One of the big victories in recent years for PC gaming was the successful lobbying of From Software and persuading them to port the legendarily difficult Dark Souls to PC. This success however was marred by the shoddy nature of the transfer, only to be salvaged by a Day One mod by a community member. In spite of all its issues, it still ended up being a phenomenal game that ate up hundreds of hours of my time.
So here we are in 2014 and Dark Souls II, a few months after its console release, has been unleashed on Steam. The big question for PC gamers anxious to play it remained: did From Software finally learn their lesson and produce a high-quality product out of the box, so to speak, while also maintaining the impossibly high standards set by this series’ rabid fanbase? Oh man, did they ever.
Okay, let’s get this out of the way because it’s likely on everyone’s mind: Dark Souls II is hard as balls, so fans should have no real concerns about whether it measures up to the pedigree of this series. Even as a hardened veteran of this game’s predecessor, I had a hell of a time with the early stages, and in fact I’d argue it might even go a little bit too far at that point. One of the game’s biggest new features is that each time you are killed, your maximum health drops until it reaches its nadir at the halfway point. Only restoring your humanity using effigies (this game’s version of humanity) will reset it, and those items are not exactly plentiful early on.
In all of the Souls games, there is a gut-check moment where everything clicks and you achieve some degree of confidence and proficiency. That moment happens a lot earlier in Dark Souls II than in the first game (I’m talking about getting past Blight Town in case you’re curious), but boy are there some moments of despair on that path. This difficulty spike at the outset is not helped by the fact that along with the health reduction, you’re on the clock because after enemies are killed 10 times they no longer respawn. Consequently, you learn quickly to use what souls you have because they’re no longer infinite as in previous games, thus raising the stakes on an already high-risk adventure. After you bag your first boss, that’s when things start coming together. Make no mistake; this game never really becomes easy per se, but it’s more that by that point you’ve upgraded your level and weapons and the muscle memory begins to sink in. From that point onwards, Dark Souls II is pure masochistic joy.
Dark Souls II may not have the most powerful graphics engine under its hood, but what it lacks in power it more than makes up for in level design. This series has always prided itself on massively-scaled environments and beautifully decrepit structures, and From really outdid themselves here. It is clear they took the PC port of this game seriously, with the ability to tweak and scale being available. There are so many breathtaking vistas that it almost distracts from the constant danger around. Almost.
By this point, it’s pretty clear that I was very impressed by this game. I would however be remiss if I didn’t point out some of its issues. The biggest of which is that it adopts more of a hub-based world design akin to Demon’s Souls. One of the most impressive features of Dark Souls‘s design was how it all existed in a persistent world that you could use to gain your bearings. With Dark Souls II, there is a clear division between sections and little continuity between larger areas.
To be fair, this is not the kind of thing I would normally single out for criticism in a typical video game, but Dark Souls II is anything but a typical video game. The palatable sense of place in this series is such an integral part of the overall experience that I feel the game does suffer with its move towards more of a hub world, even if it is for the purpose of efficiency. While I appreciate the ability to fast-travel from the outset, I can’t help but feel some degree of longing for the long, hard journey that Dark Souls is known for.
One of the signature features of this series is the boss fights, and Dark Souls II is better than ever at staging them. Battles are beautifully executed, though some of them are surprisingly less difficult than one would expect. For some of these fights, the strategy for victory amounted to little more than ‘circle strafe, block, and chip away at the enemy’s health’ for a while. In spite of that, even the less-impressive fights are a blast thanks to the game’s exceptional presentation.
Let’s face facts; Dark Souls was one hell of a tough act to follow. At the time of its release, it was mostly considered a niche title that against all odds became a sensation. Nobody was expecting it, and it felt like the most amazing surprise to gamers; warts and all. With Dark Souls II on the other hand, EVERYBODY was waiting to see if From Software could top it. While I’ll admit it doesn’t quite have the same level of mystique as its predecessor, they managed to produce a follow-up that is bigger, prettier, and every bit as challenging. Dark Souls II is an absolute feast of a game, and it will be a long, long time before I’m sated by it.
[+Stellar PC port] [+Streamlines a ton of small details] [+Still every bit as challenging] [-Lack of persistent world disappointing]