Sometimes, it's easy to forget Dark Souls was the spiritual successor to another game, Demon's Souls. The two games had a lot in common, but they were also different enough that you couldn't really say they were the same experience. Dark Souls II is an interesting attempt to bridge the gap between those two games and represents a very natural synthesis of the two titles.
In Dark Souls II, you are an unnamed character cursed with being an Undead, a monster who is unable to die and must feed upon souls to exist. You travel to the kingdom of Drangleic, where a cure is rumored to exist. There's little of the plot that can be discussed, either due to spoilers or because it's told via setting and environment as opposed to lengthy cut scenes. It is not a Hollywood narrative, but it's tremendously engrossing. The story is vague and open to interpretation in some areas, and much like Dark Souls and its predecessor, it's better because of it.
Dark Souls II is a case of "If it isn't broken, don't fix it." Anyone coming into the game is going to feel that a lot is familiar, and that's because it is. The basic concepts, gameplay mechanics, and core design feel like they came out of the first game, but that's not a bad thing. This isn't another case of Batman: Arkham Origins, which felt like an expansion pack. Dark Souls II might play similarly, but it is absolutely packed to the brim with new content and new ideas. It feels a little less fresh than Dark Souls, but it's tough for a second (or, in this case, third) outing to be quite as original. Dark Souls II still manages to stand head and shoulders above many other games.
As always, the star of the game is the immensely well-crafted level design. Dark Souls is defined by levels that are tough but fair, and Dark Souls II doesn't shy from that. You will die in Dark Souls II, and it will almost certainly be your own fault. You may get overconfident and take on an enemy without checking your surroundings, only to get ambushed from behind. You may rush ahead to grab an item, step on a pressure plate, and meet your death in a grim trap. There are countless ways to die in Dark Souls II, but the critical thing it does right is it never feels like something you can't figure out. If you end up dodging off a cliff when fighting a powerful enemy, maybe you can snipe that enemy from a distance next time. You can even turn these disadvantages to your favor and lure enemies to places where they will be hindered by the design.
The atmosphere really makes the game stand out. The surroundings in Dark Souls II are relatively brighter than its predecessor but certainly not happier. Every area is practically oozing personality. Corpses litter the ground, there are hints of dangers and monsters that lie ahead, and even the most beautiful forest feels like a mysterious and dangerous place instead of warm and inviting. The monsters are disturbing and include mutated beasts, corrupted humans and even stranger beings that dwell within the kingdom's borders. There were times when I felt that I was encountering a monster too often, but there are enough new creatures and amazing bosses that the repetition doesn't get in the way.
Dark Souls II stands out from its predecessor mostly in minor ways that will feel significant to fans of the franchise. Early on, you gain access to a home base in Majula, a small village that's one of the friendliest areas in the game. It's brightly lit, sparsely populated, and can be accessed at any time. You must return to the village to level up, and you can return from any bonfire, which can be lit and used infinitely. This gives the game a very different feel. You've gone from constantly trekking deeper into dangerous territory to being able to return to a more centralized zone. It feels more like Demon's Souls in that way and takes a bit of the edge off the difficulty.
Healing and item repair are both easier to come by, especially since bonfires can be used infinitely. This causes enemies to respawn, but even that can be exploiting by taking multiple trips through the same area. This could be Dark Souls II's most controversial feature, but some enemies stop respawning after a certain amount of kills and a certain number of player deaths. This seems designed to limit the amount of farming you can do, but it has the side effect of allowing you to force your way through an area via sheer repetition. I didn't encounter a situation where I died often enough for this to be an issue, so I suspect this is a handicap measure for less-skilled players. There appear to be ways around it, but it certainly is a notable difference.
One of the biggest changes is the functionality of Hollow form. Also hearkening back to Demon's Souls, Hollow form is now a more significant punishment. Dying once takes you to Hollow form, and dying again reduces your health bar. This continues each time you die until your health bar is 50% of the maximum. The only way to reset this is to return to human form, usually by burning a rare Human Effigy item. This makes death a more significant drawback than it was in Dark Souls, where dying was a minor deal and many players spent the entire game in Hollow form. This is in addition to the usual Souls penalty of losing all your souls and having to trek back to where you'd died to get them back. Part of what made Dark Souls work was the relatively limited punishment for death, so it may feel overwhelming for players who are accustomed to more leniency.
In the end, Dark Souls II is going to feel very familiar, in both good and bad ways. The wonderful level design, exciting combat and engaging world-building are intact and mixed with enough new content so the experience stays fresh. However, some of the minor nagging problems from Dark Souls also remain. When it comes to plot and game mechanics, the game is pretty obscure and doesn't explain much. A user-friendly tutorial area eases new players into the game, but even experienced Souls aficionados will be met with plenty of mysteries. Some are fun, and some are frustratingly vague and will send players running to message boards and wikis for answers.
Even the popular online multiplayer summoning system returns. It hasn't changed much, but there are some minor differences. It's easier to summon help, but it's also easier to be invaded, so the cooperative online elements of the game stand out more than ever. You can leave messages from the outset of the game, and there are a lot of cool online interactions that I won't spoil, since they're a lot more fun when you encounter them on your own.
Dark Souls II is one of the best examples of art design being more important that pure graphical fidelity. From a technical standpoint, it isn't the best-looking game on the market. Some of the character models feature bad or plain textures, and I noticed slowdown in some areas, although it wasn't quite as bad as Blighttown in the first game. However, the art design is good enough to make you overlook all of that. The game is distinctive and memorable. Enemies take your breath away in how they look and move. The environments are amazing to walk through due to the effort invested in making each one breathe and live. There are some weak areas here and there, but the same could be said of its predecessor. The voice acting is the usual combination of slightly bad and slightly unnerving. In any other game, it might be distracting, but here it is exactly what the world demands, and it would feel more out of place if everyone sounded like a Hollywood actor. The soundtrack is excellent and does a fantastic job of setting the mood. It's grim and atmospheric and never distracts from the surroundings.
Dark Souls II is exactly what I was hoping for from a Dark Souls sequel. It borrows from Dark Souls and Demon's Souls and adds just enough of its own flavor to form a potent brew. The core gameplay and basic design sensibilities have been retained, and while there are some concessions to player ease, they don't interfere with the gameplay. Dark Souls II is exciting, engaging and fun, and while it isn't going to attract anyone who disliked the franchise, Dark Souls fans should love it. I'm not sure if it's better than its predecessors, but even being on par with Dark Souls is high praise.
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