Part of what makes Dark Souls so utterly compelling is the mystery that surrounds every single nook, cranny, weapon, system and everything else that appears in the game. Most people who saw the game through to the end had a similar experience - fighting their way through Lordran, besting enemies and avoiding traps as you sharpen your own skills. The magic, for us veterans, has faded a little. We know what lies around the next corner. We know where the best stuff is to be found, and more importantly, we know the quickest way not only to find it, but to get our characters to the point where they can use it efficiently and in an alarmingly swift manner.
It is no secret that Dark Souls 2 has been tweaked to be a much more inviting game than its predecessors. From Software is all too aware that Dark Souls is its chance to have a legitimate smash hit, and have made a few concessions to make this sequel a bit easier to love. Easier. There's that word. The word that any Dark Souls fan simply doesn't want to hear when discussing the sequel to their precious game. 'Easier'. Ugh. How about 'more accessible'?
Blasphemy, snorts the Dark Souls nerd, long before they've even played this masterpiece of a sequel. As someone who found themselves obsessed with the original Dark Souls, I've found the changes made for the sequel to not only take nothing away from what makes Dark Souls such a compelling, rewarding video game, but in many ways refine the experience, making for something that more people can enjoy - but for the same reasons us fans love the first.
First of all, there's the 'Life Gems', another way to recover your health instead of the traditional 'Estus Flask' method. Unlike the Estus, which put you in a stationary, completely vulnerable state while your character took a life-giving chug from the flask, using a gem merely slows your movement speed a bit, allowing you to still take some kind of evasive action. Then, your health is put into a regenerative state for a timed duration. They're easier to use than the Estus, but the thing is, twenty hours in, these gems begin to dry up or simply become far less useful than the age-old tactic of finding an opening in the enemy's attack, and instead of countering with one of your own, drinking a good hearty shot of Estus. The Life Gems appear to merely be a way of helping out beginners in the early stages, before being cast aside for the trusty Estus. It's hardly Call of Duty's health system, is it?
The ability to teleport between bonfires from the start has been a bone of contention since it was announced. Understandable, as gaining this ability in Dark Souls came about two-thirds of the way into the game. It felt like a true reward for an incredible accomplishment when you received it. Despite this change, it doesn't really detract from the experience. You still have to find the bonfires in the first place and getting to them is just as much of a challenge as it always has been. You now level up in one place, much like the Nexus in Demon's Souls, and it would be a pain in the arse for everyone if you had to drag yourself back there every time you wanted to add a single point to your stats.
The world of Drangleic is much vaster than Lordran, and being able to jump between discovered bonfires really only expedites progress - you can always jump to an area and tackle it and if you do find yourself hitting a wall of difficulty or a boss you can't quite beat. You can always just go to one of the many other areas and crack on with that in an instant. Again, clearly a feature of convenience that the modern gamer will appreciate, but not one that detracts from how wonderfully Dark Souls this game is.
Because of the increased scale, Dark Souls 2 offers far more in creative exploring, practically goading you into entering areas you're not quite powerful enough to deal with, and then offering you a glimmer of hope when you manage to deal with a few really tough enemies. You're not sequence-breaking in Dark Souls 2, you're merely finding another perfectly legitimate path. Right off the bat I ended up in an area full of fairly tough enemies, but because I'm something of a badass I managed to fight my way through to the area boss and beat it, before it became quite clear I was in an area well beyond where I should've been at that point. Sure, my inexperience with Drangleic eventually forced me back onto what is likely the 'proper' route, but there's no doubt that on another playthrough I'll be heading straight into that area once again, in search of a specific item, weapon or bit of armour I need for my planned build.
Character builds are a big part of Dark Souls. Trying to play it like a traditional RPG is the easiest way to make the game even more difficult for yourself. You've got to pick a weapon, a style, stick to it and shape your character around it, maximising damage and efficiency. Gear is king, more so than statistics, and you have to shape your stats in quite a radical way in order to use some of the more exotic weaponry and magic attacks, meaning you usually have to start from scratch whenever you want to make a specific type of build.
Now, there's an item which you can use to completely respec your character. Imagine taking your 80 hour warrior to the New Game Plus mode and just deciding 'Sod it, this time I'm going to be pure magic user' or something? In the original you'd have to start a whole new character, now you can do it as many times as you have this item, chopping and changing class, trying out different weapons and spells. For advanced players who have acquired an arsenal of different weapons the ability to do this, combined with the inevitable online character build generator, is very interesting. Planning that perfect PvP build and not having to start a whole new game in order to realise it is going to be fantastic.
The unique and brilliant multiplayer features has always been at the forefront of the Souls experience. This is still the case, only much like everything else, there's been some changes made to encourage more players to take part in what can be some of the most thrilling online gameplay available today. Unlike Dark Souls, where you could only be invaded if you were in human form, here you can be invaded by another player at any point. Drangleic is a much more dangerous place. However, one of the first NPCs you find in the game invites you to a covenant that allows you to summon another player, from the 'Way of Blue' covenant, to your aid whenever you're invaded by some bastard who wants to kill you. There's plenty more complex stuff later on, such as some true PvP areas, some incredible one-off summon events and some stuff we don't even fully understand yet, but this dynamic of normal players, invaders and protectors is nice and simple and is all accessible from quite early on in the game, encouraging you to get involved. I mean, it was possible to finish Dark Souls without even finding the covenant that was based around invading others, and who really understands exactly what 'Gravelording' was?!
Of course, it is still possible to summon other players for help with a boss, only now you have a ring which you can carve the name of one of ten gods onto. Get your mates to carve the same god's name onto theirs and the game increases the likelihood of you being able to summon a mate for co-op action, whereas in the past doing this has been a pure fluke. Finally, if you're sick of other people getting involved in your game, you can burn one of your Human Effigies at a bonfire and that will block all multiplayer stuff for that play session. Invasions, off.
Perhaps the most controversial change is that most enemies disappear from the game if you manage to kill them twelve times. So it is now possible to clear a route to a particular boss or section that is causing you bother. Yes, although it removes the challenge of getting from one area to the next, fighting all the enemies and learning the route, if you can best an enemy twelve times in Dark Souls, you've likely got the measure of it and removing them encourages you to keep pressing forwards and exploring the next section with slightly less inconvenience. If you still think this is ridiculous and for cowardly Dark Souls amateurs, you can burn the 'Bonfire Ascectic' item at a bonfire in the area which not only resets all the enemies you'd killed, but also makes them tougher. This gives you a greater control over the difficulty level and overall challenge.
That's the thing. To say Dark Souls 2 is all about its difficulty is ridiculous - yes, it is a tough, unforgiving video game, but the Souls experience is more about the tight combat, exploring the world and working out which weapons and armour suit your playstyle. Then, you use your knowledge and skills in all three to overcome the challenges set out in front of you, be it the enemies, the traps or the tense boss battles that will test your abilities. That's all still here, only now with a fresh challenge.
Ultimately, From Software has made a much more well-rounded game than the original. The gameplay remains intact and just as punishing/rewarding as ever, and the barriers to entry have been lowered ever so slightly so that those who gave up with the first one or were even put off entirely have a much greater chance to get hooked in the way many others have. Dark Souls 2 proves that making a game more accessible doesn't mean that you have to dumb down or compromise in any way, instead simply giving players of all abilities a chance to get hooked. If you're a Dark Souls master, you'll find a new challenge to embrace and even more possibilities than ever before. If this is your first Souls experience, I'm insanely jealous of you.
PREPARE TO DIE.