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Dark Souls 2 review

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Takes everything we loved about the first game and refines it, without losing any of the challenge

Full disclosure: We didn’t finish Dark Souls 2 before writing this review. Unlike FromSoftware’s previous game, which steadily grew into a cult classic with a wealth of information available online to teach you its many painful lessons, we were going in blind with one of the most brutally challenging action games of the current generation.

Players are dropped into Drangleic, a formerly powerful and prosperous land which is now a crumbling ruin of its former self, completely unarmed and with no guidance on where to go or how to survive.Take one wrong turn in the opening sixty seconds and you’ll encounter a horde of goblins that will make short work of your fledgling character, resulting in your death (the first of many) and a mocking “This is Dark Souls” achievement.

Make it through the opening 30 minutes and you emerge into Majula, a mysterious village perpetually bathed in the orange glow of the setting sun. It acts as a hub from which you venture out and explore the rest of the game, but right from the outset there are no clues as to which path is the safest, and which ones you’re hopelessly unprepared for.

Fail to speak to a particular character and you’ll miss out on crucial items like the Estus flask, one of the only ways of restoring your precious health without returning to a bonfire checkpoint – which may heal you, but also restores previously slain enemies. These were previously used to level up your character, but now act as fast travel beacons letting you quickly move between locations. You’ll have to return to Majula and speak to a specific character if you want to level up, so the safe haven quickly becomes a familiar sight.

Once you leave the relative safety of Majula, every step becomes a risk. Fans of the original game were concerned that the developer would dumb down the sequel in order to broaden its appeal. That’s absolutely not the case: FromSoftware has addressed many player complaints, including simplifying the inventory system, but otherwise Dark Souls 2 retains all of the challenge, as well as the same mix of frustration and satisfaction as its predecessor.

Dark Souls 2

You can now see your character onscreen when in the inventory – meaning you can also spot approaching enemies

Combat remains mostly unchanged from the first game; your character can perform light and heavy attacks, as well as block or parry enemy moves to avoid taking damage. Dual-wielding weapons is now a viable tactic, letting you double up your offensive power rather than carry a protective shield, although first time players would be wise to learn the art of defence.

Everything you encounter in Dark Souls 2 has the potential to kill you. The series’ signature boss monsters are back, often filling the screen with their size, landing one-hit kill attacks and having huge life bars that require a great deal of patience and skill to deplete, but even the weakest monsters pose a real threat because they now show signs of adapting to your attacks. Where previously they would perform set patterns that could be anticipated and reacted to, now there’s a chance they will respond with a quick attack that catches you off guard, shaving off a chunk of health and leaving you open to other monsters. Smaller enemies rarely attack alone, and in packs even the weakest creatures pose a serious danger.

Dark Souls 2

Bosses frequently fill the screen, dwarfing your character with their massive size

Death is an inevitable part of Dark Souls, returning you to the last visited bonfire and removing all of your collected souls (currency with which to upgrade your weapons or attributes). However, it’s even less forgiving in the sequel – now every time you die a chunk of your life bar is temporarily depleted. Restoring your humanity using a Human Effigy item is the only way to refill it completely, but these are so rare that you frequently end up travelling with a severely depleted health gauge.

You have to contend with more than computer-controlled enemies, too. Invasion, where another player enters your game with the sole intention of killing you, can now happen at any time, unlike the first game where it was only possible when you were in a human form. The likelihood of invasion drops massively when you’re in an undead state, but you still have to be on guard for hostile players.

It might be punishingly difficult, but you rarely feel the game has cheated you out of yet another life. Occasionally the sporadic lock on camera would obscure an attack from another enemy, trapping you in a series of blows that drains a huge chunk of health, and we fell off the stage once or twice when circle strafing an attacker, but for the most part you only have yourself to blame for each successive loss.

Dark Souls 2

You will die. A lot.

The developer has the power to adjust the drop rate of healing items, increase the number of souls earned per soul vanquished and otherwise adjust the game’s difficulty on the fly as well, so its unclear at this early stage whether Dark Souls 2 will remain as soul-destroyingly difficult as its predecessor was at launch. Even in its present state, Dark Souls 2 is immensely satisfying. You’ll almost certainly need to ask for help at one point – either from other players using a Summon Stone or a guide on the internet, but if you persevere it’s a deeply rewarding game that encourages exploration and reveals its secrets at a steady pace.

Like a particularly rigorous session at the gym, you might not look forward to the hour of punishment ahead of you but when you finally break past the barrier that had been holding up your progress and make it to a new area, Dark Souls 2 creates a sense of achievement that few other games can match. The terrifying difficulty curve means it absolutely isn’t for anyone, but if you were at all interested in the original game this improves on it in enough ways to make the sequel a must-play.



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