If "Call of Duty" is the gaming equivalent of junk food, then "Dark Souls II" is a feast. This brutally difficult action/role-playing game (RPG) is rich, complex and takes a long time to digest. To fully consume "Dark Souls II," you'll need to be patient and pace yourself, but the rewarding feeling at the end will leave you wondering why almost every other game feels so shallow in comparison.
To be clear, "Dark Souls II" (Xbox 360, PS3, PC, $59.99; Tom's Guide played the PS3 version) is not for the faint of heart. The game delights in killing you over and over, in the most devastating and unexpected ways possible. You will rage and curse and want to hurl your controller, your console and possibly yourself out of the nearest window. But you'll keep coming back, and should you triumph, your victory is one that will stay with you for a long time to come.
Unless you've played its predecessors ("Demon's Souls" and "Dark Souls"), you've probably never played anything like "Dark Souls II." The beginning of the game is deceptively simple: choose a class (Warrior, Sorcerer, Explorer, etc.), customize your character's name, gender and appearance, and set off into the world to battle the monsters who stand in your way.
What sets "Dark Souls II" apart from similar titles is its exceptional difficulty. The enemies you encounter are both ferocious and tenacious, and even the first enemies you encounter can carve you up like an armored turkey if you give them half a chance. Fighting more than one enemy at a time is suicide; advancing even a few steps without your shield up and your finger on the dodge button is just asking for a trap to impale you.
The game does throw you a number of bones (since it has murderous, spear-wielding skeletons to spare). You can rest and refill your potions at bonfires, which double as checkpoints. When — not if — you die, you'll be returned to the last bonfire you visited. Whatever items you found will still be in your inventory, and whatever shortcuts you found will still be active.
Enemies drop souls upon defeat, which can be exchanged for upgrades or new equipment. Raising your strength or health by even a few points and upgrading your favorite weapon can turn an impossible challenge into one that's merely very difficult.
Hoarding souls can land you in trouble, though, as you drop your souls upon dying. If you can reach the spot where you perished, you can reclaim them; if not, they disappear forever. Few things feel more devastating than earning a few thousand souls, then dying twice in rapid succession and seeing all of those stat upgrades you dreamed about vanish into a bloody mist.
Tough but fair
In spite of its unforgiving challenge, "Dark Souls II" is an absolute delight to play. The controls are as precise as they come, and reward careful strokes instead of indiscriminate button-mashing.
Conquering the game's enormous bosses feels like a real triumph rather than just a tick box on the way to the ending. If you die 15 times in a row, but still manage to eke out enough souls for a few upgrades, you'll feel like the greatest adventurer who ever lived. Few games rival "Dark Souls II" in terms of delayed gratification and satisfaction.
Series fans will notice two big changes from "Dark Souls." When you die, your health now caps at 50 percent of its maximum value, as in "Demon's Souls." Many enemies will also stop re-spawning if you defeat them enough times. When taken together, these changes make the game both harder and easier than its predecessors, leaving it with a similar difficulty curve on balance.
Your character in "Dark Souls II" is a traveler in the dilapidated realm of Drangleic. He or she is cursed to die again and again, coming back as an undead abomination. Burning effigies of his or her former self can temporarily dispel the curse, but nothing can break it — or so it seems.
When a mysterious maiden in emerald robes tells you to seek out the four most powerful creatures in the land and bring their souls back to her, what choice do you have but to accept?
As in the first two games, the story in "Dark Souls II" is minimalist and, truth be told, not terribly interesting. Your character's backstory is confusing and ill-explained, while actual plot points are few and far between. Once you get your initial quest, you'll be on it for a long time before the plot moves forward again.
What makes the world of Drangleic interesting is the lore you find. Drangleic reveals its secrets in trickles, in the most unexpected places. By talking with the enigmatic characters you meet (such as a talking cat who sells you rings, or a fellow undead traveler who's given up on his quest); reading descriptions on items you find; and observing the eerie castles, rolling hills and abandoned seaside towns you encounter, you can piece together a lot about the world and the characters who inhabit it.