Dark Souls II comes out on Tuesday, March 11, for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, and even now there are whispers of game reviewers quietly toiling away with their advanced copies.
I am not one of them, as I'm holding out for the April 25 PC release. (My colleague, Matt Peckham, is reviewing the console version.) So in the meantime, I've been doing the only sensible thing and playing way too much Dark Souls.
This game, and its spiritual predecessor Demon's Souls, have a strange spell on me. Usually I can't wait to be finished with any game that takes more than 20 hours. I have now poured well over 100 hours into each Souls game--two playthroughs of Demon's, nearly two playthroughs of Dark, and both games with a third playthrough that I never bothered to finish.
Because any comparisons between Souls games are about to get more complicated, now's a good time to look back at these two brilliant contributions to modern RPGs--one last set of observations before we see if From Software has improved on its formula.
The game itself is already hard enough, so lets make this easy and divide it into subsections:
Demon's Souls Does More with Less...
Demon's Souls has just 38 non-boss enemies--not counting Black Phantom variants--compared to 93 enemies in Dark Souls, but the disparity often feels cosmetic. Despite having fewer enemies overall, Demon's Souls' combat is frequently more interesting.
Nothing encapsulates this idea like the Mind Flayer. The mere sight of one in Demon's Souls is unnerving, because one misstep can easily kill you. Step out in the open for too long, and you risk being frozen by the Flayer's projectile, leaving you open to a devastating follow-up attack. Before you even bother to engage, you need an airtight strategy. Dark Souls doesn't have anything quite like this, and its combat frequently falls into a block and counter-attack routine." While Demon's Souls is similar, it throws in just enough curveballs to make its smaller scope work.
There are other ways in which Demon's Souls does more with less. Dark Souls has more wide-open spaces and a broader range of environments, but also a lot of empty hallways and areas that seem to end prematurely. As others have pointed out, there are chunks of Dark Souls that feel incomplete, especially as you travel farther from the center of the world, and it's hard to shake the feeling that the game was pushed out the door. Demon's Souls has fewer areas covering seemingly less terrain, but it doesn't let any of that space go to waste. The game is packed with memorable confrontations.
...but Dark Souls Is a Grand Adventure...
The flip side is that Demon's Souls feels more like a construct, with its distinct levels connected by a single hub. You can't climb to the top of a castle and peer down at the places you'd explored 15 hours earlier. Spend 80 hours in Dark Souls' open world, and your head will swim just thinking of all the places you've been--and there may even be some that you missed.
And while Dark Souls' enemy behavior isn't much more varied than Demon's Souls, there's a kind of grandeur to the number foes you face and the sizes to which they grow. In Dark Souls, early bosses become routine opponents later in the game, and you'll often fight knights and monsters twice your size. Even if Demon's Souls is more tightly designed, it can't match Dark Souls' incredible scale.
...that's Also More Streamlined
Although Demon's Souls has sharper character and level design, its basic mechanics are rough around the edges. Having to limit the items you carry is a major hassle, especially because you can't return to the hub world without losing all your level progress. The paucity of checkpoints is one of the Souls games' main concepts, and I wouldn't give it up, but having limited inventory space means you might have to drop valuable items. It's a needless limitation that was thankfully scrapped in Dark Souls.
The health recovery system in Demon's Souls is also flawed, as it's based on herbs that you collect throughout the game. If you want to have lots of spare health, you need to waste lots of time farming for herbs. It's another system that Dark Souls did away with, instead giving players a limited number of recovery flasks that could be recharged at checkpoints. (I'm a little worried about Dark Souls II using a hybrid system, with both flasks and "lifegems.")
Sad Demons vs. Dark Irreverence
Both games are known for their oppressive difficulty, but Demon's Souls is better at reinforcing its toughness through plot and atmosphere. Most of the "friendly" characters are at best indifferent to your existence, while others treat you with outright disdain. One character serves no purpose but to chastise you--until he loses his mind and fades away. The attitude in Demon's Souls is that you're not going to survive, so no one particularly cares about you.
Dark Souls is practically the opposite. You are sometimes called "Chosen Undead," and many characters pray for your safe travels. There's this weird friendly monster who appears halfway through the game and speaks to you in a silly voice. Where Demon's Souls was depressing, Dark Souls often veers into irreverence.
And while I can't quite put my finger on it, there's just something sadder about the world of Demon's Souls. It might be the very lack of wide-ranging environments that you get in Dark Souls, as the game focuses on five desolate locales: A broken down palace, abandoned mines, an insane asylum, lost holy grounds and a place that is actually called the "Valley of Defilement." Dark Souls has some similar haunts, but it also weaves you through forests, a pristine castle and a beautiful crystal cave. It's less committed to pathos than it is to a broad color palette.
Competitive Multiplayer: Fun and Fundamentally Flawed
I wish I could do an exhaustive multiplayer comparison, but I've never gotten to a high enough level to actually be competitive. So instead, most of my multiplayer experience comes from the occasional invasion.
There's nothing quite like the feeling of having your world invaded by another player. A plain-text message pops up, informing you of the intrusion, and you go on high-alert, heart pounding as you look for your attacker. And then you see it--a ghastly figure in the distance, glowing red and charging your way. The terror is only matched by the gratification when you strike that opposing player down.
Only, it rarely happened that way for me. Most invasions ended in humiliating defeat, the other player doing a celebratory taunt as if the battle was even remotely hard-fought. That's why I played most of Demon's/Dark Souls in invasion-proof Soul/Hollow form. You can always just go offline, but then you miss out on the little community help messages and player ghosts that haunt the online world.
The fundamental problem with the invasion model is that you must tailor your character for multiplayer to have any chance at survival. The invader has actively decided to fight, which means he or she was meticulous in crafting all the right weapons and carrying the right spells. Meanwhile, you've built a character that is wonderful for single-player, but utterly worthless against human opponents. Preparing for invasion means spending hours scouring forums and wiki pages to figure out what works, and by that point you may have already invested too many souls into stats that don't make sense. I continue to explore player vs. player in my current Dark Souls build, and I like how the game offers "Covenants" that encourage you play multiplayer in various ways. But so far I've only been successful when I'm--wait for it--invading other helpless players.
I'm nervous about the idea that Dark Souls II will always leave you open to invasion, regardless of human/hollow form, and skeptical about the supposed penalties and risks of invasion. We'll see.
So which game do I prefer? I give the edge to Demon's Souls, mostly because I'm a sucker for atmosphere and love how haunting it can be (with the exception of the Dark Souls Menu Theme, which gives me major chills for some reason.) But I enjoy both games for different reasons, and look forward to playing the next one.
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