With a game the size of Dark Souls 2, combined with the constraints of getting up a prompt review, it’s basically impossible to cover everything first time. In my original play through (the one for the review) I fitted a lot in: I found all but one of the covenants and lit every single bonfire (to give two examples). However, as any Souls enthusiasts will tell you, your first playthrough is only half the story. My review still applies to the game, and I still stand by it, but this is a chance to cover a bit of the end game of Dark Souls 2.
New game plus is a big part of the Dark Souls experience. This supposedly harder mode was a way to keep playing the game and a way to find a whole new bunch of secrets that were off limits to you before. It’s also a nice way to catch up on any missed content and a chance to spend some time in a world you are familiar with rather than scared of. Like many players, I played Dark Souls 1 multiple times and loved the process of getting to know everything about the game.
There is so much in these titles, that a second playthrough is usually required if you want to worm everything out of them. If you are like me, the urge to complete takes over the first time. You plough towards the end, loving every minute. This then means that a second run through is in order so that you can take your time, experiment with the open ended gameplay and make sure no smooth and silky stone is left unturned.
There was a lot of talk about new game plus being a lot harder in the original Dark Souls, but - minus some bosses with a bit too much health - this wasn’t really the case. You were better as a player, you carried forward your high stats and powerful weapons, and you knew the game. So much of the learning curve to the Souls games is memorisation; progress is blocked by unexpected occurrences when you don’t know what is round that corner… Oh, it was death… Again.
The real joy of new game plus was gaining further time to exist in the world. You being better makes this existence more comfortable, but a slight difficulty bump keeps it interesting and means you can’t be too complacent. In Dark Souls 2 though, this feeling comes in a different way. Whereas Demon’s and the original Dark shoved you right into new game plus on completion, Dark Souls 2 allows you to stay in the world of Drangleic. This time gives a prime opportunity to mop everything up: find the rest of the covenants, join in jolly cooperation and search for those few optional bosses you may have missed (or keep attempting the ones that scared you off before).
After spending a significant amount of time with Dark Souls 2, I can say this change is for the better. It’s nice to have some time to wind down and just finish everything up. In Dark Souls 1 I would just delay the ending as much as I could in later playthroughs – and even feel slightly disheartened when I caved in and just finished it. I would find myself wanting to explore those later areas again, or buy that item I forgot off that late game NPC; there was always a niggling feeling that I had missed out on something. Also the last boss of Dark Souls 1 was just a lot of fun to fight (and you could unlock items from beating him), meaning there was something pushing you forward when you kind of wanted to hold back.
The changes in Dark Souls 2 are really clever though. With the alterations to enemy spawns (if you keep killing an enemy it doesn’t come back) you run in to the possibility of emptying the world. Now, there is some appeal to an empty Drangleic, but when the combat is such a highlight if there’s none of it left to do, you are sort of missing out. This is where bonfire ascetics come in, an item I ignored in my first playthrough, but have now used frequently.
A bonfire ascetic means that you can have your new game plus without the slight negatives of starting from square one. You can have all your late game areas and merchants, as well as all your covenants accessible, but still have things to do in the world (new things at that). What an ascetic does, is bring back all the enemies in the area (including the area boss) at new game plus difficulty. In fact, a plus above what you are on – do it in new game plus and you get new game plus plus areas (and so on). I needed to fight a few bosses again (well, more want than need) so that I could use their souls to unlock sorceries (only one left!!), but getting back to those bosses would take a fair old time. Luckily I’d built up a stack of ascetics and was able to respawn a boss, that was a tad more challenging (which is great, because I already beat the normal version). The appeal of this mechanic wasn’t clear to me first time through, but now I’m pootling about in the end game I really appreciate it. It’s a rare case where Dark Souls 2 has made a genuine improvement over its exceptional predecessor.
Another improvement is new game plus itself. Though it took me half the time of my first playthrough (24 hours rather than 48), it did put up a hell of a challenge. Playing Dark Souls 1 a second time was a lot quicker, I even got to the stage where I made it to Smough and Ornstein in 2 hours on NG++. Of course plus plus in 2 may be similarly speedy, but I don’t think so. The game is longer, after all, and there are less sneaky ways to cut things out (or so it seems). This is to the games detriment in a sense, because it isn’t as intricately designed, but the new game plus experience is better. It’s not just the same again with more health, there are some cool changes.
One can enact a complete new game plus (rather than just using ascetics) by selecting 'Journey to Drangleic 2' from the bonfire at the hub world Majula. After the tiniest bit of fiddling about post game I decided to do this. I entered back into the serene starting area... And was instantly hit in the face by a falcon. This was completely unexpected. The first time, no enemies, second time... Falcon to the face. This was followed up with a second falcon meeting my face and the slow realisation that I was surrounded by armoured men that were launching falcons at me. I of course dispatched them with exquisite skill, but I could not help but appreciate the fact that they were a brand new enemy. Something saved entirely for cocky buggers like me that think they know everything about Drangleic.
Though there weren't any further instances that I remember of brand new enemies (I could be wrong on this one though) the game did continue to change. Just to mess with me. These are slight changes, but impactful ones.
The change, in a nutshell, is more enemies. There are a lot of red phantoms in areas now (even the opening) and numerous areas have had a slight boost in population. This sounds like a tiny thing, but it's a huge change. Enemy placement in the Souls games is very deliberate and - as previously mentioned - part of the game's challenge is memorising areas and where enemies are. By adding a few more powerful foes in certain areas the dynamic of an area changes. Walks in the park become treks into hell, as your carefully planned strategies need to be totally rethought.
A prime example is an extra giant mace dude in Heide's Tower of Flame. This is an area I mastered pretty quickly, I developed a strategy and stuck by it (and the bosses aren't hugely challenging, one taking a single attempt and the second just two). This change threw my strategy out of the window and did indecent acts all over it; I had to rethink and relearn. This area became really hard for me as I like to carefully and methodically make it so that I am fighting one large foe at a time, picking my moments and luring one from the other. This became incredibly challenging and, admittedly, frustrating to pull off. At times I thought it was too much, but then reminded myself that a hard mode is supposed to be hard. However, when I made it through I felt fantastic and like I could pull it off that way every time. By changing up enemies, but keeping the world the same, new game plus manages to capitalise on two of the series' joys:
1) Feeling a sense of unease as you are forced to learn areas.
2) Retaining a level of familiarity that allows you to feel at home in the world.
Basically, you still have that joy of feeling like you've cracked a lot of the puzzle and solved the secrets, but there is still a flavour of unease there that keeps the original playthroughs atmosphere in place in terms of combat.
Outside of this a few bosses have been altered. Some of these changes are a joy, but some are rather annoying (and I say this as a huge Souls apologist). A lot of the additions come by way of adding enemies into the fight alongside the boss, sometimes this is great and other times it just doesn't gel with the battle. The Lost Sinner was a great boss to fight, she's always on the attack and evading her (whilst finding time to stick a sword in her) is a really exhilarating challenge. What isn't fun is evading her whilst also evading two fellas who just want to throw one shot kill fire at you, from a safe distance. You go to take them out and... Oh, there's still a difficult to avoid boss here that is stabbing you in the back very hard. I love a difficult Souls boss, I thrive on that stuff, but this one was annoying. Some people may have no issues, but it made co-op feel necessary for me. I handle the boss and you people kill those fire folk who come half way through. The problem here is that the fight suddenly became easy, and that a few months down the line this may not be an option.
Another similar example is the crazy easy Flexile Sentry from your original playthrough. Remember him? Cake walk right? Well this time he's like Capra Demon in a smaller space. How about you fight him and two things (actually these may have been new enemies, I stand somewhat corrected) that jump around and make you bleed. While they do that (and destroy your stamina bar) Flexile is going to hit you hard with a spiked bat. Actually, two spiked bats. It's a boss I got through, but it was still an annoying one.
Playing through Dark Souls 2 on new game plus was a great experience though. I loved that it was different and even when I was hating on it I loved it deep down. However, a second playthrough did highlight some of the game's faults. A couple of later areas really aren't enjoyable, including the abysmal Shrine of Amana which makes me never want to play through that game again. Let's make a game with best in class melee combat and then populate an area with multiple mages who throw endless hadouken esque magic balls at you from out of lock on range. Oh, let's make those balls homing too... Why not, it's Dark Souls. I got through it, but it still sucks.
Dark Souls 2 stands up as an incredible game. I worried that it perhaps wouldn't have the endless replayability that I found with the first, but it has really got its hooks into me. I took an evening off to play Ground Zeroes after beating it once, then played Dark Souls 2 obsessively for the following week until I beat it again. I then took an evening off to play through the (great) Diablo 3 expansion, then found myself spending the next day playing Dark Souls 2 constantly. I don't see this stopping either.
How's the end game then? It's awesome!