Death is your mentor.
It was about ten minutes in when I first perished in Dark Souls II. A side-path in the very first area of the game held a particularly large and grotesque enemy I could never hope to take on -- yet the grizzled Souls warrior in me decided I was too good for the main path.
Suffice to say, I didn’t last too long -- the fat old thing gobbled my character up in classic Dark Souls form -- but the warm and fuzzy memories of constant death and cruel challenges came rushing back in an instant.
Dark Souls II is a love-letter for the fans.
Fans who worried that Hidetaka Miyazaki’s re-assignment from director to supervisor for the sequel of his love-child would mean an easier, more “mainstream” experience won’t ever have to remember such fears again; from the moment you enter the world of Dark Souls II, the difficulty that made the series so iconic is well and truly present - and more fun than ever to conquer.
As the latest member to join the ranks of the undead in the kingdom of Drangleic, things start off pretty bleak. You’re surrounded by creepy old women with cryptic tales and unassured words, the way ahead is vast and dangerous and the only way to break your curse and beat the descent into Hollow-ness is to gather as many souls as you can.
Death is your mentor and teacher in Dark Souls II, as it always has been. It can be cruel, frustrating and even depressing to face failure over and over again in what is a massive 50+ hour journey, but the lessons learned from death only serve to make you a better player and learn how to enjoy the game in every (proper) way possible.
Dark Souls is renowned for its statistical depth, involved combat and meticulously detailed weapon styles and II doesn't hold back. The battle system remains the crux of the game and is the reason why this series is no ordinary RPG. Alongside an extremely diverse amount of stat requirements and playstyles possible through each unique attack animation (standard attack, strong attack, two-handed and dual wielding) of every weapon, movement and attacking has real weight behind it -- and with that, consequence.
Every swing or roll or parry has value to it because your character spends a great amount of energy (as evident by your character’s stamina bar) behind every action. Unlike other games, you you can’t just expect to get away with a timely block when you just swung a powerful two-handed blow and missed -- expect to get beat down, hard. This makes every decision count, and timing critical to surviving each potentially deadly encounter.
The same goes for your decisions on equipment and how to handle every given situation. There's a ton of ways to approach an enemy or explore a suspicious area, and the game lets you figure out what's best to used. For instance, heavy armour and a trusty shield will serve you adequately in most skirmishes, but they can slow you down from the more agile threats. Torches can help light the way and ward off foes, but it also makes you slightly more vulnerable to blows.
Whatever the case, the choice is always yours -- the game never forces you to adopt a specific pile of equipment to progress, and you'll learn all you need to through trial and error.
And if you thought your enemies wouldn't have the same level of variety, then you're definitely a newbie. There are a ton of intimidating enemy encounters, each acting as their own puzzle to solve and conquer. Undead solders may look frail, but dodging their unexpected thrusts is an art-form. 10ft tall stone warriors with massive weapons force you to use critical timing and patience in order to conquer their superior reach and poise.
The bosses are equally engaging, though admittedly not as memorable as some of their forebears. The Last Giant and the Mirror Knight are two clear standouts that may join the ranks of The Four Kings or Orstein & Smough, but many of the aren't as eccentric as fans have come to expect. Still, beating these monstrous foes rewards the same level of adrenaline and elation as past bosses in the series -- maybe I'm just a bit picky.
Patience, practice and memorisation is key to succeeding in everything from exploration of each deadly locale you will intrude, exploiting gaps in the attack patterns of enemies, and excelling against the ridiculously hard (but awesome) bosses you will face. This means restraint from going crazy at your 110th death (helpfully tracked thanks to the worldwide death counter), hours of practice with each and every class and equipment combination to determine which fighting style is best for you, and memorising every environmental trap, doorway and nook and cranny for delicious loot and secret ways forward.
What did I learn, or relearn? Circle-strafing isn’t the answer to every enemy encounter; never under-estimate the reach of giant walking statues and their huge swords; and use that camera and watch the floor, because you will fall more times than you can count if you aren’t paying attention to surroundings.
You will have your own epiphanies during your journey, but rest assured; it rarely gets tedious or boring to set out and conquer that god-forsaken level one more time.
MULTIPLAYER VERDICT: IN PROGRESS
The unique multiplayer of the Souls series is what makes the game even more special from its closest competitors -- no other game can boast that they pioneered the popularity of invasions or social messages as signs as Dark Souls and Dark Souls II has.
Speaking of lessons, there’s no hand-holding in Dark Souls II. The game throws you in the deep-end just like the original and its spiritual predecessor, and never lets you off the hook from the usual process of discovering things on your own. From minimal explanation on stats and class differences to zero tutorials on how to handle a broadsword from a halberd, this approach is the reason why so many people love the series and why the sequel is just as great.
Nothing can ever replace the mixture of adrenaline, excitement and fear when you’re locked in deadly combat on your last bar of health, desperately fighting for your survival until you strike that critical blow that keeps you standing for just that bit longer, and the elation in hard-earned triumph. There’s no other series that gives you genuine empowerment and reward from success like the Souls franchise, and there’s a reason it’s so beloved by its hardcore legion of masochist fans.
While both Demon’s and Dark Souls weren’t lauded for their graphics in particular, it’s hard to argue that both didn’t feature an immersive fantasy world with stunning backdrops and detailed environments -- Dark Souls II continues this trend. The kingdom of Drangelic is full of diverse areas, with the eerily abandoned and crumbling seaside castle of Majula or drowning structures of Heide's Tower of Flame two particular highlights. Majula also acts as the “hub” for players in a similar way to the Nexus and Firelink Shrine in Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, with most of the NPC shops, covenants and level up source present in the area. You will also be happy to know that the frame-rate of every section of the game is rock solid on 30fps -- no more dips and nightmares of Blighttown in this sequel, thankfully (save me from these dreams!)
While almost as refined as a top-notch sequel can be, there are a few disappointing aspects to note. The character customisation system isn't exactly a step up from the creepy doll-face templates from its predecessors and are ugly as ever. One might argue that the character's looks are usually obscured by the vast sets of armour available and that the style is part of the Souls package, but I just feel it would have been worth From Software's time to spruce up the options and models a little bit.
Everything else graphically about Dark Souls II, though -- the detail in the crumbling environments, the draw distance and amazing backdrops -- are stunningly evident from the moment your character awakes from the abyss. Cutscenes in particular have been given more emphasis to create a greater cinematic experience - no doubt helped by extremely awesome voice acting and somber tones that help convey the ever-present atmosphere of despair and hopelessness.
The Final Verdict
Dark Souls II is about as good as it gets when it comes to a sequel to what once was a cult-hit series turned worldwide phenomenon. There's a reason so many games are now benchmarked or compared against Dark Souls; no other series can offer the same level of combat depth, aesthetic eccentricity or personal reward and Dark Souls II ups the ante tenfold. This is one for the fans, first and foremost - but a welcome entry for newbies looking for a real challenge, too.