The only thing that really needs to be said about Dark Souls II is that it's more of the same. The game keeps everything which worked in the original. It remains hard as nails, improves and expands upon previous aspects without ever losing sight of what it needs to be, and is an all around solid title. The only real failings come from its increasingly overblown reputation and the various communities which have built up around it. If you like hard as nails combat and enjoy bleak, dark, moody settings then you'll be right at home here.
Still, you're probably not going to be quite satisfied with just that. So, let's examine these points in further detail. Just to give warning though, this is mostly going to be a review for people who played the original.
The game's plot is about as minimalist as the original. Playing as an unnamed undead warrior, you travel the lands in search of a cure to your affliction and a potential end to the darkness now choking the realm. This time you are travelling the lands of Drangleic after awakening in the town of Majula. a small rural haven for travelers and lost souls. After some helpful recaps of the previous plot explained by listening in to a few of the local downtrodden folk, you head out to fight some monsters.
As before, what you learn as you progress is only told in bits and pieces. It's some of the most interesting lore possible because you only see hints of it. It's bare bones but at the same time very carefully thought you, and you are just left wondering what the exact details behind certain events were.
As mournfully beautiful as the original was, Dark Souls II displays some very interesting location not entirely alike to what we had before. From Elizabethan docks to a crumbling bastion filled with your common or garden ensemble of dark fantasy foes, there is a slight shift in the presentation. While still clearly the same world, certain aesthetics and design choices have visibly been tweaked. While still definitely the same world, it's a different side of that place with some different sights to see.
What is somewhat different is that there are a few more visible signs of light in the dark world. Ignoring the bonfires, a point which will be covered in a minute, you have more options with NPCs this time around thanks to a much wider cast of characters. Few offer much help beyond the odd bauble here and there, but you have the option of drawing them back to Majula where a greater community can be made out of them. It's only a small choice at the end of the day, but it adds a little more depth to the game's universe in its own way. After all, it was that little option to do the exact opposite and kill anyone you meet, something still perfectly viable here, that was so popular in the first game.
The combat itself is solid. It goes without saying. You are fairly fragile, monsters are frequently hard to kill, and you will die. A lot. The original Dark Souls was infamous for this and it's a detail which has not changed here, as you constantly dive around the blows from enemies and attempt to generally prevent yourself from being mauled. It rewards careful precision, planning and keeping a cool head while fighting. Storming in blindly will just get you killed and it is through constant careful focus, attention and keeping your wits about you that any chance of victory will be assured.
The core basics and combat mechanics around this have remained largely the same, but there have been certain tweaks to make life more difficult for you. Choosing to emphasise magic will much more visibly diminish your effectiveness in conventional combat as you progress meaning you cannot so easily juggle between methods of fighting. This means you have to more carefully plan out from the outset how you are going to play, and places an even greater emphasis upon the Dark Souls' attitude of making mistakes and learning as you go along.
However, there are certain aspects which have been made somewhat more forgiving to some degree. While hardly made with that dreaded dumbing down mentality of "let's make this appeal to a wider audience" the game will throw the player a bone once in a while. Should you die in a certain area over and over again, you will soon find that the overall number of creatures you are forced to fight diminish. On the one hand this allows you to progress faster and have a slightly easier time. On the other, it denies you those souls you so desperately need to prevent you from becoming hollow.
For those not in the know, it's a degenerative state all undead will succumb to without gaining further humanity from souls and is generally a very bad thing to have happen to you.
This general mentality of offering help with one hand, but ultimately handicapping you with the other carries over to many other areas as well. You can now be invaded and attacked while hollow by other players, yet there are certain chances against this and other aspects which need to be considered. Both sides now have covenants which can appear to help them defend against invaders or even help the invaders against them, and there are certain items which enhance chances of invasion. This makes it much easier for PvP players to just do their thing, but anyone wanting to use them in the quest must also risk further attacks.
What is almost certainly going to draw ire from more than a few groups is the presence of a fast travel system. While there were certainly ones present in the game, here you are allowed to effectively teleport between any bonfire you have uncovered. This would be fine on its own, were it not for one slight issue. Despite being relatively scattered throughout the original game here they are littered all over the place. There seem to be a much higher number in various places they are otherwise not needed. this may be in part to help deal with the more frequent invasions, but it's still one of the more negative changes despite the benefits of quickly traversing the land.
Dark Souls II is not going to be a game for everyone. It's very unforgiving and the bleak atmosphere will understandably drive away some people. At the same time however, from a critical perspective there is extremely little here to genuinely criticise among its many new additions. Definitely take a look at this one if you get the chance and buy it if you have the time to burn on a single title.