- Some Memorable Characters – Somewhat surprisingly, Dark Souls 2 has a lot of characters which hold up as well (or maybe even better) than the colourful cast from the original Dark Souls. Nearly all of the characters in Majula have their own memorable personalities, particularly The Emerald Herald (best waifu in the Dark Souls series, in my opinion). The NPCs you meet in the world are also pretty memorable, especially the very tragic Lucatiel of Mirrah, who is desperately fighting to hold onto her sense of self as the curse of the undead gnaws away at her memories. Even the bosses and their stories can be pretty interesting, especially King Vendrick’s tragic fall from grace which forms the backbone of the game’s narrative (and that’s not even mentioning the very compelling stories told in each of the DLCs). While many of the characters aren’t as important to the story as, say, Solaire of Astora or Lautrec, even minor NPCs such as Rosabeth of Melfia, Gavlan or the freaking ladder salesman Gilligan have their own interesting quirks that help you remember them long afterwards.
- Best DLCs in the Franchise – The Three Crowns saga is straight-up the best, most generous package of DLC in the entire franchise. These three DLCs are by far the best content in Dark Souls 2, with some really fun areas to fight through and great boss fights (few fights in this series match the cinematic splendour of jumping into hell to fight the Burnt Ivory King). That said, each of these DLCs have at least one boss which is incredibly underwhelming and areas which are amongst the worst in the game, but thankfully these parts are all totally optional and intended as challenge areas.
- UI and Mechanics are Refined and/or Simplified – Dark Souls 2 features a number of gameplay changes from Dark Souls, some of which are better than others:
- Having most of the blacksmiths and shops in one central hub area is a great improvement in my opinion, having to scour the world to find smiths would definitely have been a pain in the ass if I had to do it two games in a row (you do have to find the boss soul traders and infusing blacksmith in the world though). Plus weapon upgrades have been significantly streamlined, so it’s no longer such a pain in the ass to try to get your weapon to the maximum level.
- Online PVP is much more viable than in Dark Souls because the servers have been significantly improved and there are more dedicated PVP/PVE areas. I don’t tend to play much PVP, but the general consensus seems to be that Dark Souls 2 has the best PVP in the franchise in part because of this.
- Dual-wielding has been significantly improved. It was technically possible in Dark Souls, but Dark Souls 2 changes up the mechanics to make it a much more viable and unique playstyle for players looking for a bit more risk.
- Lots of small, but amazing changes, such as equipment load percentages being viewable on the equipment screen, the level up UI being more informative, being able to move while using estus, more ring slots hell yes, being able to use consumables without having your menu close, being able to respec your stats, etc.
- Humanity System Makes More Sense – I really hated the humanity system in Dark Souls 2 when I first played, but now that I can see what FromSoftware were going for it makes way more sense to me, especially compared to the first Dark Souls. In Dark Souls 2, each time you die your HP max drops until you reach a 50% decrease. This is reversed by using a Human Effigy to restore your character’s humanity (plus you can find a ring pretty early on which makes the maximum health drop cap at 75% rather than 50%). The result of this is that players are actually incentivized to stay human more often now, which encourages more co-op, invasions and other online interactions which you could just ignore in the first game because of how difficult it could be to remain human. Of course, you can still just play hollowed all the time (like me…), but the system does encourage interaction with the game’s online component far more effectively than you would expect.
- Bonfire Aesthetics – One of the cool additions to this game is the bonfire aesthetic item, which respawns enemies and bosses in an area, but at a higher difficulty. Have an area or a boss which you liked but don’t want to replay the whole game to get back to it? Use a bonfire aesthetic! It’s a great change which (spoiler alert) I really wish had carried on into future games.
- New Game+ Changes – NG+ has received some much-needed changes which make it more enticing. First of all, Dark Souls 2 doesn’t force you into NG+ as soon as the final boss is beaten, rather you get to choose when to go into it. In addition to tougher enemies and keeping your equipment, NG+ also features new enemy placements, making replays more interesting, surprising and challenging than simply replaying the exact same game. It doesn’t change the game substantially, but it’s a nice feature.
- Some Truly Top-Tier Bosses – Dark Souls 2 features the most bosses in the entire franchise, and some of them are simply amazing (particularly the DLC bosses). The aforementioned Burnt Ivory King is one of the most visually spectacular bosses in the entire series, while Fume Knight is widely considered one of the best bosses in the entire series. Other really notable bosses in this game include Sir Alonne, Flexile Sentry, Smelter Demon, Velstadt, Sinh, the Slumbering Dragon and Aava, the King’s Pet. Considering how many of these bosses are from the DLC, it really shows you how high the quality was in those. In addition, even the worst bosses are still a fair bit more challenging than many of the bosses from the first Dark Souls, with far more attacks and animations (compare a relatively lame boss like the Dragonrider with the Asylum Demon and its very limited and exploitable animations – the Asylum Demon’s a more memorable fight, but I’d argue that the Dragonrider is at least mechanically more interesting).
- Enemies Stop Respawning – After killing an enemy enough times (around fifteen kills), that enemy will stop respawning each time you die or rest at a bonfire. I’m really mixed on this. On the one hand, it cuts down on some of the frustration of trying to run through an area over and over again if you keep getting stomped. There’s also another purpose for this change though – to prevent you from farming for souls and items, unless you use a bonfire aesthetic and make the game harder for yourself. I appreciated it at times when I was getting to grips with the combat system of Dark Souls 2, and there are certain boss runs which are absolute bastards until you thin out the enemies this way, but I’m pretty mixed on the concept overall. It feels like a bit of a crutch, plus it encourages frustrating game design if you can just grind your way to the boss room by killing enough enemies over and over.
- Unrestricted Fast Travel – Fast travel was a mid-game reward in Dark Souls, but in Dark Souls 2 you have it pretty much immediately. Considering how this game is laid out, it’s definitely a necessity for this to be the case, but it’s undeniable that it cuts down on the memorability of the game world compared to the original.
- Graphics Are Noticeably Worse – In my opinion, Dark Souls 2 looks worse than the original Dark Souls, in part due to less atmospheric effects and because the game’s dynamic lighting engine was gutted before release. The only reason I put this under mixed is because this has given the game some performance increases compared to the notoriously badly-optimized Dark Souls. Unsurprisingly, the framerate on the Scholar of the First Sin port on PS4 hits a steady 60fps, while apparently the PS3 version of Dark Souls 2 runs better than the original as well.
- World Isn’t as Interconnected – Considering that the world design is generally considered Dark Souls‘ greatest strength, it’s unfortunate that from Dark Souls 2-onwards, the series moved to a more linear and flat world layout. That’s not to say that the game is totally linear; from the hub area of Majula, you can head in a few different directions as you please. However, the way that these areas are laid out is much more linear, like each path out of Majula is a singular, long path outwards to the next major boss, with links to other areas being exceedingly rare. After the revelation that was Dark Souls‘ world design, it really is a shame that the world was designed this way.
- Slower Combat System – Dark Souls 2 has arguably the slowest combat system in the whole series, even slower than the first game in some respects. This partially because the healing system has been changed to where estus recovery is significantly slower, filling your health bar over the course of a few seconds rather than practically instantly. The game has also introduced life gems, providing additional, even slower healing to top up this. Add in the slow enemies and attacks and you have a game which can just be sluggish at times, especially when compared with Bloodborne or Dark Souls 3.
- Enemy Tracking – FromSoftware obviously realized that backstabs were too easy to pull off in Dark Souls, but they arguably went too far in the opposite direction here. In this game, enemies track you extremely quickly, even in the middle of attacks (meaning that they will wind up an attack and you think that you have dodged it, but then will be hit anyway because the enemy attack tracked you). Obviously, this just feels cheap when it happens, especially since Dark Souls 2 is also considered to have some of the most questionable hit boxes in the series.
- GANK – Dark Souls 2 is notorious for just throwing scores of enemies at the player and saying “good luck!” Admittedly, Dark Souls did this at times as well, but Dark Souls 2 does it far more often and far more notably (nearly half of the boss battles in this game have multiple enemies to deal with). It just feels like they were focusing more on the difficulty rather than making it fair for the player. The level of gank also doesn’t help the combat speed much, as you’re forced to lure enemies in and play very cautiously to survive.
- Some Awful and Uninspired Areas – Some of the areas in this game are just the absolute worst, for two reasons:
- There are some areas which are just the absolute worst in Souls. I would probably rather play through Lost Izalith, the Demon Ruins and face all of the Anor Londo archers than have to traverse Black Gulch again (although I might take it over Tomb of the Giants…). Poisonous statues raining bullet-hell throughout the level every time you take a step while enemies charge at you? Ugh. Shrine of Amana is also often cited as one of the most bullshit areas in the game due to its hidden insta-death ledges and bastardly long-ranged spellcasters, although I don’t mind it quite as much as most people do. I think my least favourite area in the main game is the boss run to the Executioner’s Chariot, which is not only long and annoying, but features ganks from enemies that can easily two-shot you and ignore your shield and is capped off with a very strong, respawning phantom before the boss. The lead-up to the Smelter Demon is also ridiculously brutal as you get swarmed by absolutely swarmed by Alonne Knights. That said, everything pales in comparison to the DLC areas the Iron Passage and the Frigid Outskirts, two of the absolute worst, least enjoyable areas in any Souls game. This just shows that FromSoftware forgot that these games are supposed to be difficult, but fair. The only positives of these two areas are that at least they’re optional, but they were so stupid that I just stopped trying very quickly.
- Even the decent areas are often just boring and uninspired, especially compared to Dark Souls. Most of the areas just feel like generic fantasy settings (particularly the Forest of Fallen Giants and Lost Bastille area), with only a few such as the Dragon Aerie or Earthen Peak standing out for being visually interesting.
- Some Truly Awful Bosses – Dark Souls 2 has the most bosses of any Souls game by far, and it’s exceedingly obvious that FromSoftware were going for quantity over quality here because the boss selection is by far this game’s weakest aspect. There are a number of instances where the bosses just feel thrown in for no good reason, but here’s the absolute worst offenders:
- First of all, there are the uninspired bosses, such as the Belfry Gargoyles (an infuriating gank rehash of the Bell Gargoyles), Scorpioness Najka (a really boring ripoff of Chaos Witch Quelaag), Old Dragonslayer (literally just Dragonslayer Ornstein, reused for basically no discernible reason) and the Twin Dragonriders (the early-game Dragonrider boss, but only with two this time!). The DLC also has similarly boring reskin bosses, the blue Smelter Demon and two giant tigers, both of which cap off the aforementioned worst areas in any Souls games, giving the player and even bigger middle finger for attempting them.
- Then there are the bosses which are basically just mobs of regular enemies. The Royal Rat Vanguard is literally just a group of rats, with one mohawked rat that you need to kill to win. There’s the Skeleton Lords, which are just a random bunch of skeleton enemies that explode and turn into an even bigger mob of skeletons (ugh). There’s the Prowling Magus and Congregation, which is arguably the worst “boss” in the game because they’re no stronger or more challenging than any of the actual regular enemies you face and just feel thrown in pointlessly. Oh, and then there’s the extremely shitty gank squad optional “boss” from the DLC, which basically forces you to run around in circles kiting the enemies until you can cheese them to death. Fun!
- Oh, and then there are the truly awful bosses, ones who are just ridiculously badly designed. The Covetous Demon is absolutely pathetic, giving pushovers like Pinwheel a run for their money as the easiest bosses in any Souls game. This giant Jabba the Hutt just lies there while you wail on it, occasionally flopping over to try to hit you, but often missing. It’s just sad to witness. It can do a lot of damage if you get hit and are being too greedy yourself, but it’s never going to feel like a real challenge. I also consider the Old Iron King to be a really poor boss fight unfitting for a Souls game. Basically, the boss has the most obvious and slow attacks, telegraphing exactly what he’s going to do and then leaving his fists down for no other reason than for you to hit him multiple times, because he’s a video game boss. The only challenge in this fight is that the boss can very easily get a cheap kill by knocking you out of his arena, which is just utter bullshit. Similarly, the Ancient Dragon is often considered one of the most bullshit bosses in Souls, due to its enormous health bar, its insanely huge area of attack fire breath and that its damage output is enough to one-shot most builds. It’s just straight-up not fun to fight.
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