There are a number of games that keep you invested as you play them, the one more turn mentality of not being able to put the game down. Dark Souls 2 - like its predecessors - goes a step further than this. It not only keeps you gripped whilst you are playing, but totally invades your mind. Every second I wasn't playing Dark Souls 2, I was thinking about playing it, wondering what was around that next corner. The sense of discovery and potential sense of achievement make this game darkly compelling and savagely wonderful. Dark Souls 2 may not be the best game in its series, but that doesn't stop it from being an outstanding title.
Dark Souls 2 has a lot in common with its predecessor, to the extent that if the original wasn't for you than this instalment will carry no real appeal. There are some key differences though and a number of design decisions that hark back to Demon's Souls. The end result is a game that occupies a comfortable middle ground between the two, managing to one-up Demon's Souls but not quite match up to Dark Souls. Though, considering quite how good Dark Souls was, being not quite as good is incredibly high praise.
The first, and most noticeable, change is a whole new world. Gone is the world of Lordran, replaced with the equally dark and inhospitable land of Drangleic. A place where you have come to in search of a cure for being undead, a situation very similar to that of Dark Souls 1. Things escalate from here and the thrust of the immediate narrative becomes get lots of powerful souls (souls are your currency and experience, killing enemies gets you them and bosses drop special souls). The structure is very similar to the previous titles, but the unique world and separate lore help it to become distinct. The overall tone is consistent to the series, but the game world still feels new and exciting.
This is good, as the main appeal of Dark Souls 2 is the mystery. Of course this only holds due to outstanding core gameplay - the combat system is back and as brilliant as ever, making for a game that just feels great from beginning to end. It's the puzzle that is Dark Souls 2 that keeps you invested, it's a mix of obscure storytelling and cryptic secrets. Hardly anything is revealed to you upfront and the joy comes from working out the inner workings for yourself. You enter this world alone and vulnerable, knowing nothing about it, but leave it powerful and knowledgeable. When the game comes to an end you feel a huge familiarity with the world and how it works, one that you earned through your struggle.
It is this air of secrecy that makes the game so compelling. Everything can be read in to and so many things are unclear. The world is built in a way as to accommodate secrets, levels are full of hidden areas and littered with potential discoveries. Also the world building itself adds to this, information comes through slowly and you have to put in effort to work out what exactly is going on. This makes for a deliberate design philosophy where everything seems meaningful, things are placed where they are for reasons and the game returns what you put into it.
All of this helps to make Dark Souls 2 hugely compelling. There's always the sense that you are moments away from the next discovery, that round the next corner is something mind blowing. This is also helped by cryptic dialogue that conveys so much whilst saying so little. There is so much room for interpretation and some of the information the game gives you is genuinely revelatory. So many moments were just jaw dropping, whether it be a throwaway line of dialogue about the worlds past or the appearance of a boss. To talk too much on this would give too much away, but if you like the way Souls games tell their stories you will find so much to love here. There's a lot that seems aimed right at those who loved the previous entry, but there are so many new and unique revelations on top of this.
The visual design also creates a sense of wonder and discovery. Areas look outstanding, boasting incredible vistas and jaw dropping architecture. The levels themselves are mostly expansive and intricately designed, though not quite as intricate as Dark Souls 1. This is another key difference, the world lay out feels more like Demon's Souls than Dark Souls, in spite of being a continuous open world.
Ultimately Drangleic does all link together, but areas feel very distinct. It doesn't feel like this finely crafted interlocking gem, like Dark Souls 1 did. You don't marvel at how it all fits together and it isn't designed quite as cleverly. The areas are all separately excellent, but they are separate. You turn a corner and feel like you are in a different place than before, this is an impressive feat and shows off a variety of stunning locations, but it's not as impressive as the world of Dark Souls 1. Once again though, compared to other games the world design is exceptional. It doesn't quite capture what Dark Souls 1 did, and that's a shame, but it's still hugely imaginative and the levels are brilliantly designed.
This change comes about due to refinements to the formula. Dark Souls 2 is streamlined in a number of ways, but this isn't a detraction as the game is built with this in mind. The bonfire checkpoints from Dark Souls return, marking points of safety where you can respawn. They are sparingly placed, but this time you can warp to any lit bonfire from any other bonfire right from the get go. This makes the game snappier, but it does explain the less intricate design. The developer doesn't need to create interlocking environments which can be cleverly and quickly navigated if you know how, after all the player can just warp. This change does impact the level design, but it does allow From Software to make a more expansive world. Also, though this new approach isn't quite as good as the original, it is different and well implemented.
Crafting is also simpler, which is an improvement. The system is less obtuse, but still pretty comprehensive. There is also a greater focus on the hub world, evoking the Nexus from Demon's Souls more than Firelink Shrine from Dark. In Dark Souls 2 you have Majula, a peaceful village which populates as you find NPCs on your journey. This makes it more of a one stop shop than the stop-off point that Firelink was. Though NPCs visited Firelink, they would come and go, you would have to explore the world to get all you needed. In two, things are more immediate and it makes your place of refuge feel very different. Also, like Demon's Souls, you can only level up from your place of refuge. This is somewhat constricting, but it makes sense in the lore and adds a greater sense of place to Majula - and a huge importance to the character you use for advancement.
The game is streamlined, but the core appeal has been kept. It doesn't feel dumbed down or diminished, just different. The way statistics are shown to you is genuinely excellent and very straightforward (making equipping gear and levelling up much clearer, and less of a gamble). There are a number of new mechanics which replace more complicated old ones and this keeps the game feeling fresh. Dark Souls was wonderful, but it's been done. The little changes help to make Dark Souls 2 stand out and to gain its own identity.
There are also a number of changes that seem brilliantly skewed at Dark Souls veterans. Slight changes to classes, attack timing and how quickly you raise your shield mean that Dark Souls 2 can give series veterans a real hard time. Though combat is pretty much the same, they've changed enough to keep you on your toes and to keep you vigilant. Also the implementation of Demon's Souls systems like diminishing health and disposable healing items shake things up a lot. Your constant estus flask from Dark Souls is back, but you start with just one. You will get more over time, but this makes you less dependent on it. These changes all add up to creating that sense of unease and mystery. It is a new puzzle waiting to be cracked and you won't feel safe in it. These changes may make for a game that is slightly weaker than Dark Souls, but they are the only way to recapture that sense of unease. Things needed to change to reinstall the fear into players and the changes they have made are really cool.
Another big change is to how enemies respawn. In Dark Souls 1, every time you rested at a bonfire all the enemies (bar special enemies and bosses) would respawn. In Dark Souls 2 that usually happens, but if you keep killing a certain enemy it will stop respawning. Every enemy has a different (and hidden) threshold and this mechanic has a big impact. Though it lowers resistance in your path, it diminishes farming opportunities. It can however be used purposefully to make a boss run easier, or an area less frustrating. It matches the snappier design philosophy that drives Dark Souls 2, you are on the move more in this game and mechanics like this do make you progress faster. This is then balanced by the vast amount of areas and you losing a potentially valuable resource.
Another difference is the amount of bosses. There are loads in Dark Souls 2. This makes for numerous interesting fights, but it also makes for a lot of throwaway encounters. Some bosses stand up to the better ones from Dark Souls (though none eclipse them), giving you outstanding fights with incredible looking foes. However, there are far too many fights against dudes in armour. Occasionally it's two dudes in armour, sometimes three, but there's still a lot of rather generic battles against foes you will forget.The bosses don't always have the sense of importance and presence they had in Dark Souls 1, and a number of encounters will be breezed through. This does make you feel great as a player, but I personally would have preferred fewer and more impactful encounters. The important bosses still make for epic fights, and the lore makes them appropriately terrifying, but prepare to fight a lot of armoured dudes.
Overall Dark Souls 2 is utterly outstanding. One can make small gripes - like how the opening lacks the impact of the previous titles and how items degrade too quickly - but these are all forgivable due to the game's overall quality. It's easy to talk about Dark Souls 2 and sound very critical, but this is only because it fails to stand up to Dark Souls 1. However, the core of the game is so fantastic - the sense of mystery is so enthralling, the visual design is incredible and the gameplay is still astounding. Dark Souls 2's successes are continuations of what previous games did well, but it being in a new location with unique lore, areas and enemies makes everything worthwhile all over again. The differences cause the similarities to shine just as bright, rather than to diminish the game's appeal. It carries on the philosophy of the previous game rather than just emulating its content. Dark Souls 2 is easily the best game of the year so far and will be a tough act to beat. It's not on par with my all time favourite game, but it being almost as good is incredibly high praise.