If the concept of getting your ass kicked, and hard, by a video game is of little interest to you, then the original Dark Souls was likely a turn-off from every possible angle. In an unforgiving, visually coarse manner, the now-and-again masochistic desires of the common gamer were fed upon and repurposed for maximum replay value. Those who couldn’t appreciate what developer From Software was attempting to do—using the excessively challenging gameplay as a ruler slap on the hand in order to increase our tolerance for merciless ravaging at the hands of formidable foes—surely turned away from Dark Souls in anger, claiming it was a tortuous experience that never allowed them the opportunity to relish in any rewards.
Yet, simply giving you things because you’ve been playing for a while is not how Dark Souls, nor Demon’s Souls before it, operated as existential digital entertainment. From Software’s unofficial motto with this series has always been “We’re going to send you to hell. If you come out alive, you’ll thank us for the discounted trip.” Dark Souls II is just as across-the-board demanding as its predecessors, functioning on an ever more grandiose scale, dishing out excruciating beatdowns like Thin Mints at a Girl Scouts cookies sale. The game is at times extremely frustrating, often immodestly so, but never gets to the point where hurling your controller across the room is a stress-relieving solution. Each consecutive failure (and there are many) is a cardinal lesson learned, a mistake that makes you a better tactician, more patient, and savvier at navigating your way through the treacherous Drangleic without your soul, and hopefully your mind, intact.
Even for the most standard of playthroughs, Dark Souls II will confiscate at least 60 hours from your life. This shriller sequel has no impulsion to render itself appealing to those who shunned the first game, right off the bat introducing a, some might say, overly harsh punishment in the form of a decreased health meter after defeat is encountered (though the prized Human Effigy item can curtail it). Details like this are even more incentive to harness your skills before barreling into combat like a demonic madman. As is to be expected, there’s a sharp emphasis on timing, adaptation, and constant analysis during battles. Whether taking on one of Drangleic’s massive underworld abominations or a smaller concentration of jittery peon enemies, the level of variety in solving these individual action-oriented puzzlements is remarkable; no clash is quite the same as the one that came before it. Unabashed incongruity is actually among Dark Souls II’s strongest attributes. Not only does it promote intensive variation during skirmishes, but when navigating the voluminous landscapes as well. The nightmare-prone are encouraged to seek out stealthier passageways en route to bonfire checkpoints, while the fearless (read: stubborn) can charge headlong into conflict as they see fit. Surprisingly, taking the time to admire one’s surroundings yields its own set of minor perks. Dark Souls II is a significantly better-looking game than its grimy prequel, with a smoother framerate and a slew of elegant lighting effects that make lugging around a gradually dying torch to illuminate every inch of terrain a beneficial burden.
While From Software amped up the comprehensive difficulty in Dark Souls II’s most critical areas, they’ve managed to sneak in a tiny gift or two that may keep newcomers from completely losing their composure in distressful situations. Fast-travel is essentially available from the start, using previously ignited bonfires to skip around the world at will. This removes an immense amount of weight off one’s shoulders, eliminating several spurts of backtracking from the already protracted playtime. The only downside is that the hub camp remains the singular location to trade collected souls for upgrades and other bonuses; replicating these spots would have been ideal, but clearly From Software had no intent on making anything easier for their dedicated fanbase. If you can tough it out, though, the added advantages of a New Game Plus mode warrant immediate revisitation. Multiplayer has also been enhanced in Dark Souls II, again toying with the accommodate-versus-impede approach to online functionality. Joining Covenants and leaving ingeniously concealed traps for unsuspecting players to run into is just as fun as helping them slay an increasingly aggravating boss. Routinely switching your short-term intentions between good and evil is another way to transfer any pent-up personal disgruntlement onto an especially credulous companion.
Dark Souls II isn’t for everyone, as it’s a game that enjoys dragging you through the mud and leaving you for (un)dead. But if you can put up with its blunt brutality, the compensation can be bountiful, even though much of it occurs outside the realm of what’s on your monitor. A lousy day in real life can seem like a walk in the park after a particularly rough evening in Drangleic.