The first Dark Souls game was something of a sleeper hit back in 2011. A dark role playing game set in a nightmarish world, Dark Souls won critical and popular acclaim for its deep involving gameplay and punishing difficulty. Three years later and developer From Software are back with Dark Souls II – a sequel that’s easily one of the games of the year and perhaps an essential experience for every gamer.
Set in an elves and orcs style RPG setting of the Kingdom of Drangleic, Dark Souls II’s world is stunning and awe-inspiring in its sense of scale. Sure, there are bigger maps in the gaming world, what makes Dark Souls II’s different is how small it makes the gamer to its inner workings. In a Grand Theft Auto or a Final Fantasy you can sometimes get the impression that the world stops moving when you’re not in that part of the map; you’re the only person buying food or looking to get anywhere in life in San Andreas or Spira. Dark Souls II is the opposite, you always feel like one of many adventurers searching for a cure to their curse (Dark Souls II is light on exposition, but that’s the general gist of the starting plot) – even at your best, with 30+ hours behind you all manner of tools and armour you will never walk around Drangleic like Billy Big Banana. No matter how big you get in your Dark Souls II, there’s always someone or something bigger. And that thing can and will kill you. Quickly and easily.
In my first hour of Dark Souls II I died over a dozen times; I wasn’t looking where I was running as I fled from a troll archer and I feel into a ravine, I tried killing three small pigs to make some roast pork and got my backside handed to me, I ended up a smear on a 10ft armoured golem’s hammer. You will die a lot in Dark Souls II. And you will love it.
Dark Souls II’s game mechanic is fairly simple; you enter a large area full of branching paths and hidden treasures with little to no idea of where to go and what to do first (I thought Dark Souls II didn’t have a tutorial, it turns out it was in a misty cave I simply walked past), any enemy you best will give you souls, the game’s experience points/currency, and eventually you will encounter some enemies that are too big, too strong or even just too hard to see (some of these caves are really dark) and you will die.
If this sounds like I’m making too laboured a point of Dark Souls II’s frequent death then allow me to explain further. The souls you collect in Dark Souls can be banked on either items you can use (swords, spells etc.) or your character’s in game skill (how well you use a sword) at the game’s bonfires, which also work as a safe area for the game. When you die, you drop your souls at the position of your death and revived as a zombie “hollow” at the last bonfire, tasked to retrieve your souls from where you died. If you die again on this fetch quest then all of your dropped souls are lost forever. If you’re not careful, souls you spent hours collecting can be lost from you falling off a cliff when replying to a text message. It’s unforgiving, often rage inducing and yet (mostly) an exhilarating gameplay challenge.
Dark Souls II’s strength is that makes frequent death from these challenges integral to game progression and lets you have it. Game sessions are a challenging bouts trial and error with you improving with every death, learning from your mistakes as you memorise enemy patterns and map layouts. Where some game bossfights can reduce grown men and women to tears, dying at the hand of one of Dark Souls II’s many and mighty bosses, has the game can devolve into frentic and exciting suicide runs as you dive, duck, dip, dive and dodge through Drangleic as you race to win your souls back. Dark Souls II is hard not because it hates you like other sadomasochistic games, but because it realises gamers have been mollycoddled for too long and deserve a better challenge.
You get the sense that Dark Souls II is a labour of love; light on exposition and explanation, instead it boasts unique online capabilities that allow other Dark Souls II players to leave notes in your game world (stumbling across a “Roll now” comment as you turn a corner is great, being told to walk into a trap, less so), evoking a community sense of gaming most haven’t experienced since the days of flicking through Nintendo Power magazine each month or tuning into Gamesmaster the TV show for walkthrough guides. While my current early play time has been difficult due to the community not getting the game yet, once the Dark Souls II wiki gets populated, you’ll find yourself involved in a game and trading advice like the halcyon gaming days at the arcade.
It’s fitting that this month’s other big gaming release is Titanfall (although South Park: Stick Of Truth is a stellar game too) – a game that epitomises modern “AAA” gaming – shiny next generation graphics, with a single player campaign that’s merely lip service to the online shooting (that’s not a slight, from what I garnered from the Titanfall Beta, it’s a game almost worth buying an Xbox One for). Dark Souls II in a way is the opposite - a throwback to gaming days of old; where challenging gameplay outer holds a brilliant player experience within.
In what may be one of the last big releases made solely for the PS3/Xbox 360, Dark Souls II is a love letter to gaming’s past and an early recommendation for Game Of The Year. Pick it up now. You’d be mad to miss it.
Dark Souls is out now on Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and PC.
Carl Anka gave up Twitter for Lent as it was distracting him. So far the only productive thing he's done since is clear his workstation. Apparently his desk is made of wood. Follow him and call him a moron anyway, he’s sure to apologise in due time.