As a gamer of 30+ years, I know my limitations. I also know that I’ve conquered some of the toughest games out there, including Ninja Gaiden on Xbox and Devil May Cry 3 (before the Special Edition arrived and dropped the difficulty).
I can play. I’m not expert, but I can play. And yet, something like Dark Souls II comes around and shocks me back into a humbling reality: All these increasingly easier games over the past decade have been spoiling the crap out of me.
Before I get going, let’s just tackle the technical aspects of the game. The opening CGI features some of the best detail you’ll see on the last-gen consoles, but the gameplay visuals aren’t quite as amazing. Even so, they’re an improvement over the previous entry, and I especially like the brighter, open-air segments. I never like titles that feel overwhelmingly oppressive and while DSII has its fair share of dungeons and dark places, there are some wonderfully presented outdoor areas.
The animations are smooth and the character and enemy design is excellent. My only complaint is a frame-rate issue that crops up during particularly intense moments. This relates more to the gameplay, though, so let’s just say the graphics are a definite triumph.
The soundtrack suits the tense situation (in that you’re frequently on the brink of death) and the effects are especially satisfying. The clash of metal on metal, the sickening crunch of metal on flesh; it’s all clear and nicely implemented. The various voice performances sprinkled throughout the adventure are quite accomplished as well. They all reflect the atmosphere, which is absolutely unparalleled: Somber, even desperate, and tinged with a wry irony as if to say, “Yeah, like you’ll ever get out of here alive.”
Everywhere I go… death and more death
If you think you’re prepared for Dark Souls II just because you play a lot of action/adventure games, you’re in for a nasty surprise. This isn’t Assassin’s Creed. This isn’t Grand Theft Auto. When you die, it’s gonna suck, and you’re gonna die a lot. Here’s a quick summary of my early experience with the game, and bear in mind I was pretty convinced I’d be okay.
As Namco sent me a review copy and I have to deliver that review for two different sites now, I start quickly. I’ll return to explore more thoroughly later, but I need to open up as much of the game as I could. So, here I go:
“When you die, it’s gonna suck, and you’re gonna die a lot.”
I select the Knight class. First enemies I see are a joke. I just slice right through them. I think I’ve mastered the dodge roll, and even though the dashing jump is a little tricky (hate using the L3 button), I’ll get it. Just need a bit of practice. Okay, pushing forward… ooh, pretty sun. I’m on the shore. Shops open, NPCs to talk to. The option to Level Up appears at the bonfire. So now I’ll start to explore.
The first thing I find is some big white beast that resembles a cross between a manatee and a bear. I run up to it, figuring I’ll slash it a few times and dodge out of the way. Big things are always slow in action games, right? Yep, here I go… it might hurt me a little but I’ve got 10 Life Stones so I’m sure I’ll be fine. This was my mindset when I approached. And then…
The thing picks me up and eats me.
As if I didn’t even have a sword. As if my dodge-roll was such a pathetically slow attempt at evasion that I shouldn’t have bothered. I figure this is a freak thing so I try again. This time, it hits me and my response was: “Where the hell did all my health go?!” Okay, Life Stone. “Wait… that’s how much health I got back from that?!” Oh, never mind. Dead again.
And so it went.
It’s really like none other. I could spend some time explaining how the camera isn’t as stable as it should be; you’re almost forced to use the lock-on feature in order to avoid that issue. I could say the game is beyond a challenge; it’s forbiddingly difficult. I could expound upon the somewhat disappointing story that never really coalesces into something special.
I won’t do that, though. Why? Because those complaints are secondary to the overall experience; after a while, you don’t really even notice them. Your entire focus is on survival, and that alone makes Dark Souls II a singular experience. All right, maybe not “singular,” as one could say its predecessors were equally challenging. Even so, in a sea of games that continue to hold you by the hand, that never really punish you for dying, DSII is a beacon of brutality.
With a variety of distinct classes, a huge amount of items and equipment to purchase, discover and customize, and plenty of side quests that will tax your mind as well as your dexterity, this is a complete, highly rewarding experience.
“…this is a complete, highly rewarding experience.”
Whether you’re exploring a dark, terrifying cranny or you’re struggling to defeat an oversized behemoth in a giant outdoor arena, you’re always on the edge of your seat. And this is precisely why I play this game timidly, cautiously, nervously; humbled at being part of a giant, immensely difficult world.
Sure, I can play. But can I survive?
A Timid, Humbled Gamer’s Review of Dark Souls II
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