I’m giving myself a pep talk. It’s 2AM, and I’m alone in my study building up my confidence. “It’s only three giant, metal monsters, Fraser. You’ve killed far more impressive bosses. You’ve just got to stop overthinking it, keep on your toes, and for the love of god, stop trying to sneak in more attacks.” In five minutes, I’ll be dead again.
Dark Souls II is an infuriating, sometimes cruel RPG and has almost certainly contributed to my dwindling sanity. And it’s utterly brilliant. It is a game of frequent deaths and countless victories snatched from the greedy jaws of defeat. Sometimes, usually when “You Died” has been burned into my retinas, I hate it. I rail against the injustice of my untimely demise. But I’ll still be playing it hours later. Transfixed.
The kingdom of Drangleic is cursed. It’s filled to the borders with soul-hungry undead, gargantuan monsters and corrupted champions. And into it walks another hopeless, lost hero. Absent their memories, their humanity slowly being eaten away, they are given one task: collect the souls of Drangleic’s greatest entities and confront the old king. Sounds like a doddle.
It is not.
Fears over From Software chiseling away at the challenge to create a Dark Souls II that is easier for newcomers can be forgotten. New players won’t be utterly lost, but the third installment in the franchise is every bit as devious and savage as its forebearers. Death can come from anywhere: an ambush from two sides, a change in a bosses attack pattern, a dark room with a hole in the centre.
But Dark Souls II does tread a slightly different path from the earlier games, one where systems are clearer and quality of life improvements make the journey smoother. While Dark Souls did eventually allow players to quickly travel between select bonfires - the game’s sanctuaries - the sequel opens this up to all bonfires. If one has been lit, it can be immediately accessed via any other bonfires.
From Majula, the convenient hub town - populated with an increasing number of foggy-minded merchants discovered throughout Drangleic - paths spread out like spokes on a wheel. Each spoke may contain several areas, and without fast travel, getting to them requires traversing the previous regions. If death doesn’t rear it’s ugly head first.
There’s not the interconnectedness of the last game, but in its place is a sprawling world of daunting size. Huge open spaces filled with blood-thirsty enemies are spread across Drangleic, punctuated with narrow corridors hiding ambushes and treasure. Exploring the kingdom and finding hidden paths and secrets rooms is paramount, and rewarding.
Dark Souls II’s dungeons run the gamut from fantastical ruined temple complexes jutting out of the ocean to shady pirate dens hidden away in dark caverns. Tourism might not be Drangleic’s main export, but there sure are a lot of beautifully designed places to visit.
They spread out both vertically and horizontally, tasking players with long climbs and journeys far from the safety of the bonfires. They are mazes where forks in the road force decisions and there’s always the nagging doubt, the moments where you think “I should turn back”. But you push forward anyway, murdering the area’s inhabitants.
Said inhabitants won’t make murdering them easy, of course. A few hits from even a fairly mundane foe can spell death, sending the hero back to the last bonfire, absent souls and a portion of humanity. And with that it’s back to the trek through the ocean of respawned monsters, but with less health and thus heightened danger.
But rarely does an enemy seem cheap. They all have weaknesses, and it’s a matter of studying them, looking for tells and experimenting with different attacks. A dynamic approach is necessary. Lacing a weapon with magical effects might make one battle easier, while another will require fast footwork and lots of dodging. Each battle becomes a puzzle, the solution to which leads to a satisfying victory in combat and perhaps the reward of more power.
After enough deaths, monsters will simply pack it in and no longer respawn. No doubt sick of dying so many times, they’ve quit. Ostensibly this takes the challenge down a notch, because areas start to become less populated after frequent visits. However, by removing constant grinding from the equation the equilibrium is restored. No longer can heroes kill the same enemies over and over again to get more souls to level up with greater speed or spend at merchants.
None of the minor foes hold a candle to Dark Souls II’s bosses. Towering giants and indescribable horrors bar players’ progress. The range of them necessitates a varied inventory, filled with consumables that offer resistances and buffs, and even multiple armour sets. I found myself switching between medium and heavy armour, favouring the former when blocking with a shield was less effective than dodging.