Dark Souls 2 adds polish and difficulty

A Player battles the fierce Mirror Knight. Courtesy of Dark Souls II website.

A Player battles the fierce Mirror Knight. Courtesy of Dark Souls II website.

The philosophy behind the Souls series of games has always differed from other mainstream games. Never unfair but always uncompromisingly unforgiving, the slightest mistakes are punished and the game never holds the player’s hand.

While Demon’s Souls didn’t meet major mainstream success, it introduced a number of innovations, especially in the multiplayer arena with PvP invasions, and From Software’s followup Dark Souls was met with larger popularity. Announced at E3 2013, Dark Souls 2 carries the torch of controller-throwing frustration while bringing new toys to the table.

For someone that has never played the previous titles, no experience is necessary to dive into Dark Souls 2. Both of the preceding titles had very sparse stories and the plots of the three Souls games don’t directly interconnect, though 2 does have several nods and connections to its immediate predecessor (including a rather startling appearance from an old foe).

Regardless, a player with no knowledge of the lore of the previous games will still be able to appreciate the latest entry on its own. Experience with the mechanics and gameplay of the previous titles will, of course, be of help to players.

Even before the first enemy shows up the game taunts players with the futility of their quest, an NPC warns the player character to hold on to their souls and scoffs, admitting that they will lose them over and over again.

Like before, the plot is very sparse and almost nothing is directly fed to the player. The opening reveals that the player is afflicted with the curse of the undead, doomed to die and revive in an unending cycle until they go hollow and turn into a mindless and violent creature.

In a desperate attempt to break the curse the character ventures to the old and ruined kingdom of Drangleic, strangely reminiscent of Lordran from the previous games, and sets off on their journey. And that’s about it, apart from dialogue with NPCs and clues from the world little else is given in the way of plot.

The interplay of light and dark has been drastically emphasized however, with several areas in the game being either extremely dark or pitch black. A torch has been introduced to allow players to combat the darkness; a player can light their torch at the ever familiar bonfires dotting the landscape and further push back the dark by lighting sconces throughout the game’s areas.

The game’s menus have been given a tune up as well, with a number of time saving functions such as being able to use consumable items without equipping them and discarding multiple pieces of equipment at once.

The world of the first Dark Souls centered on the hub of Firelink Shrine, and similarly Dark Souls 2 is centered around the hub of Majula though the importance of the hub is greater this time around. Now instead of being able to spend collected souls, the game’s currency, to level up at any bonfire players must talk to an NPC who also delivers some (characteristically vague) exposition and guidance.

Dark Souls 2 plays a game of give and take with many of its new features. More healing items are available to the players but only one Estus flask, which refresh at bonfires, is given at the start. Equipment durability resets at bonfires now, but equipment degrades faster.

Players can now equip up to four rings, but the effects are less powerful and rings also degrade now. Players can warp between bonfires from the start of the game, but bonfires are less plentiful and often hidden. Undead players can revive to human form anywhere with the new human effigy item, but every time they die while undead their health bar is reduced.

Players can now lock onto different parts of larger bosses and enemies, but the game’s foes now have more varied and unpredictable movesets. Overall the game has streamlined and improved from its forbears but by no means is it any easier.

Several of the mechanics introduced, especially the health penalty for dying while undead, seem aimed at encouraging players to stay alive as long as possible instead of repeatedly throwing their head against a wall until the wall gives out.

The improvements have spread to the game’s online component which continues to allow friendly players to engage in jolly cooperation and assist each other and players with a more misanthropic bent to invade and murder their fellow undead for rewards of their own.

Most of the covenants in Dark Souls 2 directly feature multiplayer in some way, such as the successor to Dark Souls Warriors of Sunlight who aim to help as many other players defeat bosses as they can. Two new covenants are interconnected, the Way of the Blue and the Blue Sentinels.

Other covenants include the Bell Keepers, whose primary goal is to harass players in a specific area, and the Covenant of Champions which effectively makes all the enemies even harder to add a fresh dash of challenge and bragging rights to the game.

Dark Souls 2 promises to keep the flame of truly difficult games burning in an era of hand-holding, simplicity and artificial challenge. The lore of the game has to be dug out of conversations, item descriptions and even the world itself.

Despite all the hardships players persevere no matter how many times the frank “You Died,” message appears on their screen. They continue their journeys because the challenge creates satisfaction. No victory is greater than one clawed from the hands of a game unwilling to easily give it, and Dark Souls 2 is no different from its forbears.

Good luck, and prepare to die.