With anticipation building for the release of Dark Souls III, it seems as good a time as any to revisit the first sequel. Released initially in 2014, the ‘Scholar of the First Sin’ edition followed in 2015, including all of the DLC and revising some elements of the earlier release.
Relocating to the land of Drangleic, Dark Souls II delivers its narrative in much same style as previous Souls games, embedded as it is in its landscape and esoteric cast of characters. Charged this time with breaking a curse that has fallen over the kingdom of Drangleic, the game takes you on a quest through the most varied landscapes in the series so far, from the dank depths of Black Gulch to the snow-capped mountains of Frozen Eleum Loyce. Assisted by the Emerald Herald and a small but vital collection of other lost souls, it is up to the player to gather four Great Souls before taking on the king himself.
Anyone familiar with the earlier Souls games will be immediately at home in Drangleic, and in some ways that is the game’s greatest failing. Built on the solid foundation of the previous excellent Souls games, Dark Souls II does little new with the formula. So you begin the game by selecting your class and then wandering underpowered and underprepared into the realm, gradually levelling up between frequent deaths. Eventually you are able to summon other players and non-player characters to help you in your quest, and are also open to invasion. As ever there are messages to help (or hinder) your progress and everything is exactly as you would expect.
Dark Souls II does throw a few new ingredients into the mix but they are not always to the benefit of the game. Some changes are small, such as the addition of life gems which now supplement Estus Flasks, gradually restoring HP after use, and can be regularly farmed to help ease your progress. You can now also fast travel between bonfires from the start, which has a dramatic impact on level structure. Instead of the intricately woven lands of Lordran, which intertwined to create a living, connected world, Drangleic is a more linear land with dead ends that can only be warped out of and areas that exist to be visited only once. In a way, the level design of Dark Souls II feels more ‘video game’ than it ever has before and less like a living, breathing space.
Enemies themselves feel somewhat less inspired than what has gone before, with noting to match the glorious pairing of Ornstein and Smough from the previous game. Even some of the environments suffer by comparison, with the opening area of Things Betwixt (with it’s relatively simple path through giant trees and bog-standard medieval fantasy soldiers) a particularly disappointing start for the adventure.
Dark Souls II does ultimately open up and offer a diverse range of environments, and areas such as Heide’s Tower of Flame are genuinely beautiful and gain a big advantage from the extra polish of the Scholar of the First Sin edition.
All of that said, any game built on such solid foundations can’t go too far wrong. While it may suffer in direct comparison to others in the series, Dark Souls II is still a remarkable game full of secrets that can take multiple plays to uncover and with a well-refined combat system at its heart.
The special edition of the game also includes the three previously-released DLC areas, Crown of the Sunken King, Crown of the Iron King and Crown of the Ivory King. Each of these offers a hefty new area to play with that comes with sizeable challenge and is an excellent addition to the overall package.
If you are new to the Souls series then this probably isn’t the game with which to begin your quest, as either its predecessor or Bloodborne offer a slicker experience. However it remains an excellent game and even if it doesn’t quite reach the heights of its illustrious brethren is well worth your time.
If you’ve not visited Drangleic before and are looking to fill the time before Dark Souls III arrives, you should definitely take the plunge.