Considering the financial and critical success of the first Dark Souls, it seemed inevitable that a sequel would follow. Dark Souls II was released in 2014 and proved to quickly be a commercial and critical success. However, it's worth noting that Dark Souls II was the first, and so far only, game in the Souls franchise not to be directed by the venerable Hidetaka Miyazaki and this led to some unusual decisions when it came to game design. The version of the game that I'll be reviewing is the remaster that was released a little over a year after the initial release of Dark Souls II which improves the graphics, reworks enemy placement and includes the three DLC that are collectively known as The Lost Crowns.
Dark Souls II is set an indeterminate amount of time after the events of the first game and sees the cycle of relighting the First Flame and the curse of the undead continuing throughout eons. The main character is an undead seeking a way to break the curse which sees them traveling to the land of Drangleic. Once there, a woman called the Emerald Herald informs them to seek out the king which requires the player to hunt the souls of the four Great Ones.
Similarly to the first Dark Souls, the story is conveyed to the player in a more abstract manner than most other games, requiring you to read item descriptions, interpret the cryptic dialogue of NPCs and observe environmental details. However, this is where my first criticism of the game comes into play. For the first half of the game where you are collecting the souls of the Great Ones, you find yourself wandering from place to place with little rhyme or reason, meeting NPCs and encountering enemies that feel tertiary to the overall plot of the game. It isn't until we manage to collect these four souls and begin making our way to see the king that the story starts to pick up and becomes much more intriguing as we begin to learn about the cause of the various problems in Drangleic. One interesting change that the Scholar of the First Sin remaster made to the story was the addition of the titular scholar as an NPC you encounter throughout your journey whereas he was an unseen character originally. Some of the revelations and lore he provides actually proves to be very interesting, helping to link the world of Dark Souls II to the first game and giving more context to the world. This also opens up an additional ending for the game which, while not spectacular, is very much appreciated given that the original game only had a single ending.
Now to move onto the gameplay. The combat system itself is very similar to the first Dark Souls which requires players to observe enemy movesets in order to successfully dodge attacks and to be able to attack safely. One of the more notable changes is that you can now roll in any direction you want rather than the cardinal directions of the first game which does help to keep combat fluid. However, equipment now degrades much, much faster than in the first game. I didn't even mention durability in my review of Dark Souls because it plays such a minor role but it feels mandatory to mention it with regards to Dark Souls II since, at least in the early game, you'll find yourself constantly being notified that equipment is going to break. If it does break, you'll have to get it repaired at a blacksmith by paying souls but, as long as it doesn't break, durability is fully restored whenever you rest at a bonfire.
You develop your character in the same way as the first game by spending souls to gain a level by increasing a specific attribute by a point. However, you can no longer level up at bonfires, instead having to return to the hub of Majula to speak to the Emerald Herald. This might sound quite frustrating but another aspect of the game does help in that regard which I'll discuss in a little bit. The stats themselves are quite similar to Dark Souls although a few have been reworked to try to improve balance. However, this gets to one of my peeves with this game which is the Adaptability stat. This stat provides some minor defensive buffs but the main benefit of this stat is that it speeds up the time taken to use a healing item and also increases the number of invulnerability frames in your roll. I don't like this as it feels disruptive to gameplay where rolls can feel hard to use early on but gradually becomes easier as you level up the stat. These rolls should be based on skill and, while there can be some minor invulnerability frame differences in other souls-likes when your equipment weighs too much, having the timing slowly change throughout the game is, in my personal experience, quite unpleasant and I'm certainly glad that the souls-like genre as a whole left this behind.
Another commonly talked about aspect of Dark Souls II is that, in addition to recovering your souls or losing them forever if you die before you've retrieved them, an additional penalty has been applied to death where you lose 5% of your max health each time you die up to a maximum of 50%. You can restore your total health by using a human effigy but, since these items are quite rare, this system can be a bit frustrating as it acts as a barrier to some experimentation while exploring. However, that's all it is, a little frustrating, since Dark Souls II has a category of healing item called lifegems. While not as powerful as your Estus Flask, you can stock up to 99 of each type of lifegem which basically means that, once you've unlocked the vendor that sells them, you never have to worry about a shortage of healing. As long as you keep leveling your health, it's actually quite easy to just play through most of the game with your health halved and only using a human effigy to restore your health whenever you come across a boss.
Speaking of these bosses, it seems that FromSoftware's attitude was quantity over quality. Dark Souls II has the most bosses of any Souls game but it results in at least half of all the bosses being uninteresting, too easy or downright infuriating. It's a shame because there are some genuinely good bosses mixed amongst them with some even ranking as some of the best that the Souls series has to offer. This mentality of quantity over quality similarly applies to the locations you explore with numerous locations but many fail to be as memorable as the areas of the first game. Shortcuts are used in these locations and, in many ways, are done quite effectively. They aren't as incredible as in Dark Souls though since you've got the ability to teleport between any bonfires that you've lit which is certainly helpful since you'll need to constantly return to Majula to level up.
The game is, from a technical perspective, graphically superior to Dark Souls with larger locations and more detailed textures. The designs for bosses, enemies and NPCs still prove to be deliciously inventive and memorable but I do feel like the art direction of the world isn't quite as good as Dark Souls. The lighting seemed to have much less impact in the world and locations felt a little more generic than previously.
Music remains superb with many boss themes proving to be highly memorable and the music of Majula is oddly soothing, reinforcing the fact that it's a relatively safe location where you can take your time and relax. The voice actors similarly provide excellent performances which helps invest you in the characters, even if they're more shallow than in the first game.
You'll notice that, throughout my review, I've been constantly comparing Dark Souls II to Dark Souls negatively and this may paint a picture that I dislike this game. However, I want to emphasise that I consider the first game to be a masterpiece which is a very high bar to reach. Dark Souls II doesn't reach it but that doesn't mean that I hate or even dislike the game. I've often told people that if Dark Souls II was titled something else, it would probably be considered one of the best souls-likes available and it's only its comparison to its predecessor that has led to it being labelled the black sheep of the franchise. While I certainly don't think it's as good as Dark Souls, I would still encourage people who've played and enjoyed Dark Souls to check out and play Dark Souls II. It's no masterpiece but it's still an exceptional game.