Dark Souls 2
When a rather obscure Japanese adventure-RPG called Demon's Souls first came our way, few knew what it was or placed any expectations upon it. By the time Dark Souls came around, the world had changed. Hundreds of thousands of players on our shores had embraced the idea of a game that rewarded those who pushed to hone their skills--and punished those who even, for a moment, showed signs of hubris.
Dark Souls took many of the core concepts that players had loved in Demon's Souls and crafted around them a larger, more open-world adventure that was epic from beginning to end. When its sequel was announced, I cheered--but also felt trepidation. A current-gen follow-up would have some gigantic shoes to fill, especially given the expectations its more hardcore fanbase would bring with them.
Well, Dark Souls II isn't what I was expecting. I had assumed I'd find more of its predecessor, adorned with an extra round of polish and a bigger overall world. Instead, it almost seems as if the team moved forward by also looking to the past, bringing back aspects from Demon's Souls that had previously been lost.
One example of this is evident right from the start. After completing the initial tutorial area, you arrive in the small coastal village of Majula. Whereas Dark Souls' first location, Firelink Shrine, was a destination but not a home base, Majula serves as the major hub for your progress and development. Leveling is done here, as opposed to at each individual bonfire; merchants and trainers will gather in Majula as you find them, much as they did in Demon's Souls' Nexus.
To help facilitate that change, Dark Souls II opens up the ability to warp from bonfire to bonfire right from the start, and the effect of that decision is major. Dark Souls was about a journey with no one point of safety, with Lordran designed to be one large, interconnected sandbox where players were expected to constantly hoof it from one place to another. Here, the game knows you can instantly return to past locations at any time, and as a result, its areas often come off more as separate stages.
That different take on world traversal was just the first of many Dark Souls II changes that would break things I loved about the first game. The further I progressed, however, the more I came to terms with the quirks. It isn't wrong--it's different. The nods to Demon's Souls helped keep it from coming across as an expansion pack or carbon copy of the first Dark Souls, something I came to appreciate more than I'd originally expected. Of course, I also loved that feeling of being back in the thick of things. There's always the chance that a developer can milk an idea too much too soon, but for now, I just can't get enough of the deliberate, skill-driven combat and storytelling that doesn't vomit exposition. And, fear not--Dark Souls II is as hard as ever, once again offering From Software's particular style of formidable-but-fulfilling challenge. Friendlier elements, such as fast travel or bonfires automatically repairing your gear, definitely ease the journey in spots, but From makes no concessions when it comes to the world full of monsters and bosses ready and waiting to end you.
And yet, as good as Dark Souls II is--and as much as I came to appreciate the blend of Dark Souls and Demon's Souls--I didn't like it as much as its precursor. Its characters and narrative are strong, but not as strong as the brilliance of what came before. Drangleic is a joy to explore, but Lordran still sits superior in terms of design and atmosphere. In my early hours with the game, feelings like those had me thinking Dark Souls II would end up a disappointment on multiple levels. Now, so many hours, deaths, levels, and slain bosses later, I've been able to shed much of the personal bias I initially held against it. While it isn't everything that I'd like it to be--and I continue to question some of the design decisions From made--a not-quite-what-l-wanted Dark Souls II still sits on a level prominently above most other games.
As someone who loved Demon's Souls but skipped the first Dark Souls, this sequel mostly left me feeling impressed with how far From Software has brought the concept. The already stellar combat has come into its own with more responsive controls, and, when one of the primary merchants is inexplicably a talking cat, I'm inclined to say the minimalist storytelling has hit its stride, too. I will say that I do miss the simpler hub-and-spoke structure of Demon's Souls. Dark Souls Its open world, bonfire checkpoint system, and meager item durability disrupt the pacing by pressuring me to backtrack to safety instead of bravely soldiering on to the next masochistic boss fight.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a gamer in possession of Dark Souls must be in want of punishment. Even knowing this truth well in advance, as someone for whom Dark Souls II represents a first pilgrimage into From Software's unforgiving brand of challenge, I remain shocked not only by the veracity of it all, but also the twisted pleasure in it. Every bone-crushing blow from Drangleic's monstrous denizens, every misstep made in impatience served as motivation to push harder, play smarter. But more than anything, what I find most appealing is the unbridled, NES era-inspired exploration. In Dark Souls, there's only you, the world, its monsters, and nothing else.