What, you thought that when you picked up this case with its friendly, bright-green shell, you were getting just another video game? You thought the depressed knight on the cover was maybe having some personal issues? No, friend — this isn’t a game. This is “Dark Souls II.” And if it wasn’t for the moments of agony this series provides, you wouldn’t experience the joy of overcoming against all odds, right? Yeah, let’s tell ourselves that as we recount some of the toughest elements that developer From Software decided to throw our way this time around. And beware of some light spoilers in here for the uninitiated (but I’ll call them out for you, so you can avert your eyes, if you wish).
“Noooooo!” Moment #1: Your maximum life bar getting shorter every time you die.
No, that’s not your imagination. You are being punished for sucking. For those of you that played the original “Souls game,” “Demon’s Souls,” you might remember this dynamic. In “Dark Souls II,” you get to see your life bar slowly deteriorate with each frustrating mistake you make, until you’re down to half your maximum life. Only then does the game stop docking you for failing — of course, at that point, everything can kill you twice as easily.
“Noooooo!” Moment # 2: Getting invaded by other players all the time.
In the original “Dark Souls,” when you died, you had at least some respite. Death meant a loss of human form, but also an opportunity to wander the game as a “hollow” undead. In this form, you could gather your thoughts, grind away at some enemies, grow stronger, and when you were ready, go human again — ready to face off against the game’s toughest baddies. Namely, other human players ready to invade your world and gank you. In “Dark Souls II,” death is not the end… of the gank-fest. Going hollow doesn’t prevent invasions, and you’ve still got to deal with the ever-shrinking health bar, too.
“Noooooo!” Moment # 3: You can’t grind basic mobs indefinitely.
Oh, and about grinding to get more powerful when you’re hollow: Unfortunately, “Dark Souls II” no longer allows this brute-force indulgence. After you’ve killed a given area’s baddies 10 times, they stop respawning. If you want to grind, you have to either invade other players’ games and kill them, or help other players out by being summoned into their games as helpful phantoms. There’s no refuge in “Dark Souls II.”
“Noooooo!” Moment # 4: When you get killed by an invader… while you’re invading someone.
There’s no honor among (soul) thieves in “Dark Souls II;” it’s a free-for-all extravaganza of chaos. You could be happily rolling along, ready to get the drop on some poor fool who doesn’t know you’re lying in wait, when BAM, another invader (who you thought would be assisting you in getting said drop on said fool) gets the drop on you. This sort of backstabbery may make you sad, but it should also make you remember that you can never drop your guard.
“Noooooo!” Moment # 5: When you realize how enormous this game really is.
“Dark Souls II” eschews the original Dark Souls’ interconnected, open-world structure for a “hub” world setup, where players continually return to a central area and teleport from there to new maps, which allows for an absolutely enormous game world. The sheer amount of content, areas, maps, and things to do in “Dark Souls II” dwarfs that of previous titles in the series, and will leave you agape when you look at the gameplay hour counter every time you load the game into your Xbox 360.
“Noooooo!” Moment # 6 (spoiler!!): When you realize there are two more Ruin Sentinel bosses.
Cross the first mist wall in the Lost Bastille, and you face off against a gangly, clockwork monstrosity wielding a gigantic hammer. At first, this looks like your typically difficult “Dark Souls II” boss fight — especially since it’s pretty early in the game. Then, after taking a few blows, the robotic menace knocks you off of the shelf you’re standing on, and you realize there are two more just like it in the pit below. Also, you’ve just taken a bunch of fall damage. And they’re coming right for you with some kind of wacky spin move. Sure wish this game had a pause button, don’t you?
“Noooooo!” Moment # 7 (spoiler!!): You’re lost in the Gutter, and you’re out of poison cure items.
The Gutter is “Dark Souls II’s” answer to Blighttown, from the original “Dark Souls.” Poisonous, dark, and filled with deadly enemies, the Gutter will claim not just your character’s life, but your very sanity. Should you run out of both poison cure items and Homeward Bones (items that can teleport you back to a checkpoint), you may as well just delete your saved game, and start the whole thing over.
“Noooooo!” Moment # 8 (spoiler!!): When the Last Giant tears off his own arm and tries to bash you to death with it.
Let’s not even mention the fact that this 60-foot-tall monstrosity has what appears to be a hemorrhoid-protection seat cushion for a face; that’s scary enough as it is. When he’s stomping around in close quarters, angrily trying to mash you to death between his toes, the bent and broken swords of previous warriors protruding from his flesh, you’ll be hard-pressed to hold your nerve. But when he actually pulls off his own arm and starts slamming you in the head with it, that’s when you really wonder if you wouldn’t rather just be calling in care packages and piloting titans like your “normal” gamer friends.
“Noooooo!” Moment # 9 (spoiler!!): That creepy backing track that plays when you fight the Demon of Song.
Sure, the Demon of Song itself is a pretty easy boss battle. But it’s a toad with hands (with hands). And the song that plays in the background is one part Sirens from The Odyssey and one part haunted insane asylum. Just get through the battle as quickly as possible — and always hit the mute button on your remote control.
“Noooooo!” Moment # 10: New Game+ is so much more than just playing again at slightly higher difficulty.
In “Dark Souls,” From Software offered players a chance to replay the game once they’d beaten it, with slightly tougher enemies. In “Dark Souls II,” playing through a second time on New Game+ mode offers a completely different experience. Boss battles change — not just in terms of speed and toughness, but layout, timing, and types of attacks. Weapons and secrets are changed. New areas are revealed, and old ones get sealed off. Replaying on NG+ is so much more in “Dark Souls II,” letting the game draw you into its filthy clutches all over again.