The Souls series is exclusionary, masochistic, unforgiving, stress-inducing, and the most rewarding gaming experience you can experience. The sheer cathartic bliss of tackling a pre-boss segment is equivalent to the same relief that comes with vanquishing most common game’s end bosses. The Souls series retroactively ruined other games for me. It refused to spoon feed me tutorials, never once held my hand and told me where to go, nor did it lay out the story in neat little segments, pushing me forward at its suggested pace. Instead, it thrust me into a world, handed me a sword and shield, and let me figure it out from there. Gone were the days of little Link trading hits with the hulking Ganondorf, my Dragonborn fighting through air ablaze with dragon’s flame, and swiftly striking from bad guy to bad guy as Batman. These pleasantries were swapped with monstrous behemoths that crushed me in a single blow, fire breath that led to an instant and early demise, and the overwhelming war of attrition that a gang of hostiles would force me into every time I found myself outnumbered—which was often. The Souls series taught me that most of my victories were simply handed to me. Those other games weren’t designed for you to fail. The Souls series begs for death to teach you, allowing you to endlessly try again in this hellish sort of Groundhog Day. And with FromSoftware’s newest entry in the series, Dark Souls II, Death is back at the helm of this classroom and it has some new tricks up its dark and cloaked sleeve.
Fortunately for you, Dark Souls II stands out as the most accessible iteration of the series. The harshness of being cursed and petrified has been dulled down, the added ability to teleport from bonfire to bonfire, the fleshed out nature of covenants this time around, the enhancements to smithing and weapon infusing, and the significant decrease in boss strength and tactics has made Dark Souls II far more accessible than its predecessors—at least on your first run through. Being a veteran Souls player, I found myself surprised that I hadn’t encountered any bosses that led to me hurl my controller Johnny McEnroe style. I was expecting another Ornstein and Smough experience. While half of the dynamic duo rears his head, the fight is much easier and a bit disappointing—unless you were waiting for sweet revenge and finally wanted to bully a Dark Souls boss that gave so many players headaches and broken discs. On the whole, Dark Souls II is a much easier experience. Only one boss pushed my try count into double digits on my first playthrough, and he was easily vanquished once I decided to make a few armor and shield tweaks.
Unfortunately for you, Dark Souls II still requires you to understand how the world and overall game works. If you attempt to simply run through the game, refusing to exhaust NPCs’ dialogue options and ignoring messages, you’re most likely to find yourself stuck, trapped, or generally doomed. Nowhere does the game tell you how or where to level up. A quick scan of YouTube will reveal livid streamers unsure of what to do with all their precious souls because they didn’t pay attention to the Emerald Herald or flat out ignored her. Pro Tip: don’t do that. Dark Souls II remains deliberately opaque on every topic from leveling up, understanding how equip load affects your character, how to boost status effects, to generally building your character. The easiest way to combat this uphill battle of information is to solve things the way you would in the NES days: grab a friend or grab a book! Most Souls’ fans will gush at the chance to let you in on what they consider to be the greatest franchise of the past few years. I, for one, volunteer myself to help you with whatever you may need—seriously, email me to your heart’s content, I’m always game to talk about some souls. Moving on!
FromSoftware added a bonus and overall game-changer to the Souls series that makes the game infinitely more forgiving: the ability to respec your character through items called Soul Vessels. One of the most frightening aspects of the Souls’ series was always committing yourself to a character build without any ability to go back on your decisions. If you wanted a different character type in previous games, you’d have to grind millions of souls to equal your character out or simply start all over—congrats on the wasted 20 hours! Your decisions were damning, and without a guide (human or book), you were thrust into a frightening forest of gut decisions and looming regret. Fortunately for you, and to the ire of the upper echelon of hardcore players, Dark Souls II contains various Soul Vessels. I acquired four on my first playthrough. FOUR chances to re-roll my character. If a player were to roll a strength playthrough and find a melee build to be too difficult against a certain boss or area, they could simply switch to a magic or faith build and take the edge off the game—yes, magic users continue to have a much easier time against a majority of boss fights.
So did they dumb down the Souls series in this newest iteration? Was I upset upon finishing the game and triumphing over the easiest final boss in Souls’ history in just one try? To answer my own imposed questions: No. If you stop playing Dark Souls II after decimating the final boss, you certainly may feel unfulfilled, confused, and a bit stilted. Dark Souls II original game is only the first half, third, eight, or twenty fourth of your journey through Drangleic. New enemies, items, phantoms, and story nuggets litter the game in New Game + and onward. Not to mention that enemies now hit twice as hard while you do half the damage you did beforehand. An early game boss that was a piece of cake now has two monstrous helpers that up the ante higher than any late game boss. A certain menacing foe will now summon hostile players to take you out as you get close to besting him. Enemy locations differ, new boss souls are dropped, the lore unravels, and entire areas transform before your eyes. Dark Souls II is packed with content and begs you to keep coming back for more. Death is only the beginning.