By David Fernandes / April 14th, 2014
Lastly, one feature I want to point out with the level designs is the awkwardly-placed bonfire. Most levels have bonfires spread out to make trekking to a boss have that level of tension and added workload if you would happen to fail to kill the boss in that area. Then, there are some that have a bonfire just a few paces after another thus ruining the challenge in that area. This was probably done to accompany the new fast travel system that somewhat ruins the seamlessly connected areas, since you’re now going to use this function after clearing an area to get around then actually travel around on foot like you would previously. It wouldn’t be so bad if it was optional, but there are times where the game will kick you to a new area with one-way paths, forcing you to find the next bonfire and use fast travel.
Another added feature you will notice are the Pharros’ Contraptions, which have numerous functions such as traps, secret walls to access chests, light up areas, or, in rare instances, a pathway to another area which would otherwise not be possible to reach. When From Software talked about it, they claimed that they would be limited, and the player would have to choose wisely in their usage. But I honestly never had any issue opening up all the non-trap ones with the game giving out an abundance, and even possible to receive as a Covenant reward, defeating their purpose, in my opinion. Another gripe I should note is one of new main components added and emphasized by From Software, or should I say was emphasized originally — the torches. Unfortunately, the lightning effect, or to be specific, the use of less lightning in areas coated it in darkness is what I would describe as neutered. Places we’ve seen in the numerous gameplay videos — various areas, like the Huntsman’s Copse in the beta — with their heavy use of darkness, in turn would normally force players to use a torch are no longer present. Because of this, you only really need to use one three times at most, all of which are still optional. Certain sections of the maps, or even whole areas that would have benefited greatly from this, potentially creating ambiance and heightening atmosphere are now lost because of the removal, and it’s a real shame.
While enemies come in a nice variety as much as the area aesthetics, the AI is a mixed bag. Most of the time, they act accordingly; even surprising me at times when actively trying to avoid being hit long range or close range. However, in random intervals, enemies’ pathfinding can be atrocious. Not in the way that enemies might foolishly not watch their step and plummet to their deaths, no, the kind that you see them get stuck against a wall or in the environment or simply forget I’m even there. The only other complaint I have with enemies stems a bit from combat with the lock-on targeting being a bit finicky. Now that mobs are in greater numbers and ambushes occur frequently in each area, it can be frustrating trying to target one specific enemy in front of me only for it to target an enemy behind it in close proximity. It can also be quite the hassle when using spells. And, because every encounter can make the difference between you simply going about your business or meeting an early grave, it certainly needed some more polish.
One of the biggest disappointments in the sequel is the bosses — design-wise and combat-wise. A good chunk of them feel cookie-cutter with recycled animations and moves from bosses of previous entries — which include both Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls. They lack characteristics that give them merit, they’re too plain, lacking in scale and their gimmick is weak. Some are even too weak to really be considered bosses at all. With every one or two decent bosses, like the grotesque Demon of Song or the Covetous Demon, comes a plethora of below-average bosses like the Skeleton Lords, Old Iron King and Velstadt. I would even suggest that some bosses should have just been normal mooks since they had to paired up with other weak characters to even give themselves a fighting chance, and, thus, felt like filler. And, if this wasn’t bad enough, we got stinkers like the Rat Authority, an oversized version of the normal mook without a miasma effect around it. Which, I might add, looks like they shamelessly ripped off a certain big dog’s animations and slapped it on this poor excuse for a boss. And don’t get me started on the Ancient Dragon! To put it simply and as nicely as I could: Without hyperbole, it is, without a doubt, the worst boss in the entire franchise.
One of the biggest changes are ones you only see by the end of the first playthrough. I’m referring to is New Game+. With Dark Souls II, the developers anted up and decided to give players more reasons to go through the game again. Enemies and bosses are stronger with more health, and can dish out a lot more damage as per the norm. But, unlike previous games, not only is the number of enemies in an area increased, but they included black phantom versions of the native monsters in the area to the mix . Plus, they added new items and equipment which can only be found in New Game+. And, with new items comes more item descriptions, which equals more lore. Yes — you heard me right! If you want to explore every nook and cranny to the game’s lore, you must go through the more challenging second playthrough. My only real beef with it is that they didn’t take the chance to add a few new moves to some, if not, all of the bosses or had their AI behavior act a bit differently. The only changes I noticed were the addition of small enemies or red phantoms for some, and that was about it. And even then, that was for only a couple of the bosses.
Graphically, the game looks stunning. The added cloth effect, various environmental effects, more weather effects, more detailed animations, and armor and weapon textures look crisp with embroidery or added decals, like fur. Draw distance is still as impressive as ever with the skybox nicely showing off areas or objects in the distance that you will eventually explore. Though, in rare instances, enemies sometimes aren’t shown in the distance until getting closer. However, the environmental texture work, along with the lighting effect mentioned above, have been lowered in quality since the beta and demos shown at events. This was a decision made by From Software because the game’s frame rate wouldn’t have been up to snuff trying to render all those textures at once.
This is a bummer for two reasons. One: as I took part in the beta, I was amazed with the level of quality and detail of the game, and shocked to see it lowered in quality in the final product. This, of course amassed disappointment in me and many others. Two: this was only known after the fact. Reviewers admitted this, and fans posted comparison screenshots for everyone to see. Not only is it disingenuous, but even a bit of false advertising on their part, which is becoming more prevalent in the industry and I’m honestly getting sick of it. That said, the game does look good — no question there — just not a huge improvement for what you would call night-and-day comparison. Speaking on technical terms, I would have liked the option to install the game on the PS3’s hard drive, to relieve some of the stress of loading from the game’s disc.
The musical score was yet another disappointment, which is ironic, as it only took me until the end of the game to notice a pattern pertaining to my issues with it. There are only two or three tracks I could even consider memorable, and, even then, I would argue their quality. It seems like they wanted to scale back on Dark Souls’ approach to boss music; putting much less emphasis on them to not have the track steal the spotlight, and be more in the background. This was a similar approach to Demon’s Souls’ boss tracks. That’s not a problem, though. Not to put down Dark Souls’ soundtrack in any way, but I much preferred Demon’s Souls’ approach with the tracks. It’s more what you’d expect a video game score would have, and not something from a Lord of the Rings movie score. But, unlike the masterfully composed tracks of Demon’s Souls that truly captured the story behind the bosses before or after the fact of their revealed back stories or purpose, Dark Souls II tracks are generic at their core. I felt no connection with the music to the bosses, besides the sorrowful, downright depressing track for the decrepit Vendrick.
As I wrote this review, From Software released two patches to minimize or rectify most of the issues that plagued the game in the technical aspect, with a third already on the way. Hopefully, balancing the game out will be their next target, as there is certainly some find tuning that needs to be done in that field. However, I truly am appreciative of From Software and Bandai Namco continuing their efforts to look after the game after its release, like the previous title. You can already tell that it’s hard not talk about the first game, or even Demon’s Souls, since, while only being a sequel to Dark Souls, this is the third entry in the franchise.
I may or may not have liked all the changes, and, strictly speaking for myself, is my least favorite Souls title out of the three presently released games. I feel it was a step back in some ways, but did quite a bit right, as well. Where it may not have surpassed its predecessor in one area, it at least improved upon in another where it was essentially needed, specifically functionality of co-op and PvP. Both of which benefit greatly with with the again added dedicated servers like Demon’s Souls and not its predecessor’s use of peer-to-peer. It’s rough around the edges with a bit on the production side, but just addicting in the gameplay department — albeit with some pretty weak bosses. Taking me about 60 hours to beat, with additional 20 or more hours to finish the rest of the game off, there’s enough content to hold you over even without New Game+. Dark Souls II, in many ways, succeeds at what they were aiming for: to make for a challenging, yet rewarding experience like no other game on the market that will make you want to come back for more.
Review copy was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
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