Dark Souls is back, and pretty much as good as the first.

User Rating: 8 | Dark Souls II X360

Dark Souls II is undoubtedly one of the most anticipated games of the year. The first Souls games, Demon Souls and the follow up, Dark Souls, are easily some of the most well received, well reviewed and most challenging games of this generation. Now, dark souls II is here and definitely lives up to the series reputation; it has a subtle, disturbing atmosphere, a lot of environmental variety, plenty of customization options, and even more ways to die. Some tweaks have been made, some good, and some questionable, but, ultimately, this is another quality RPG.

The game begins without a character editor. Rather, you are shown a cut scene detailing the events that your character up to this point. Basically, the land of Drangleic has fallen into chaos ever since its king, Vendrick turned undead. And now, Drangleic is almost a haven of people cursed with the mark of the undead. People wander there only to forget what they came to do, which leads to them going hollow (insane and homicidal) more often than not. Your character is one such person. Clad in dark robes, you wander through the dark and mysterious area known as Things Betwixt.

Eventually, you’ll come across a house with old women dressed in red robes. Here, you tell them your character’s name and class; this is where the robust character editor from the first game comes into play. All the old classics like Warrior, Cleric and Deprived are here and, much like the other two games, the class you choose doesn’t have too much of an effect on what your character turns out to be. Once you choose a class, you are sent back into Things Betwixt. The area is littered with the dreaded fog gates of the first game. However, since this is the opening area, the game takes it easy on the player and fills it with easily beatable enemies.

This is surprising, because anyone who has played the first game will tell you that the game thrust the player directly into the difficulty in the first stage. It put you against the hulking monstrosity of the Asylum Demon, a giant, pig like thing with a hammer. It was basically initiation into the game. If you persevered through that fight, there was a good chance you made it through the rest of the game. In DaS2, the difficulty is noticeable lower. As stated above, the first area is very easy and unthreatening. And it isn’t long before you make it to Majula, the game’s central hub. There is a whole other area to go through before you reach the first boss of the game.

This lower difficulty is jarring. It might be because I played the first so much (and consequently learned a lot of its systems) but most of the areas and boss fights don’t feel as threatening as in the first game. Most bosses took me less than five tries to beat, and I even beat some the first time I ever saw them. On one hand, this makes it a lot more accessible to newcomers, but on the other, I could very easily see veterans of the series being turned off from this lowered difficulty. Hell, you can even repair the Ring of Life Protection- the ring that nullifies effects when you die.

However, that is not to say this game is easy. The first boss can be rather tricky, especially for the uninitiated. Plus, this game has a lot of areas where you need to fight several enemies at once. It might seem cheap of the developers to do that, but it rarely comes off as such. It might just be the way I built my character (a tank) but I was able to survive most blows and take out a lot of enemies in one or two swings of my Greatsword. Still, be prepared; even though the game isn’t quite the level of sadistic as its predecessor (there won’t be any fight quite as hard as Ornstein and Smough) it still has a lot of really stiff challenges.

The game follows a lot of the formula that made the first game work. You wander through the environments, fighting off undead monsters and exploring. Previously, the game allowed you to rest at bonfires to recover health, healing items and checkpoint the player’s progress. Bonfires return in this game, but they have a twist. Granted, they still restore all your health and give you a checkpoint, but you can now warp between any bonfire you’ve previously been to. It makes it so the level design is decidedly more like Demon Souls than Dark Souls. In DaS, the world was interconnected and filled with shortcuts. In this game, the world is still connected, but there are no real shortcuts or connections between areas. If Dark Souls’s world map was a big, interconnected world, picture Dark Souls II’s map as a wheel. Each spoke is another path, eventually leading to a story related boss at the end. It’s definitely different, but not a bad thing, since you can easily go between areas.

The game also sports the dark atmosphere the Souls games are known for. A lot of the areas are blanketed in darkness and blood, much like the other games. Overall, there’s a very good variety to the environments themselves, too. During the game, you’ll traverse an underground cave, a poison filled valley, a flooded, destroyed city and many, many more. These areas are also filled with diverse enemies. Be prepared to face a lot of undead with swords, bows, and other monstrosities.

The same goes for the boss battles. Even though, as I said, they feel a bit easier than the original game, there is still a lot of good variety. Everything from towering frog demons to a mountain of corpses and everything in between are represented here. The only issue I take with the boss fights and environments is that sometimes they feel similar to previous games. For instance, the Undead Catacombs definitely have a similar feeling to the Tomb of the Giants from the original. It’s not a huge deal since each area is well designed, but it can be noticeable at times.

There are a few changes from the original. For one, the life giving Estus Flasks are worked differently. Instead of leveling up individual bonfires, each bonfire gives you the same amount. Rather, the amount you carry and the strength of each one is determined by different items you find. You can find Estus Flask shards to increase the amount you can carry and Sublime Bone Dust, an item you burn in the Majula bonfire to increase its strength. This is ultimately a nice change, since it allows you to focus on exploring and remaining human rather than trying to increase bonfire strength. Also, humanity is a bit different this time around. You use an item called Human Effigy to revert to your normal state. When you die, you still lose the souls in a bloodstain, but you also lose a small chunk off your life bar. Ultimately, if you die enough, you can lose up to 50% of your max health (although there’s a ring that reduces that to 25%). The only way to reverse this is to become human. It’s definitely a punishing system, but the ring (which is available very early in the game) helps alleviate the pain a bit. Still, it is a bit of a turn off, since it almost discourages exploration at times.

Another change is the way weapon upgrading is handled. Basically, it’s been streamlined a lot. In the first game, if you wanted, say, a fire weapon, you’d have to upgrade a normal weapon to the +5 level. In this game, all you need to do is bring the weapon and appropriate Titanite type (if you want a fire weapon, you’d bring red titanite) to the right blacksmith and you can very easily get a weapon of a different element. This process is a lot less cumbersome and more free form than the first, and is a welcome change. Hell, regardless of what element a weapon is, you use basic Titanite to upgrade it, which, again, eliminates a lot of the clutter and confusion when trying to upgrade items in the first game.

There are a few other small changes, such as the amount of stats there are to level up (for instance, Endurance no longer increases equipment load- that’s delegated to another stat). The game offsets this by making the requirement to level up a lot smaller than in the first game (expect to be in the 120- 150 soul level range by the end of the game). Some other changes are with critical hits (the animations are updated, there’s fewer invincibility frames, but they are more satisfying than ever to pull off) and New Game + (instead of more powerful versions of the same set of enemies, there are several areas with reworked enemy encounters to make it tougher). Also, enemies stop respawning after a certain number of times killing them, but for the most part, this proves to be pretty inconsequential (skilled players will likely never have an empty area). This can be undone by using a certain item which makes enemies respawn, but makes them tougher, too.

Overall, Dark Souls II is another great, challenging RPG adventure from developers From Software. Even if it is a bit easier, there have been a lot of small but significant changes that make it worth playing. Plus, it keeps up the haunting atmosphere and deep character customization of the previous games, along with a whole set of new areas to explore.