Even if a game’s premise is to exhibit an unfair challenge, it doesn’t become exempt of issues, much like Dark Souls 2 is growing up to be. A breathtaking universe in all manners of the term makes room for a grand adventure and that with the versatility to match its freedom. Beyond that, it pushes the boundaries of acceptable hardships, but that’s also where the spread starts crumbling. Any fumble on its technical aspects is paid in full by players and there’s no amount of overwhelming expertise that can overlook that.
As a roleplaying game (RPG) Dark Souls 2 needs to ensure a world where people can get lost. With beautifully painted tableaus of majestic castles, shadow-casting caves and eerily curling forests, the vibe is set in full force. Moreover, level design gets intertwined to reveal more questing sections ahead in one large chunk. Expanses drowning in the glowing horizon of a sunbeam further a sense of freedom, even if it’s not all accessible. Its grandeur certainly is enough to suspend that disbelief. This RPG is a colossus in size. Wind effects, dancing lights, a crisp framerate and superb camera control; this spectacle is a testament to what a late generation can still offer consoles.
With a soundtrack that stays oddly silent in most corridors, there’s also a sense of isolation. During more powerful bouts, however, the musical scores ring true to what an orchestrated piece can bring in intensity. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for muffled sound effects throughout the journey. Fuzzy compression breaks more than it adds, which is dreadful to get reminded of each time in such a tour de force.
Welcome to death.
Still, poor sound detail is a minor qualm when there’s so much to do. After choosing a class in many variable statistics and a maze of a tutorial section, Dark Souls 2 opens its games. Players get handed the keys to just about anything. Regions have plentiful choices in paths, the enhancement system allows for upgrading a specific statistic that furthers any career and loot is merely a suggestion as to what play style fits best.
To upgrade characters or their equipment, the toll must be paid in souls. Souls are the currency for everything and in high demand, but also high supply. Each region has its arrangement of differing enemies, from small mobs to hulking giants or even horrifying abominations. Every foe yields an amount of souls based on their stature and all have their own approach, like anything in this hardcore RPG.
This is a bad spot to be in.
It’s astounding just how broad combat becomes when faced with swarms and single beasts alike. In ideal conditions, assailants react intelligently based on range between the player, posture, aggression and most of all against weakness. Taking a moment to use any item that locks an animation into place will trigger the opposition to close the gap immediately. Even reaching their backs can be a death sentence.
To overcome this, different slots can be attributed to the left and right hand for a variety of weapons and shields, along with a list of spells. Moreover, this quick sorting can be expanded on again by wielding in different ways, which also comes with its own attack type, like slashing or jabbing. Capping off the whole, loot is nearly uniform to each other, only really altering the approach and not so much the power of an item. Anything has the same advantages and drawbacks as any other piece. Simply choosing what will fit the area the best is the modifier here. There is no other that has character refinement kept so leveled and has it translate so well in its execution. Preparation is everything in Dark Souls 2. Design aspects are so amazingly and cleverly fitted into each other that it expects anyone with those tools to follow suit. Think before acting, because any decision comes with a final commitment, whether it’s striking and consuming more stamina or choosing the left path to avoid the monsters on the right. None of them will ever be the better option, it’s just different cards.
This also makes the game uncompromising. One dodge too soon and the enemy will capitalize on it; one overzealous sprint into darkness and a pitfall will take everything away. Death is always around the corner. Any death sets back the journey with a loss of humanity and that comes with a strip of health filed off. With that, the odds start stacking up. Steeper and steeper, getting felled resets the play even harder, starting from one of the bonfire waypoints, which allow for fast travel between regions. Receiving fewer tools and being expected to do better also heightens the likelihood of inevitable “re-death” and that can grow dangerous, as the health bar quickly turns to a nub. With helpful items being finite and costing souls in the process, it’s a dangerous gamble to waste resources on.
Sadly, these reoccurring loops are the end of the freedom handed out in Dark Souls 2. Fewer means require mandatory grinding periods, locking players to certain areas until they can be overcome. Making matters worse, enemies disappear after a certain amount of deaths, to prevent this very advancement, leaving no means to climb back up. That sets a certain impassable bar of progress when facing bosses, since just about anything can kill instantly in Dark Souls 2 already, but all of the otherwise impressively statuesque bosses have one-hitters aplenty. No matter how advanced a character, facing a champion is the equivalent of demanding a perfect run. Any one sidestep and it’s back to square one, meaning an endless amount of repetition to play these odds.
It isn’t just trial upon trial though, as there are also plenty of technical flaws that will bury the perfect structure of design Dark Souls 2 has built its combat on. Nigh impossible progress is set on muscle memory in addition to luck as the deciding factor. Collision detection is filled with holes, probably due to the immense size of the RPG, allowing enemies, but not players, to hit through walls. That leads to death. Just about any boss or taller enemy will see weapons clip and vanish through any texture undetected. Swiping through a boss or fully going through them, instead of detecting the hit, leads to death. Environments can trap players in place, causing automated death. Audio cues can come in seconds later, not prompting danger in certain places. Moreover, pop up issues allow enemies to go undetected until it’s too late, due to entire segments of the connected level design not loading on time. These things, once more, lead to death.
This guy, as well as the entire castle its in, is clipping error city.
Enemies, but not the player, can break their animation and reset differently, allowing them not only to evade locked in attacks, but also exploit the subsequent weakness, leading to death. Path finding is so ridiculous that the latter example gets strengthened even further, when enemies are not busy running around like erratic chickens. Then again, that last example can also lead bosses to start twitching out in the environment, only to glitch back into an advantageous position in a completely different area, once more leading to death.
If there are a lot of things leading to death, it’s because none of these design flaws can be predicted and none are in the player’s control, but all have fatal consequence, making the play worse from there. Dark Souls 2 is the labor of terrible overambitious design. In its goal to reach absolute precision in a gigantic scope, it can tightly wind nearly all of its game into a masterpiece, but the tiniest of pinholes unravel the tapestry to a frayed nightmare. Any single death not attributed to the player increase the already much too stacked odds in this esoteric adventure and that is inexcusable. By any means necessary, Dark Souls 2 will spit on any comers and force them to reroll the dice.
To change the dynamic of aggravation, online play can throw its own curveballs. Fellow adventurers can leave messages warning or misleading others, with scenes being recaptured for clues. Other players may invade the realm, inducing even more woes. Vice versa is also possible, but the true diversity here comes from messing around with different items that can upset this simple intrusion, by hindering the assaulting party, for instance. Moreover, covenants open up a way for players to join one another in combat, assisting others when their adventure comes into peril. Depending on the preferred play style, there is a group for anyone, offering its own dedicated journey. That has its own reward in these brutal lands.
With its foul intentions clear, Dark Souls 2 is a behemoth either way. It’s the best worst game ever created. Designed to be flawed, unforgivable beyond redemption and yet it’s robust enough to withstand any criticism. This is not a game for anyone, as there’s only contempt here, yet there will be many who will find its titillation pleasing, however twisted that may be, through sheer prowess in other facets. It’s rare for a game like that to exist, if it exists at all. No game gets slack like this one does. Prepare to die.