The floating knight soars across the crumbling exterior of an ancient castle and crushes my frail mortal body with a series of arching blows, my limp carcass—clothed in the most meager of armor—crumbles to the ground and, for what feels like the hundredth time, I am born anew from the ash of a nearby fire. I stand, check my equipment, and proceed to head right back into the fray, seeking out that smug, gleaming knight and intent on finally besting him in battle. I will die several more times before accomplishing this goal but, in the end, I know I will overcome this adversary and move on to even greater challenges. This is the way of the world in Dark Souls II and, for the most part, it’s an absolute blast.
Sadly, our review copy of Dark Souls II did not arrive at my door until Saturday evening, giving me nowhere near enough time to plow through its epic landscapes and countless battles in order to have a review ready in time for this morning’s launch. Instead, you’ll have to settle for a hands-on account of my 15-or-so hour journey into the dark lands of Drangleic thus far but, at this point, I feel pretty confident saying that fans of Dark Souls and the series’ spiritual predecessor, Demon’s Souls will feel right at home in this latest outing.
Just like the games before it, Dark Souls II basically casts the player into a disorienting abyss with little more than a wink and a nod before leaving them to fend for themselves. Save a very brief tutorial section highlighting the game’s controls, you’re basically left to your own devices to figure out where to go, who to trust, how the game’s systems operate, etc. It’s a thick bit of meat to bite into, and each bite you manage to gnaw off is more delicious than the last. Like the world of Drangleic itself, part of the challenge is unraveling the mysteries of the game itself, experimenting to see what does and does not work, then applying what you’ve learned to your grand adventure.
As in previous Souls games, death is a huge part of that adventure. Fans of running and gunning will find their tactics are punished in these narrow corridors, foreboding forests and dank sewers. Patience is key once again, rewarding players who take the time to learn their enemies’ patterns with a solid combat engine and the overwhelming feeling that each victory is an actual accomplishment.
Along with the occasional helpful item dropped at your feet, these victories will reward the player with souls, the most treasured of currencies in the land of Dark Souls II. Souls are used for everything in this game, from slowly upgrading your abilities to buying expensive items, upgrading gear and more. When you die, a glowing bloodstain will mark the world with where you fell in battle (or stepped off a cliff, got hit by a boulder, etc.). Make it back to that spot and you can reclaim your lost souls. Fail again before recovering those precious souls, however, and they are lost forever. It’s nothing new to the series, but it’s just as gleefully punishing as it has ever been.
Unfortunately, servers were not active during my review period so, at this point, I cannot comment on the multiplayer options. I have greatly missed the sight of other ghostly players running by, however, as well as their bloodstained warnings and often misleading messages. I cannot wait to boot up the game tonight and finally step into the fully active world of Dark Souls II.
In short, Dark Souls II is shaping up to be everything I could have hoped for. Having a community to experience the game with now will only intensify that enjoyment as we make new discoveries and ruin each other’s day as an invading bandit. It might also be nice to have some new friends to call upon for assistance when a screen-filling monstrosity is proving too difficult to handle on my own.
So far, Dark Souls II has been challenging in the best way imaginable. The world is lovely to look at and exciting to explore, even if the mind does reel at all of the nooks, crannies and tiny details I should probably be remembering for later. The enemies are varied and offer their own tactics to overcome in battle, meaning you’ll need to constantly update your own strategies if you hope to survive long enough to reach that next bonfire or obtain that glowing item hidden just over the next ridge.
At 15 hours, I feel like I’m barely scratching the surface of a game that is instantly familiar and wholly new to me. I’m looking forward to seeing what lies around every new bend in the road, even if what’s waiting there will likely murder me time and time again without mercy.
Dark Souls II launched today for the PS3 and Xbox 360 and will be headed to PC next month.
This hands-on preview based on a PS3 copy of the game provided by the publisher.