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Dark Souls II
Graphics: 8.4
Gameplay: 8.7
Sound: 8.8
Control: 8.1
Replay Value: 9
Rating: 8.5

The world of Drangleic beckons. It doesn’t invite you to casually explore its many mysteries. It doesn’t extend a helping hand to guide you across the diverse, intertwining landscape. In fact, it doesn’t care in the slightest if you sink or swim. And yet, this unforgiving atmosphere is strangely intoxicating; you continue to take risks because indeed, every action is a risk. This constantly invigorating balancing act between life and death drives you forward, impelling you to discover and conquer. It’s an experience that demands patience and perseverance and if you meet that demand, the rewards will be great.

The opening cinematic is one of the best you’ll see on last-gen hardware. It’s meticulously detailed and designed, and it sets the stage for the epic quest laced with just a smidgen of hope. The in-game graphics aren’t quite as stellar, of course, but From Software focused on creating a highly engaging and immersive world, full of intrigue. In that, they succeeded. Glorious sunsets, dark, dank dungeons, creepy forests, gothic-style arenas; it’s all begging for your participation. The lighting isn’t all that dynamic and the textures aren’t overly impressive but again, DSII excels when one analyzes the whole, as opposed to individual pieces.

The sound is even better, because it solidifies the forbidding environment with every step you take. A haunting score accompanies your exploration, and the soundtrack kicks up a notch during periods of intense struggle. In addition to stellar music, we get capable voice performances that complement the game’s palpable aura, which permeates every nook and cranny. The NPCs have this solemn tone mixed with a subtle hopeless irony that clearly says, “Oh, you won’t get out of here alive.” Special effects are a big highlight, too, as every strike of a weapon, every roar of an enemy that puts your teeth on edge; it all just works.

Death is inevitable. How you choose to approach your situation after you succumb to the forces of evil is what matters. When you begin your harrowing new adventure, you will select your class (I chose Knight) and set off on a journey filled with uncertainty and countless dangers. One of the first immense dangers you face is a grayish-white beast that resembles a cross between a bear and a manatee. I figured I’d give him a few swipes with my sword. "Maybe I can take him,” I stupidly said to myself. Well, he picked me up and ate me and I just laughed. At the same time, I got that ol’ familiar “okay, now I gotta kill this thing” feeling.

Shortly after, I came across three old hags in a little house. They told me vague things about my upcoming quest, gave me a little personal effigy, and sent me on my way. Their cackling was a little unnerving, but not half as unnerving as watching something eat me as if I presented no danger whatsoever. Over the course of the next few hours, I died many times. I wanted to fully explore each area and in doing so, you often come across horrifying foes that rip you to pieces in seconds. Therefore, you start to work on a systematic approach: Take down the enemies you can, spend their souls on new equipment and abilities, and keep pressing forward…carefully.

The kingdom of Drangleic is the star of the game. It’s chock full of secrets and enemies, and you always want to see more. The combat is relatively easy to understand but not as easy to master, as you need to properly execute evasive maneuvers such as the step-back and dodge-roll. Then there’s the dash and jump, which isn’t perfectly implemented in my opinion (I hate using the L3 button), but it’s still essential. If you chose a ranged character, such as the Sorcerer, you’ll want to steer clear of just about everything, casting magic from afar. This sounds more difficult than using the Warrior or Knight, but that’s not necessarily true.

One of the best parts of DSII is the excellent distinction and balancing of the classes. Sure, the up-close-and-personal fighters can withstand a lot more, but they have to be in harm’s way at all times. That’s not the case with other classes, though, as it’s actually easier to use a ranged character at the start of the game. That doesn’t hold true in the latter half of the adventure, though, so no class feels especially underpowered. No matter what, you have to keep an eye on your health and stamina, because they’re all that’s keeping you from going Hollow. As fans know, Hollow form happens when you die.

Your stats take a hit and in fact, in DSII, you continue to lose a bit more max health every time you die in Hollow form. Eventually, you’ll bottom out at 50 percent of your character’s maximum health when still a human, and that’s a big problem. Another difference is the enemy respawn system: In the first Dark Souls, all the foes would respawn all the time. In the sequel, some foes will permanently disappear, which has a two-pronged effect. On the one hand, it feels as if there’s less grinding involved (and fewer obstacles when you set out again), but on the other hand, you don’t always have a surplus of easy enemies to dispatch.

You shouldn’t ever feel completely stuck, though, and that’s a testament to the game’s excellent development and balance. Furthermore, the inclusion of other human players is more dynamic than ever before; what began with simply leaving messages and joining quests in a limited capacity in Demon’s Souls has blossomed into something much greater. Cooperation isn’t that different but invading a player’s world is a major part of the online experience and it can be downright terrifying. That player, who you will see represented as a red phantom of sorts, is a huge threat, and you might just have to be cagey about taking him out…

Dealing with deadly AI opponents and potentially deadlier human opponents makes this a truly challenging adventure from start to finish. However, there are a few technical missteps, and I feel too many critics are giving the game a free pass due to its immensely involving nature. I can’t look the other way, though: The game really does chug too often, as the frames per second rate often seems to drop down around 15 or so. Maybe it’s just the PS3 version, but it’s a frequent and serious issue that can’t be ignored. On top of which, the camera isn’t always your best friend. You’re basically forced to lock on to an enemy; if you don’t, that camera can be an annoying hindrance, especially in cramped areas.

And once again, I’m not all that impressed with the story. It always has lots of potential, but the developers are clearly more interested in the gameplay. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but as you progress, it starts to feel more like an MMORPG than a scripted, single-player RPG. Some people prefer the latter, of course, and I understand that. But choose one or the other. If you’re going to implement a story, it should be a little less vague, a little more compelling, and above all else, a little more visible. This keeps people interested in the narrative. For the most part, I’m willing to bet that most players don’t care about the story at all, and I consider that a detriment.

On the whole, though, Dark Souls II is a fantastic achievement for those who desire a hefty challenge. To be more specific, you want to enjoy that wonderful sense of accomplishment you only feel when the challenge is steep. You want to face and overcome, and you want to become lost in an amazing, mystical virtual world. You accept the inevitability of dying but at the same time, you embrace the determination that follows. This is the key to loving such a game. In doing so, you’ll likely overlook the technical miscues I mentioned above, even if they remained somewhat grating for me. For the fans, there’s no doubt they’ll be entranced.

The Good: Overall incredible environment and atmosphere. Great sound effects and a haunting score. Accessible, reliable control. Taxing from both a mental and dexterity standpoint. Deep and extremely rewarding. Exceedingly well balanced. Multiplayer is dynamic and tense.

The Bad: A low frame rate we can’t ignore. Camera isn’t perfect. Narrative just isn’t engaging.

The Ugly: “…I just died and my last bonfire is a long way back. Son…of…a…bitch.”

3/13/2014   Ben Dutka