I’ve now played the opening few hours of Dark Souls II three times. I rented the game on PS3, played the opening area twice, decided I wanted to wait for the PC version and have now played up through all that content again on the PC. Now having a decent bit of familiarity with that opening area, I’d like to share some impressions.
First off, that rich sense of atmosphere and mystery is still intact. It’s the deep, artistic quality that has made the Souls game so alluring on an aesthetic level and something Dark Souls II absolutely needed as the next installment of the series. It also distinguishes itself from the previous two titles. If Demon’s Souls was about a twisted surrealness and Dark Souls exudes an air of emptiness, Dark Souls II displays a melancholy.
There’s more vibrancy and life to the visuals than in previous iterations. The hub area, Majula, displays a lot of warmer hues than the ones we’ve seen in the previous Souls games and I think that’s the biggest visual difference. There are a lot more earthy and fleshy colors in this game’s pallets: deep golds, oranges, greens greet the player, making the game a lot more visually inviting to the player. It sets a different visual tone. It feels a bit more homely and warm. However, this is only my impression of the opening areas and the Souls series has always had diverse environments.
However, in terms of the actual design of these areas, Dark Souls II makes some missteps. The first initial area is a neat little space for the player to explore, but once you get to the ingame character creation, you’re tasked to go through a tutorial and it’s a tutorial that lacks the personality and world-building of the first two Souls games. It’s nothing more than a series of tunnels with generic zombie enemies. Luckily, like Demon’s Souls, the tutorial area is completely skippable, which I took advantage on with my second and third character.
Also, the game decides to make fast travel between the bonfires (the checkpoints of the game) possible from the onset. While this was possible in Dark Souls, you only had access to it once the world opened up enough for you to need it to save you from the tedium of running from one side of the word to the other. Not having it early on meant that the design of the world made for all sorts of compelling and fascinating interconnected areas that made Dark Souls one of the best designed game worlds. Dark Souls II feels like it’s taking a lot of shortcuts to make more segmented, self-contained areas much like the original Demon’s Souls, but integrating them into one world map.
This gets into the merge of design philosophies between Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls that doesn’t always work. For instance, the healing system is now divided between consumables like Demon’s Souls and the replenishable estus flasks that refill at every checkpoint like in Dark Souls. You’re restricted to one estus flask until you find more estus flask shards in the world, some of which are easy to miss, meaning that you could ostensibly be using consumables most of the game if you don’t find any. The result is that instead of being complimentary mechanics, they’re competing and sometimes you’re not sure which will be the better healing option in a given moment.
Also, instead of leveling up at a bonfire (Dark Souls) you level up at a character in the hubworld (Demon’s Souls). While this does give justification to the teleportation system, because it would be horrible to have to walk all the way back to the hub every time you needed to level up, the reason for leveling up only at the hub doesn’t make sense.
In Demon’s Souls it works because you have to return to the hub to go to another world. With the interconnected world, it makes a lot less sense and I’ve yet to figure out how the design change is better than letting players level up at any bonfire. My speculation is that it’s an incentive to get the player to return to the hub frequently, but I think the shopkeeper and blacksmith already are enough incentive already to keep players checking back regularly, at least early game.
In the combat department, I’m loving this game. I do think the lockon system is a bit wonky at times, but I think I might just need to get used to how it’s different. What makes the combat so enticing in this game is the enemy design early game shines. Enemies are a lot more aggressive, offensive and tenacious. They often have strong follow-ups and powerful combos that can easily end you.
Also, fighting enemies is a lot more technical. It’s about knowing their movesets, when to dodge, which direction to dodge, when to attack, when they can start attacking again, and what their attack will be. If that sounds perhaps too overwhelming, in some moments it can be, but it makes taking out the earlier mobs much more of an accomplishment than the early mobs in Dark Souls. Those worrying the game would be easier can put such fears to rest.
Part of the reason for this is that shields aren’t nearly as protective as they used to be. While they can still be great at blocking damage, very few of the early shields block all physical damage, meaning that taking any kind of hit even with a shield up is still going to hurt you. I like this because it means that you can’t always play quite as passively as you could in the previous games.
It makes fighting a lot more tense because you feel that pressure to down the enemy before they slowly whittle away your health. It forces you to play more aggressively and a bit more riskily and it makes the game a lot more thrilling. The result is that even after playing Dark Souls over 100 hours, Ia lot of my experience with Dark Souls II has kept me on the backfoot and on my toes far more than I expected.
Perhaps even more than Dark Souls, there’s a great sense of mystery and secrets that I’m curious to uncover. A petrified person blocking a doorway, stone giants wrapped inside of trees and stones that go into special locks are all complete enigmas to me now. I’m looking forward to uncovering what they do and the story behind them.
These opening hours make me looking forward to digging deeper into the game. Playing it through this third time makes me almost certain I’ll be revisiting the game. The Souls series so far still shines with this entry. While I’m perplexed and frustrated with certain design choices, I find other ones make the game even a challenge for a veteran of the series and I’m eager to go back for more.