Dark Souls II
- Street Date:
- April 24th, 2014
- Reviewed by:
- Brian Hoss
- Review Date:1
- April 24th, 2014
- Game Release Year:
- Namco Bandai
- From Software
- ESRB Rating:
- T (Teen)
PC pre-release version reviewed. Potions of this review also appear in our coverage of the PS3 version of 'Dark Souls II.'
First, there was 'Demon's Souls' on the PS3, then there was 'Dark Souls' on the PS3 and 360. But before 'Dark Souls II,' 'Dark Souls' received both a DLC expansion and a PC version. The long awaited PC version included the 'Prepare to Die' DLC at a bargain price, so what could possibly go wrong? A lot, as it turns out. Not only did the game need a user mod just to escape the 720p resolution, it was also built on the wretched and now defunct Windows Live platform. Fast forward to 2014 and the PC version of 'Dark Souls II' arrives a mere six weeks after the last-gen console versions. The game has already been vetted by fans on the consoles, but did Bandai Namco and From Software learn from their earlier PC mistakes?
The Game Itself: Our Reviewer's Take
Note: For details specific to the PC version, see the 'PC Version Notes' at the bottom of this section.
Having now poured some 200-300 hours in the three 'Souls' titles, I can easily name myself a big fan of the series, and yet still be aware that there are echelons of fans who have done things in the games that I would find crazy and amazing. Naturally, I began my playthrough with an ongoing worry that the game would not measure up to its predecessor and would be less refined without the extra time to receive post-release fixes that the first two games had. Ultimately, what I have found is a slightly diminished title in a certain important respect, and yet much improved in another.
Once again you play the role of cursed being in a land of cursed beings. That curse bears itself it out in that though you die many, many times, you will always rise again. The learn through death, strive through death, face seemingly insurmountable death and despair is the series, is the series most shouted characteristic, and it's even more true if the death of NPCS and bosses in a given playthrough is factored in. (Even favorite in-level enemies can eventually be dispatched in this new game.) For the first time though, the series really challenged me to live. That is, to become alive, achievable through precious items or by assisting others online.
The beginning of 'Dark Souls 2' is where the game stumbles for me. Extra cutscenes and a halfhearted tutorial give way to the game's hub area before letting the player work towards the first boss. At this point in the game with slight gear and abilities, death is around every corner, but I found the tension to be little off the mark. Those moments where simple enemies need to be carefully or artfully negotiated somewhat lack as memorable a design as in the two past titles. Two factors play an important role in this diffused experience.
In 'Dark Souls,' the moment you get the ability to fast travel, the game changes. It loses much of its 3D Metroidvania interlocking design, and defeating a boss often means hitting a dead end. This adds the benefit of less backtracking and times where it seems the player has several completely different paths to try. Still, the sense of discovery and adventure, where anything could be around the next bend, is slightly hurt by this change. It also plays hell with expectations for ramping difficulty. When that happens in 'Dark Souls,' the player has already progressed through much of the game and likely has a well defined playstyle and character. In contrast, 'Dark Soul II' gives the player the ability to teleport right after the tutorial area.
In a possibly related change, it felt to me as though 90% of the enemies had an easily exploitable tether. Most enemies encountered in levels are more concerned with staying at their certain spot than with fighting the player. Any ranged weapon can (eventually) kill such a enemy. There are even bosses that can be chipped to almost death at range. One might argue that the game then just supports ranged combat as one of several combat or progression styles, but it also preyed heavily upon a sense of caution.
If the beginning of the game made me unduly paranoid, imagining that each enemy viewed through the binoculars was a one-hit tireless destroyer, then middle of the game made me truly appreciate life. There are penalties for being dead, such as a reduced health bar (up to a 'Demon's Souls' like 50%) but the bar against most forms of online is worse in this game than series' past. Only when I came upon the area featured in the beta did I realize that I was past lamenting the comparative quality of the games' beginnings. That may be in part due to the online features.
Beyond the sometime helpful and amusing messages and death stains of other players online, the ability to summon friendly phantoms and to take part in the many invading phantom/covenant tasks is so much more accessible now, thanks to an improved online infrastructure. In 'Dark Souls,' collecting Sunlight Medals for helping players was such a chore, and it always seemed like there were only a few places at a given time where it was even possible. You had to drop your summon sign and then pretty much set the controller down. Maybe in ten minutes you would be rewarded by getting the one player who runs in and instantly is smashed by a boss. Likewise, grinding for souls (grinding in any game is at the least regrettable) was required as the game wore one. In 'Dark Souls II,' I felt like I could hop into another game at almost any time.
Want to check out a boss? Hop into another game and face him. Need souls? Hop into another game and get them. Need to become alive so you can summon allies or play one of the many PvP options? Forget using a precious effigy, just start hopping into other games. Eventually, you become human and rack up loads of souls while enjoying a live display of others players' abilities and failings.
Once alive, I became extremely cautious, embracing the challenge to stay alive as long as possible. I would even bypass new bonfires, pushing my weapons' durability to the extreme in an attempt to clear areas without a death (or the accompanying restart.) Even so, there are so many bosses, and the difficulty levels for bosses and for some areas varies so much that it wasn't always practical for me to be alive. In one area, I went from being alive and carrying a ton of souls to a half health bar so quickly, I pulled the network cable out of the PS3 (this hasn't necessary on the PC as of yet). It still took me few more deaths, but then I was able to focus on taking some revenge.
By the point that I became comfortable with my rashly chosen character build, abilities, and online play, the real shift in the game became more visible. What the game lacks in quality is makes up for in quantity. This applies to bosses as well. A nice quantity, often with several available to fight at a time, but lacking much of the flair of the previous titles.
As for gameplay issues, much like the preceding titles, there were times when I would cue up attack commands in a way where the input felt delayed or unresponsive. These times were rare enough (as usual) that it was hard to delineate between an issue with the game or with the player. There were also a few moments of teleporting enemies in online play that were rare enough to make me glad that they were so infrequent. I used an effigy early in the game only to find later that I had become hollow while still at full health and without dying. The plunging attack was much harder than I recall in the last game, but the overall changes and additions to the combat system are welcome.
PC Version Notes
Replaying 'Dark Souls II' from scratch on the PC has done little to change my opinion on game. It still lacks the amazing interlocking nature and memorable bosses of the first half of 'Dark Souls' while providing a greater amount of content, and deeper, more varied systems. There have been small things (both good and bad) that I missed on my PS3 playthrough only to find on the PC. Playing the pre-release PC version meant playing with a very small online community, but with the latest fixes and "calibrations." Even with all of the technical changes mentioned in this review, the game still plays very much as it did on the PS3.
My PC playthrough was quite vanilla. No external tweaks or Black Armor items. I used a wired 360 controller, and the game controlled almost exactly as expected with a slight difference in the targeting system. The game does support keyboard controls and somewhat bizarrely these controls are enabled even when using a controller, which was a key in at least one cat assisted death in No Man's Wharf. There is an entire sub menu dedicated to keyboard key bindings along with the controls option common with the console versions, which means very limited controller remapping.
Along with visual differences detailed below, the PC version features blazing load speeds, and that's without an SSD. Often the game's loading screen item descriptions just blur by, making the initial load and bonfire teleporting load times only a fraction of the PS3 version.
Also worth noting, I was not troubled by any special DRM constraints. At one point during my playthrough, the Steam servers decided to a few minute break. The game informed me, much like it does on the PS3, that I was disconnected from the online features (messages, invasions, etc.) and would need to reconnect to enable those features. Likewise, the game's title screen exhibits the same behavior as on the consoles, waiting for the player to press start before checking for new online calibrations and allowing the player to start a new game, load, quit, or adjust video options. (Video options are also accessible via the in-game menu.)
The Video: Sizing Up the Picture
The move from last-gen console to the PC has paid some excellent dividends with regards to the visuals, and yet from a more objective standpoint could be considered less than ideal. (Just try to forget about the early demo shots.) Unlike the lackluster PC port of the last game, 'Dark Souls II' on the PC offers both a full array of supported resolutions as well as some scalable PC visual options. (My playthrough was mostly at 2560 x 1440 except for some time spent at 1920 on a TV.)
Along with a vastly superior rendered resolution, the framerate is also very solid though subject to motion blur effects. The zone by zone hitching common to the PS3 version is gone. Equally as important as these improvements is the presence of higher resolution textures, which is a major upgrade for the characters (there should really be an up close model viewer), but also helps pretty up many structures to varying degrees. Improved shadow depth and draw distance also are easy to notice and enjoy as many far off details now resolve themselves properly. The UI scales well with the resolution maintaining its fidelity without artifacts.
With such improvement, including good stock AA, one might ask why would describe the PC's visuals as less than ideal. That would be because that game remains a last-gen product with several last-gen visual issues.
My description of the PS3's visuals remains mainly accurate even with the improvements:
"And here's where the quantity focus hurts the most. I expected lots of ugly textures, seams, light leaks, reskinned characters, items, and objects. I also expected that the art design would trump most these typical game concerns. Sadly, the quality of the game's visuals really wanders. There are a few impressive vistas, reveals, and interesting designs for bosses and characters. Mostly though, the game is a step down from its predecessor when it comes to visual fidelity and art design. It often exhibits even less sizzle than the 'Dark Souls' expansion."
"The texture resolution on many of the backgrounds, (though greatly improved on the PC), makes for the kind unsightliness to suggest the notion of anti-demo material. Much of the game's UI elements and enemy set are recycled from the previous game, and overall the art style can feel imitative and less inspired and polished than past efforts. The new torch mechanic while sometimes fun means entire rooms of low-light that typically only receive a point light after being cleared out.
"While running through complicated areas both quickly and slow, there were many moments when holes in the world, missing geometry faces, or other similar environmental artifacts became visible or noticeable. These issues did not affect play, and never where bad enough to fill the screen. They are only glaring when specifically searching for them."
All of these points hurt the PC version, it's this last one that is the most illuminating as to the cause. In spite of the big step up in hardware, 'Dark Souls II' remains a game built for the last-gen platforms. The unsightly geometry that makes up much of the environments remains in place. While at the same time, the game continues to load, unload, and occlude the PS3/360 worthy world with PS3/360 constraints. While most players are fine with the game's design remaining faithful to the console versions (i.e. keeping the world the same size, with the same number of enemies, objects, etc.), the PC version winds up stick with the same often ugly geometry and overall amount of world loaded limitations.
The Audio: Rating the Sound
I'm a huge fan of the PS3's sound capabilities, and don't always find the PC version of a game to be an obvious improvement. Nevertheless, it seems like the audio sampling of the PC version's audio assets are of a higher quality. Overall, the sound design, while similar, is a bit smoother on the PC.
When it comes to audio, the game is terribly effective at what it sets out to do. Whether it's the limited use of music or the jingle of chains of a enemy hidden behind a secret door or the terrible voice of a riled and formerly friendly NPC, the sound design bends nearly every rule in an effort to subtly build tension, and this with a mostly recycled set of sound effects. Rarely ever in games are the surrounds engaged to simultaneously fool and inform the player, and 'Dark Souls II' never relents on this audio assault. Let a large enemy chase you, and you'll find that their loud steps have just the right break between to cast doubts about their continued pursuit... until you turn around.
Be it desperate, crazy, or sanguine, voice acting for the NPCs retains an exaggerated quality. Somehow, when combined with the limited and often perfunctory conversation loops, (key for extracting story details) the result just seems even more perfectly suited for this installment than the last.
Having only progressed to the Belfry Gargoyles/Skeleton Lords on the PC, it's hard to reassess my original feelings towards the game's replay value. Despite seeking a new playstyle, in my haste I nevertheless gravitated towards weapons and techniques that worked on the PS3. Releasing so close together, those who have already poured 100+ hours into the console versions may not find the PC improvements worth the effort of starting over again. Then again, anyone who truly gets into the game will likely be fine with a PC replay and may even relish it.
As obsessively replayed as the 'Souls' games have been for players in the past, this new game offers a greater quantity and variety of content, with aspects appropriate to all kinds of players. You can ferret out each hidden chest (that one chest I destroyed no longer haunts me now), or plunge into New Game+. You can take on a different magic discipline with a new character, or use one of the few respec items. You can rank up in covenants and fight players in either your region or all over the world. There are even items and options for making any playthrough feature tougher enemies.
With the online working so well, it's feasible to while away hours in other people's games. You can dedicate slave slots with characters who only play online, or pursue your perfect build all on your lonesome.
HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?
The PC version I played through lacked all the digital goodies that appear to be bundled with the retail version. These items include the 'Black Armor' weapons pack, digital sound track, and digital comic book. The score given here applies to those items. One feature that I would have really liked to see is Steam Cloud, but for now it seems saves are bound to each local system.
For much of my playthrough, I kept thinking that if I had to choose one of the 'Souls' titles to play or recommend, it would be 'Dark Souls.' And yet 'Dark Souls II' was clearly meant to entertain the veteran 'Souls' player with a depth beyond its predecessor. Though parts of the game feel like a poor rehash, everything that make the series thrilling, challenging, and enjoyable is here along with revamped online options that dare to tempt even the most solitary player. Hunting down items, NPCs, bosses, areas, shortcuts- I gorged myself on it all, and continued time on both the PS3 and PC has yet to satiate my desire for the game's particular kind of hurt. Detractors of the series (those that have actually played a title) can be comfortable opting out, but everyone else should see that death is only the beginning, the preparation necessary to live.
While disappointed that the PC version retains the geometry and visual leaks of the last-gen PS3, the texture upgrades and other visual improvements make for a much more appealing visual experience, while the quick loading times feel luxurious after playing on the console. And all of this upgrade comes in a solid package without the needing community mods. If you've been waiting for the PC version, wait no longer, the best version of 'Dark Souls II' (by far) begins here.
- 2560 x 1440
- 2560 x 1440
- LPCM 5.1
- LPCM 5.1
- Online Co-op
- Online Versus
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