You make your way up a hill to an obelisk that sits atop a precipice jutting out over the sea. Sitting at the base of the stone structure is a soldier, dressed in heavy armor, hanging his head in shame. His spirit is broken. There is a stone plaque on the obelisk, which you read. “10,859 Deaths Worldwide”. This is a monument to what makes this game so deliciously infuriating. The game has yet to officially launch and, already, over 10,000 player characters have died violent deaths in a cruel and unforgiving world.
Dark Souls II for the PC is the sequel to Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition. The PC version of the previous game was plagued with technical issues and had poorly translated controls for gamers who wanted to use a keyboard and mouse rather than a controller. With Dark Souls II, which has been out since March on consoles, From Software has promised to deliver a PC version that won’t feel like an afterthought. Were they able to deliver on that promise?
One of the biggest complaints about the Dark Souls:Prepare to Die Edition was that the resolution for the PC version was locked at a paltry 1024x720 pixels of resolution, with textures and assets to match. No such problem exists in Dark Souls II, and it looks fantastic. All of the PCs graphical muscle is put to work weaving a world that is gritty, atmospheric, beautifully rendered, but intensely bleak and desolate. The open areas feel spacious and the caves and ruined dungeons feel eerie and claustrophobic.
The audio is well considered with excellent music and thoughtful environmental sounds that really fill out the world and deepen the sense of menacing loneliness. Non-player characters are all voice acted, and although their lines of monologue can become tedious after hearing them a few times, the voice acting is superb. Everything in this game shines with high production value, and there is a full compliment of options and tweaks for PC players to sink their teeth into for optimized performance.
For those unfamiliar with the game’s predecessor, or the entire series’ spiritual progenitor Demon’s Souls, these games are all designed to be absolutely unforgiving and brutally difficult, punishing any mistakes or hesitation. There are (hopefully) lessons to be taken away from each death, but players can expect to be killed by their environment repeatedly and progress is methodical and incremental. The fact that the previous PC port was called the Prepare to Die Edition offers potential customers a clue as to what they’re in for.
In one of the initial villages, there are three little pig-like creatures that will viciously attack if you step into their territory. Judging by the bloodstains scattered around their area, many players have tested their mettle against these innocuous rodents, and have been found lacking. Gradually, as you level up, the fight becomes easier but victory is far from assured.
There are some gameplay mechanics whose omissions are understandable, because they might throw off the difficulty balance, but feel sorely missed. There are multiple classes to choose from, each with their own strengths and weaknesses using certain weapons, spells, and equipment. There is, unfortunately, no way to share loot between characters. If a cleric finds a wizard spell or a fighter’s sword, there is no way to transfer it over to other characters created in the game. It’s easy to see how this feature would make twinking low level characters into monstrous powerhouses too simple, but it’s a shame to see nice gear go to waste.
Saving in the game is handled automatically, so there is no way to manually save and rewind your progress if you feel like you’ve painted yourself into a corner. It all ties in to the permanence and severity of the entire package, and the heartbreak of losing a pocket full of souls (the currency for equipment and XP gain in the game) is a core part of the experience. However, figuring out that the solution to a puzzle requires a specific item after you’ve destroyed that item through experimentation can be the bad kind of frustrating.
The souls are the key to everything. As alluded to before, souls are gained through adventuring then spent on either new gear or to level your character up, improving stats and cosmetics along the way. Combining these two traditionally separate currencies is a really interesting mechanic which harkens back to some of the original versions of Dungeons & Dragons where XP was gained by killing monsters, but also for the amount of treasure found. It forces some hard decisions by the player, and the decisions become even more complicated when the currency becomes important to erasing the penalties incurred for repeatedly dying.
The beating heart of Dark Souls II is a deviously addictive press your luck game. Dying with souls on hand makes you lose those souls, penalizes you for dying (by lowering your maximum hit points), and sets you back to the last checkpoint you rested at. The lost souls are recoverable, but all the enemies you fought respawn so you have to fight your way back to your corpse to recover the dropped currency. If you die again on the way, those souls are lost for good. This mechanic makes the game undeniably thrilling, but can make you want to throw your mouse at the wall when an enemy you’ve beaten handily several times nails you with a lucky halberd swing and you lose hours of progress. It teaches players the hard way that thoughtful, incremental progress is the name of the game.
If difficulty is innovative, then Dark Souls II is Nicolai Tesla. Of course, since it’s a sequel to a spiritual successor, it’s hard to say it’s breaking new ground but there are still some points in its favor.
This game does an excellent job of weaving together gameplay mechanics and the setting of the game in such a way that while the actual bits of narrative “story” are sparse, the game as a whole evokes a complete and immersive experience. The difficulty level isn’t set high for its own sake: the world of the game is an uncaring, spirit crushing place where the character exists only to be killed over and over again. It’s a mythological land that is scant on specific details, and it represents some of the best of what video games have to offer. Rather than presenting a narrative in a form like a book where you have to fight monsters to turn pages, or a movie where you have to clear a dungeon to watch the second act, the sense of time and place comes from the character’s surroundings and the way the player chooses to interact with them. There are NPCs who deliver bits of history and lore, but the real story is told by the wandering undead falling under the weight of a mace, or the ogre around the corner waiting to take an adventurer’s head off in one bite.
Two of the major issues with the PC port of Dark Souls were the lack of support for higher resolution settings and the poor implementation of keyboard and mouse controls. The PC modding community had to come in and save the day for DS1, but From Software made it a stated goal to make sure PC users wouldn’t feel left out in the cold this time around. Did they succeed at this goal? Yes, but there are still some issues.
In terms of the graphics, the resolution is not locked and there are plenty of sliders and switches so that players can tweak anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering settings to get the game running well on a wide variety of systems. There are even screenshots floating around the show the game at 4K resolution that look stunning.
The keyboard and mouse controls are pretty good, but not perfect. Some of the key mappings make essential keys a little tough to reach, for example reaching to hit the letter ‘o’ to lock on to a target is a bit of a stretch. Luckily, the keys can easily be remapped in the interface and the organization of key bindings in the menu seems fairly sensible.
It’s no secret that the game is designed as a console-first experience, so playing with the controller works as expected. The layout is generally pretty straightforward, which is good since there is no way to remap controller commands in the game’s interface.
One fairly annoying issues crops up when dealing with the fact that this is a console game being ported over to the PC: while going through the tutorial level at the beginning of the game all of the prompts for command input prompt for console controls. In order to learn the controls, keyboard and mouse players have to open the menu, figure out what the keyboard or mouse command is, then come back into the game.
This ends up being harmful for controller users as well, because once you’ve played through the tutorial there is nowhere in the menus to find instructions on which buttons map to which actions. This can be especially tricky with infrequently used commands. Sometimes, you just need a quick reminder of where things are, or you might decide to switch to a controller so you can play on your TV for a while. Sure, the information is easy enough to find online but it would be nice to have some way to find those details without having to leave the game.
The amount of time you will want to invest in this game is directly linked to your tolerance for frustration and how much you are either spurred on or turned away by overcoming situations where odds are stacked squarely against you. Also, perhaps, the durability of your gaming hardware as you may be banging your keyboard in frustration or throwing a controller across the room. The flip side, of course, is that victory feels like an accomplishment and every few inches of progress feel heroic.
This is a game that knows where it stands and demands that you know your tastes and moods as a gamer. if you read the previous paragraph and nodded your head while smiling, you’ll get a lot of mileage out of this game. If you don’t have the time or the patience, your money might be better spent elsewhere.
While wandering around the desolate ruins, translucent ghosts of other players will suddenly appear like apparitions from another reality. The floors and grass are peppered throughout the game with bloodstains and messages. Click on a bloodstain to see the last living moments of another player; the messages are simple notes left to warn or alert you to something coming up around the corner. These social interactions are bare, but still provide a lot of value. They also play into the game world itself by making you feel a little more isolated and lonely, knowing that other players are having the same experience you are but not being able to interact directly.
There is also an option for PvP invasions into other people’s games, but the developers have put a lot of effort into making sure there is a balanced matchmaking system with checks, balances and consequences. Joining other people’s games for cooperative multiplayer monster slaying involves using an item to create a mark on the ground which other players can find, then opt into joining your two games. It’s an interesting system but communication is limited, so it doesn’t make the ideal multiplayer experience.
The production quality and level of polish are up to the standards of any big budget video game release. This game is a very well executed piece of software that was designed with a certain experience in mind, but at no point have the developers been unclear about what they imagine that experience being. A lot of the points made in the longevity section of this review also apply to the value section. If you have seen the game’s marketing, read this and other reviews, and find yourself nodding in agreement or think it sounds appealing, this game will provide you many hours of exploration and entertaining frustration in a richly imagined world.
This game is art in the good and bad sense of the word. It represents some of the best things that video games have to offer: at its most immersive, it offers a beautifully and thoughtfully rendered world to be explored that reveals itself not just through what is seen on the screen, but through the brutal and challenging experiences the player guides the in-game avatar through. The negative part of that is that the story of the game and the motivations and reasonings behind what is happening are obscure and unclear. A lot of the onus is on the player to piece things together. This is a kind of experience that is not necessarily designed to appeal to a broad swath of people, but its pitch perfect execution and strict adherence to its draconian design principles earn it a place in the pantheon of great games.
| Beautifully rendered, melancholic world
Deliciously frustrating difficulty
Simple to learn, difficult to master controls
| Autosave is perhaps too brutal
Default controls not optimized for keyboard/mouse
Tutorial instructions all designed for controller-users