‘The night is Dark and filled with dread’

Jon Mercer
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Dark Souls II
(PS3, Xbox 360)

“Dark Souls II” aims to crush you. It wants to pound on you until you crumble. It means to smash your very being from its in-game existence.

A screenshot from “Dark Souls II.” — Submitted image

And it will, over and over, so many times.

As with the other entries in From Software’s breakthrough smash-hit franchise, death, repeated, often cruel death is very much a large part of “Dark Souls II.” But for players looking for something different from everything else on the market, gamers brave enough to soldier on through the seemingly ceaseless suffering and crushing despair there is a game experience here that is intensely fun and rewarding.

As is always the case in the “Souls” series, the story of “Dark Souls II” is equally familiar and vague. A hazy picture is painted of a kingdom long since ruined by decadence and decay, of an undead curse that plagues all those who dare to tread there, and of the faintest sliver of hope that this curse can be ended if one of those lost could muster the strength to vanquish the evil souls that have tainted the land.

“Seek the King” and “Hunt down the Great Souls” are really the only direction that players are given, and it is left up to them to take what they will out of “Dark Souls II.” Pay attention early on to some of the dialogue, read the history of the equipment you gather, talk to some of the NPC’s more than once, and the game’s story blooms like a flower.

It’s hard for me to accurately describe the game play of a “Souls” title. They’re not quite RPGs, even if they do revolve around levelling up, and attaining better equipment to make progress.

I’ve always likened them as the 21st-century equivalent of Capcom’s “Ghosts n’Goblins” series.

Savagely difficult and requiring good memorization skills and better reflexes if one is expecting to make it to the next area alive.

Making it to the next area alive in “Dark Souls II” requires that gamers come to grips with its weighty, wonderful combat. Everything is based on blocking, dodging and attacking, while keeping one eye always focused on your character’s stamina — and the other eye focused on everything else.

Timing is crucial. Only attack when an enemy is exposed, with the amount of time needed to successfully strike. Miss, or come up against their defence, and you will feel the pain. Nearly all of the beasts in “Dark Souls II” are bigger and fiercer than you. On the flip-side, parrying and evading their attacks, and landing the blows necessary to fell enemies is pure gaming honey. Nothing tastes quite as sweet, and bringing down regular enemies is just as rewarding as snuffing out any of the game’s fearsome bosses.

A pair of wrinkles do appear that are meant to subtlety refine the “Souls” gameplay, which I feel are going to be divisive amongst series die-hards. First off, it is impossible to grind for Souls (the source of both levelling up, and in-game currency); or at least impossible to farm them as easily as the prior games. Whereas before one could rest at a bonfire to completely repopulate the area with monsters in their usual spots, now they begin to thin out, essentially declawing the area as players vanquish it. The monsters can return through use of a rare item, but they will return with boosted difficulty, and bring with them boss monsters as regular encounter. As well, dying will now cause your character to lose a sliver of his health with each subsequent death until up to half of their life has vanished. Restoring their humanity will bring it back, but those items feel in much shorter supply than in games previous. As per usual, dying once will cost a gamer all of their souls until they can reach the exact spot where they perished again. Dying while trying to reach that spot will take away those souls permanently. With the harsher restrictions on grinding for experience, this makes “Dark Souls II” a tough game, even if the environments aren’t as insidious as the last game.

But what they may seem to lack in fangs (which honestly, they don’t, this game is rock hard), they make up for in design and cleverness. Drangleic, the world of “Dark Souls II” is gorgeous, with imaginative areas that dwarf those of its predecessors.

On the surface, “Dark Souls II” might not seem like the triumphant discovery that “Demon’s Souls” or “Dark Souls” was.

But developer From Software hasdelivered on its every promise of making the game more accessible without sacrificing its trademark insidious challenge, and crafting a larger world without losing its character and charm.

As a gamer who has been suffering through a drought after just purchasing a brand new console, a game with meat such as “Dark Souls II,” and interesting online capabilities such as player provided hints and player controlled Invaders is the perfect remedy.

Are you brave enough to conquer its challenges?

The night is Dark and filled with dread.

Platform: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC (360 version reviewed)

Developer: From Software

Publisher: Namco-Bandai

Release Date: March 11, 2014

Rated: T for Teen.

Walking through the wastes of the digital frontier, Jon Mercer fights a lonely war against the nefarious agents of boredom and mediocrity. If you seek his help, or wish to join his cause, send a communiqué

via thejonmercer@gmail.com.

Organizations: NPC

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