Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Dark Souls II

Post-Launch Review
Dark Souls II (PC)
Developer: From Software
Released: March 2014 (console) / April 2014 (PC)
Played: story complete in 40h:30m


A lone traveller finds their way to the kingdom of Drangleic, seeking to end the curse of undeath
. Others have travelled here for the same purpose, and many are finding that the curse slowly erodes their memories. An ancient land full of monsters and undead stand in the way of a cure, as well as some mysterious folk whose intentions may not be what they first appear.

At Launch

Dark Souls II received average review scores of 90%. Reviewers have praised the difficulty, atmosphere, visuals, level and enemy design, and gameplay variety, citing many improvements and refinements over the previous games. Some fans of Demon's Souls and Dark Souls complained that Dark Souls II is a little too streamlined and offers weaker bosses than previous entries.

Post Launch

Not much to say here yet since this review is earlier than I usually do them. Several patches have been released to fix bugs and rebalance some gear.

There are a few spoilers in this review, but they're whited out so you won't read them accidentally. If you want to read the spoilers, highlight the text.

The first thing I noticed about Dark Souls II is that it actually runs on my laptop. Hooray! The first one was poorly optimized for PC and my decent but outdated laptop couldn't handle it. Fortunately Dark Souls II is much improved and I was able to run at high settings without any trouble.

The second thing I noticed is that I like the story setup a little better. Last time around I was the Chosen Undead destined to either extend or extinguish the Age of Fire, which was made interesting by the lore but is kind of boring because games have me play as the Chosen One all the time. This time around I'm just some random trying to end the curse of undeath, who has arrived in a forgotten kingdom that may hold the answer. That said, the structure is very similar - collect four great souls to unlock the route to the big boss.

And the third thing I noticed is that From has made an effort to balance some of the mechanics from Demon's Souls and Dark Souls. In Demon's Souls your max HP was halved when you died; in Dark Souls it wasn't affected at all; and in Dark Souls II you lose a percentage of your max HP each death to a maximum of 50% (which you can regain with effigies). This game is also stingier with the Estus Flask than Dark Souls, but consumable healing items make a return from Demon's Souls.

A new mechanic is that enemies won't respawn forever - kill them enough times and they're gone for good. But there's a new item called the Bonfire Ascetic, which, when burned at a bonfire, resets enemy spawns and toughens them up a bit. It also resets many (but not all) items on the ground, and even allows you to re-fight bosses so you can collect multiples of the same boss soul in one run - say, if you want to collect all the boss weapons without a full second or third playthrough. Or you can farm crystal lizards for upgrade materials, which is nice too.

There's a new respect option too - take an item called the Soul Vessel to the right person and you can re-assign your soul levels. For some reason I didn't grasp the full possibility of this item until well after I finished my first playthrough - you don't have to just reassign the handful of stat points you misspent, you can completely reroll a SL150 character to a different class entirely. If I get tired of sorcery on my second playthrough, I can reassign that 99 Intelligence to Strength. And since you can find multiple Soul Vessels per playthrough, you can mess around quite frequently, which is really cool.

I also liked the subtle changes to online play. The main difference is that, for the most part, you're not running the risk of enemy player invasions as long as you're alive - with one exception, this only happens in specific, optional PvP areas. You have to choose to summon challengers yourself, which is nice because you don't have to worry about the extra stress of invasions during already difficult areas.

The visuals are pretty nice. Character and enemy models and animations are the strongest points, highly detailed and moving convincingly. Some of the textures aren't fantastic up close - architecture is more convincing than natural areas. But landscapes and backdrops can be gorgeous, helped a lot by the addition of god ray lighting effects.

As before, much of the story and background is hidden away in item descriptions, secret areas, and dialogue. If you just run through the game there's little story to be had, but if you explore and check the item text there's a lot of stuff to go on. But not every puzzle is complete - From Software seems to enjoy putting out fragmentary information for the players to speculate with, even while it seems that they're holding on to a single correct answer.

I did run into a couple of control issues that the tutorial should have made clear, but didn't. Usually when I hit the sprint button, my character instantly starts sprinting, which is what you'd expect. But sometimes I couldn't sprint even when I had stamina. I was confused and frustrated until I finally noticed that this only happened if I ran out of stamina and tried to sprint soon after - apparently there's a recovery period (roughly five seconds I think) where you can't sprint after draining all your stamina, no matter how much you've regained. A more minor issue is that to execute a jump attack you need to press forward and then attack, not attack and then forward, or both at the same time. I guess it makes sense, but again, it took me a little while to figure out why I could jump attack sometimes but not always (and then I could do it on command whenever I wanted).

Other than those few issues, Dark Souls II handles very well. I've read that the mouse+keyboard controls are much improved this time around, but I played with an XBox controller anyway because I played Demon's Souls and Dark Souls on the PS3. The controls are very responsive - if I died it was never because of input issues, but because I misjudged my timing somewhere.

I didn't realize while I was playing the first time but it turns out there's a pretty major bug: item durability loss is linked to frame rate, so higher frames means your weapons degrade faster. This doesn't affect the console versions since they're locked at 30FPS, but at 60FPS you're potentially doubling your durability loss (or worse). Until a fix comes out, if you lock the frame rate at 30 you'll be fine, and I never noticed because as a sorcerer my weapon didn't make contact with the enemy.

Since I kind of just mentioned it, that reputation for fairness is still present. If you die it's probably because you were unprepared, missed your timing, haven't finished learning all the attack animations, or got greedy (though there are a few traps that you'll almost certainly die to without seeing them coming, well, now you know about them for next time). There are also more forgiving ways to play - this time around I played as a light armour sorcerer because I did heavy plate and greatshield for the other games, and this time I found that I had much less wiggle room without the damage reduction and interrupts. In fact, there were a couple of bosses that one-shotted my squishy sorcerer, so those fights were very high tension - miss a single dodge and I'm toast.

The ending left me a little confused, but this reddit post does a great job of putting the hints together (spoilers obviously). We're still missing some important "why"s, though. There are rumours and speculation of alternate or hidden endings, but after much experimentation and data mining, no other endings have yet been found. But it took quite some time and lore-diving after the first Dark Souls released to really figure out the significance of what happened, so I'm sure that more answers will come to light.

Recommendation: play it.

Dark Souls II is an excellent action-RPG with tons of gameplay and lore to discover and explore. The endless secrets and hidden information make extended play or replays interesting, and the many character build options and and varied gear create tons of opportunity for experimentation. As usual for the series, though, Dark Souls II requires patience and the willingness to change tactics and ferret out the story yourself, so it's not for those who are looking for a light plot-driven experience.

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