Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls have become badges of honor amongst gamers. They transplanted the insane difficulty from the golden age consoles and spackled it in beautiful and gothic 3D graphics. They proved that gamers have gotten lazy and complacent with their new games that hand hold them all the way through right to the very end, all the while telling them which button to press. Their success is just as irrational as our love for them. Murderously hard games that make no apologies became best-sellers? Sounds impossible in the current landscape, but they proved that there was a thirst for a bit of punishment.

You play as a cursed adventurer seeking to regain your humanity. The story in the Souls games were never really at the forefront, they simply served as a way to tantalize you and motivate you ever forward. For those of you who wish the story was a bit more approachable, you’ll be happy to know that Dark Souls 2 has slightly more of an emphasis on story. There are more characters to interact with and more of the lore is revealed. Even though Dark Souls 2 is a bit more forthcoming with information, the mystery of the world and its inhabitants remains intact.

One of the first things you’ll notice about Dark Souls 2 is the presentation. The sequel looks as great as its predecessor and might be even a bit better. However, everything in Dark Souls 2 comes as a double edged sword. With the lush graphics comes more places for enemies to hide in the underbrush. While the graphics pull you into the world of Drangleic, they obscure the undead guard behind the rampart who is just waiting to end your life.

From Software

Even with its infestation of horrid monsters, Drangleic is really a beautiful place and you’re treated to its majesty from the very beginning. After a quick tutorial area, you make your way to the main hub by the sea. It is awe inspiring with its shades of golden sunset and rolling waves. Personally, I think this is the game mocking you. It figured you would need a pretty place by the sea to contemplate your next death.

Sadly though, I missed the brilliant interconnectedness of Lordran with all of its shortcuts. The world of Drangleic in Dark Souls 2 mimics more of the level system within Demon’s Souls. Essentially, it is a combination of the both. You have a hub world with a series of loops spreading out from it. While this works perfectly fine, it prevents you from having that “ah-ha!” moment whenever you open up a brand new shortcut.

That said, all of the levels are brilliantly designed and provide you with so much to experience and explore. There are pitfalls, tiny nooks with treasure, and the occasional small shortcut to get you back to the nearest bonfire. They all look beautiful, natural and slightly sad, like the ruins of a once great empire. It is a joy to explore, even if you’re terrified of what may lay in wait.

From Software

Dark Souls 2 opens up the fast travel system between bonfires right from the very beginning. I think this was a mistake and removes one of the biggest milestones from the original title (when you were granted the Lord Vessel in Dark Souls and could transport to anywhere you pleased). It was a real achievement and elicited a sigh of relief, as is finally, the game was yielding to your will. You don’t get that satisfying moment in Dark Souls 2.

The controls will be familiar to anyone who has played Demon’s or Dark Souls. You have your choice between light and heavy attacks with each arm depending on what you’ve equipped. The dodge is still present, but it isn’t a foolproof way to get out of danger. Also, a jump button has been mapped to one of the sticks so it is easier to make leaps of faith in search of treasure.

Dark Souls 2’s controls also remain as tight and skill-based as ever. You have to measure your movements carefully and treat each new enemy like they may take your head off in one swipe. One of the best additions to the gameplay is the ability to carry more weapons and properly dual-wield. It adds still another layer to an onion of gameplay options.

From Software

Your health bar is another spot where Dark Souls 2 deviates from its predecessor, but it does it to force you play even more carefully. Now when you die, a small amount of your maximum health is removed. This continues each time you die until you reach 50% of your maximum health. While it does provide a new challenge and variable to contend with, it makes it very difficult to gauge how many hits you can take from an enemy and survive.

The soundscape of Dark Souls 2 isn’t particularly memorable. The few cutscenes are expertly scored to provide you with the maximum amount of dread, but for the most part you’re treated to ominous silence. This is honestly preferable. I’d rather hear the echoing grunt of an enemy that makes my spine tingle rather than have an orchestra swell prematurely, robbing the gameplay of any tension.

For all of my preceding complaints, Dark Souls 2 is still a damn fine game that will delight anyone who is a fan of the previous titles in the series. The boss battles are varied and incredibly challenging. The enemy AI is even more ruthless when it attacks in groups. Most importantly, Dark Souls 2 still remains a challenge even for those who have conquered the previous two games. It has changed things up while still keeping the essence of the series and that wonderful satisfied feeling you get when you progress through the game.

Within Dark Souls 2 is a different distillation of everything that made the original great. The combat is still as intense, skill-based and nerve wracking as ever. The world is as mysterious and ominous as ever. The enemies are smarter and now attack in packs forcing you to learn and operate with multiple strategies depending on what danger presents itself. Dark Souls 2 is a damn good challenge that asks you to call upon your reflexes, skills, and intelligence to make your way through. To love Dark Souls 2 is an irrational love. It’s an intoxicating blend of masochistic gameplay and mystery that has kept me engrossed for hours and will continue to do so as I play through it again and again.

This review was completed using a purchased retail copy of Dark Souls II for the PlayStation 3.

9.0 out of 10 arcade sushi rating