Even if you haven't played any of the Dark Souls games, you're probably aware of their reputation as an exercise in masochistic gaming. As someone who really loved the Ninja Gaiden series on both the NES and XBox, I've been wanting to take a crack at Dark Souls for a while. But for one reason or another, haven't played either of the Dark Souls games or their spiritual predecessor, Demon Souls, until now. You might also be aware that Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition- the PC port for the first Dark Souls- is an infamous mess that was only playable through fan-made mods. So how does the PC port for the second installment in the series compare to the console version? From Software promised that this time around, they would focus more on the PC version to make sure all of their fans got the same experience, and they definitely delivered.
In order to see how the PC port compared, I borrowed the PS3 version from a friend of mine so I could play both versions concurrently. To be honest, I have a middle of the road setup on my PC, but graphics-wise it ran comparably to the console version. I looked up some let's plays that are running on systems that are better equipped than mine, and it actually looks better than it does on the PS3- the graphics are cleaner, and the framerate seems to be a bit smoother when combat gets hot and heavy. Also, the load times are a lot better on PC. While you're waiting for an area to load, the game gives you something to look at by showing the flavortext of an item in the game. On PS3, It would cycle through two or three of them while I waited, but on PC I barely had time to read the description for the first item.
Really, the only problem I have with the PC version is that the keyboard and mouse controls are just awful. First, all of the command prompts in the game are set up for an Xbox controller. Even if you don't have a gamepad plugged in, it tells you "RB to attack", "B to exit menu", so that should tell you right off the bat that keyboard and mouse aren't the controls the designers focused on. I never found a keyboard equivalent for the in-menu 'help' button, so I wasn't even sure what the symbolic shorthand was until I had a controller in my hands. Also, when I was using the mouse and keyboard, the targeting system barely worked. There wasn't a quick way to cycle between targets, so I just had to back in and out of targeting until it locked onto the enemy I wanted, and even then it didn't always work. But, once I started using a controller instead of a keyboard, everything was right with the world.
Dark Souls II lives up to the series' reputation for being difficult and unforgiving. If you've played Dark or Demon Souls, then you know exactly what I'm talking about. If you haven't, there's a lot going on in Dark Souls II that's going to sneak up and kill you, use up your resources, and just generally screw you over. The most important thing to your character is the souls you earn by killing monsters. Not only do you use them to level up, but they're also used to buy and upgrade equipment from the merchants in the main hub town. Basically, all of your character's XP and gold is tied up in the souls that they earn. When you're killed, not only do you leave behind all of your unspent souls in the bloody smear that was once your corporeal being, your maximum health drops every time you die. You can get your souls back by going right back to the spot where you died and touching your bloodstain, but if you die again before you can get there, too bad. They're gone for good. Also, your enemies reset themselves every time you die, but your inventory doesn't. If you kill an enemy with a firebomb only to have another sneak up and run you through with a spear, that guy you killed will be right there next time you come back, but that firebomb is still gonna be missing from your inventory.
Whenever you die, you get a little closer to becoming an undead atrocity known as a Hollow. The more you die, the more Hollow you become, which is represented by your lifebar decreasing itself. There are a few ways to restore your humanity and get all of your hitpoints back. The easiest way is to do this is to use a Human Effigy, but those aren't easy to come by- if you use one every time you died, you'd run out pretty quickly. The cheaper way to restore your humanity is to cross over into another player's world for some co-op play.
When you are summoned to another player's world, your job is to help them kill whatever it is they need to kill, and make sure they don't die so you get don't sent back early. After helping them kill a boss, or clear an area, you are congratulated for fulfilling your duty and fade out of their world so that you may return to your own. So basically, you restore your humanity by leaping around dimensions and performing good deeds- which sounds like the best mashup of Quantum Leap and 100 Good Deeds for Eddie McDowd. Irrelevant pop culture references aside, the co-op is a lot of fun and really rewarding. Not only does it restore your humanity, give you a completion item, and net you some souls for the monsters you kill; but you also get to take a look at someone else's game to see what secrets and shortcuts they've found. Not only do you get to enter other player's worlds, but throughout the game you find messages that other players have scrawled on the floor to warn you of traps, ambushes, and let you know where to find treasure and shortcuts. It's the videogame equivalent of the hobo-signs that drifters left for each other in the Great Depression. Back in the day, a hobo could figure out the situation in any town by the drawings scratched onto the walls of buildings around main street- a circle with some arrows meant 'Get out of town', while a hastily sketched table meant 'food for work ahead'. In Dark souls it takes the form of glowing runes that read 'Beware of ambush' or 'Bonfire ahead'. The anonymous messages and random co-op connection has created an awesome community of players helping each other out through an in-game hint system- which partially mitigates the fact that Dark Souls is out to rip you apart and kill you as often as possible. There's also PvP where you invade other players' worlds to either hunt them down or set up a duel, depending on your methods of invading. I wasn't as big of a fan of the PvP, but then again I'm not much into PvP that isn't team-oriented. If you defeat the host of the world you are invading, you are rewarded in the same way you are for fulfilling your duty in co-op mode, except you'll earn different items for killing the host.
What I really love about the gameplay in Dark Souls II is that it's clear that a lot of forethought went into what the players are going to expect, and From did a really good job of working around player expectations, as well as abusing them. The tutorial area of the game has a great example of this. From the get-go, you can see an island in the distance has a giant Cyclops waiting for you- this is clearly meant to be something of a boss for the area. Once you finally get there and face off against the gigantic monster, another one ambushes you from behind. You've barely been playing an hour, and you've already had the rug pulled from under you and you're facing two minibosses at once. I also love how involved and layered the level design is. Not only is there multiple ways to go through each area, but there's also side areas that you probably don't realize are under your feet until you fall through the right crack- and they always have new equipment and helpful items. Dark Souls gets its reputation for frustrating gameplay because you have to earn everything- your equipment, your experience, your information. The first ten or twenty levels are easy to earn, you just have to get back to the hub world to spend your souls- but once leveling up gets more expensive, you carry a bigger risk walking around and earning enough souls to level up. Even the mulitplayer messaging system requires working out context clues for yourself. "Jumping ahead" could mean anything. Is there a section where I have to jump to progress? Is there a hidden platform nearby that has secret treasure? Or is this just a troll trying to get me to kill myself? All of the careful planning and calculated risks make the game a more engaging experience, and since everything you've saved up can be taken away from you so easily, it makes every decision to use an item much more critical, and every kill that much more sweet.
Which ties into why I love the way Dark Souls II tells its story- this is a perfect example of storytelling through mood. Expositional cutscenes are few and far between, and when you do have to deal with exposition, it's laced with suggestions from NPCs on where to go next, or tips for playing the game. The 'Press B to backstep' signs are confined to the tutorial area. Once you're out in the world, the game mechanics are explained to you through lore. It makes sense that you're using souls to level up your character, because Hollows need souls to survive, you crave them and seek them out instinctively. Its still be readily apparent that you're being fed information on game mechanics, but it's gussied up to get you immersed in the story, and it doesn't insult your intelligence whenever it helps you. Nothing grates my nerves like having to sit through an NPC saying 'Hi! I'm here to level you up, so come up to me and press the X button to talk to me if you want to get big and strong!'
In short, Dark Souls II is an amazing game that's extremely easy to lose yourself in it for hours on end. And the best part is, there's no prerequisite for playing the first Dark Souls before picking up the second. At no point did I feel like I was missing out on anything or that something went over my head. The gameplay and story have subtle ways of revealing themselves to you so that you feel rewarded for everything you manage to accomplish. The level and enemy design is as intricate as it is engaging, and while it's possible to complete the game without multiplayer, I wouldn't recommend it. Not just because it makes the game a little easier, but because it's an integral part of the game that makes it a more complete experience-. Playing Dark Souls without multiplayer is like trying to play Pokemon without evolving your team- It's still possible, but it kind of defeats the purpose of the game, and it doesn't quite have the same sense of camaraderie and adventure.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.
I've spent an embarrassing percentage of my life planted in front of a screen. I'm pretty sure I know the layout of Planet Zebes better than my own home town, and most of my social life in high school revolved around Halo 2 and Super Smash Brothers. When I wasn't on a console I was playing every ROM I could get my mitts on.
These days I spend most of my time with games made by small studios, because they tend to make what I'm interested in playing. I love developers that experiment with new mechanics, write challenging and immersive narratives, and realize that a game's aesthetics are more than it's graphics. So long story short-you'll see a lot of posts from me about Kickstarter campaigns and Early Access debuts.