Dark Souls 2 is a game with some pretty big shoes to fill. The original Dark Souls is a game that rose from lukewarm reception at release to cult-classic status over the course of a year. Expectations are understandably high for the latest game in the series. Luckily, Dark Souls 2 is the right kind of sequel.
Software, the developer, has expanded upon the things that made Dark Souls memorable, while taking great pains to lift the veil of obfuscation that has, up to this point, hindered the series. Dark Souls 2 is a cleaner, more straightforward game. That doesn’t mean that it’s any easier, though.
Let’s make one thing clear: if you run berserker-style into a room crowded with enemies, swinging wildly, you’re going to meet a swift end. Dark Souls 2 is a game that demands patience and planning. Not only that, it’s a game that will gladly take away the progress you’ve made if you start to rush. That’s because each death not only resurrects any enemies you were able to slay on your last run, but also lowers the overall health of your next incarnation. Similarly, any souls (which act as money and experience points) that you might have been carrying are dropped upon death. You can retrieve these souls if you make it back to the spot where you died, but if you die again before retrieving them, they’re gone for good.
A great deal has already been said about the difficulty of Dark Souls 2 compared to its predecessor, but the comparison is unfair. Much of what makes Dark Souls 2 seem easier is actually just a greater emphasis on understandability. In Dark Souls, critical game mechanics were alluded to but left unexplained. Many of those mechanics reappear in Dark Souls 2, but are now communicated in easily digestible language. That’s not to say the sense of mystery is gone in Dark Souls 2; it’s just been diverted into more productive areas.
Getting around is a cinch, as fast travel is available from the get-go. You can move freely between any lit bonfire—an object that acts as a hub for areas, repairs your armor and resurrects enemies when you activate it. Likewise, leveling has been refined to be more forgiving. Allocating experience points indiscriminately in Dark Souls could end your game prematurely, and it was impossible to step back from an unviable build. Dark Souls 2 solves that problem by not only lowering the amount of souls required to gain a level, but also by offering you ample opportunities to redefine your class. The Dark Souls 2 character creation system provides you with a parachute of sorts, even if that parachute is gently drifting into the mouth of the frog demon.
Online play has always been a big part of the Souls games. In Dark Souls 2, online play is corralled through covenants. Covenants are like guilds, each with their own goals. Covenants in this game feel much more purposeful than in their predecessor. Each covenant revolves around a different online play style. You can help other players, invade their game or take up the mantle of vigilante by hunting down the guilty. When they work, covenants are a blast and add an extra layer to the game. Unfortunately, I received far more error messages than I did successful summons. It’s also worth noting that, while certain covenants can help with boss battles, they can also trivialize them.
Most covenants revolve around accessing someone else’s world, but some allow you to pull players into your own game. The Rat King covenant, for example, revolves around one of two specific locations. While another player is exploring one of these areas, you can pull them into your own version of that area. If you vanquish the player, you get an item that lets you make that area more deadly by adding more enemies and environmental hazards. It’s not unlike an R-rated version of Home Alone, in which each burglar killed nets you another trap.
Dark Souls 2 is a refined game, but it’s not perfect. Some of the issues that plagued the original game are still present. The frame rate in some areas dips drastically, though never reaching the level of absurdity found in the first game. Some textures are less than impressive, though the art style more than makes up for the realities of last generation’s hardware. Arrows still break the game. Most enemies have hard lines that they will not pursue you past, meaning that it’s completely feasible to hide in a doorway and chip away at them from a distance.
Even with those blemishes in mind, Dark Souls 2 is a refinement of an already great formula. It’s a hard, unforgiving formula, but it’s also a fair one.