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SummaryDark RPG brutality blesses us once more
The GoodDark Souls gave hardcore action role-players what they were asking for, and what only that one game could properly embody: real old-school challenge coupled with new technology. It brought back the romantic fear of death, the greed of power, the triumph of eventual success that permeated classic RPGs - and blended it with modern preferences for visceral 3D action.
The game became very successful despite denying the mainstream; as a result, it quietly slipped into the mainstream itself. Because of that, some people worried that the sequel would try to expand the fanbase and make more concessions to modern tastes. But even a quick and incomplete playthrough of Dark Souls II makes it clear that those worries were completely unjustified. It is certainly one of the most true, faithful, similar sequels ever made. If you loved the first game unconditionally, you'll dive into the successor headstrong and forget to eat and sleep due to deeply familiar addiction.
I don't want to repeat myself, so please refer to my review of the first game and apply pretty much everything I said about it to the sequel. Here, I will only make a few points concerning the (mostly marginal) differences. Fundamentally, Dark Souls II is quite the same experience. The interconnected world, the difficulty, the meticulous exploration, the wealth of optional content, the freedom, the lack of plot restraints, the refinement of character-building options - everything is there.
One thing needs to be said right away: the PC port of Dark Souls II is significantly more polished than the sloppy job done to its predecessor. Right off the bat there are graphic options, high resolution, and key bindings that actually tell us what key corresponds to what action. The game ran without any problems on my seven-year-old machine with Windows XP, and I didn't need to struggle against choppy cameras or unresponsive mice. So if the only thing preventing you from trying this PC version are the scars from the psychological wounds inflicted to you by the shoddy porting of the original, fret not: they have learned from their mistakes.
The game is even more gorgeous than its predecessor, though the actual graphical design is, as before, rather sparse and deliberately ascetic. There are, however, unforgettable views that take the crown away from the first game's already magnificent vistas. There are more fearsome enemies, more treacherous paths, more vertigo-inducing journeys to the depths of peril - everything is even more nerve-wrecking and at the same time serenely beautiful than before. Like the original, Dark Souls II is a masterful, artistic recreation of the most enticing aspects of European medieval fantasy. Deeply melancholic music adds more layers of atmosphere to this experience.
Is Dark Souls II less or more difficult? I'd probably go with the second. I'm a cowardly, methodical player who likes careful exploration and overleveling at the expense of risk. Well, Dark Souls II removes what was probably the last straw I could grasp for in the first game: infinitely respawning enemies. You shouldn't worry too much, since the enemies still do respawn a fair amount of times, and there is even a special item that would make them re-appear; but you can't abuse the system anymore. No more 50+ trips to bonfire following soul-milking from the same poor enemy. The upside is, of course, that you can simply fight until enemies are gone, which is still decent grinding that rewards you with a clear path to the boss after several tries.
One thing that is certainly less frustrating in the sequel is bonfire placement. There are more bonfires, which is a really good thing, since I was getting weary of those ultra-long trips with my precious souls to the only place where I could spend them. You can only level up at one sole bonfire in the entire game, but this is more than compensated by the excellent addition of teleportation: you can always instantly warp to any bonfire you have already visited.
The enemies themselves, on the other side, are even more vicious, and some situations seem nigh impossible - probably even more so than in the first game. Taken together, those small changes clearly indicate the intention of the designers to focus the challenge on the battles themselves, rather than on general inconveniences such as being unable to locate a bonfire. In return, the fights are more deadly than ever, and at some point you'll have to accept that all that remains is your skill versus the fearsome boss.
The BadJudging already by their King's Field series, I knew that FromSoftware took their own traditions very seriously. Not only were all those worries about Dark Souls II being less hardcore and too mainstream not justified - in fact, I'm almost ready to say that I begin to worry about a possible third game being too true to the successful template. Dark Souls II is one of those very loyal, very carefully crafted sequels, afraid of making changes that would infuriate the fans. It is not "bigger and badder" - it's pretty much the same. It is a great game because is is faithful to a great legacy, but it doesn't add nearly anything that could be truly called its own.
In an attempt to preserve the famed and dreaded difficulty level, the designers have obviously spent many hours making foes brutally dangerous. I actually felt that they were too much so. All those unfair situations from the first game become almost cheap here, and I had a slightly unpleasant feeling that there was too much cold calculation behind that. There is even more pressure here from decreasing HP and the fact enemies won't respawn indefinitely - though, to be fair, it sort of balances itself with the more generous bonfire placement. I can't quite help feeling a tiny bit underwhelmed, if only because I expected the sequel to present some real gameplay-related innovations instead of putting everything into bare-bones challenge.