I am ViolentAnemia, and I am human. I start off with this statement simply to bring to attention that I am far from perfect and am affected by bias. Indeed, this review will be affected in some ways by said bias as I compare Dark Souls 2 to its predecessors, Dark Souls and Demon's Souls. Comparisons to previous installments is rather inevitable, really. The purpose of a sequel is to expand upon the previous games in meaningful ways. If a sequel is worse than its predecessors, than it's not a good sequel. This isn't to say that games like Dark Souls 2 are bad games. On the contrary, I find Dark Souls 2 to be a wonderful game that I have sunk over 300 hours in. Dark Souls 2 is a wonderful game, but it's still a bad sequel.
Dark Souls 2 is an Action Adventure RPG developed by From Software, a company that has created a variety of entertaining games (Armored Core, Demon's Souls, Dark Souls, King's Field, Otogi and Tenchu series). Dark Souls 2 is the second entry in the Dark Souls series (the third in Demon's Souls series, in some people's eyes), a series that is known for its finely tune mechanics, minimalistic lore, wonderful art design, and challenging yet fair gameplay.
On the surface, Dark Souls 2 is a brilliant followup to Dark Souls, but upon further examination it is easily noticed that Dark Souls 2 has a bit of a problem. It's a common issue that many sequels suffer from. An issue that is so common that it could quite possibly be called an epidemic. Put simply, Dark Souls 2 lives in the shadow of its predecessor. Many a times have I stopped playing and thought to myself, "I wish *insert mechanic or design element here* was more like it was in Dark Souls". Such a thought seems unavoidable, and really it is, but the problem lies in the frequency I had the thought. My various playthroughs of this game yielded this thought in a high frequency, and with every successive playthrough, that frequency became higher. The deeper I looked into the game them more I noticed the back steps and failings of it.
I'll start by talking about the Gameplay of Dark Souls, the meat of the series. Does Dark Souls 2 maintain the engaging and tough-as-nails gameplay of its predecessor, Dark Souls? I am happy to say that it does, in fact, do just that... sort of. There are a few glaring issues with the gameplay design and mechanics that need to be mentioned. I'll talk about the PvP issues later, but as far as the PvE issues go, I'll cover them all here.
Large enemies have rather unfair tracking in their attacks. Many of them will wind-up, telegraphing their attacks, pointing in the complete wrong direction, but miraculously turn completely around and bring the pain directly to your skull. This goes against the established, big enemy = big damage = slow buffoon, balancing factor present in Dark Souls and Demon's Souls. These enemies are huge and deal massive damage, so to logically balance them, there attacks have to be slow and/or inaccurate. enemies like the Cyclops and Turtle Knight go against this logic with the Cyclops being like the obese flash and the Turtle Knight being the overhead hand of god. Indeed, the Turtle Knight goes against this idea further by having thicker armor on its back AND having an attack that punishes you for coming up behind it. To make matters worse, many attacks have rather idiotic hit boxes. Many a times have I died from hits that never should have landed. Visually, these attacks don't even touch me, but by some miraculous magic, they were flattened me into the ground by the sheer force of their disproportionate hit box. The Smelter Demon is an embodiment of this problem and so too is the Cyclops with its teleporting grab attack that eats away your whole damn life bar.
Aside from these hitbox and tracking issues, the enemy and NPC AI has seemed to become even dumber than before, if that was at all possible. NPC's seem to no longer understand the concept of a ledge. Many a times have I watched Lucatiel walk backwards straight off a ledge as I was waiting patiently for a summoned player to connect. The enemies are no better in this regard. Once, I was being pursued by 3 large enemies. I ran to the nearest ladder, climbed halfway, and waited just out of their reach. In only moments, the enemies walked right off the cliff, strafed to death by their own idiocy. NPC's don't seem to want to attack anymore, either. I've had a good number of fights where the NPC only got a few swings in while the rest of their time was spent getting pummeled into the dirt. This makes them good at tanking damage, at least it does now that the game has been updated. Prior to the update, NPC's died in a matter of seconds, leaving you at the mercy of whatever boss you decided would rape your sorry ass that day. Simply, the NPC's were given tons more health and defense, making them tanks to soak damage and nothing more.
Moving from this, another issue seems to be one that has remained prevalent in the entire series. Magic makes the game too damn easy. Taking up magic makes every boss fight a test of how hard you can spam rather than a test of skill. This makes things a bit unfair for melee builds, as they won't have access to magic from the get go. Rather, they have to go find an easily missable Pyromancy Flame in a side area that most new players either won't bother with or won't visit for half of the game. They could go for the bows and crossbows instead, but bolts and arrows cost souls and the damage output of even the strongest bows and crossbows is negligible in comparison to magics (except for Avelyn's in all their broken glory). Aside from just the Pyromancy Flame, the game seems to restrict the player from finding what they need even more. Katanas aren't even accessible for hours, hexes are slightly less distant than pyromancy, and half of the game is behind a petrified statue. For the most part, making a new character just the way you want it was rather quick and easy in Dark Souls if you knew where you needed to go. Dark Souls 2 seems to love putting walls in front of the player, blocking them off from accessing a bulk of the game regardless of their skill level.
Bosses tend to be lazy and boring. The design team understood that more enemies = a harder boss, but they didn't seem to understand that doesn't make the boss more enjoyable. Many of the bosses are more tedious than entertaining, and I often found myself thinking of them as an annoyance rather than an entertaining challenge. The Gargoyles make a reappearance in this game, but they have been downgraded from classic early boss to tedious and annoying bullshit. Every fight with them has degenerated into a game of keep away ring around the rosie as I run around in circles spamming my ranged attack, praying that I kill a gargoyle before the next one spawns. It wouldn't be so bad if I had a summon, but thanks to their location, summons are rare and most of the time it's a better idea to be offline instead lest you risk a run in with the Belfry's super happy rape time. The Royal Rat Authority is laughably easy after AoE'ing the poison dogs before the fight. It's like the Sif fight from Dark Souls with none of the character.
Map design is a damn mess. When laid out, the collision data for Dark Souls 2 presents numerous clipping areas. The transfer between Heide's Tower of Flame and the No Man's Wharf, or the Earthen Keep and Old Iron King's Castle are particularly bad. The direction of travel from Heide's Tower to No Man's Wharf is BELOW SEA LEVEL which completely clashes with the fact that No Man's Wharf is a wharf inside a cove. The Earthen Keep can be seen in its entirety, yet the upwards elevator suggests that a giant iron castle, sinking in lava, should be magically floating above the Earthen Peak. When you really get down to it, the areas are designed more like long hallways with dead ends than an actual believable world with intersections and wrap arounds. This sort of method worked for Demon's Souls, but only because the hub world and the areas were not physically connected. Instead, you teleported to these areas through the use of gateway stones. With the way these areas connect, it seems like it was all an afterthought. In a Dark Souls game, details matter, and sadly, these details cause the game to suffer.
I found Dark Souls 2's art design to be on par with its previous entries. The only problem seems to be with the bosses, as only a handful are unique and memorable. Most are your case of, *insert your generic boss design here*, and many of the enemies are just big ass guys in armor. Weapons and armor are just as cool as ever though. Environments also retain their novelty regardless of the nonsensical layout of the world. Overall, I was pleased with the game's art as I was with the previous games. It is perhaps one of the game's strongest points.
There's not much I have to say about the music. It is pretty much as good as ever and boils down to preference. You may like it more than ever before, or you may like it less. It's simply a coin toss, but it is still on par with the rest of the series regardless of what the individual's thoughts are on it.
The story is a bit convoluted. I started off going to a land called Drangleic to cure myself of the curse, but ended up claiming some sort of throne in the end to renew the cycle of the world... for some reason. There is a huge disconnect there. Never once was it explained why my character would want to deviate so far from the original goal. It was never stated that claiming the throne achieved the original goal, hell, it was so ambiguous that I really have no idea what the hell happened. It was as if I walked into a store to buy milk, but then someone pointed out a big glowing rock to me and told me to take it to the top of a mountain because some king failed to do it before, and I just simply shrugged and agreed to do it while completely forgetting to grab the milk for no damn reason at all. They just seem to point you in the general direction to go, and you just go there for no particular reason, drifting like a plastic bag in a gentle breeze. I expected minimalism, not directionless narrative devoid of motivation. Individual characters aren't much better with little interaction between the NPC's except for two that end up fighting each other which was actually a largely welcome positive for the game. I still had favorites among the NPCs but most of them were far too drab.
PvP is a mess, really. The interactions between the Blue Sentinels and the Brotherhood of Blood is absolutely terrible with way too many damn variables that can go wrong. Blue Sentinels can assist players invaded by Brotherhood of Blood members, but they can only assist those in the Way of the Blue covenant, it's unclear of whether or not those players have to wear their covenant ring, and the players have to be within the level range of whatever Sentinel that is wearing their ring at the time. It all adds up into a gigantic mess where no one is joining the Way of the Blue because no Sentinel ever helps them because the Sentinel's never get summoned to help anyone. Invading as a Blue Sentinel can be frustrating as well. They can only invade anyone who has sinned at least ten times which makes it an aggravating process just to connect to someone for an invasion. Really, the most efficient way of earning victories are the duels you can have with other Covenant members, but those require Tokens of Fidelity which requires you to help people with boss fights. To top it all of, the rewards for the covenant require a ridiculous amount of victories.The first reward takes 50 damn victories which takes hours to do. The next reward is even worse at 150. Invading is made easier with Brotherhood of the Blood. They can connect to anyone within their level range right away. The only problem is that they accumulate sin with every successful invasion, and sins draw in Sentinels like flies to a carcass. If you plan to make any sort of progress in PvE, invading as a BoB member is a poor idea. On the other hand, BoB members can also duel which is a lot less of a hassle than invading. Both covenants require a cracked orb, items that can only be won in duels, are a pain to farm, or can be bought (at a high price and only in NG+ and higher).
Seemingly to draw players away from BoB and BS, there exists the Bell Keeper's covenant. The BK's can invade any player who dares tread upon the raping grou- er, I mean either two belfries. These invasions require no cracked orb often summon multiple phantoms and quickly fire out replacement phantoms seemingly moments after the others are killed off. There is literally no punishment for losing these invasions, the odds are always in your favor, and each win earns you a titanite chunk. It's a wonder why people even bother with BoB and BS when BK is around. Another similar covenant is the Rat King covenant. The rewards for the RK is sub par compared to the other covenants and the covenant members actually receive a penalty for losing instead of their victims. On the other hand, these invasions are stacked in the member's favor as other players are pulled into the member's world and are forced to fight the member and the enemies in their own world. It's a bit like a reverse of the Forest Covenant from Dark Souls, except so unfair and unrewarding for the victims that they're better off just taking the death so that they can continue moving through the damn area. When you're summoned to a world to fight a giant Primal Knight, Poison Dog, and enemy player at the same time (IN KNEE DEEP WATER) it's just not worth fighting back without some damn reward for winning.
The Dragon Remnants is probably the best PvP covenant for those who want a no bullshit PvP experience. They leave their summon sign and wait for another player to summon them for a duel. they cannot be ganged up on since their opponents cannot summon DR members while they have a friendly phantom and unlike with other invasions, they have access to their estus flask just like their summoners. Whichever player wins a DR duel earns a Dragon Scale which is their redeemable item for their rewards.
Magic is a bit unbalanced due to its ridiculous power. Dedicated builds can cast magic at a ridiculous speed, magic that can easily one shot or two shot players. The magic is easy to dodge for the most part, BUT lag can lead to some really unfair deaths. Magic this damn strong just doesn't work in a laggy online environment. As mentioned earlier, the Avelyns seem to be broken as holy fuck. Dual Mundane Avelyns are game breaking and near impossible to beat for anything but the most competitive builds. On the plus side, backstabs and parries are far less of a problem. Any issues with backstabs and parries occur far less often than before as a result. All these balancing issues are easily patched and most likely will be.
Co-op sees the largest improvement. Never before has it been so easy to connect with friends. depending on your level range and your current playthrough you're in, summon signs are plentiful for most of the bosses. Connectivity is usually pretty fluid making the only roadblock the level range and playthrough restrictions, but this is a needed safeguard to protect players from fighting others that have unfair advantages.
Dark Souls 2 is a great, fun game overall. When viewed in detail, it has far too many failings to be considered a good sequel, but it's still more Dark Souls which is something almost every Dark Souls player loves. For every step forward the game takes it takes a few steps back. It retains far too much of Dark Souls mistakes, solves a few, but then adds even more. It's still good enough to be a must play game for any fan of the series, and hell, I'm friggin 300+ hours in and counting.
I'm giving Dark Souls 2: 8/10
TL;DR: Dark Souls 2 gud, but not as gud as Dark Souls. Here's a picture of 2 of my cats to please your simple mind:
and yes, I took this picture with a potato.