If you’re going to forge a follow-up to one of the most notoriously difficult games of all time, then there’s really only one way to go about it: make it harder. Much harder. Anyone brave enough to delve into Dark Souls II’s labyrinth of punishment will be rewarded with a dense and incomparably gratifying reminder that From Software’s take on the Western RPG is unlike anything else you’ll find in gaming.
However, don’t lose all hope yet. While there’s no denying that the sequel ups the ante in terms of challenge (the glut of hideously contorted bosses alone exceeds the original’s crop by quite some margin) the developer has done much to make its underlying mechanics more accessible. You begin perched atop the sun-soaked clifftops of Majula, Dark Souls II’s central hub, and from there the route is clearly defined, making the anxious creep between bonfires (ostensibly checkpoints that you can now fast travel between) that much less painful.
Still, every inch gained in Dark Souls II is a victory in itself. The sequel continues the series’ tradition of delivering an unparalleled sense of reward to those who persevere through its most teeth-gnawingly, expletive-provoking encounters, and once again mastering its deep combat system is key to survival. Here From Software makes a few design tweaks: frustratingly diminishing the impact of parrying; generously adjusting equipment loads so you can carry more weaponry.
But the fundamentals remain skilfully balanced, empowering players with the necessary tools to tackle whatever discouraging impasse they might encounter.
You are at war with the world of Dark Souls, and, make no mistake, it is a war of attrition. As the scale of the world peels back before your feet, it’s not unusual to find several directions with which to proceed, some, if not most, of which will be beyond your current abilitiy. And you can’t rely on old tricks either; in its predecessor players could gain a cheap advantage by repeatedly reaping souls from the same location to boost stats, but Dark Souls II assures you that no such easy escape avenue is available by making it possible to permanently eradicate an area of enemies.
FromSoftware has crafted a staggeringly vast world as original and unrelenting as the denizens it houses. Simple pathways unfurl into undiscovered locations, each concealing their own prized trinkets and concealed areas. There’s far too much to see over the course of one playthrough, encouraging players to tackle the more fiendish New Game Plus mode, which resets everything in the world and ups the difficulty substantially.
Joyously bleak and tough as adamantium nails, Dark Souls II will see you die more times than ever before. Yet, even with a litany of brutal challenges sprawled across a world more imposing that its predecessor, those courageous enough to enter will find themselves enraptured by one of the most complex and exhilarating gaming experiences currently on offer.
Reviewed by Bryan Murray