Punishment rarely seems a gift, but for players caught in the thrall of carving out a path through the grim fantasy landscape in Dark Souls, punishment is everything. It pushes players to hone their abilities like few other games do, making each hard-won victory taste that much sweeter. In this regard, Dark Souls II is no different than its predecessor.
Punishment is the masochistic fuel that drives you ever-onward, again and again through catacombs and mountain peaks bristling with the promise of death, until you finally succeed. In many ways, Dark Souls II promises an experience that's every bit as brutal as its predecessor, while offering an even more expansive and detailed world full of danger for you to maraud through.
Indeed, the series' notoriously insidious difficulty has become a huge draw for players, and the steep but rewarding challenge it's known for isn't going away anytime soon. Simply put: you can look forward to being sent to your doom many, many times in the most merciless ways imaginable. Dark Souls II's improved enemy AI and combat systems make sword and spell play all the more dynamic. Plus, the way death is handled this time around certainly ramps-up the tension in an interesting way.
Taking a page out of Demon's Souls' playbook, Dark Souls II ratchets up the consequences of dying repeatedly. A single death strips you of your human form, leaving you in a slightly weakened undead ("hollowed") state. Subsequent deaths also whittle away at your maximum health total unless you regain your human form, and this penalty maxes out at 50 percent of your normal health. What, You thought they were going to make it easier? Pfftt.
Perhaps most thrilling — and unnerving — is the fact that you're never (ever) truly safe. Beyond fighting the hordes of demonic creatures and warriors littering the game world, you have to watch your back against other players too — adversarial multiplayer encounters are even more prevalent this time around. While the first Dark Souls allowed other players to invade your game and attack only when you were in living human form, Dark Souls II lets them hop into your game to wreak havoc anytime — even when you're hollowed. Not like you ever had much of a chance to get too comfortable to begin with, but this added functionality intensifies things exponentially. The fear of being invaded at any time is omnipresent, assuming you don't prefer to play offline completely, which is an option.
All of this makes Dark Souls II far from easy, but also doesn't tip the experience too far into impossible territory. However punishing it might appear, the series has always provided players with the tools to overcome the seemingly insurmountable obstacles stacked against them. To that extent, this latest jaunt adds checks and balances, like new health gems and the ability to fast-travel between bonfire save points — that help you keep your sanity intact.
Life and death isn't everything, of course. The game world itself is bigger and more beautifully varied with distinct environments. All of these new features combine to make Dark Souls II a worthy second installment in this compelling series.
Nathan Meunier is a journalist and freelance writer who covers video games, technology, and geek culture. He's also the author of Up Up Down Down Left WRITE: The Freelance Guide to Video Game Journalism, which is out now on Kindle and in print.