There’s an analogy for life which seems particularly apt when discussing the Dark Souls series: We are like sparrows flitting through a bright room with darkness outside. With night behind and before us, we only have a fleeting glimpse of the light before it is done with us and we are back in the featureless dark. Life is brief, and the disparity between the cold and the light can be painful, but it is also full of wondrous sights and sounds and experiences. And each experience is that much more valuable because life is transitory. The Souls series is about the terrible cost paid for trying to subvert that law, to have more life than we are naturally apportioned, and what becomes of those who try.

The curse of undeath is at the centre of Dark Souls 2. It is the in-game mechanism by which your character is able to continue after a defeat (albeit increasingly stunted and ‘hollowed’ each time you fall) and breaking the curse is the reason your character travels to the land of Drangleic. Every NPC you meet reinforces how terrible a fate it is to be functionally immortal, whether through losing their memories and purpose as the peaks and troughs of life are levelled through unnatural longevity or through the depraved measures they resort to in order to halt that process.

Photo courtesy of From Software

Bonfires offer respite from your arduous travels through Drangleic

It’s almost impossible for me to spoil any of Dark Souls 2’s story, since so much of it is vague or open to interpretation that I’m almost certainly wrong about everything I could say. As with Dark Souls, you fall into a vast and decaying land and are tasked with gathering powerful souls. As you do you’ll battle through ruined temples, half-submerged cities, vast underground caverns, all of which impart their history through architecture, enemy types and item descriptions. You have to actively work to piece together the story, and developer From Software obviously noted how fanatic the first game’s fanbase was in doing so, because the hints in the sequel are even more cryptic than in the original. And while there’s nothing here quite so inherently mysterious as the nature of the Abyss or the Painted World, there’s more than enough history implicit here to make your actions feel like they’re affecting a pre-existing world.

The land of Drangleic is huge and sprawling. The zones are more varied than the first game’s, encompassing iron-clad castles, mist-veiled swamps and eyries carved into rock spires. Each is beautiful in a slightly unsettling way; even the gorgeous sunset-drenched Heide’s Tower is atop the smashed ruins of a drowned city. They are, however, notably smaller and less interconnected than the first game’s levels: Other than the Old Iron Keep and the Lost Bastille each can be traversed fairly quickly and there are more frequent and obvious bonfires to rest at. It removes a sense of having endured an ordeal that was a big part of the reason locations like Sen’s Fortress and Blighttown from the original are so iconic. It takes away a part of the accomplishment that drove fans of the first game on to the next location, the fierce satisfaction of having finally bested an insurmountable challenge.

That tiny, insignificant speck on the right? That's you

That tiny, insignificant speck on the right? That’s you

This, plus tweaks to the combat in favour of the player, combine to form an undeniable truth: Dark Souls 2 is significantly easier than its predecessor. You’ll still die plenty of times, and getting surrounded or cornered remains a sure-fire way to have that happen, but there’s nowhere you can’t push through after a few attempts. Enemies even stop respawning after a while so areas in which you’ve failed repeatedly become easier still. For a series that is marketed on its difficulty, that seems like a huge problem: The community round the first game was so strong partly because it was based on the camaraderie of having endured something together.

The trick with Dark Souls 2, though, is that that harrowing, nigh-impossible difficulty is still present. Now, however, it has to be sought out. In the second major area and hub level players can join a covenant whose only affect is to make the enemies hit harder, notice more and take less damage. This, plus the availability of items such as bonfire ascetics and certain rings which add to this effect, means that the difficulty can be organically toggled to a level each player is comfortable with. Where once merely besting the game was a mark of fraternity there is now a covenant that does the same while allowing new players to build to that point.

And the game is by no means easy. Areas like the Harvest Grounds and Old Iron Keep can be merciless at times, and the more imaginative bosses will tax a player’s abilities to their limits.  The sense of accomplishment is still there: Not for nothing is an achievement awarded upon your first death which simply states “This Is Dark Souls”. Combat feels more fluid and varied than the original – no more input delay – and From Software have obviously taken pains to make sure everyone can build a character around their playstyle. The addition of certain items mean pure sorcerer builds can hold their own against tanks, ninjas or knights in PvP.

The multiplayer is, and has always been, one of the more original pieces of the Souls series: While each player is on their own by default, when playing online you will see the insubstantial forms of players in the same area as you in their own game, and checking messages and bloodstains that leak between those worlds allow players to share their knowledge, albeit by limited stock phrases. These messages are only the top layer of the multiplayer, though – by joining certain covenants in the game different types of interaction become available.

The Blue Sentinels, for example, are automatically summoned to help another member of that covenant if they are invaded by a player from the Brotherhood of Blood covenant, while the Bell Keepers are periodically summoned to a specific location to prevent another player clearing that area. There are plenty more, and each provides an outlet for a player’s preferred online proclivities. And since the interaction is limited by time or location, each is imbued with a weight that makes victories more satisfying and losses more bitter: Like sparrows flitting through a lit room, players briefly enliven each others’ worlds, and then are gone forever.

The Mirror Knight boss summons other players as his flunkies during your fight

The Mirror Knight boss summons other players as his flunkies during your fight

Dark Souls has always been one of the most original, unique fantasy series. Its design choices, often baffling at first, are in service of creating a feeling entirely unlike anything else on the market. While Dark Souls 2 at times feels less substantial than its predecessor, and suffers slightly from a less cohesive lore and more traditional enemy design, it’s still never less than fun to play. Each death will likely elicit a curse from the player, then a rueful grin as they pick up the controller to try again. The lessons its story imparts – that desire for more, that want, needs to be tempered – is one players are unlikely to learn: You will want more time in Drangleic to experience its beautiful brokenness and compelling atmosphere. As its tagline promised, you will go beyond death again, and again, and again.

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