Dark Souls 2 is an important game in the Souls series. It departs from the standard formula which the other titles hold steadfast to, and flirts with new mechanics and designs.
While the game is often criticized for many of these changes, it’s also allowed the developers to experiment with new ideas. Many of these ideas were polished and expanded upon in Dark Souls 3.
This review will mostly discuss the differences from the other titles in the series. It will contain minor spoilers.
Dark Souls is often defined by its combat, so I’d like to discuss that first.
The combat in Dark Souls 2 is generally slower than the first game.
Larger weapons require real commitment before you swing them, shields have more knockback, and weapon tracking generally isn’t as fast. In melee, parries now require a sizable delay before a riposte can be performed, while bows and other projectiles have a longer cooldown between uses.
These changes make combat feel more deliberate, but also less responsive.
I’ll discuss six of the biggest combat changes.
The largest combat change is the introduction of the agility mechanic. Agility is a secondary stat (raised indirectly by leveling up) which mainly affects invincibility during rolling and the speed of item use, such as estus.
This leads to an interesting choice when leveling up. The player can focus on doing more damage themselves, or being able to consistently avoid damage.
I’m normally a fan of this kind of player choice in game design, but in this case the effect isn’t great. The mechanic (like most of Souls) is never explained, so players will often be stuck with poor rolling and slow estus for the entirety of the game. This has led to Dark Souls 2 being called “clunky” as players find the combat doesn’t flow as smoothly as the other Souls games.
The best change to combat is probably that rolling during lock-on is no longer restricted to four directions, as it was in Dark Souls 1. This is mostly noticeable near ledges where precision is much more important.
This is nearly required in Dark Souls 2 as the frequency of enemies has been increased. Navigating during fights has thus become more important.
One new combat change is the “sweet spot” mechanic, where making a more direct hit with your weapon will do more damage. This is also an idea that sounds great in concept, but in practice leads to inconsistent damage without obvious feedback to the player. For minmaxers, it also makes comparing damage between weapons much more difficult.
The ability to redirect your weapon is another change in Dark Souls 2. You can simply push on the control stick mid-swing to redirect your weapon. It applies mostly to large and slow weapons like clubs, but also works on smaller weapons. It’s mainly useful for reprioritizing enemies when fighting multiple targets at once.
My experience with weapon redirecting is that it’s more frustrating than useful. Often time I would trigger this feature by accident, and end up completely missing my enemy without knowing why. This is more common with some weapon types than others, and I found thrusting weapons and hammers were the most affected.
Dual wielding has been made much more viable in Dark Souls 2. Weapons can be alternated in each hand without any delay, which allows for more unique builds and uncertainty in PVP situations.
A new mechanic called Power Stance has also been introduced. This allows two weapons of the same fighting style to be used together with a unique moveset. It adds a lot of variety to PVP combat, and makes for a great addition to the game.
Running with Lock-On
One final combat change is the ability to fully run while locked on. This took the most getting used to when coming from Dark Souls 1, where holding run while maneuvering around enemies would just allow you to strafe faster.
In Dark Souls 2, holding run and a direction will actually have your character pivot, and turn into a full run. This pivot can and will get you killed, so it will require re-learning muscle memory if you’re coming from the first game.
Once you get used to it however, running can be very useful in combat. The slow pivot can be avoided by quickly chaining a forward movement into a side and then backward movement. It’s not the most intuitive change, but can be worked around.
Dark Souls 2’s largest contributions to the series are in its mechanics. A number of these ideas were brought forward into Dark Souls 3, while others were dropped completely.
Torch: Probably my favorite new mechanic from Dark Souls 2 is the torch system. Torches can be used to light sconces around the world. They offer an interesting trade-off between visibility and defense, and can be used in combat against certain enemies. This mechanic did not make it into Dark Souls 3.
Respeccing: Soul Vessels allow character to reallocate their levels to change their character’s build. This is a huge change from Dark Souls 1 which essentially locked you into the path you chose. This change was brought forward into Dark Souls 3.
Rings: There are four slots available, which offers more variety in character builds. It’s a positive change which was also brought forward into Dark Souls 3.
Infusions: Weapon infusions were thankfully simplified from the complex flowchart required in the first game. This change was also brought forward.
Life Gems: Life gems were introduced as a consumable healing item. They were likely intended for healing between fights, whereas estus was meant for in-combat healing. However it doesn’t really work out this way, as gems are just as viable in combat as they are out.
Of the major mechanic changes, this is the one I’d consider to be the largest misstep. Resource management is a huge aspect of the Dark Souls formula, and because these gems are so cheap it really reduces the risk/reward consideration when pressing on to new areas.
Bonfire Ascetics: These allow you to enter New Game+ in a localized area around a bonfire. This can be used for practicing specific bosses, getting unique loot, or farming for souls.
Unlike other Souls games, NG+ actually changes a fair amount of content by introducing new enemies and adding new world interactions. This really improves the replayability of the game, while letting you stay in the base New Game if you’d like.
Sadly neither bonfire ascetics nor extensive NG+ changes were carried forward into Dark Souls 3.
Soul Memory: This is another well-intentioned change that unfortunately did not pan out. Soul Memory is a count of every soul the player has collected. It’s used for multiplayer matching rather than base level so that newer players (who haven’t accumulated many souls) are more likely to be matched with other new players.
The downside is that rather than making strong low-level characters, invaders are now incentivized to get stronger while maintaining a low soul memory. It ultimately did not prevent low-level invasions.
Invasions: Speaking of invasions, it’s possible to be invaded at any time. If you’re strictly a PVP player, this can be very frustrating. It is possible to reduce this chance by burning a consumable effigy, but ultimately you’re going to want to save those for health.
Hollowing: The hollowing mechanic is much more consequential than in Dark Souls 1 or 3. Each death reduces your max health by small increments until you reach 50%. With a ring this can be maintained at 75%, but it’s a much more significant penalty than the other games.
Personally, I like it. I’ve always felt hollowing should be a more iterative process and it’s great to see your character really reflecting that. I do wish the visual changes were more subtle at first though, as a single death will go from perfectly human to wretched zombie.
The world design is perhaps the weakest part of Dark Souls 2. While the game contains some amazing vistas, they’re poorly fitted together. A short elevator ride can take you from a mansion to a mountaintop, or from a windmill to a lava fortress.
The levels are self-contained set pieces, and were seemingly designed to be fitted together in any order. As a result of this the game loses the sense of direction that the original Dark Souls had. There’s never an “Aha!” moments as you circle around to an area you’ve previously been, perhaps seeing it from a new view. You just keep marching on.
While Dark Souls 2 is the most open-ended game in the series, it still feels very linear due to how its levels are chained together. There’s four primary paths (corresponding to four primal bonfires), and each of them follow consecutive maps until you reach the end. It really doesn’t feel as open as it should.
The maps themselves can be hit or miss. Almost all follow the basic formula of A to B, but some allow multiple approaches to getting there. Two particularly good maps are The Gutter, and Dragon Aerie.
The Gutter makes excellent use of the new torch mechanic. You are provided a genuine sense of progression as you begin lighting up the area, and there’s many secrets (and traps) to find. It’s one of the best designed maps in the game, or even the series.
Dragon Aerie is a mostly-optional area, but is worth exploring simply because it’s so visually stunning. Dragons fly overhead as their shadows pass over you, making loud gushes of wind. Ziplines offer you interesting ways of crossing large gaps. Dragon Aerie offers a sense of scale and awe that makes it one of the most impressive maps.
I think these maps stick out to me because they make excellent use of vertical space, and offer choice in how to progress. There’s many jumps, ladders, and shortcuts to navigate around, and it makes these levels much more interesting to explore.
Unfortunately a number of other maps are much simpler in design and remain mostly flat. Heide’s Tower of Flame is gorgeous, but offers a very simple path before ending abruptly. Many maps follow this formula.
One of the common tropes of Souls games is to use different enemies in each region. This keeps things fresh, but also offers unique story telling methods. When a knight from one kingdom is found elsewhere, there’s often a story-significant reason for this.
Dark Souls 2 does offer a lot of variety in its enemies, but the “standard enemy” remains pretty consistent throughout the game. It’s typically a humanoid with a sword, of which the game likes to throw a lot of them at you.
The large number of enemies is a constant throughout the game. In some areas it feels excessive, where you have to spend more time defeating the same baddie for the hundredth time when you’d rather be exploring.
The game does have a mechanic for addressing this though. After an enemy has been killed enough times (approximately 12-15 deaths), they will discontinue spawning altogether.
This is a presumably a balancing mechanic to help players who have gotten stuck. I’m mixed on the idea myself, because it doesn’t feel very “Soulsy”, but there have been situations where I’ve appreciated that it’s been there.
Thankfully there is a method to re-enable those enemies if their spawns have been exhausted
This is unfortunately another sore spot for the game. Dark Souls 2 has a ton of bosses, but most are very simplistic in design. This is especially true in the base game, where circling around with a shield is more often than not the best strategy.
Dark Souls 2 has thirty bosses in the base game, of which only a handful are really interesting.
The hidden boss Darklurker is almost certainly the best boss in the game. It’s significantly more difficult than others, but also completely fair. Darklurker does an effective job of teaching the player its moveset before ramping up the difficulty. It’s too bad that many players miss it, as it’s so well hidden.
Thankfully, the DLC bosses are consistently well designed. They require more than just a shield as you’ll need to fully learn their movesets before you can progress. Defeating some of the harder bosses here offers a genuine sense of accomplishment.
They remain some of the best designed bosses in the series.
Dark Souls 2 is a very experimental game, and in many ways it shows. The point of an experiment is to learn however, and it’s clear from their future titles that the developers learned a lot.
For every idea they had that ultimately worked better in theory than in practice, there was another that ended up redefining the series. For that reason I’m glad the developers were willing to try new things, to see what worked and discard what didn’t.
For all its follies, Dark Souls 2 is still a great game and very much worth your time.