It should be no surprise that I really waited for this game. Following the weeks it got out, I played it for quite a respectable amount of hours. In fact I'm still not done with it, but I'm taking a break from it for now. It's summer in Finland and it's bright throughout most of the day, even inside my living room. Shockingly, this game is quite dark (who would've thought) so I can't actually play it because of screen reflections. Even if it is significantly less dark than its predecessor. It's just not really a game where you'd want to miss seeing something. I mean that something might just get you very, very dead. Even though it's probably one of the best - if not the best - games this year, there's not much to say. It's mostly more of the same with slight tweaks. That's enough though right, because it's more of the same best gameplay out there.
1. The tweaks
Because sequels are effectively massive iterations of the original concept, they tend to tweak things in a better direction. The basics have been largely left untouched as there really isn't much of a reason to change them. Some things have clearly been changed as an attempt to improve them; others have been changed more for flavor. Take dual-wielding for instance. It used to be pretty useless, so they've given it a buff. Wielding two weapons of the same type and having high enough stats grants access to power stance. This stance offers new moves featuring both weapons at the same time, which increases damage output quite nicely. The tradeoff, not being able to use a shield, is still significant - although I have to say less so than I'd expected. Don't know whether it's just a matter of enemy design or me having enough confidence in my own abilities, but I have mostly been playing without a shield. I do like that lighter weapons are now more useful in PVE.
One of my biggest gripes with Dark Souls has received some much-needed attention. I'm naturally talking about poise - the stagger resistance mechanic - that used to be just bonkers. This in the sense that with high enough poise there were next to no attacks in the game that could stagger your character. That's particularly stupid in PVP - which is another subject I've touched in quite some detail previously. Well, that's in the past because poise has been heavily nerfed. I think it's fairly balanced now actually. If you choose to go that route, you can still shrug of staggers from most mobs and some attacks from bosses, but not nearly everything. It is pretty useless in PVP. As a bit of a step backwards though, there now seems to exist a rather definite sweet spot for equipment encumbrance. In the past, there was a notable difference for having less than 25% load, and another huge step at 50%. Now it scales more linearly, but load only affects roll distance (almost useless) and stamina recovery speed (somewhat meaningful). The only hard limit is at 70% where normal roll turns into the fat roll.
This means that most builds can wear almost any armor without getting punished because there's very little point in carrying around anything below 69.9%. Sure, the roll distance was useful for my bow only run but that's not really an optimal way to play in any regard. On the other hand, if you're really good at not getting hit, might as well go naked for maximum stamina recovery speed I guess. Still, I feel there's less factors involved in picking armor in this game. There is however some choice involved in rolling, because rolling speed and invulnerability window length are now determined by a derivative stat. This actually caught me be surprise at first a lot because rolling away after making an attack has a longer delay than it used to (even with high stats, but especially at the beginning). I died a lot because of this. Admittedly I still die a lot because of greedy attacking, but at least now it's no longer a surprise when it happens - just the usual facepalm. Then again that's probably the biggest reason I die in a lot of games of this genre in general.
Speaking of stats, there's now more of them. Endurance has been split into two stats: one for stamina and another for equipment load. Then there's adaptability which is a new stat that affects the derivative agility stat I just mentioned, and resistances. Stat-based damage bonuses are now derivative stats, and as a bigger change, there's not just the original four but also three new ones: fire, lightning and dark damage. Well, really just two new ones, because lightning replaces faith-based damage. Yes, elemental weapons do scale now, based on different stats. Dark damage is the most demanding type, because it's defined by whichever of magic or faith is lower. Another curious scaling type is the new mundane scaling, which scales based on how high is the character's lowest stat. Interestingly enough, almost all weapons in the game can be imbued with any scaling even if they already have that damage type built in (in which case that damage type gets more emphasized). Even more importantly, elemental weapons can now be enchanted with spells.
All this means that different scaling types actually make a lot more sense now. Previously even casters often wanted to use a physical damage weapon because it would get a much bigger damage buff from a spell. Now you can cast the buff on any weapon. I think there's simply more viable builds this time. Scaling can also be imbued into shields now to change their damage blocks. Status effects, most notably poison, can also be imbued into melee weapons for some interesting options - especially since most bosses aren't actually immune to poison. Other tweaks include changes to backstab and parrying, both of which are now less dominant (bugs aside). Backstab has less invulnerability; parrying now knocks the attacker on their butt, and to get a riposte you actually have to wait a bit (and can be interrupted by other enemies in the meantime). There's also a new magic category, hexes, based on dark scaling which makes it the most demanding magic type stats wise. Pyromancy is less broken and the flame now requires materials to upgrade so you can't rush it.
Limited respecs are also now available. Matchmaking has changed too. Previously it was based on soul level, which caused an anomaly where players would focus all their souls into upgrading gear, then invade low level games with godlike equipment. It's now based on soul memory, which is a measure of all souls obtained instead, making this method of griefing impossible. The matchmaking has other issues, and pure invasions are actually very rare because the player now needs to belong to a specific covenant in order to do so. Even then it's not really worth it, and as a side effect another covenant is useless. I guess they wanted to protect players a bit more because now the only way to fully avoid invasions is to play offline. There are however certain PVP focus areas in the game where invasions happen a lot so if you really want to fight, it's easily possible. Most importantly, network code is much better now, and I've experienced a lot less lag issues - and no lagstabbing at all.
The biggest issue with this system as far as I've heard is the fact that soul memory caps at 15 million, after which you can face anyone above the threshold. This means you can end up fighting fully maxed out characters once you hit that 15M souls. I don't remember where are my characters' soul memories at so I cannot say how high is the threshold exactly. All in all I feel the tweaks are welcome, and as soon as they fix a few bugs that are getting abused, the game should be more balanced than Dark Souls.
There's one tweak that's worth its own section. Partly because this is something I forgot to include in my Lightning Returns post. The biggest and perhaps most vocalized change in reviews is the limitation on enemy spawns. Whereas before there would occasionally be enemies that were there only once, in Dark Souls 2 all enemies can be killed only a set amount of times after which they will no longer respawn. This change affects the game in two ways. In one way it makes the game easier because areas can be cleared so that around the fifteenth attempt against the boss the player just runs through empty corridors to get there. In another way it makes the game harder because everything now comes with limited availability. By everything I mean items and souls dropped by enemies. This only really applies if the player relies on farm. This was also the most discussed and criticized change.
At first it felt a bit like cheating because by now I'm used to repeating sections in Souls games. In the end though by the fifteenth attempt the section is mostly routine anyway, so going through it is neither challenging or interesting. Sometimes you might not even make it to fifteen kills on all enemies if you figure out a way to bypass them. Which is what we used to do in previous games when killing the same enemies for the umphteenth time got a bit too tedious. Now there's a choice to purposefully clear an area before a difficult boss instead of bypassing the enemies and sometimes I did opt for that. Most of the time it's still more convenient to just run past mobs, especially if you don't particularly need their drops. For new players this change can make things tricky if they are not careful with their souls. Let's say you make it to the boss fourteen times and always succeed in reclaiming your souls - except on the fifteenth run you lose them. Now you're facing empty corridors with no souls in sight, and the boss hasn't gotten any easier.
It is true that in offline play you can get screwed by this, theoretically at least. However, infinite souls are still available in the game. There's no limitation to how much you can go out as a white phantom to help out other players, and get your share of their soul rewards. If I remember this right, the reward is half of the normal amount of souls you would get. At the same time, it's a good way to scout out bosses and to avoid nasty surprises. The game also has one other tool to help players with this limited availability of souls. There's a ring that prevents losses at death. It does break when triggered, but can be repaired for about 2,000 souls. Since you always spawn at a bonfire and warping is always available, you can go back to repair it infinitely. Sure it's a bit of work, but it's a great safety net when you have massed a lot of souls. Similar rings existed in Dark Souls, but they could not be repaired.
I guess it's still possible to get screwed, but I don't really see how the mechanic in itself could be that bad. Its biggest impact is on drops if anything. It is now impossible to farm equipment upgrade materials indefinitely. it does put some weight on upgrade decisions early on in the game. Eventually, most materials will still have pretty high availability. It is also worth remembering that highest tier materials and things like demon titanite were also very limited in Dark Souls, so this is not exactly new either. In fact, the limited availability of drops is probably more consequential in Lightning Returns because of the way the ability upgrades work (i.e. you need to fuse together many copies of the same ability). In Dark Souls 2 you can still easily fully upgrade several weapons and a set of armor on one playthrough, which to me is hardly limited availability. All in all I don't know if it was a necessary change, but I am not really feeling the claimed negative impacts. I guess you could say it's against the Souls principle in a way because you are being denied learning possibilities after fifteen attempts. Color me indifferent.
In Dark Souls 2 the extinction of enemies is clearly just a game mechanic with no thematic implications. In Lightning Returns it's thematically more appropriate - at the end of days, even monsters feel it. This is further signified by last ones - special bosses encountered when every other member of a monster species is defeated. In a way it makes killing monsters feel less pointless as you can go on a crusade to truly defeat every last one of them. Of course, being able to slay an entire monster species would also have rather interesting moral implications in a different context. Even in LR you can ask yourself are all of these monsters truly malicious. In the end though, you will still go ahead and kill them for your precious loot and achievements. As a concept extinction has a lot to explore - not just as a meta-commentary, but also as a farm-limiting game mechanic.
In a nutshell, Dark Souls 2 is almost the same game as Dark Souls, just in a different environment. For me this is more than enough. Even if the design does seem a bit weaker at times, it's still more awesome than any of its competitors. Changes have been mostly rather cautious and for good reason. I guess I'm just not hardcore enough to see how DkS2 is so obviously inferior to DkS. Even if it was slightly weaker (and I'm not even sure about that), it's still an entirely new game with new challenges and environments. I mean, we used to play sequels made with exactly the same engine in the past (and I guess we still are). Sometimes I feel people are a bit too eager to declare "more of the same" in a negative tone. At times, "more of the same" is exactly what's called for. For me, Dark Souls 2 was a reason to get back to the gameplay system I have learned to love.