I've got to be totally honest, I didn't get Demon or Dark Souls. They seem to be part of that exclusive group of love 'em or hate 'em games that just don't do indifference. To some the Souls' series are frustration and pain ploughed onto a disc, and to others it's somewhere nearer fantasy perfection.
Which was always going to be a sticking point with me. I'm a self-confessed 'not getter' of From Software's cult RPG series. Where the heck are the regular D&D tropes we expect from similar games? The jiggling boobs of a sexy elf druid? The ham-fisted plot line that includes both dragons, royalty, and a lineage of 'chosen ones'?. For an RPG, it dares to toe the line not set by Bioware, but instead a different one. And this is where I've come to terms with Dark Souls 2: Even Darker.
At its heart, this hack-and-slash game is a 8-bit title, in that it comes from the school of Mega Man rather than Baldur's Gate. Essentially, Dark Souls 2 is a game while most modern RPGs are more like interactive movies. Does that mean it's better than recent fantasy schlock? Well it depends on you.
Dark Souls 2 is much more of the same in relation to its predecessor, albeit with a few tweaks added in here and there. The difficulty still endorses the tagline 'prepare to die' while the level design is as twisting and turning as ever. The changes here are slight, and at first glance it looks like a reskin rather than a redesign.
But that would be doing DS2 a disservice. Where I couldn't get fathom the deliberately obtuse nature of the original, this sequel dips you into the gore and bone-filled bath slightly easier. Where I hated the previous two, I've grown to admire this latest attempt at JRPG meets western fantasy.
So let's start somewhere near the beginning. You're undead. Or maybe not. You're somewhere between. And there are witches. And an eerie deserted kingdom. And souls! Lots of tasty, tasty souls.
Narrative isn't in the Souls' series DNA but for a few hints here and there of lore. It's much easier to say that Drangleic is a cursed kingdom, and you're dropped into this decrypted world ready to kick ass and start taking names/souls.
DS2 isn't about melodrama or 'you are Darth Revan' moments, it's much more nuanced. It presents you with intriguing environments to explore and dares you to delve into the mysterious fog that seems to settle amongst the creaking architecture and broken cliffs. For those expecting a rollercoaster-ride of a story this quiet, and often underplayed experience, will not be suited.
Like yesteryear's MMORPG, the adventure, and, lack of, driving plot becomes of your own making. You forge your own path, set your own goals, and define your own reasons for exploring this cursed kingdom of Drangleic.
Ultimately it comes down to a succession of non-linear dungeons crawls. Environments range from crumbling ruins to deserted castles, and further to not-so-enchanted forests. The oppressive and depressive atmospheres always vibrate with the notion that death is never quite far away, and while it can be frustrating as all hell, conquering each stage feels like taking revenge on the sadism of the game's code.
Combat makes up a large portion of the adventure, with a hack-and-slash system that is reminiscent of old 8-Bit titles. Timing, attack patterns, and general rinse-and-repeat deaths are the order the day. Being killed is something that will happen regularly, but unlike more modern titles, you will learn from each failure, try new gear sets, and come back more calculating and experienced each time.
Of course, the real hook is the character development which is aided and abetted by soul collection. Each time an enemy is murdered by your hands, a number of souls will be awarded. Get enough of these silvery orbs and you can start to shape and mould your, by now decaying, avatar.
Over a number of stats, the game bends to your whims and plays how you want to play it. Whether you wish to be a ranger, a sorcerer, or anime-inspired heavy swordsman #3, it's up to you. And it's this constant pursuit of character growth that really sucks you into Drangleic and its assorted non-charms.
Ultimately this is a game that seems at times to have a narrow focus on difficulty and grind - but it’s the adventures, the right steps and missteps along the way that make it such an entrancing experience. Some come for adventure, others for cool gear, and others just because thumping your fist in frustration is reminiscent of an early time in videogaming. One thing is for sure: Dark Souls 2 builds on the established formula and betters it in every way.