After I'd gotten my fill of the first game, I decided to jump straight into the sequel. While initially off-putting, some of the changes to the Dark Souls formula grew on me in time, leading me to thoroughly enjoy the sequel, too. It's still a lesser game in most respects, but given the astronomically high bar set by its predecessor, that's not entirely surprising. Here's what the second Dark Souls game has to offer:
(As a brief aside, a lot of my comments will compare this game to the original Dark Souls. That's partly because I played them in quick succession, but partly also because it's natural to criticize a sequel for its divergences. I know Dark Souls II has gotten some hate, but I think a lot of that hate is undeserved, so I'm inclined to address the bad reputation by drawing those comparisons explicitly.)
Dark Souls II (hereafter abbreviated "DS2") thrusts the player into a hostile, unknown world with very little explanation or setup. There's a brief introductory cutscene that is cryptic and virtually useless for setting the stage, so you're left to your own devices right from the start.
You will find that the basic gameplay mechanics are the same as in Dark Souls. There is heavy emphasis on learning the game, adapting to its challenges, and executing maneuvers precisely, with hefty penalties for mistakes. You'll use bonfires as both small bastions of safety and respawn points. Dying causes you to drop all your accumulated souls (which function as the game's experience points and currency), but you can retrieve them if you can get back to the place you died. Most of the control scheme is even the same, too.
|That's a big dude with a nasty hammer coming towards me...|
I had gotten pretty proficient with combat in Dark Souls, after sinking around 80 hours into it, and from the start, DS2 felt wrong. As I continued, I realized that some of the timings were a bit off - there was a slightly longer delay after an attack before you could dodge, and you have to dodge at slightly different times to avoid damage from incoming attacks.
Coming off the tail of Dark Souls, this situation was incredibly frustrating. The combat in the original was damn near perfect, so tinkering with it had to result in a less ideal setup.
In retrospect, this subtle difference was actually a powerful feature because it forces Dark Souls veterans to relearn how to play. That trial and error and slow accumulation of skill was one of the reasons Dark Souls was so engrossing, and the small variations in DS2 come close to emulating it.
I don't know if that was intended, but that's definitely the effect it had on me - I had to go through a similar (albeit quicker) process of trial and error to get comfortable with DS2.
Another great modification to the Dark Souls formula is the inclusion of interesting ways to interact with bosses. In a handful of areas, you can do something outside of the boss fight that will change the dynamics of that fight. For example, one of the early bosses resides in a dark chamber. If you access a couple side rooms and ignite some flammable oil, you can light the arena and make the fight considerably easier. This feature rewards thorough exploration of the game's areas, which I think is fantastic.
There are, of course, some other changes that I don't see quite so favorably: from the very beginning, you can warp from any bonfire to any other bonfire, making a return trip to, say, a blacksmith a much less dangerous affair than in Dark Souls. You also have to return to the main town in order to level up. Combined, these features are effectively the same as being able to level up at any bonfire, but in practice, it can get annoying as you have to pass through additional loading screens in DS2.
In fact, there are lots of loading screens across the game, which gets to feel tedious pretty quickly. The Xbox One version in particular also has terrible servers for online play. It takes a couple minutes to connect to the servers upon booting up the game, and even then, the connection failed a few of the times that I tried.
|There are a bunch of nasty, nasty bugs in this game, too.|
On the bright side, there's also a way to increase the difficulty of an area without completing the game and starting New Game+. It's a cool mechanic that will reset any depleted spawns and allow you to farm souls or items, if that's your thing, but I don't think it excuses the decreased difficulty overall.
And I do think that DS2 is quite a bit easier than the original. Some of that is certainly because I didn't have to start from scratch in terms of how to play the game, and I knew exactly what I was getting myself into. Still, most bosses were disappointingly simple to figure out, and very few areas required more than a couple attempts to pass.
Another big flaw is the overall structure of the game. Dark Souls was beautiful in that it felt like a sprawling world to explore, with all of the areas connected to each other in complex ways. DS2 feels much more like a series of levels - you run through a few areas and defeat the corresponding bosses, then you head back to the hub and pick a new branch. I'm not quite sure how the sizes of the worlds compare, but as a result of this more linear nature, DS2 feels a lot smaller.
To be fair, I had a ton of fun playing DS2 despite these complaints. Yeah, the game is far from perfect, but it's still an excellent Dark Souls-style adventure.
Dark Souls had another major strength: the story. Unfortunately, DS2's world building isn't nearly as strong as its predecessor's. To be honest, I can't quite tell if the underlying mythology in DS2 is just weaker than in Dark Souls or if the storytelling is a lot subtler. I'm leaning towards the former, but either way, I picked up a lot less along the way.
Fortunately, a weak story doesn't detract from the experience, it just means that there one layer of depth is missing.
The one place where DS2 is a clear step up is in aesthetics. Visually, the game is stunning, with some incredible vistas and beautiful reveals along the way. There's nothing quite as dramatic as some of the best scenes in Dark Souls, but it looks damn good the whole way through.
As a final tally of entertainment value, it's worth noting that my in-game time was around 30 hours when I defeated the final boss. I suspect that it would have taken longer if I hadn't played Dark Souls recently, but I feel like 30 hours is still a good amount of content, even excluding New Game+ shenanigans (which actually adds a ton of replay value, as New Game+ adds new enemy spawns and makes the game quite a bit harder).
Everything I've written up to this point applies to the base game, so it should be true for any version of DS2. The Scholar of the First Sin edition is bundled with what were originally the DLC packages for the game. Those sections are of an entirely different caliber, so they're worth discussing on their own.
The DLC areas are hard. They're really, really hard. Enemies hit a lot harder, bosses are absolute monsters, and the areas are much less linear, with more to explore and more chances to get lost. In short, they're much closer to what fans of the first game likely expect.
And that's fantastic.
It's a shame that you can't get this level of challenge in the base game, but I'm glad that it's in there somewhere. These sections are welcome end-game content because they can easily add 20+ hours to your DS2 experience.
And that's really it. If you enjoyed Dark Souls, you'll probably enjoy this game, as long as you give it a shot. Loading screens may get a bit tedious, and you probably won't find yourself intrigued by the story, but it's still a fun action RPG.
If you haven't played a Souls game, this isn't the one to start with. It's good for a few dozen hours of entertainment, but Dark Souls is still the better game.
My Rating: 8/10 - great.
UPDATE: I've played the original version of DS2 now, and I think it's worth noting that there are some significant changes in the Scholar of the First Sin edition. Those changes are mostly enemy spawns, and many areas have completely different enemy compositions in the two versions. As a result, it may actually be worth playing this version even if you've already played the original release, because a lot of areas feel different.