What makes a good game? For me, it’s being left to explore, to create my own adventures and take the game at my own pace. In some respects, I’ve just described what it’s like being in the playground at school, you decide where to go, who to play with and what games to play – Dark Souls II very much has this playground vibe, with one distinct difference – its playground is full of bullies only too happy to kick you to the curb at any opportunity.
Dark Souls II is wonderfully paced, although at first, I hated every moment. I was lost, out of my depth and feeling like unfair enemies were cheating me. Why did I feel like this? I can only put it down to the smoke and mirrors that some games use to make you, the player, feel like a bad ass. Strip away unbeatable combos and aim assist, give control back with little to no handholding or directional hints, and we become lost, disorientated and quickly overwhelmed. It was only after persevering with Dark Souls II and learning how to respect its two-button combat system that I began to appreciate its beauty and elegantly balanced difficulty.
In Dark Souls II, everything you achieve is exactly that… an achievement. Get through the entirety of the game (which I am still yet to do) and you really will have earned your progress and achievements. So far, I’m just over 30 hours in – I still have plenty to see and do – one thing is for sure, you need to put in a serious amount of hours to see and do everything in Dark Souls II.
I’ve died, I’ve sworn, I’ve almost given up but Dark Souls II has taken ahold of me. It’s addictive in its exploration – finding new things in areas you thought you’d completely explored or discovering a new enemy that you just have to beat to discover what’s beyond the door it’s guarding. The trick it employs is not giving you any idea of what you are meant to do or where you are meant to go – what I mean by this, is that in giving you complete freedom to discover and puzzle solve, Dark Souls II hooks you into its world and sucks you into becoming addicted to finding a way through its increasingly difficult odds.
This is the first time a Souls game has released on the Xbox One, Dark Souls II originally released on the Xbox 360 in March of last year, Scholar of the First Sin includes all of the previously released DLC and a lick of HD polish that makes the game run smoother and ups the resolution. As you might have gathered, unlike most sword and sorcery games, Dark Souls II cannot be stumbled through with mindless button mashing. If you’re clumsy with your attacks, you will be punished – death is a case of when and not if.
You are an undead warrior, cursed to clutch on to your existence by feasting on the souls of others. You can claw back your humanity by using a Human Effigy, but these are limited and should you die, you’ll respawn at your last bonfire, back to your undead self and with a health bar that reduces every time you end up on the wrong side of a sword.
These bonfires are also used to fast travel, this is particularly useful if you need to spend any collected souls – you see, it’s not just your health bar you lose at death, any held souls are dropped at the point that you met your demise – fail to recover these in your next life and they will be lost forever – but it’s ok, you can just farm the enemies that respawn every time you use a bonfire right? Wrong. You can chip away at the enemies of Dark Souls II, killing them over and over will eventually remove them from the game world, making progress possible even in the hardest of circumstances.
You might feel alone in Dark Souls II, and while there are PvP and PvE events, I didn’t really experience these half as much as I would have expected. A dedicated matchmaking menu would have been much more to my liking. On occasion, other player spirits invaded my world, these always happened at the worst time. You can also call on player spirits to help you, or read the many messages inscribed in the floor that offer advice or insight at what lies ahead – you can even add your own.
At the heart of Dark Souls II is a stamina bar that determines whether you can block, roll or attack – with no stamina, you are pretty much dead in the water. Blocking stops the bar from refilling, it’s a great way to make you manage your attacks, blocks and rolls – discipline is a must – an enemy with a small amount of health left can still put you on your arse and defeat you, so resist going for a flurry of attacks and play smart. To make matters worse, your weapons also degrade – I never said this was going to be easy!
Progress through Dark Souls II can seem like you are trying to walk up an escalator that is going down, persevere and you will eventually get to the top. The sense of achievement is more rewarding than most of the other games out there today. I respect that many will find little to love at the fight mechanics of Dark Souls and how it punishes you for anything other than flawless combat; equally, many will find a challenging and rewarding experience.
The best thing about this game is the moment everything clicks. You might wonder if it will ever come, and if you don’t learn from your mistakes it won’t. I did learn and while the game didn’t become easier, I felt like I had a grasp of how to tackle each situation, and what attributes and equipment I needed to rank up first – it was a joyous moment and one of the most invigorating moments I’ve had gaming.
Scholar of the First Sin will give you a rough and tough ride, if you like to be slapped about and punished for putting a foot wrong then this is certainly worth your time… you masochist!
Thanks to Xbox for supplying TiX with a download code
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