From Software's Souls games have been near the top of my games-I-should-play list for quite a while. I can't recall ever talking with someone who's spent time with Demon's Souls, Dark Souls, or Dark Souls II without hearing them gush over the series, and though the games have a reputation for brutal, unforgiving difficulty, I jumped at the chance to finally experience what makes this series so special. I'd heard a lot about the games over the years and seen countless gifs friends have shared with me of the game in action, so I felt prepared for the endless deaths and bleak setting. For their third entry, I figured developer From Software should have a streamlined system for getting players into their game (and dying) as efficiently as possible.
After spending over 20 hours with it, clearing out No Man's Wharf, and getting my character to level 65, it's clear that Dark Souls II has the seeds of what could be a fantastic game. But an adherence to only pleasing its most hardcore fans at the expense of approachability makes for an unapologetically obtuse experience. It's a game that too often sacrifices fun, replaces it with tedium, and tries to defend that choice by calling it a challenge.
A steep learning curve is one of the first obstacles that discourages newcomers. I dutifully went through the in-game tutorials, but I avoided using any guides or outside help at first. I wanted an unadulterated experience, the kind I'd have if I were actually reviewing the game or playing it when it first came out.
That ended up being a horrible mistake.
My progress early on as a sword- and shield-wielding knight was slow but steady. As expected, I died a lot as I got used to the combat and the idea that this is not a game made for taking on groups of enemies, at least not for a beginner. Where other action games have trained you to tear through the hordes of sword-fodder minions with reckless abandon, Dark Souls II demands a steady, patient rhythm. And it punishes you frequently with spectacular failure when you try to overextend your abilities. But that's also Dark Souls II's greatest strength: no matter how far you progress, those initial creatures still take skill and patience to dispatch. I never got to a point where I could roam thoughtlessly past any foe or just button-mash my way through combat. Whether it's against a boss or a dagger-wielding grunt, every battle is a thoughtful, life-and-death fight.
But eventually my progress stopped altogether. I was permanently at half health (a negative punishment for dying too often) and never found a place to get rid of the few thousand souls I'd racked up between deaths. I tried burning human effigies at bonfires to restore my humanity and get my health back, but it didn't seem to have any effect. And I really wanted to know when I'd learn to use the magic I'd bought from a merchant a while back.
It turned out that I'd completely missed talking to a character early on who increases your level and abilities in exchange for the game's currency, souls. Standing by a cliff at the edge of town, she was obvious once someone pointed out where to find her, but Dark Souls II didn't choose to highlight her in a notable way for our first meeting. After that, she always showed up right next to one of the first bonfires, but that's where I needed her to be in the first place.
And as for reversing the negative death effects, Dark Souls II seemed to be trying to purposefully mislead me. When the game writes that you should "use" an effigy to become human again, it means to use it as an item, despite making it something called an effigy and displaying it prominently as a thing you burn when you're sitting at a bonfire.
It's a game that too often sacrifices fun, replaces it with tedium, and tries to defend that choice by calling it a challenge.
Poring over information in guides and wikis and getting a much needed boost to my health and stamina from leveling up immediately made the game better. But that just makes it feel more nonsensical that so much information is left unexplained or unclear by the game itself. Items have colorful descriptions full of intriguing lore, and the game's stats page has an in-depth explanation of every minor facet of your character's abilities. But that sits in stark contrast to how the game explains how to summon other players and non-player characters to help out in your game, and you're left completely on your own in figuring out how to gain even a rudimentary spellcasting ability.
The game's simple stamina system makes sense, but it almost forces you to die to figure it out. Attacking, running, and pretty much every other action use some portion of stamina, but I expected that I'd be safe and able to recover while hiding behind my shield. Not only does defending make stamina refill more slowly, you also lose stamina when deflecting incoming blows. That's not a problem in itself, but it would've been more satisfying to have those facts clearly laid out instead of trying to figure out why I was still getting slaughtered by enemies despite having a sturdy shield to defend myself.
I never grew to love it, but I at least grew to respect the game's combat. However, contrary to what I'd have expected, leveling up in Dark Souls II only made me less inclined to continue. While I appreciate the care that goes into defining every minor stat you can change on your character, that amount of tedious detail also meant that, even after more than 20 hours in the game, I still needed to constantly review the in-game help menus to understand what most of the symbols meant. And even after reading them, I still don't quite understand the benefit of trying to get points in poise versus having higher agility. But more damning is that the further you get in the game, the more trivial and meaningless each incremental increase feels; gaining levels in Dark Souls II just doesn't carry the same satisfying weight that I get from other RPGs.
Part of that dissatisfaction comes from the feeling that I was only leveling up to be able to equip better equipment, which would be OK if the equipment itself felt like an upgrade. At one point early on, after finding some particularly powerful weapons and armor (thanks to the walkthroughs), I patiently dumped upgrades into strength and dexterity in order to use them. Except for health, each level lets you upgrade stats by only a couple of points at most, and leveling up lacks the immediate stat boost that you tend to get in other RPGs, so it's a process that requires patience with little gain in the short term. I didn't feel more powerful as I approached my goal ratings, but I knew that it would pay off with a more dramatic boost as soon as I equipped that shiny new sword and thicker armor.
However, on donning all these new great accoutrements, I became a slow-moving rock who suddenly couldn't roll out of the way of attacks anymore. And I didn't notice any significant difference in how much damage I could take or deal out. Dozens of levels and significant equipment upgrades later, and the enemies who formerly took three blows to kill still took three blows to kill. And there is yet another stat that demands tribute in order for you to actually move around with the weapons and gear you collect. The Elder Scrolls games have a similar system that requires you to upgrade the amount of weight you can carry to be effective with heavier armor, but there it's binary: when you're holding too much, you either have to dump equipment and items, or you cannot move. In Dark Souls II, I couldn't even equip what seemed like mid-tier weapons and armor without taking a significant mobility hit. My compromise, since the armor didn't seem to have much effect at protecting me anyway, was to run around naked and carry a bigger sword until I earned enough points to level up. It didn't do much more damage than my other weapons, but even those few extra points in damage could mean the difference between life and death against a boss.
Still, it's frustrating to put so much game time into a goal (being able to equip better equipment) and not earn a noticeable boost. If I spend time leveling up to wear armor that both inhibits my ability to play and doesn't make a huge stat difference anyway, what's the point? When I dump points into strength, it doesn't seem illogical to want to be stronger, but it's disappointing when, 20 or 30 strength points later, you're still roughly in the same place.
Dozens of levels and significant equipment upgrades later, and the enemies who formerly took three blows to kill still took three blows to kill.
Since stat boosts are so incremental, it took me hours to make even minor character level progress. The initial areas go by quickly, and for a while, I didn't even consciously realize I was grinding; I finally got to the point where I could survive most encounters and generally improvise past new situations. But losing souls, especially when you drop them in an inescapable boss room, feels like a needlessly risky waste of resources. So I'd run through a level to right before the boss, leaving me with two unsatisfying choices: either walk back out of the stage, return to the game's hub world to level up, then work my way all the way back to the boss, or go into the boss room and get frustrated by losing all of my hard-earned souls as try to learn the bosses patterns and weakness. Invariably, I'd err on the side of caution, playing through a level over and over until the enemies stopped respawning or I didn't earn enough souls to feel like I'd be losing progress.
Eventually, the surprise and fun of discovering new nightmare creatures or finding some sun-drenched vista in the midst of ruin was replaced by fatigue. I'd run through a stage and perform the same actions on enemies waiting in the same places over and over again, either learning by dying over and over or leveling up to equip slightly better equipment. Dark Souls II, in that sense, feels like an old-school platforming game where you memorize the timing and button presses exactly to make it through to the boss at the end--an unfriendly cycle that demands nothing short of perfection if you want the reward of moving on to something potentially fun and new.
Despite the repetition, wanting to explore new areas for the first time drove me forward--an attempt to capture the tension and excitement of revealing the unknown. Trepidation that I would get placed up against some overpowered obstacle was eventually replaced with the confidence that I could overcome any situation through patience, caution, and sheer force of will. Enemies might not fall fast, but when I could corner them one-on-one, they all eventually fall.
But exploration only takes you so far, I also want to know why I'm exploring this world, and there the game falls short. Dark Souls II uses excellent voice actors and creates wonderfully frightful enemies, but that feels wasted when the story lacks direction. What was I doing in this place and where was I going? All I was able to surmise about the story was: I'm dead--or kind of dead, since I can still die and bring myself back to human form--and I'm trying to cure that by slaughtering everything that doesn't talk to me. Also, I should find the king. As someone who actively seeks out the lore and and backstory in games, Dark Souls II offers almost nothing in game to explain what's going on.
Even combat, with its satisfying skill requirement, has curious hiccups, particularly with targeting. If an enemy is hiding, even if that hiding spot is in plain sight right around a corner, they're untargetable until you pass an invisible point where you're allowed to lock on. It's an annoyance when you want to carefully dispatch some creature without alerting and aggroing other nearby enemies. Or, since attacking also forces your character to step toward your target, not being able to lock on consistently can cause you to inadvertently plunge to your death in more treacherous areas. In one part of the game, you can clearly see some enemies hanging off the edge of a pier waiting to ambush you, and you can walk right up next to them without getting a reaction. But if you want to use a magic attack that doesn't allow for manual targeting to knock them off, you're out of luck; they're untargetable until you walk to some hidden trigger on the pier and the game arbitrarily decides the monsters are ready to get up and start attacking.
Maybe some of my complaints would have been nullified if I'd started the game with a different class or had distributed my stats differently. It took me 20 hours to be able to branch out and use my first offensive spell, and almost as long to feel like any of my ranged attacks were remotely effective. Regardless, if I'd started over, I'd probably pick the same character class, but even being able to experiment with different abilities earlier on before committing so completely to a specific build would've made the process of leveling up more enjoyable. Is using ranged magic or a bow and arrow better? Rather than giving you quick and early access to lower level abilities, or making leveling up faster, you only have a long and tedious process of trial and error to figure out what works well and what's fun.
I haven't completely given up on Dark Souls II, but as someone who only tends to have time to play games a couple of hours a night, I expect it will be many, many months before I'm even close to finishing the game. And my curiosity is piqued for the earlier games in the series--will I feel more positive about them since I'll already have some level of understanding and skill going in? Dark Souls II seems like a brilliant idea, but the plodding pace of the esoteric narrative and the disappointing leveling system make it feel more like a chore to be overcome than a grand adventure to experience.