I may not have celebrated my victories against the games bosses, but I never thought to my self “well that was a waste of time”. I may not have been patting myself on the back, but I was never itching to put the game down, either. In fact I may still go back to this.
Lastly the music is….completely unremarkable. I put the controller down just a few hours ago and I cannot remember a single song or vocal performance. I don’t recall hating anything, but it’s sad to see that there wasn’t anything as memorable as the Lord Gwen music.
In the end, the game reminds me a lot of “Bioshock 2”, not bad just needless and underwhelming. Because of this it’s hard to recommend this. If you haven’t played either for the first two Souls games you should play them first. You will enjoy the game, but you’ll enjoy the first two more. And if you have played one or both of the first Souls games, there’s not enough here to justify getting this game.