If Dark Souls was a spike-covered controller that impaled your hand before you were even allowed to start playing, then Dark Souls II is in the room. It’s a demonic ghost that moves the chair from behind you as you go to sit down, revealing a mine shaft below teeming with ravenous horrors. There’s self-awareness to Dark Souls II, a malevolence that is tighter and more burled than its predecessor. Predatory. It feels familiar yet strangely different, like seeing a friend who has lost a lot of weight.
It takes a good while to come to terms with how different Dark Souls II feels to control. I tried dual-wielding for the first four hours but never got to a sweet spot. I felt too exposed and it’s far more effective to double-hand my strongest weapon anyway. It’s more than that, though – everything has been changed around. The jump command is different (mapped to the left thumbstick), dual wielding changes what the triggers do and I don’t remember the early Dark Souls experience feeling this . . . clumsy.
This is deliberate, a design decision made to put hardcore players off guard – to make you relearn how to master a Dark Souls game. And I can gel with that a little. However, the feel of playing Dark Souls was always a large part of the experience for me. I loved how it was similar to learning a new language. Having defeated Gwyn, Lord of Cinder, I’m competent in that language, I can ask how to get to the train station and order a coffee. In Dark Souls II, they’ve gone and changed all the adverbs! Actions can still be communicated, but with less control and finesse than before.
To feel cheated is the point. To yearn for that sense of delicate mastery once more. Now, you’re no longer the top dog - it’s back to being the new kid all over again. And really, once you get used to pressing the thumbstick to jump and get a handle on thinking of weapon attacks using your left side, it’s not all that different. A little persistence is all that’s needed, and we all know that Dark Souls fans are brimming with that particular trait.
Dark Souls II uses a completely new engine, reportedly designed with PC, PS4 and Xbox One in mind, although no official statement has been forthcoming on new-gen versions. This bleeds through to the game in noticeable ways. There’s a weird rubberiness to some barrels and chests, for example. Hack them with your sword and they wobble slightly, imbuing Drangleic with an askew surrealness. Animations are less set this time. Creatures will hang back their swings just to watch you start rolling away, then catch you before you can raise a shield.
There are more subtle touches: the way that summoning and invading is now much more a part of the game and encouraged in both forms; the increased intelligence of enemies, who are far less prone to dropping off ledges and will aggressively follow you to surprising places; the removal of ragdoll physics and the overhaul of healing to incorporate life gems; level design that is both more tightly controlled and more grandly sprawling than Dark Souls; and of course the disappearance of enemies if you die a whole heap, which is both jarring and helpful, a decision over which the jury will hang for a good while to come. With fast travel between all bonfires possible up front, gameplay adjuncts tend to occupy pockets of the universe rather than necessarily double back around to accommodate a return journey to familiar ground.
I want to share one experience that highlights the meagre gain of systematic knowledge in Dark Souls II. After five hours of play, I finally stumbled upon a fog door that led to my first boss encounter. I won’t spoil this fight except to say that I died at least twenty times, a fact I’m now aghast at as I enter my thirtieth hour of play. Technically, I killed this boss twice. The first time, my sword reached up and hit its leg, ending its life just as it stomped down and ended mine. In Dark Souls, this would have signalled the end of that boss’s time in Lordran and you would awaken at your most recent bonfire with the boss’s soul and any loot appearing from thin air. In Dark Souls II, such expectations can’t be taken for granted. I returned to the boss area only to find him very hale and in need of a second beating. I succeeded and claimed my prize, but the small lesson learned will stick with me, jostling alongside so many other gleaned snippets and half-answered curios.
Is Dark Souls II Darks Souls enough? The answer to that is a careful yes. The more I play, the more it feels like Dark Souls and the more connected the two titles become. Drangleic is far more accommodating to your presence than Lordran will ever be. It feels tailored and shaped for play, expectant and cheeky like a knowing wink from a mysterious old crone. Everything is similar yet everything is different. There is still so much to discover and death is an easy toll to pay. That is the true essence of Dark Souls.