Developed by From Software. Published by Bandai Namco Games. Released March 11, 2014. PS3 (reviewed), PC (April 25th) and Xbox 360.
A good sequel is often a surprisingly difficult target to aim for. Change too much and you'll have fans crying foul over the newest chapter losing sight of what made its predecessor so good. Change too little and you'll get grumbles about having simply released the same game as last time. The ideal balance likely lies somewhere slightly left of center, mostly the same as the last outing but with just enough difference to stave off complete familiarity. Dark Souls II hits its mark dead-on.
Everything that made Dark Souls into a cult success carries over: complex game mechanics, punishing but fair gameplay and a richly detailed setting if you dig a little deeper. To keep things fresh, this is peppered with a mix of new elements, from improved graphics and game engine to a better designed starting sequence and new mechanics. Dark Souls II is a perfect sequel to Dark Souls.
For starters, unlike the jump from Demon's Souls to the original Dark Souls, Dark Souls II specifically does take place in the same world as the last installment. However, instead of Lordran you're now in the kingdom of Drangliec, with little details and reminders of the greater setting found all over. You may even run into some familiar faces, and lore junkies of Dark Souls will certainly get a kick out of tracking down the spiderweb of in-game information and trying to piece it all together.
Once again, your player character is an undead, attempting to fight their curse and stave the effects of becoming a mindless Hollow. To that end, you're going to need lots of powerful souls, and many a fellow undead has traveled to Drangliec in the promise of such. Dark Souls II is still a game where narrative takes a bit of a back seat. It's a dark-fantasy world rich with details and part of the joy of this minimalist style is the sense of discovery when something clicks, but if all that is just getting in your way of cracking Hollow skulls then the game is perfectly willing to step aside. It's an essential compromise that let's the game find it's niche as both an RPG and as an action game.
While the Souls games are constantly praised for their challenging difficulty, and Dark Souls II continues this level of challenge - I chalked my first death in less than a minute - I feel that it's this core of duality that's really at the heart of the whole experience. Dark Souls II loves to pull you in two directions with its mechanics of checks and balances. The whole system of souls is really what pulls it together. The souls you collect are both your experience points and currency in the game. When you die you drop them. If you can retrieve them without dying again you get them back, but otherwise they are gone forever. When you're stacked with souls the tension naturally rises and each encounter is a little more hazardous because of the risk, but on the flip side you're much freer to explore and get in over your head when you don't have a bunch of souls to lose. There are a lot of choices to weigh up as well - for instance, bosses drop boss souls which you can either cash in for a large sum of regular souls or utilize in the crafting of powerful items.
Similarly, the gameplay reflects a lot of these ideals. You have essentially what's almost a third-person fighting game with a complex relationship of parry, blocks, staggers and positioning, and you'll need to be skillful in order to succeed. But all of these elements are being driven by stats that balance themselves as well. For instance, wearing heavier armor certainly offers more protection, but it slows you down, even hampering your ability to dodge effectively. Dark Souls II does introduce some new elements to the tried and true gameplay. The biggest change is how the game handles death, which happens a lot. In addition to dropping all your souls, you're also going to be penalized a portion of your maximum health for dying. This caps out at 50%, though a ring found later increases the cap, and the only way to regain this is to return to human form by consuming a human effigy item. This makes it much harder to hammer away at a tough section or fight until it eventually swings in your favor, if something is becoming too hard you need to rethink and readjust how you're approaching it because it's only going to get worse. This feels like a nice compromise and combination between Demon's Souls where you always lost 50% of your health and Dark Souls where certain aspects were locked off depending on if you were human or undead.
This actually has some important implications for multiplayer as players are no longer safe in their undead form from being invaded by other players bent on PVP. While the online servers were not available to review the effects of this, there is a noticeable increase in items and game mechanics that interact with this. One of the first covenants that players can join allows covenant members to come to each other's aid when their fellow members are invaded, ganging up on the would be predator. Even if you're turned off by the notion of other players coming to gank you constantly, there seems to be systems in place to balance this.
Dark Souls II is also littered with a number of smaller gameplay changes that really come together to improve the experience overall. Enemy AI is noticeably smarter, certainly far less prone from falling off things and plummeting to their deaths. The first time you realize you can't use this to your advantage any more is going to be a bit of an "oh crap" moment. The AI is also more varied, with some interesting and surprising tactics or attack patterns on display. Long time fans will also notice some minor tweaks with larger impacts than might be apparent - dodging horizontal attacks are much harder to roll under, and taking a hit on your shield when you're out of stamina will result in a short stun.