Dark Souls reviews have begun, and rather than try to sum up From Software’s intricate and challenging RPG in one article, Dave Cook’s doing an impressions-in-progress journal of his journey through the whole thing. He’s nuts, clearly.
(Note: this is an impressions piece-in-progress, and our first entry covers the opening ten hours, up to level 45)
At the time of writing these words I’m now over ten hours into Dark Souls 2, my knight is level 45 and I’ve only just passed the second boss. I should be further, but since when was this series about speed-running?
To appraise From Software’s RPG at speed would be to overlook some of its most-alluring aspects, such as drinking in its bleak atmosphere, searching every corner and trying to unlock the game’s deepest secrets. Don’t forget that gamers were still adding to the Dark Souls wiki guide well over a year after the game launched, and the realisation that the world’s about to go through that analytical process again is both exciting and daunting.
We’re not a review site, but I wanted to give you an accurate account of what Dark Souls 2 is like to play and absorb at a realistic pace, so I decided to take a journal approach where I chronicle my experience through the world of Drangleic, as well as explaining what works and what doesn’t. As such; you should consider this article the first of several.
I knew from experience that both Dark and Demon’s Souls are puzzles in themselves, and no quick review play-test was going to do the game credit, so I’ll be as detailed as I can. As such; there may be some spoilers in here but I’ll do my best to avoid them.
Prepare to go beyond death and venture onward, brave hero.
Scared New World
Characters and bosses aside, it could be argued that the main character of every Souls game are the worlds themselves. From the grand spires and towering cathedrals of Anor Londo, to the disease-ridden squalor of Blighttown, the depressing nature of these locales seeps through the screen, dragging you into a state of trepidation that refuses to let go. You’ll plod onward over each miserable mile, fighting your own sense of apathy, refusing to admit defeat each time you die. It’s miserable, and I love it.
Dark Souls 2’s ruined kingdom of Drangleic is no different, and it starts off as it means to go on. After a rather superb cinematic, your hero emerges in a strange region called Things Betwixt and you’re set upon by a gang of dog-like beasts after just a few moments. You don’t even have a weapon at this point. After punching the bastards to death I marched forward and arrived at a house occupied by a group of cackling hags. They explain that you’ve been cursed somehow and that like all those who become afflicted, you’re there to find the cure.
Many have tired and failed, and those who give up turn into mindless Hollows. They laugh a bit, explain that you’re going to die often and off you trot to the first bonfire, ready to enter the realm of sadism and hard-fought victory once more. If you’ve played Dark Souls before, you’ll relish the familiarity of it all, and it becomes clear that From Software hasn’t ruined the template as many had feared.
Bonfires themselves have changed a little. They’re still ‘safe’ zones that top up your health and respawn all enemies in the world, but with a few slight but significant changes. You may recall that fast-travel in the first Dark Souls was only possible after obtaining the Lordvessel, but here you can do it from the start, and while that sounds like something of a cheat it actually makes perfects sense once you realise that enemies stop respawning after grinding them too much.
That’s not a typo. Dark Souls 2 doesn’t let you sprint around the nearby area, kill everything for souls, then hit the reset button by visiting a bonfire over and over again. Each enemy stops re-appearing after a number of deaths – the actual amount is still uncertain – and this really pissed me off at first. But after being forced to move on to another area I realised that From Software have been smart here. It stops the game from being a repetitive grind and forces you to tackle new challenges elsewhere. It also makes souls in one area a finite resource that you need to spend wisely, as if you weren’t pressured enough.
So that’s the big conundrum. Do you spend those souls on levelling, buying items or upgrading your gear, knowing that they’ll run out soon enough? That’s a new type of pressure that just mounts on all of the arduous elements thrown at you in the first game. I’m well past the ten hour mark as I write this, but even now those early enemies haven’t respawned. They may have done by the time I write my next blog, but I’m yet to figure out how to make them return.
After you finish the opening tutorial you’ll find yourself in Majula, which is essentially the Firelink Shrine hub from Dark Souls. It’s a safe town where you can shop for new armour and weapons, upgrade or repair gear, and level up. Levelling is the same as it was in Demon’s Souls, as you have to speak with a female priest by the main bonfire to assign skill points. I’m unable to level up at any bonfire like in the first game, although I managed to do this in last year’s beta, so this option may become available later.
As grim as the world is, I have to admit that the first full area was a little brighter than I’d first anticipated, but then the death began…