The consensus on where Dark Souls 2 sits in the Souls lineage is not going to be established by this review. Nor by any others that are published today in relation to the PC version of this game. That will only come as secrets, story and revelations are gradually unpicked and debated over the coming months. It means direct comparison with the established legacy of the first Dark Souls would be unwise, but it is possible at this stage to assess the mechanical and structural changes introduced by the sequel.
Where the PC version is concerned, Dark Souls 2 is without question technically superior to its predecessor. It runs at a smooth (and silky) 60fps on a 7870 and happily adapted to my native 1080p monitor resolution. Downsampling is supported using external methods, so if you have the horsepower to run it at 4k that should also possible. I have heard that monitors with ratios outside of 16:9 will get the dreaded black bars though, sadly.
There’s no modding required to get the game displaying higher resolution textures than its console counterpart, and while FXAA is the only anti-aliasing option there are welcome options for things like water surface quality, SSAO, depth of field and separate toggles for camera and object motion blur. Loading times are measured in low-digit seconds, Games for Windows Live has been banished to the nether realms and you can even skip the loading logos. If you have the desperate urge to play with keyboard and mouse (still not recommended,) input values can be redefined.
As a contemporary PC version, it’s more than satisfactory. Compared to the original Dark Souls on this platform, it’s a magnificent leap forward.
The only thing the PC release cannot offer out of the box is a return to the levels of graphical fidelity shown in pre-release Dark Souls 2 footage and (until their removal from Steam’s gallery) earlier screenshots from the game. If you’ve not been following this issue it may not be of relevance, but those who’ve kept pace with footage of the game since its announcement will know that the importance of torches (and the accompanying dynamic lighting effects) have been toned down since the beta version. In addition, certain areas of the game including one with a massive skeletal dragon in the hallway have had geometry objects removed and generally look a little more simplistic.
Interestingly, Dark Souls 2 on PC does still have a certain amount of dynamic light cast by certain sconces; but not all of them. I’ve also found a couple of areas of the game where a torch is now a more useful tool than it was in the console version. A set of tunnels filled with poisonous gas could easily be navigated on the 360 version, but are so dense on PC (presumably due to improved graphical effects) that I needed the additional light source to find my way through.
Whether the misleading mixture of promotional materials (legitimate screenshots were being shown at the same time as videos featuring older builds) was down to malice or incompetence on Namco’s part may never be known. I’m tending towards the latter, as the press kit for the PC review code still included a random scattering of screenshots from beta, trade show and release builds. It’s as if nobody knew or really cared enough to even sort through them.
Aside from those publisher shenanigans, my only other complaint with Dark Souls 2 on PC is that when using a controller it’ll still periodically pop up an in-game mouse cursor when you bring up the inventory or chat with an NPC. If this isn’t patched out pretty quickly, I imagine a mod will take care of it.
The PC version, then, is unequivocally the best one. But what of Dark Souls 2 itself and the changes it brings to the known Souls experience? It’s no minor task to follow Dark Souls, especially with Hidetaka Miyazaki (director of that game and Demon’s Souls) absent from his previous role on the project. Certain uncharitable quarters have claimed this a “B Team” sequel, but if that’s the case then there are several other studios who could do with letting their understudies have a crack at a game. While Dark Souls 2 doesn’t reach the same stratospheric pinnacles as the original, it also avoids the kind of downward curve found post Anor Londo.
This near-miss consistency extends to the bosses. There are more of them this time around, and none of them are as rubbish as The Bed of Chaos. However, nothing here can quite reach the perfect heights of the Knight Artorias fight or (to choose an example present before that DLC release) Ornstein and Smough.
What’s not really in doubt is the number of little quality of life changes Dark Souls 2 has made. You can now climb quickly upwards on ladders. It’s possible to pop more than one Soul of a Proud Knight (or whatever) at once. The UI for organising your various pieces of weaponry and armour are, while not exactly perfect, superior to the listing method used in Dark Souls. If you wish, you can have the inventory filter armour pieces by (say) weight, or your weapons by attack power.
Other changes require more of a critique. To level up, it’s now necessary to re-visit an NPC named the Emerald Herald who sticks around the hub town of Majula. The intent behind this decision seems to be to draw the player back to Majula on a regular basis, as it’s the central location at which other suitably Souls-ey NPCs will gather (and said NPCs will have different dialogue and store options depending upon what stage of the game you’re at.) Most of the world branches off from this focal point too.
Returning to Majula each time you wish to increase your abilities is less frustrating on the PC thanks to swift loading times, but it probably wasn’t necessary for the Emerald Herald to go through all four of her default lines every time before you’re allowed to see the levelling up screen. She does eventually change these sentences, but by that time you and all other Dark Souls 2 players will know her best as “Bearer … Seek … Seek … Lest.”
In order for this centralised levelling system to function, the player has the ability to warp between lit bonfires from the very beginning of the game. This change is a little more detrimental, because it means reducing the number of instances where the player is actively concerned about finding the next bonfire. Remember how isolating The Depths and Blighttown felt in Dark Souls, and how those feelings would have been somewhat diminished if you knew that you could just warp out and go somewhere else for a bit. There are still plenty of situations where you’ll feel imperiled, but a little something has been lost there.
The same can be said about the branching level structure, which does at least offer the benefit of opening up more genuine paths for progress from the very start of the game (you have two up front and three more can be attempted without too much effort.) Dark Souls’ Firelink Shrine theoretically had multiple directions to travel, but Undead Burg was the ‘correct’ choice the vast majority of the time. Being able to pursue different branches is welcome in Dark Souls 2, but something, again, has been lost with the more sprawling nature of the world.
Dark Souls was a spectacular piece of interconnected world design, and though this sequel has its share of memorable individual sections the spindly, web-like structure leaves a few stages feeling a little disparate. By now you may have heard about the magical elevator that somehow takes the player from a large windmill structure to a lava-bound Keep. Both levels are well designed within their own spaces, but the connection itself doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
Expecting every game in the series from this point on to share Dark Souls’ ingenious, once-in-a-decade structure is perhaps unreasonable, but the realisation that Dark Souls 2‘s land doesn’t work the same way is a “that’s a bit of a shame” moment.
The final significant change is one that I have no particular problem with. Enemies will no longer respawn in an area once they’ve been slain around twelve times. Rather than being a sop to casual weaklings, it could be argued that this makes the game trickier. It means you can’t farm an area indefinitely for souls or items, unless you burn a rare(ish) bonfire item to bring the creatures back. Doing this will return the spawns, but at New Game+ levels of toughness (or NG++ if it’s the second time you’ve done it, and so on.) Since most people in Dark Souls probably just started running past enemies at the eighth or ninth point of needing to get through the level, having them vanish doesn’t seem like too much of an issue.
The unparalleled Dark Souls melee combat has also had some non-minor changes, which take a bit of getting used to. Remember how Havel would sometimes track the player with his attacks (kind of pivoting around to catch any sloppy dodge rolls)? Well, some regular enemies now do that to greater or lesser extents. It can sometimes look a bit silly as you circle around and they swivel in place, but it does somewhat prevent the time-honored tactic of circle-strafing around absolutely everything in search of a backstab. There is one late-game enemy where this player-tracking (twinned with an affinity for combos) gets pretty egregious, but for the most part it’s reasonable.
Dodging will also feel different to begin with, as it’s now tied to the new “Adaptability” stat. Until this is boosted, it seems (though this is unconfirmed) that your dodge has fewer invincibility-frames than it used to. When combined with the odd dubious enemy hit-box, this can lead to some early deaths that look pretty unfair. The stat-rejigging in Dark Souls 2 is mostly positive, with no more useless “Resistance” ability to worry about; but the new quirk is that Adaptability is “the one everybody should level up quite quickly.”
The parrying window has been reduced even further, so if you were bad at that before you’ll be struggling even more here. Kicking has been replaced by a ‘Guard Break’ move which (if you can pull off the slightly odd button combination) is ideal for shielded foes and invaluable in certain player-vs-player situations. In addition to that, dual wielding is now a proper option, complete with additional move-sets.
The weight-to-rolling-speed ratio is now on a smoother curve, rather than there being three distinct types of roll. You’ll notice the roll getting slower as you approach the 70% burden mark, and only beyond that point will your character start ‘fatrolling.’ This gives a bit more leeway for playing pretty Prince and Princess dress-ups in your favourite outfits.
As well as bringing back some beloved armour and weapon sets from prior Souls games, Dark Souls 2 adds considerable breadth to the items available. There should be a build and style out there to suit practically everyone, from those who want to do the classic sword-and-board melee Knight to more gimmicky options like a shirtless double-fisted fighter, or whip-cracking Indiana Jones type (though, as ever, you might want to hold off on the more outlandish ideas until you have a solid grasp on the game.) Magic returns in the form of Sorcery, Miracle, Hex and Pyromancy options and is just as effective against bosses as ever.
Multiplayer is the area where I’ve had the least opportunity to test out how the PC version stacks up, due to the relatively low number of people playing pre-release. Co-op summons (and accompanying gestures) return, with the addition of a ‘Shade’ co-op option that allows others to summon you as a friendly ally for a limited period of time. There are now dedicated PvP Covenant areas that players semi-optionally have to traverse, so those are understandable hot-spots for dirty tricks and cut-throat behaviour.
The much-discussed change to invasions that means players are no longer safe while hollow has not led to extreme newbie culls. Dark Souls 2 makes cracked red eye orbs quite scarce, and the slightly obscure way that the Blue Sentinel ‘Souls police force’ Covenant functions means those two don’t seem to get nearly as much activity as they should at the moment. From is hopefully looking in to ways of getting these Red and Blue invaders together a bit more often.
But whether you’re in need of a friend or desperate to shank someone, there’s a relevant Covenant that’ll suit your desires.
Despite the criticisms I’ve levelled against it throughout this review, Dark Souls 2 is still many leagues ahead of anything else in the running for my favourite game of the year, and a shoe-in to appear in any “Best of 2014“ article I end up writing. In terms of the transition to PC, it’s a transformational improvement over the first Dark Souls.
Those critiques come from a dear love of the series; and just as Dark was different from Demon’s Souls, so too is this sequel different from its predecessor. Sometimes that’s for the worse, as in the case of the more disconnected map design, other times it’s for the better, like in the greater reliability of co-op summoning or the additional thought put into an expanded New Game Plus mode. It may be the case that whichever Souls game you played first will be the one that is your darling, such is the unique hold these titles take over people. As I said, no review will cement that lineage, but the very fact that Dark Souls 2 will be in clear contention for some people’s preferred Souls title should be all the recommendation you need.
If you need a helping hand navigating through the first couple of hours of Dark Souls 2, our handy starting hints may be able to guide you.