I feel like I'm in the minority on this one, as the game gets all the great reviews. I can't comprehend how can this game deserve anything more than 5-6 out of 10. I didn't beat it, but managed to play for 12 hours with one character (around 18, if you count all my restarts and trying out different classes) and got through Forest of the Fallen Giants, Heide's Tower of Flame, No-man's wharf, a large part of Lost Bastille, Huntsman's Copse, some of Harvest Valley and a little of Shaded Woods. It was enough for me to form an opinion on the game. As a sequel to Dark Souls 1, it feels disappointing. It was stripped down of everything that made Dark Souls 1 good and went through major changes along with the change in management, that, for the most part, are changes for the worse. There are some good changes too, of course, so let's start with them.
Some of the mechanics are executed far better than in the former game. I really liked the presence of Human Effigies as a "cure" to hollowing instead of "liquid" and "soft" humanity that could be acquired pretty quickly, but also could be also lost by one fatal mistake. In Dark Souls 2, when you die you lose your human form, but you can reverse the hollowing with ease - you don't even have to go back to the bonfire; you can do it immediately.
Another thing is that the locations are far larger than they were in Dark Souls 1 so there's a lot more to explore. They are branched too, so very often you can get to the boss by taking one of the few entirely different paths. Plus, some of the locations are truly breathtaking and atmospheric. I'm especially talking about No-man's Wharf and Harvest Valley with astonishing view on the humongous and abstract windmill. This is, unfortunately, too little to make me enjoy the game and give it a higher score, as numerous flaws overshadowed every good aspect the game has.
Now for the flaws.
Let's start with the key element and core of every Souls game - the combat system. In Dark Souls 1, the combat was very precise. The slow pace of battles and well-made-but-not-perfect animations made you "feel" the weight of the equipment, making it a major part of making up tactics against an enemy and your playstyle in general. When you wanted to be a knight armed to the teeth, fighting with a sword bigger than yourself, it was obvious that you had to sacrifice mobility for it, while choosing a leather armor and a scimitar gave the exact opposite result and you had to play differently. In Dark Souls 2 it doesn't matter - every piece of the equipment feels super-light and the only thing indicating you actually travel heavy is the rolling speed - and it feels very forced, considering you can still sprint like Usain Bolt while being clad in a full plate armor.
The difficulty - another key element of the Souls series, and something it's been always praised for. Dark Souls 1 was really unique in this aspect - it was hard and punishing, but very fair at the same time; you always knew what you did wrong and could learn from your mistakes. Dark Souls 2 is nothing like that. After a few deaths you start to notice that most of them weren't your fault, but the game's. The devs amped up the difficulty just for the sake of the game being hard and punishing, while forgetting to add fairness along the way. You often die from being outnumbered by groups enemies that "aggro" all at the same and stunlock you to death, or cheap tricks, like mummies in Lost Bastille that can explode and get back on their feet as many times as they want. There's also tracking of your moves present in the enemy AI - they spin around following you during every second of their attack animation, giving you next to no chance to dodge. And to make things even more "exciting", your character's movements are now clunky, "heavy" and awkward - he gets tired really quickly and can't dodge properly (i.e like in Dark Souls, where it was fluid and effective).
Now, the atmosphere. Dark Souls 2 lacks certain peculiarity Demon's Souls and Dark Souls 1 had, giving you generic Dark Fantasy stuff in the veins of Gothic series instead. Now, it wouldn't be too bad if it had any soul (pun not intended) - despite what I've stated above, almost all locations feel bland and uninspired. Most of the them are either a forest, a castle or something trying too hard to mimic a location from the first game. Literally, none of these made any impression on me, aside from boredom. Another thing is - why are you even in Drangleic? You don't have any purpose of being there, aside from looking for alleged cure for the curse, which you are told right at the beginning, doesn't exist. Instead, you are told you are gonna die, lose your souls etc. as if the creators were breaking the 4th wall and talking to you through the old firekeepers. Another thing completely ruining the atmosphere is lack of originality. They rehashed almost anything from the previous games - themes of locations, bestiary, boss behaviour and, which is the worst, even the characters and their plots! While playing Dark Souls 2 we meet amongst the others:
-A smooth-talking, spear-wielding man who tricks people into their own deaths,
-A knight from an oriental nation, who seeks revenge on the aforementioned man for being tricked by him,
-A warrior sitting by a gate, saying he's "in quite a pickle" because the gate won't budge and he cannot proceed with his journey,
-A depressed warrior sitting around in the first main location, offering advice to beginners,
-An undead, female merchant who flirts with you awkwardly,
-A young woman who offers you her support by leveling you up,
-An awkward, yet jolly armor merchant in extraordinary looking clothing
All of those sound really, really familiar. Almost like they were present somewhere else before. Go figure.
Last, but not least - the level design in this game is absolutely terrible. Aside from the blandness, the locations' arrangement in the world map makes no sense or logic whatsoever. The creators went for Demon Souls-esque hub world with the central point being Majula. It's not a bad thing, if executed properly, but in this game, the locations feel very disconnected from each other. They are always preceeded either a tunnel or a cave and there's no smooth transition between them. Some transitions are downright absurd, like the entrance to Heide's Tower of Flame. Who the hell thinks it is normal for a cathedral to be entered through a sewer? Not me. Another example of lack of logic is the difficulty curve. In Dark Souls 1 the locations, when connected to each other, had steadily growing difficulty that you could manage and fluently progress through them. In Dark Souls 2, however, I managed to go through 3 "branches" of locations, only to find one in each "branch" (usually the third one in order) to be too difficult for me to progress, as the enemies simply one-shotted me or there was too much bulls*** for me to cope with (I'm looking at you, Lost Bastille). It frustrated me to the point I quit playing for good.