Dark Souls II review for Xbox 360, PS3

Platform: Xbox 360
Also On: PS3
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Developer: From Software
Medium: DVD-Rom
Players: 1-3
Online: Yes

By now I?d imagine most are pretty aware of what the Dark Souls/Demon?s Souls brand brings to the gaming table. Tough as nails, dark fantasy adventure filled with unfortunate deaths, lost progress, and a steep learning curve by today?s gaming standards. And for those of you that have actually played the series, you also know that it is ridiculously fun despite the occasional bits of frustration and anger that inevitably creep into every play session.

Developer From Software doesn?t lose an ounce of what made the last two games so enjoyable with Dark Souls 2. While one could argue that it might be a bit too similar to its direct predecessor, there are definitely improvements made. Despite the scaled down lighting promised in early demo and reveal videos, this is a better looking game than Dark Souls. It also performs better throughout, even though it doesn?t maintain a solid framerate or really hit close to 30 frames per second. But still, there?s nothing quite as nasty as Dark Souls Blighttown area here.

Dark Souls II MessageBut I imagine most playing Dark Souls 2 are less concerned with looks outside of aesthetics, and more concerned with how it plays. Thankfully, that?s the area that Dark Souls 2 really excels at. Like previous games, you?ll build a character up from a starting class that opens up after the beginning of the game. There?s no super-hard boss fight to sucker punch you in Dark Souls 2 opening, instead you?re dropped into a strange forest land with a handful of minor enemies, no gear, and a couple of pathways that lead to a singular hut. It?s here that you?ll create the look and class of your character, and then proceed to start on your adventure.

Character classes vary between light and heavy styles of gameplay, with focuses on stats like strength, dexterity and so on. Magic casting classes are still present, but with some scaled down spells to make them not quite as overpowered as they became in the original Dark Souls. Every class feels pretty viable though, but newcomers will benefit from sticking to melee classes to begin with. One welcomed change is the ability to respec via an item a bit later in the game, so if you?re not at all happy with your starting class, you can mix things up a bit.

Dark Souls II InvasionCharacter classes dictate your starting stats, but as you gain souls from defeating enemies, you?ll be able to level up a variety of stats regardless of class. This free form style of customization hasn?t changed a bit here, so you can still make each character created feel unique from one another. There?s still an emphasis on found gear and purchased gear, and how that equipped gear affects movement, dodge, and damage mitigation. Different weapon types will produce different attack results, so it?s a good idea to carry a variety of weapons for different enemy encounters.

My favorite aspect of the Souls series also remains intact here, which is the fantastic feeling you get when you begin to notice how much you?ve improved past the starting area of the game. And I?m not just talking about stats or gear here, but instead how you, the player, have become far better at the game than you were a dozen hours ago. While the Souls series does have some dependency on leveling and gear to improve your character, these aspects are no substitute for the actual skill level of the player increasing through repetitious actions, encounters, and boss fights. While most games will see players improving with more and more time spent with a game, there are few games that make that improvement feel as noticeable as the Souls series does. And that remains true with Dark Souls 2.

Dark Souls II SummoningSignDark Souls 2 offers up an adventure that is easily as satisfying as the original. Exploring the interconnected sections of the game world, uncovering odd secrets that are rarely mapped out or telegraphed, and stumbling across tough-as-nails encounters unexpectedly are par for the course here. Death can often feel a bit unfair, especially when you?re carrying an abundance of unspent souls, but each death provides a learning experience regardless of how ridiculous or careless the demise was. Even when I did something stupid, like stumbled off the side of a bridge, the punishment for in-game death was enough that I rarely repeated mistakes. And defeating the larger than life bosses, each with unique abilities and dangerous environments to contend with, feels more satisfying than just about every other gaming achievement out there.

There?s also some allowances made with Dark Souls 2 that ease up the difficulty in a way that doesn?t compromise the expected experience. The first noticeable thing is the tutorial area offered up after the opening of the game. This provides new players with a clear view of what to expect from the game. It introduces mechanics that go beyond just blocking and swinging a sword, including running jumps, dealing with multiple enemies at once, thrusting dives, and general exploration. The tutorial section isn?t without difficulty either, but it?s a great idea to ease new players into the world.

Dark Souls II TogetherAnother change here is the ability to warp instantly between bonfire locations. Bonfires serve as checkpoints that you?ll want to trigger in areas, so if you die you?ll restart at these safe points minus any souls that you were carrying. Dark Souls required you to run from one area to the next or back track through areas if you were stuck, so including a quick travel option here is nice. Bonfires still reset enemies in the world, but enemy spawns are not infinite now, deemphasizing grinding in a positive way. But if you?d like to see a little more challenge, you?ll eventually come across items to burn in bonfires that will increase enemy toughness in the area, and forcibly respawn all enemies as well.

There are other, minor changes, most notably a spruced up UI and stat screen that?s far easier to read than before. Various stats fall more in line with RPG standard descriptions, instead of oblique and mistranslated terms difficult to understand without the use of a guide. And the ability to respec takes a lot of the pain away of misappropriating points, so you?ll never get to a point where you?re stuck due to lack of planning as opposed to lack of skill.

This is probably evident at this point, but I absolutely loved Dark Souls 2, and look forward to playing more of it. While I wish that it ran a bit better than it does, here?s hoping From Software and Bandai Namco learned some lessons and will use the PC version of the game as way of giving performance concerned players a solid alternative. Either way, this is still an incredibly fun, intense, and satisfying experience. If you wanted more Dark Souls, this sequel certainly delivers.

Grade: A