We are among the first to set foot in Drangleic, and we are quite helpless. There are no wikis, forums or videos to guide us when we hit a wall; no fellow adventurers with whom to exchange whispered guidance; no messages on the ground from other travellers. It is a terrible, terrifying, wonderful feeling to be this alone. After our first fatal mistake, when the screen goes dark and we see the words ‘You died’ for the first time, the trophy popup says it all: welcome to Dark Souls.
That message proves to be telling. Everything in Drangleic is new, of course, but this world of endless blind corners is also familiar. The minute you set foot in Majula, a beautiful, sun-parched coastal settlement with a conspicuously placed bonfire, you know you’re in this game’s Firelink. And you know that at least one of the paths branching out from this central hub will lead to an area that you’re not yet ready for, put there by FromSoftware with the sole purpose of making sure you know your place. And you’ll instinctively attack every chest in the game before trying to open it.
As such, your first hours in Dark Souls II are about identifying, and adapting to, the subtle differences between it and its predecessor. Majula’s blacksmith, for instance, doesn’t carry an infinite number of the Titanite Shards you use to improve your gear. He has just ten, and upgrade materials remain scarce throughout the early part of the game. Indeed, most merchants’ stocks are limited; you’ll wish you could stock up on the Human Effigy – this game’s Humanity equivalent, which now not only lets you summon help for boss battles but also restores a health bar whose capacity depletes after every successive death – but you can’t.
The only item available in unlimited quantities from the outset is the Lifegem, a new healing item whose very existence caused concern among the Souls series’ rabidly passionate community. Given out like candy in prerelease demos and the network beta, it’s a rarer commodity in the final game: an uncommon drop and sold by merchants for 300 souls apiece. It’s an essential tool early on, given that at the outset your Estus Flask can be used only once. That meagre limit can be raised by finding Estus Shards locked away in Drangleic’s darkest corners, but our flask was good for just eight swigs by the end of the game, compared to the first game’s 15. Healing options aren’t just well balanced in terms of supply, but usage, too: Lifegems are quicker to use than your Estus, but they refill less of your health bar and take significantly longer to do so. It’s just one more thing to consider in a combat system that’s an endless procession of split-second life-or-death decisions and which often feels more RTS than RPG.
And it’s in combat that we find the most instantly apparent changes. Even the lowest ranks of enemy are a good deal smarter now, and unless you’re wielding a high-stability shield, blocking an attack won’t stop them in their tracks, but simply delays the next hit of their combo. If you try to get a hit in, you’ll either get hit first or hit each other simultaneously. The battle system itself is harder to exploit, too: the parry window has been tightened up, and if you try to lure a single enemy away from the group with your bow, you’ll aggro the lot of them. The backstab is still invincible, but starts with a whack on the enemy’s shoulder, during which you’re still vulnerable – get hit and you’re knocked out of the animation. And that also applies to walking through fog doors, thwarting our attempt to dash through a room of tough enemies on the run-up to a boss. On top of all of that is the threat of a diminished health bar if you die. It’s going to take a lot more than a new healing item to mitigate such profound change.
Little balancing acts exist elsewhere, thankfully. A chest in an early area holds a ring that reduces HP loss after death. At first, bosses drop generous amounts of souls, letting you level up and improve weapons and armour at a fair lick. In Dark Souls, only the forward roll had invincibility, but now the backward one does too. Unless our timing was flawless, there are even a few frames on the sideways version.
Most significantly of all, enemies eventually stop respawning. This serves two purposes: shutting down soul farming, and removing the frustration of making a mistake against a grunt you’ve already killed a dozen times on the well-travelled route from bonfire to boss. It’s one of the few helping hands FromSoftware offers, acknowledging that you’ve learned all you need to from that group of enemies, and getting them out of your way. It doesn’t make the game easier or less rewarding than its predecessor. After all, the elation at beating Ornstein and Smough had nothing to do with the times you slipped up against the Knights on the approach.
It does, however, undermine Drangleic’s sense of place. Lordran was a consistent, coherent space, its enemy placements forever fixed, its individual areas looping back on themselves and each other. We could guide you from the top of Anor Londo to the bottom of Tomb Of The Giants turn by turn, and tell you exactly what you’d face along the way. For all that you’ll welcome despawning enemies when struggling against a Drangleic boss, it’s a different matter when you return later on and find that a place that was once teeming with Undead is now a ghost town.
Worse still is the ability to fast travel between bonfires you’ve visited from the very start of the game, which has had precisely the effect on Drangleic’s design that we feared. Each of the paths branching out from Majula will lead to an area that flows into another, and possibly another, but eventually you’ll reach a dead end and a bonfire from which to warp out. Bonfires are more generously placed, and for the first half of the game you’ll find one almost immediately after killing each boss. Given that you no longer level up at bonfires, but instead by talking to a Majula NPC, the first thing you do when you set foot in a new area is to fast travel out of it to spend your souls. Only later in the game does FromSoftware start making you tiptoe gingerly through a new area, inching round corners with your shield up, terrified of losing thousands of souls as you seek the sanctuary of a sword embedded in a pile of ash.
Yet fast travel brings its own benefits. Abandoning the need for a coherent flow – the way Undead Burg so naturally became the Parish, the way The Depths so logically segued into Blighttown – lets the vivid imagination of the level designers run free. The result is a game of remarkable visual variety, one that takes you from sprawling forestry to a claustrophobic crumbling prison, and from a murky network of caverns to an enormous Gothic castle surrounded by a lake of fire. It may not cohere as elegantly as Lordran, but Drangleic is more diverse, more beautiful and a good deal bigger. By the time the end credits had rolled, there were almost 30 areas on our travel map.
That doesn’t tell the whole story, either. Just as you’re starting to feel that the end is in sight, it transpires that FromSoftware has other ideas. The difficulty ratchets up yet another notch, the world design team sends you to greater heights and new depths, and you realise that the single greatest way in which Dark Souls II differs from its predecessor is that, rather than tailing off towards the end, it just keeps getting better. This late-game rug-pull pivots around a single moment in which not a sword is swung nor a word is spoken. It’s a remarkable scene that serves to remind you what FromSoftware does better than any studio in the world – finding beauty in the darkness and majesty in the grotesque.
The first playthrough is only the beginning, of course. Finish the final boss and you’re not immediately dropped into New Game Plus, but sent back to Majula, free to explore and mop up before starting your second journey. And when you do, FromSoftware gives you all of five seconds before bringing you back down to Earth with a bump. Let’s just say that a new game is about far more than bigger enemy health bars and higher damage output. Good luck – and try running away.
What, then, of the infamous claim that Dark Souls II would be more accessible? Well, friendlier bonfire placement helps and, after a couple of spikes, the difficulty curve is a good deal smoother early on. The ability to respec your build using a rare item will help those who unwittingly level themselves into a corner. Yet for all its little tweaks, Dark Souls II is, foremost, a game made for Souls players. It is a game that asks everything of you and gives so much back, keeping its cards close to its chest, and revealing them only to those prepared to die and die again. It is made to be played for hundreds, if not thousands, of hours as you try new builds, explore PVP and experiment with covenants, all the while slowly peeling back the layers of its lore. Some of its ideas work better than others, and Drangleic is no match for Lordran’s intricate design, but Dark Souls II is, like its predecessors, brilliant, beautiful, and absolutely essential.