PS3
Highly Recommended
4.5 stars
Amazon
$30.99
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Overall Grade
4.5 stars

(click linked text below to jump to related section of the review)

The Game Itself
4.5 Stars
The Video: Sizing Up the Picture
3 Stars
The Audio: Rating the Sound
4.5 Stars
Replay Factor
5 Stars
Bonus Content
3 Stars
Bottom Line
Highly Recommended

Dark Souls II

Street Date:
March 11th, 2014
Reviewed by:
Review Date:1
March 17th, 2014
Game Release Year:
2014
Platform:
PS3
Publisher:
Namco Bandai
Developer:
From Software
ESRB Rating:
T (Teen)

Editor's Notes

Digital PS3 version reviewed.

Introduction

In 2009, Atlus elected to bring a game to the West that though in popular in Japan, debuted to little fanfare in the US. Within a short time though, the word began to spread that 'Demon's Souls,' a third-person action/fantasy RPG, was offering an experience not in the typical modern hand-holding style of game. And that was just the beginning. By the time that the spiritual sequel, the Namco Bandai published 'Dark Souls,' made its western debut, a huge fan base was waiting, having watched the Japanese version online and eager to tackle the game's many mysteries. The announcement and release of 'Dark Souls II' has seen the franchise rise to heights unconcerned with going on sale the same week as 'Titanfall.' Concerns do abound though as this time around changes in the team at developer From Software and possible concessions made for a larger audience have worried fans. An even bigger cause for concern is that this is the first of the 'Souls' titles to debut directly to a Western audience. Under such scrutiny, can 'Dark Souls II' possible deliver, or should it just prepare to die?

The Game Itself: Our Reviewer's Take

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.

Dark Souls II

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.

Dark Souls II

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.

Dark Souls II

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. 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.

Dark Souls II

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.

The Video: Sizing Up the Picture

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.

Dark Souls II

The texture resolution on many of the backgrounds 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.

I noticed frequent trouble spots between areas and a noticeable chug at many points when pulling an enemy as the game unloaded one area and loaded another. 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.

The PC version should (if players are lucky) alleviate issues like texture and shadow depth, while future patches many help the console version's tricky streaming bugs. (Images here in the review are stock and seem to be taken from the PC version.)

The Audio: Rating the Sound

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.

A few things, like barrel combustion, can make the volume jump alarmingly. Walking on sand is even louder than splashing water.

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.

Replay Factor

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 still haunts me), 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?

Though I played the digital version of the game, 'The Black Armor Edition,' which was offered as free upgrade for pre-orders, sits on my shelf. The Steelbook and sleeve is a major upgrade from the horrid tin from the first 'Dark Souls.' The soundtrack CD is a nice addition for soundtrack fans like myself, though the game's music is really suitable for much outside of the game. The DLC weapon set is nothing special as the weapons are already included in the game (though they must be found), and are for the most part a crummy variant of other weapons with slightly tweaked stats. So an awesome Steelbook, and nice for the normal price. Still, those that missed out should not rent their clothing or anything.

Final Thoughts

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 still I'm ready to jump back in for more as the replay value has been pushed to new heights. 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.

Video Resolution/Codec

  • 720p

Audio Formats

  • 5.1 Dolby Digital

Multiplayer Mode(s)

  • Online Co-op
  • Online Versus

Motion Controls

  • No

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