Lastly, lets hit up combat and leveling:
An RPG at its core, Dark Souls gives players a plethora of customization options to mold their Undead into the perfect fighting specimen. Whether it’s a pure strength build to bully foes with staggering power or stacking intelligence and faith to throw a copious amount of different spells, the options are generous. Leveling is done through the allotment of earned souls into respective categories, which happen to change every game. With Dark Souls and Dark Souls III, casual players average around level 80-100 when finishing their first New Game run. In Dark Souls II your character will be well into the 120-150 range by the end of the NG run, and that range is even recommended before traversing the trio of DLC areas.
Why is this a good thing you may ask? Well, your character is more or less committed to a specific role with a smaller level pool in the two other titles. When your Undead chooses its character archetype like Knight or Assassin or Sorcerer it is best practice to continue down the chosen path. The extra levels provided with the amount of souls acquired via boss fights and an ample amount of lootable souls found throughout Drangleic (Dark Souls II has a shortcut where accumulating 1,000,000 total souls can skip part of the game, and it damn sure makes it possible). The ability to create hybrid playstyles is not only possible, but encouraged.
Which brings me to my favorite decision in Dark Souls II: its handling of Magic and Pyromancy.
Dark Souls II stands as the only title to forgo mana for its sorceries and miracles and instead supplies a number of uses to each slot. This omission speeds combat up, with only stamina and weapon durability being pressures against a flow of damage. If you like a specific spell? Stock up and fire away (66 uses of Dark Orb is a grand ole time). At full attunement and with some help from rings you can hold up to 14 slots of spells, giving your character an absurd range of over 100 spells to choose from. You feel like a real sorcerer cycling through different types of damage as you face each batch of enemies, no longer stunted by the constant drain of mana.
Going with a melee build and need some more range to cover your bases? Not a problem. Pyromancies have no intelligence prerequisites to use. Any build can run a few fireballs and upgrade their Pyromancy Flame with fire seeds found throughout Drangleic to passively upgrade damage. Buffing intelligence does further increase the damage but having a back up plan of fire is never a bad option, especially when such a solid option is provided.
Oh, and did I mention Lifegems?
Fuck yeah, Lifegems. Glory to all in Drangleic that provide these golden nuggets of bliss. Being able to save precious swigs of Estus by crushing a few of these is another piece of Dark Souls II that I wish stuck around in later titles. This feels almost mandatory in some of the later levels where enemies do a ton of damage and most characters will have maybe 5-7 uses of Estus. Loading up on Lifegems is a lifesaver and well worth the souls to stock up.
Which brings me to the whole reason why I enjoy Dark Souls II more than any other title, and why I believe it holds itself the highest in the franchise:
When Bandai Namco dubbed Dark Souls as the “Prepare to Die” title, its sequel was bound to be another test of mental fortitude against new enemies, bosses, and lands designed to throw you into terrible situations. The community, as rabid as it is, clawed at the opportunity to tackle a devilishly tough world and gloated at the ability to complete the game, wearing completed challenges and absurd PvP builds like a trophy. Anyone who did not mesh with the game’s harsh difficulty but was interested in the lore and style was met with high level gatekeepers feeding on the poor, brutal stretches of terrain that left no room for error, or fucking Blighttown. The roots of git gud were embedded deep into the grain of the franchise.
Dark Souls II does not shy from this! There are still plenty of areas that can be a pain to traverse for first-timers, enemies that do not give players a chance to breathe, and plenty of NPC invaders that will cause roadblocks (looking at you Dennis, you piece of shit). But the options to craft a more approachable experience are given: lifegems to save Estus swigs after battles, pyromancies to level out short-range loadouts, an abundance of levels to fully customize your perfect builds, a helping hand or two against the game’s tougher bosses. All of these items are completely avoidable to craft a true “Prepare to Die” experience, but the inclusion of them allowed a more robust audience to experience the incredible effort put into this title. Whether they wanted to Git Gud or not was entirely up to the player and not made mandatory in the game’s design. This shows a real balance in understanding the needs of the casual and hardcore groups, something that is exceptional to see in motion, and is worth celebrating as the best of the Souls series.
At least, in my opinion.
Hit me up on Twitter @dieselcaldwell or @PixelDieWebsite and let me know your thoughts, I’ll never say no to discussing this game!