I’ll pose a challenge: here’s a brick wall. Now try and breach it using only your worthless little skull. On the other side of the wall you will find a pound coin and a fleeting moment of jubilation, followed by another brick wall. Rinse and repeat. Eventually you’ll get rich, but you’ll have a sore head.
This scenario is somewhat analogous to the plate of rot served up over and over again by Dark Souls II, delivered on a platter, with certain nonchalance, by an aloof butler deaf and indifferent to your steadily intensifying cries of misery. You’ll shout, you’ll scream, perhaps you’ll even cry, but for some nigh-unfathomable reason, Dark Souls II will appeal to a previously unknown masochistic tendency in your very core and keep you coming back for more.
It’s an odd sensation, particularly amongst the context of contemporary games, to fail repeatedly, inching towards victory only to have it wrenched from your grasp practically ad infinitum. Where today’s blockbuster releases will tightly hold players by the hand, singing lullabies and whispering promises that all will be well, blessing gamers with new toys if the chips are down, much as a mother might whap out a Milkybar to counter a child’s cries after a grazed knee, DS2 lets the player cry themselves dry in disdainful silence, distant and hard of heart. It will break you down, but it will also toughen you up.
The knowledge that death, endless death waits around every corner invites a heavy blanket of tension, and in the sparse environments of the rather game’s rather bleak world, Drangleic, this tension becomes equally your friend and foe, an omnipresent companion bearing witness to each stubborn failure in quiet judgement. In a sense it is almost the will to defy this tension, to make the game stare you in the face and take notice that will drive you on when you hit the wall, which is an almost obscenely early occurrence in Dark Souls II, a ‘game’ painfully unforgiving from the off.
Whilst at times the misery inflicted might spawn comparisons with Chinese water torture, From Software’s creation stays shy of being a total exercise in futility. The game is not impossible; it’s just incredibly tough, rewarding patience and forethought with progress and a wholesome sense of self-satisfaction. Beware though, for if this progresses as far as smugness Dark Souls II will remind you exactly who’s boss.
The combat is challenging, but each enemy has its weakness, and these are the mysteries that the player will solve. Of course timing and skill will play their part, particularly in mastering the somewhat awkward default control set (which can be altered), but learning each foe’s tell as it telegraphs its next move is the key to victory. Against the imaginatively designed bosses, each growing consistently harder until a difficulty plateau toward the end of the title, watching for tells with a shrewdness is utterly vital in uncovering the path to victory. And it will come, through much toil.
This struggle is necessary for progress, each battle delivering souls to be spent on gear and increasing the player’s level. On death, you’ll get one shot to retrieve the souls you lost, but if missed you’ll be out of pocket and cursing all the louder, so make it count. Thriftiness and wise spending will ease the difficulty, but the player shouldn’t shy away from costly purchases – far more risky is turning up to a giant sword waving contest with your pants round your ankles, a silly hat and a letter opener in one hand, so cheapskates beware.
Visually the world of Drangleic is a well of intrigue, a shadow illuminated by each new step into the unknown. Mystery prevails and an intriguingly designed environment will have players asking questions without promising any answers. The rendering is sadly not up to scratch, with texture resolution, screen tearing and outmoded animations all flashing up red lights. What’s unusual though is that these immediately evident deficiencies seem to diminish in relevance as the game itself takes hold, which is surely a testament to its quality at a more basic level.
Similar to the graphical issues, the sound effects are patchy at best and poorly mixed, though these are easily counterbalanced by a beautifully eerie score, which only augments the tension prevailing throughout Dark Souls II.
As an action RPG from Japan, Dark Souls II has all the oddities and idiosyncrasies that one might expect. A baffling stats system cloaks the inner workings of the game to all but the initiated, a mind-boggling matrix of almost nonsensical numbers to all but the untrained eye, and the items and their descriptions have been translated so oddly that whether intentional or not, they contribute to the overwhelming sense of weird. Only experimentation and attention to detail can bring method to this madness.
There’s a community spirit at work in Dark Souls II, celebrating the joys of suffering shared. The implementation of player messages appearing burned into the ground and their ghosts lingering to warn hapless adventurers of imminent danger is inspired. Whilst there’s priceless information to be gleaned amongst the messages, which range from the straightforward to the deranged and delusional, this system is a screaming invitation for trolls bitter from repeated deaths to take their own rage out by luring the unsuspecting to their death. I more than once followed the suggestion to ‘roll here’ only to topple beyond a cliff edge. Needless to say the trusting will suffer.
Steeped in mystery, the game speaks volumes barely uttering a word, the story living mostly in the imagination, being fastened about the bare framework revealed by the NPCs and cutscenes. It will calmly scorn the overly bold and swat aside the hesitant, eventually rewarding the diligent with an all-important and refreshing sense of accomplishment, something all too often forgotten in an industry obsessed with instant gratification, and at a massive 45+ hours to completion this is the antithesis to instant gratification. Not for those with low self-esteem – if there’s a game to push someone over the brink, it’s Dark Souls II.
Thanks to Xbox for our review copy of Dark Souls II.