Dark Souls II feels like playing baseball with a familiar, worn-in, comfortable mitt, only the rules of the sport have been slightly tweaked. Anyone worried that the sequel might rein back on the difficulty in favor of targeting a wider audience can sleep easy tonight – Dark Souls II is every bit as punishing, demanding, and ultimately rewarding as its 2011 predecessor. Its new ideas for both single-player exploration and helping and tormenting others in multiplayer don’t always quite click, but enough do to make this an exceptional game and an irresistible challenge.
As a guy who earned both the "To Link the Fire" and "Dark Lord" endgame Achievements in the original Dark Souls, I have no shame in admitting that Dark Souls II put me down hundreds of times throughout the massive, 60-hour journey. But like the original, no death was ever in vain. Each moment of failure taught me more about how Dark Souls II works that helped me get better. From learning to exploit enemy attack patterns to picking up the signs of environmental traps, the high difficulty almost never felt insurmountable.
I say “almost” because developer From Software went a little too far with a penalty that decreases your max HP every time you die. This can be counteracted by using a Human Effigy, but those items are few and far between in the early half of the campaign. While undoubtedly a hardcore feature, I found it frustrating because it slightly stifled my urge to explore the world with a fear of being too harshly penalized for failure.
But I pushed through and was rewarded for it, because the sprawling and diverse world of Dark Souls II proves to be ripe for non-linear exploration. One of my favorite elements here is that you always have at least a handful of different routes through the world at your disposal. Stuck at haunted dock full of fire-wielding marauders? Well, you can work your way down a well and find a tomb full of talking rats. Can’t get past a particularly tricky boss? Maybe head down another path to the Shaded Woods instead, and come back once you've leveled up.
The world of Drangelic is massive and filled with a wide variety of different locales. You'll travel between crumbling seaside kingdoms to marshes layered with thick coats of poison to what feels like the bowels of hell itself. While the variety in places to fight and explore is great, the world of Dark Souls II lacks a certain cohesion that was present in the original. 2011's depiction of Lordran felt it made sense in a geographic sense -- no matter how fantastical the setting got, it all seemed to fit together naturally. With the variety here and the ability to fast travel on a whim, Dark Souls II feels more like a large collection of levels than one natural single world.
Despite this schism, it’s definitely a nice world to look at. Dark Souls II's updated engine emphasizes the role of lighting in exploration. The game looks gorgeous when you're roaming around outside in a naturally lit area, or carrying around a torch. At any bonfire, you can choose to remove your shield in favor of lighting a torch. Not only does having a flame in your hand illuminate dark corners, but some enemies will cower in fear before your light. A choice that makes such a visible impact is cool, but oddly enough, the torch creates a strange tradeoff. Do you want to play it safe and carry a shield, or risk death and create a more visually interesting experience?
But these lighting conundrums don’t take away from just how great it feels to play Dark Souls II. It builds upon the challenge, scope, and mystery of the original in so many different impressive ways.
One of the biggest changes to the way this world works is the expanded fast-travel system. While fast travel is available in original, you don't unlock it until well over halfway through. In Dark Souls II, fast travel between any bonfire you've kindled is unlocked right from the get-go. I can't emphasize how great it is to be able to hop around the map at my leisure. The one place it’s counterproductive is when you have to warp back to the hub area whenever you want to exchange souls for stat upgrades. That irritating and unnecessary step leads to a good chunk of wasted time. Some might like the fact that it feels like a throwback to the setup of the original Demon's Souls, but it definitely felt like one of those “two steps forward, one step back” moments.
Oh, and remember how awful the frame rate got back in the original when you entered Blighttown? Dark Souls II runs at a steady 30 frames per second throughout the entire campaign without a hiccup. Even in areas brimming with enemies and environmental interactions, the game never slows down, meaning that you’ll never have anyone to blame for a “You Died” screen other than yourself.
Linking up with other players online changes the dynamics of play in some really interesting and challenging new ways. Dark Souls II builds on the same excellent foundation of choosing whether you want to invade other players' games and troll them with nightmares, or take the saintly route and assist them in particularly tough battles.
The role of Covenants is also expanded and made good use of for multiplayer. For instance, joining the Rat Covenant gave me the run of an ancient tomb, including control of where to place poison pools, enemy rats, and other devious booby traps for the next non-Rat Covenant player that happens by to deal with. Think Tecmo’s Deception, and you’re pretty close to the new dynamics that From Software has created here. It’s an extremely satisfying way to express my inner evil genius.
Combat this time around is similar to the original – a strong emphasis is placed on patience, learning enemy tells, and being able to block or dodge at an instant’s notice. Minor tweaks are present – magic feels a bit underpowered this time around, and the timing necessary for parrying feels more strict – but fighting through the world is still an immensely satisfying experience. Every encounter is a miniature puzzle in of itself, and the enemies in Dark Souls II are some of the strongest stuff From Soft’s ever produced. Mummified knights who can actually guard and parry provide stiff early-game challenges. Massive armored turtles slowly stomp towards you with menace, forcing you to use your agility to combat their raw strength. And giant trolls with smaller creatures riding atop them necessitate keeping your distance and quick, calculated strikes. It’s chock full of challenge and variety.
Iconic bosses also provide a ton of memorable moments of pain and regret that eventually become triumph. They don’t have quite the same impact as those in the original Dark Souls, but to be fair, that’s probably because I was prepared for the kind of challenge they were going to throw at me. There are certainly standouts. The Mirror Knight, for example, is an amazingly tough battle set on a gorgeous tower, and features some super exciting uses of multiplayer and New Game Plus. They’re fantastic surprises I won’t spoil for you
Dark Souls II is a smart, massive, and incredibly rewarding sequel. It’s crammed with deep systems, tense encounters, and enough clever multiplayer and New Game Plus elements to make me want to restart the second I saw the end credits. Not all of the tweaks and additions worked out for the best, but with such great enemies and levels to fight and explore, Dark Souls II made 60 hours of pain and agony so much fun they flew by in a heartbeat.