How Far I Got: Completed the main quest. Stalled out about halfway through the Crown of the Iron King extra content.

What I Liked:

  • Beautiful environment design with a lot of variety.
  • Lots of interesting NPCs with their own conflicts and motiviations.
  • The Souls series’ trademark elliptical storytelling and sense of mystery.
  • Online co-op.
  • Undead pirates.
  • King Vendrick.
  • The Pharros Lockstones.

What I Disliked:

  • Combat doesn’t feel quite as fair as in Dark Souls.
  • The game world is much less cohesive, both physically and visually.
  • There’s no equivalent to Solaire or Siegmeyer to offset the gloomy mood.
  • Dark spirit invasions happen even if you’re Hollowed, and happen way too damn much.
  • Max health decreasing on death.
  • Lifegems.

What Was Wrong With the Combat?

Everything the designers changed from the first Dark Souls felt like a deliberate effort to shake things up for players who’d mastered that game – to the detriment of new players. This was one of the reasons I angrily deleted this game the first time I played it (before I’d tried Dark Souls), and why it took me so long to get into the series at all.

As hard as the first game is, that difficulty can be effectively managed by first-timers with a defensive play style: hiding behind a shield, drawing out enemies from groups to fight one at a time, using ranged attacks. Dark Souls II throws a wrench in this by making shields much less effective and having enemies attack you in almost unavoidable numbers, right from the start. Without shields as a crutch, melee players have to spend a lot more time dodging – but dodging is harder now too, offering much less protection until you pour upgrade points into Adaptability (which you’re unlikely to figure out without consulting a walkthrough). On top of this, large enemies who take huge windups now track the player much better than in the prior game, making dodging them a lot more difficult even with high Adaptability.

This is all a lot more manageable in co-op play, and indeed the game seems to be pushing players toward that option quite a bit – allowing you to be summoned even when Hollowed and restoring Humanity when you help another player beat a boss, for example. The co-op play is quite fun and works well (and the game is much better populated than Dark Souls was when I played it two months ago), but I would have liked the option to do more solo play without a massive spike in difficulty.

Favorite Areas: The Shaded Ruins, Drangleic Castle, Aldia’s Keep. All rich in atmosphere and implied storytelling, and they’re good at letting the player set their own pace.

Favorite Boss: The Executioner’s Chariot. A fun, tense environmental puzzle with challenging but manageable dodge-heavy combat at the end. I love the way the torches throw the chariot’s shadow menacingly on the wall just before it rounds the bend.

Least Favorite Areas: The Black Gulch, The Shrine of Amana, that part in the Undead Crypt with the bells. All areas with serious environmental hazards, groups of tough enemies, highly restricted player movement and ill-timed invasions. Progress is achingly slow and small mistakes are deadly.

Least Favorite Boss: The Pursuer. A boss that embodies almost all of the increased combat difficulty over the first game, and it’s one of the first you have to face. Also, the jerk keeps coming back.

Did I Understand the Plot At All? Kinda. YouTube lore videos helped a lot.

Lingering Question: How is that lava-filled hellscape around the Iron Keep somehow located above the giant windmill of the Earthen Peak? Why can’t you see it from the ground?

Did I Sing the Pirates of the Caribbean Theme Every Time I Went Through No-Man’s Wharf? Yes.