Most critics wouldn’t start a video game review with these words but I must admit something to you – I suck at this game. I’m straight-up awful. Even in the world of “Dark Souls,” the series of games that have given new meaning to the words “You Died” (and one of the scariest games of all time), I’m horrendous. I find new ways to die. Often trying to flee a situation for which I’m ill-prepared and getting sliced or smashed in the back. I see enemies as something to run screaming from or zip by. Fight them? Why bother? I have explored the world of the very well-made “Dark Souls II” as much as my inferior skills will allow me to do so but I have in no way mastered it. If anything, I think I’m getting worse. (And, for the record, I’m not just a poor gamer overall. I wouldn’t be here if I was. This is a special case of inferiority.)
If you’re unfamiliar, the world of “Dark Souls II” allows for two things that are so often missing from modern role-playing games that intrepid adventurers who have bowed at the critically-acclaimed altar of this series talk about this experience in hushed, reverent tones. Check out sites like GameFAQs. The message boards are afire with tricks, tips, and general stories of “Dark Souls II” adventures. To say that fans are happy with “Dark Souls II” would be an understatement. There are the naysayers and I’ll admit that I have a few criticisms of the title apart from my general inability to survive longer than 120 seconds, but the admiration outweighs the criticism by a vast margin.
Why? Because “Dark Souls II” takes the gamer seriously. As the developers of “Dark Souls” and “Demon’s Souls” did, the team behind this title refuses to hold your hand. The fact is that most role-playing games, and most games in general, subsist on a foundation of “gamer help”. They’re constantly helping you upgrade your items, mapping out the path you need to take, and offering clues to solve every puzzle. Most modern games still work from the model of getting from point A to point B and it’s a rare title that doesn’t offer game-length tutorials in how to do so. “Dark Souls II” doesn’t help you. It doesn’t care about you. Weapons break. Armor shatters. Enemies are torturously difficult. Environments are brutal. You know how in so many games, the developers will ensure that you can’t do something stupid like fall off a cliff? This ain’t most games. Go ahead. Fall.
And unlike most games, in which you bounce up from that fall as if nothing happened, death matters in the world of “Dark Souls II.” You’ll be reincarnated at the last bonfire you happened upon but those are few and far between (seeing one in the distance often made me run past enemies to get to it just to feel SOME sense of progression through the game). And your weapons will be smashed up from the battle you just lost. Your torch is probably used up. Your Lifegem total is depleting. The modern game often encourages us to just keep trying to get past a difficult boss. “Dark Souls II” makes each attempt more difficult. It brings gravity to the process of gaming and ups the intensity in remarkable ways. You fear death in the world of “Dark Souls II” unlike nearly any other game.
Another thing that adds to the sense of tension and fear in the world of “Dark Souls II” is the fact that you’ll get plenty of warning about the pain around that dark corner ahead. This is not traditional survival horror, which is often based on jump scares and surprises in the dark. “Dark Souls II” puts your imminent death right in front of you and says, “Here. What are you going to do about?” You’ll not only see massive enemies far down the path, daring you to turn back and perhaps try a different one, but you’ll see messages left you by other gamers (or that you can leave yourself) that say things like “Boss Ahead,” “Beware of Fatty,” and just “Death”. You can touch bloodstains that even allow you to see the carnage that befell fellow gamers, although a surprising amount of these looked like suicides to me. Touch a bloodstain on any bridge and you’ll see a ghostly character jumping off of it.
The final remarkable twist to the gameplay of “Dark Souls II” comes in the form of gamer authorship. While there are paths that you dare not venture down early in the game or risk even more intense death, the narrative of “Dark Souls II” is largely yours to write. Even from the very beginning, you’re presented with an amazing number of choices in terms of character class, design, and items that will impact gameplay. And shortly after the game begins, you’re essentially in a village square with several paths to choose from. I found none that didn’t lead to my demise.
What are the problems? There’s a bit of input lag – pushing a button to attack or parry felt inconsistent at times in terms of how quickly my character responded to the direction. And the commercials and trailers for “Dark Souls II” were clearly built from the PC rig because the PS3 version isn’t nearly as visually striking. Many of the character animations are a bit jerky and the game looks particularly shallow in terms of graphics when compared to the PS4 games currently on the market. I can’t wait to see what a PS4 “Dark Souls” game looks like. Although I’ll probably die constantly in “Dark Souls III” too.
Dark Souls II is now available for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. It is rated M (Mature). A review copy was provided by the publisher, Namco Bandai.