by Matt Daniel
From Software’s infamous action-role-playing game Dark Souls made small ripples in the collective gaming consciousness when it was quietly released in 2011. Thanks to critical acclaim and a port to the PC in 2012, the ripples turned to waves and Dark Souls proved to be a sleeper hit that garnered a devoted fanbase.
When From announced Dark Souls II in late 2012, that fanbase’s excitement was tinged by skepticism as the director of the original game announced he would not be directing DS2 and would instead be simply supervising its development. Players wondered if the new directors could replicate the challenging-but-fair gameplay, unique multiplayer and enigmatic atmosphere that brought legions of fans flocking to the original. After one full playthrough, I feel the answer isn’t as simple as yes or no.
DS2 puts the player into the role of a nameless adventurer (whose appearance and statistics can be customized) who has come to the strange land of Drangleic for reasons unknown. Like its predecessor, DS2 provides little straightforward plot information, requiring players to piece together the secrets of the world and the protagonist’s story through cryptic clues in the environment, dialogue and even item flavor text. While players can pick up the basics by simply playing the game, there’s a wealth of rich lore to be found for those willing to pay close attention and connect some dots.
Unlike the original, DS2 is more accommodating to new players. Rather than slapping a sword in your hand and pushing you out the door, DS2 provides a small tutorial area where players learn the basics of surviving Drangleic’s hazards. That doesn’t mean the rest of the game has been made any easier; DS2 is just as brutal as its precursor. Though the game punishes mistakes, it’s seldom unfair. Each mistake is a learning experience, leading to a sense of true achievement when everything falls into place.
Another mainstay of the series—online multiplayer covenants—returns in DS2, allowing players to join one of nine factions and rise in the ranks by accomplishing covenant-specific tasks. From giving other players a helping hand to battling against them, there’s a covenant to suit any playstyle.
The one area in which the game falls short is atmosphere. Dark Souls had a distinct style that blended classic fantasy with a unique otherworldliness, from its detailed locales to its larger-than-life, sometimes terrifying bosses, which created memorable moments of sheer awe. While DS2 has its share of those moments, they are scattered among many uninspired environments and forgettable boss fights.
Despite some minor shortcomings, DS2 still delivers a compelling experience worthy of the series. Players looking for a true challenge that will test their skills and patience will find plenty to love in Drangleic, and the game’s new game-plus feature, combined with its unique and varied multiplayer components, provide untold hours of replay value even after the ending credits roll.