Dark Souls II – Impressions & Comparisons – Part 1

Yes, I have now played Dark Souls II. Or Dark Souls 2, whichever. I prefer using 2, because it comes more naturally to write, though I guess it’s officially II.

All clean now.

This will likely not work as any sort of insight for people not familiar with the previous Souls games, Dark Souls 1 in particular. I will mainly be comparing the two of them. Even though that’s a bit of a tricky proposition for me, considering most of the differences come down to how it feels. I will of course do my best to explain, but I apologise in advance if this seems more… ethereal and intangible than usual.

Edit: Ended up writing a part 2 to this thing.

Where to begin? My first impression, I suppose. It was not good. In fact, it was outright bad. I had put over 120 hours into Dark Souls before I moved onto the sequel, so I had a certain expectation that it should be easier to get into Dark Souls 2 than the original was to begin with. I had of course heard several things about Dark Souls 2 and the changes they’d made before I ever got it myself (thanks to a very generous friend <3), so I had lowered my expectations for how the game would play. Even with all that in mind, I had a terrible time in my first hour of Dark Souls 2.

Everything felt wrong. Off. Askew. Timings were changed, weapon-swings felt more sluggish than they should, the sensitivity of the roll button vs running was too high, and just overall the controls felt not as responsive as they should be. See, I was fighting that cyclops beastie you find in a hidden side-path before the firekeeper cottage. A fight that shouldn’t have been as difficult as it turned out to be, and eventually I just had to cheese it and stay super-safe because of the controls. I was using a light weapon, yet my swings felt slow. The reduced invincibility frames on rolling meant it was hard to duck under blows. And the grab move seemed to have a bit too large of a hit-box, or grab-box, or whatever you want to call it. Not to mention all the times I tried to dodge, but apparently pressed the button a little too hard, so that instead of dodging, my character would turn and make ready to run, and get me killed because they were grabbed and had their head bitten off. It was beyond frustration.

Dark Souls balanced on a very fine line. It did what you told it to do. Even when that was the wrong thing. So I rarely felt I could blame anyone but myself for when things went wrong. It was fair. It was responsive. Dark Souls 2 felt like it was crossing over that line into territory where I started blaming the game. And that’s a dangerous zone to enter. That’s where you start losing players.

I’d be getting out of a roll or attack, and I’d hit X to use an item, like an Estus Flask or a Lifegem. Nothing happens. Apparently there were a few frames left on that roll/attack where I wasn’t allowed to queue the next action. So I’d have to hit X again and lose a bit of my flow. I suppose this is more a matter of taste, but being able to have a window where you can queue up actions to start as soon as the current one finishes was something I had just gotten used to. And even after playing 40 hours of Dark Souls 2, the new system doesn’t feel right.

Not to mention other timing problems. Remember how Forward + R1/RB was a kick? And Forward + R2/RT was a jump attack? First off, the Kick is now a Guard Break. It will completely deplete an enemy’s stamina if it connects. Neat trick, but honestly doesn’t have the same satisfaction as a kick. But the main problem is that the timings are just ever so slightly changed. It’s not Forward + Attack at the same time any longer. You have to hit forward just the slightest of an instant before you hit attack to pull it off now. Which all too often led to me performing a guard break on an enemy not in range for that when I meant to strike. Again, I suppose that’s a matter of taste, but for someone really into the first Dark Souls, it feels weird.

Dark Souls 2 is not an awful game. It’s okay. It has some good ideas in it, some of which are executed pretty well, too. And some ideas that are not so good, or at least not as well implemented.

Well, if we should mention some positives… I like that jumping is now its own button. Just push down on the left stick while running, and you jump! No more having to suddenly do a double-tap while running to make sure you actually jump. I like that. Considering there are more places that require you to jump to reach, it’s probably a good idea they made that more accessible, too. As I recall, Dark Souls the first didn’t really have many areas, even secrets, that required you to do a running jump. Dark Souls 2 has plenty.

There are plenty of interesting weapons, old and new. More than I can ever hope to test out. And that’s kinda neat.

There is a talking cat. Talking cats are a universal good. She sells neat things, like rings that let you reduce fall damage (is fall damage flat now instead of a percentage? It’s hard to tell) or talk to people you normally couldn’t understand.

Speaking of rings, you can wear four at once now. I suppose that was kinda necessary considering how it seems like all covenants have a ring now that you need to wear if you want to participate and advance, but it still offers a lot more options and variety in how to set up your character. As in Dark Souls 1, the rings are pretty powerful.

And the performance, oh my gods. Technologically this seems like a huge leap ahead of Dark Souls 1. A steady, high framerate. So much better optimisation. Pretty, pretty models. Gorgeous vistas. Improved UI. I’ve heard people say they don’t like the lighting engine as much, but I don’t feel qualified to really comment on that.

I do kinda feel it’s a shame they’ve updated the physics so you can no longer drag bodies along or get them stuck on you. It was part of the charm, you know? But amusingly it seems like part of the new power display is despawning bodies once you’re far enough away, but remembering their positions so they can be spawned in again if you move back in that direction. So often enough while walking back through an area I’d cleared without visiting a bonfire first I’d just be able to glimpse the bodies popping in and a weapon or shield just flying off in a direction of its own choosing. You can’t have a Souls game entirely free of wonky physics.

They did actually change the bonfires such that you only need to light one to make it your spawn point the first time you visit it. You do not need to rest at it like in its predecessor. Which I’m not sure whether counts as better or worse, but it’s different, at least. Personally I’d say I kinda prefer this new system.

I am also somewhat undecided on them giving us the ability to warp between bonfires from the very beginning. On the one hand, it’s incredibly handy. On the other hand, it doesn’t really encourage you to get to know the world. While there is still a bit of the old system of unlocking shortcuts and figuring out how the whole world fits together, you will often end up just not going back to a lot of areas. I’ve heard of people who got stuck and didn’t know where to go for a long time until they finally found an NPC with a thing for them in a place they wouldn’t normally walk, because they’d just warp past it.

I can quite solidly say I am not much of a fan of the new durability system though. Most gear has very little durability. Even my most solid weapons seem to cap out at 70, and being between 40 and 60 seems far more common. And it drains pretty quickly, too. Especially if you use any sweeping weapons like a halberd or big axe. The idea is that you are able to recharge your durability automatically at a bonfire, or by being summoned as a phantom or shade into another’s world and helping them out until you get Duty Fulfilled, which will refill durability and Estus as if you’d rested by a bonfire along with restoring humanity. If a weapon actually breaks, you will need to take it to a blacksmith to repair.

And I just don’t quite get why this was something they felt needed to be changed, especially considering the new warping system means you can just teleport to a blacksmith at any time you visit a bonfire anyway, after you’ve unlocked the house in Majula. Weapons in Dark Souls 1 would last quite some time before you needed to go get them repaired, so if they’d just kept that it wouldn’t really be an issue that it takes like an hour or two to unlock your first blacksmith. That weapons break so fast, and that they basically force you to rest or co-op so often, doesn’t quite feel in the spirit of Dark Souls. And there are areas where there is quite a while between bonfires and you have to start switching out your weapons just to get there.

I have not really made up my mind on the new blacksmithing system though. It is slightly simplified from the DS1 system, which could use simplification, but I’m not entirely sure this is what was needed? It’s okay though. Just a little annoying how hard it can be to find titanite to upgrade stuff with, considering you ideally want like two or three weapons ready to switch out to just in case, and if you haven’t been able to upgrade them they aren’t worth that much.

And the new human-hollow system… not entirely bad. I wouldn’t say that. It’s just… changed the dynamic of the game. It’s a bit of a half-way between Demon’s Souls, that took half your health away (unless you wore a certain ring that meant you only lost a quarter) if you weren’t human, and Dark Souls, where being hollow basically just meant the only multiplayer you were allowed was reading the messages and putting down summon signs.

In Dark Souls 2 you lose a bit of your max health each time you die, capping out at 50% with enough deaths. I was never able to determine what decided it, but it seemed to vary whether it would take away 5% or 10% of your max. At anything less than 100% you are treated as hollow, but there are certain things that interact with exactly how hollow you are. To recover your health and the ability to summon other players you need to either use one of the preciously limited Human Effigies, or getting summoned into another’s world and helping them out for a while until you fulfil your duty and get restored.

In fact, it’s become quite common that regardless of your health, you will simply put down your summon sign before a boss door first so you can check out the boss without risk while aiding someone else, and maybe get a refill of Estus and durability before you go in yourself. And your human vs hollow status seems to have no impact on invasions this time, although apparently not many people invade until New Game+. Unless you’re in one of the Bell Keeper Covenant areas where you will just be swarmed by grey phantoms.

All in all it feels a bit like Dark Souls 2 has stepped away from DS1‘s philosophy of “This is your personal challenge, and allies are few and far between”. And you could simply stay hollow to not worry about that stuff. While now it’s more like a “We’re all in this together” sensation, where everyone summons and gets summoned to help eachother out. It is so prevalent that I rarely bothered to do bosses alone. It was just like… ‘well, I got summoned in because I needed to recover my health, so I might as well bring other people so they get to recharge and get a reward as well’. It’s not awful or anything like that, it just… kinda feels like it missed the point on what Dark Souls was about?

Not the only miss either. The combat system, and just the encounter set-ups have gotten an overhaul too. Parries are weird now, and the riposte window is really small. Having a wind-up on my parry meant I didn’t really bother trying to get used to it. Just felt too weird. I did still manage to pull them off from time to time, but since I couldn’t figure out the riposte window it didn’t feel worth my time to invest training in it. You’re also much more likely to find enemies in large groups now, and not just the little one-shot dudes you ran into in the occasional flock in the first one. Groups of 4-6 hollow soldiers and other tougher enemies will just swarm at you and spam you with attacks, and there simply might not be a window for you to strike back and you get trapped into a corner and beaten down.

It kinda destroyed a bit of that tactical feel Dark Souls had. Instead of setting up interesting encounters and enemies that require a bit of tactics to take down, maybe picking them off one by one in the distance, or luring one in without triggering the others, or watching their attack patterns, now it’s more about just trying to spam in your own attacks before they can. Maybe being lucky and managing to kill off the first one before the 3-4 behind him catch up. While I still tried, it didn’t really feel like the game rewarded patience and strategy as much any longer.

And the bosses are… a bit of a letdown? Not all that memorable. Some are just straight bullshit, but to be fair, DS1 had a couple of bullshit bosses too. Typically DS2 bosses fall into one of two categories. A lone boss that is not all that difficult, but does have a few attacks that will outright kill you in one hit if you’re unlucky. Or a group of bosses, or just a ‘boss’ that is a throng of enemies that are not so much ‘difficult’ as they are unfair and annoying. There are exceptions, like the Pursuer who can actually turn into quite a neat one-on-one battle if you go for that, but the Pursuer also has that impale attack that might hit you even if you’re not quite in its path. I’ve seen it stab a good metre or two to my side, and still I somehow end up impaled.

As Josh was pointing out, it seems like the lesson they’ve taken from the first Dark Souls, is that Dark Souls is about crushing difficulty. So a lot of the tweaks and changes have been to make the game more difficult through being less fair. And honestly that’s selling Dark Souls the first a bit short. Sure, it was difficult. It was brutal and punished you for making mistakes, but it was also fair (most of the time). Dark Souls 2 has made your tools harder to use, and tipped the scales more in the favour of the enemies. I especially have to call bullshit on enemies that seem to have infinite poise, and won’t stagger even if you take off 90% of their health with two rapid swings, and since you kinda expected them to stagger, they consequently smash you before you have time to get that third hit in. With certain enemies it feels like all you can do is dodge backwards when they attack, then get in a quick swing before you dodge out of the way again, and sometimes the game just won’t let you dodge far enough. Some attacks just don’t seem plausible to get away from in time.

Enemies also seem to have much more ability to pivot during their attacks now. It’s like their weapons just home in on you. Same with arrows, I’ve noticed. If you try to simply sidestep an arrow, expecting it to go straight, it will curve just enough to still hit you. I’ve also seem arrows clip through solid environment as if it wasn’t there so I’d still get hit even though I thought I’d stepped behind cover. So a lot of the strategy of stuff like ‘keep circling until it attacks, then get it in the back’ gets negated when the enemy just spins a 180 and smacks you with the attack that looked like it was going to hit away from you.

With all sorts of healing items being a slow recovery now, Estus included, with attacks that are much harder to avoid, with enemies that love to swarm you (even trying to pull one from a distance will usually bring the whole pack), with only a few shields providing 100% physical reduction, it all seems like a system just designed to slowly wear you down, regardless of how good you become. It’s just not feasible to avoid getting hit, because enemies are too unpredictable, and even if they weren’t, you’d need them all to attack at the exact same moment for a successful dodge to get through. It all just seems to be about making it less fair.

There is also the bit about how enemies just stop respawning after you’ve killed them… ahm… a dozen times or so? Fifteen? Which seems a bit like an admission of “Yeah, we know we weren’t able to balance the difficulty all that well, but if you just managed to pick them off enough times, they’ll be gone for good!” A fix for a problem they themselves created.

I don’t even know why they felt they had to change the stats. Was it really necessary to split Endurance into two, so you have one stat for stamina, and one stat for equip load? Or rename Resistance as Adaptability, possibly in an effort to make it seem actually useful? (Which it really isn’t.) There were other stats that had their names changed too, but I didn’t look too hard at it.

One of the main things of Dark Souls is how it subverted the expectations that most videogames have given us. It gave you a world that operated differently. An intriguing place to explore. And Dark Souls 2 seems to have forgotten that. I suppose if you really wanted you might make an argument about it subverting the expectations of how a Souls game should work, all meta like.

So what about Dark Souls 2‘s world? It’s a resounding… meh. While there are still interesting and diverse locations in theory, in practice they seem to lack the polish and quality of level design from the first game. They are just not as interesting. And honestly kinda confusing. By the time I gave up there were still some of the early areas I hadn’t quite figured out, and they just didn’t draw me in enough that I wanted to figure them out either. And the people inhabiting it… there was a bit of a… lack of soul, if you will excuse the phrasing. I liked the talking cat. And Lucatiel. The rest of them were rather… bland. I did my best to exhaust the conversation options with everyone I met, but I have to admit that Lucatiel is only one I remember the name of, even though I spoke to some of them many times. There just aren’t any really strong personalities like Solaire, Siegmeyer, the Fair Lady or Big Hat Logan.

Heck, I felt bad about the pyromancy man who I honestly can’t remember the name of. I told him about the Chaos Pyromancy I had acquired, and agreed to let him know where to find it. Then I didn’t see him for a long time until I came across him down in Blighttown, all hollowed out. I had actually spent a long time wondering what happened to him. I felt really bad after that, a sense of guilt because I had basically sent him down there, and cost him his sanity and life. Lucatiel is honestly the closest I’ve gotten to feeling anything like what I did for that man whose name I don’t even know, only I seem to have no impact on her fate. With the vast majority of them there is just so little to care about.

In the end, I shan’t say that Dark Souls 2 is a bad game. It’s not. It’s quite okay. I’m sure there are people who love it because of how it’s now ‘harder’, or because there’s more multiplayer everywhere, or whatever. But I would say it ultimately doesn’t really feel like Dark Souls. Or even Demon’s Souls. I’ve heard there was a different team and a different director who put this one together, and it honestly shows. In my opinion it has failed to capture the spirit of the series. It has really just made me want to play the first game more because it’s more appealing. Still, 40 hours isn’t a bad playtime, and it had its moments, plus it was an interesting case to study. So I suppose you can say it was worth the money. Maybe I’ll even go back and finish it some day.

You got this long-ass blog post out of it, as well.

~Wulf

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Posted on June 6, 2014, in Games, Thoughts and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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