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. Stamina regenerates at a much slower rate, while estus takes longer to drink. Large weapons have windup which require real commitment. Shields have stronger deflection while weapon tracking is reduced. Parries have a delayed activation window, and ripostes a longer animation. Bows and other projectiles also consume more stamina and require a longer cooldown between use.
These changes make combat feel more deliberate, but also less reactive. Players often have to spend time waiting on their character get back in control.
I’ll discuss some of the biggest combat changes below.
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 required.
High-precision rolling is even more essential in Dark Souls 2 as the number of enemies has been increased. Navigating during fights has become just as important as managing stamina and enemy spacing.
One combat addition 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. 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 particularly susceptible.
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, which 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 initially slows your character, which can and will get you killed on occasion. However it can be avoided by quickly chaining a forward movement into 180 degree turn.
Once you get used to the mechanic, running can be very useful in combat. It’s important for managing spacing when there are multiple enemies on screen.
Poise is the ability to absorb hits without being staggered. It’s a rather technical feature, and every Dark Souls game offers a different implementation of how poise works. Dark Souls 2 takes a fittingly balanced implementation between its predecessor and successor. It rewards both defensive positioning (“passive poise”) and offensive strikes (“hyper armor frames”), which works very well.
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 sadly 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. While some argue this hurts replayability, for me it encourages playing through into NG+ and beyond.
Unlike other Souls games, Dark Souls 2’s NG+ actually changes a fair amount of content by introducing new enemies and adding new world interactions. Encouraging players to progress into NG+ versus making a new character works to the game’s advantage.
Rings: There are now four slots available; an upgrade from two in the previous games. This is balanced by rings being generally less-powerful in Dark Souls 2. The upside is that it offers more variety in character builds, and allows the use of “utility” rings such as the Name-Engraved Ring for online matchmaking.
Infusions: Weapon infusions were simplified from the complex flowchart required in the first game. This new system requires less planning and is far more intuitive. As the cost of switching elemental types has been reduced, this also makes it possible to modify your weapons to counter any particularly challenging bosses.
I’m always a fan of changes which encourage variety and dynamic play, so this is a positive change for me.
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. Bonfire Ascetics are a great mechanic as they introduce an even greater risk/reward mechanic.
“What is done cannot be undone.”
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 new 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. New players who have the tendency to lose souls are additionally punished by being matched with ever-more-powerful invaders.
Invasions: Speaking of invasions, it’s possible to be invaded at any time. If you’re strictly a PvE player, this can be a frustrating experience. For those that enjoy the PvP, this mechanic helps keep the game’s multiplayer alive.
It is possible to reduce the chance of invasion 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 this change. 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 far-off mountain range, or from a windmill to an upstairs lava fortress. It feels haphazard and incongruent.
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 forward.
While Dark Souls 2 offers many ways to go, it still feels extremely linear due to how its levels are chained together. You have four primary pathways to choose from, but they’re all essentially isolated hallways that lead to a single destination each. The open-world is largely just a facade.
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, and 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 are many jumps, ladders, and shortcuts to navigate around, and it makes these levels much more interesting to explore.
Even at its height though there are missteps. At the start of the Dragon Aerie level, you are provided with an item that allows for infinite warping. Immediately afterwards the designers begin placing items that can only be picked up by dropping down one-way paths. There is no way back except warping to the start of the area, or jumping to your death.
This shows that when given tools like warping, the level and world design starts taking shortcuts. Instead of building a clever mechanism or pathway to return, the players is simply told to start over. Respawn all enemies and go back to the beginning.
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 player-sized humanoid with a sword, in many small groups of two or three.
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 twelfth time when you’d rather be exploring. This can make the game start to drag on. However, there is a mechanic for addressing this problem.
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.
The DLC bosses remain some of the best designed bosses in the series.
One of Dark Souls 2’s greatest accomplishments is its online PvP scene. Many of the game’s mechanics have been designed specifically with PvP in mind, and this is where those features shine.
Build variety in Dark Souls 2 is quite likely the strongest in the series. Almost any unique build can be workable, from poison whips, to lightning bows, to hex-wielding knights. Weapon and armor variety helps keep things feeling fresh while the high skill-ceiling makes combat rewarding and fun.
For all my complaints about PvE, the PvP remains phenomenal.
The Souls series has a long history of being experimental. Its spiritual predecessor Demon’s Souls could not have existed without its bold departure from making “safe” games, which originally defined the Souls formula.
Dark Souls 2 is also a very experimental game, and in many ways it shows. Some ideas like soul memory didn’t pan out, while others like the revamped infusion system became the new standard. I’m glad that the developers were still willing to experiment with new ideas, rather than fall back to the safe tropes they originally broke away from.
It’s for this reason that Dark Souls 2 is an important step in the series. Its mechanical changes helped evolve the series, while its improvements to build variety, replayability, and PvP helped establish its own longevity.
For me though, Dark Souls 2 is not the strongest showing in the series. It makes too many missteps around boss and world design to truly shine. That is not to say it isn’t a good game; just that it doesn’t meet the high-expectations I have of the series.
For all its follies, Dark Souls 2 is still very much worth your time.