There's one thing you can be sure of with a Dark Souls game: There's no "Easy" button. In fact, these titles have gained their fame for being some of the toughest, most arduous experiences you're apt to find in a third-person sword-slasher and magic-blaster.
With that reputation to uphold, Dark Souls II packs in lots of death penalties, sadistic traps, incredibly powerful foes, avatars who slowly weaken over time and cruel status effects that heap challenge upon challenge on every step you take.
No Pain, No Game
The "fun" all begins with creating your avatar from eight typical ranks of Warrior, Bandit, Sorcerer and the like. But even in these early stages, it's important to labor over your choices.
Each character, you see, has his or her own specific stats. A guy with more "vigor" starts with an added level of health. "Endurance" equals stamina in the midst of swinging an oversized sword. "Vitality" determines how much you can carry without being slowed down. And then there are the dexterous quick-moving skills and magic-wielding capabilities.
Now, if you're thinking that all sounds like pretty standard stuff, you're right. But in this game it's not about how an elevated stat level helps your play, it's more about how a lower stat in some area will quickly get you mulched. If you lose stamina in the midst of a sword-swinging battle, for instance, those huge foes—who never seem to have such human problems—will calmly eat you for lunch while you're gasping for breath. And if your vitality is a bit too low, well, that new and improved weapon will likely be too heavy to wield.
The point is that even before your first step, you have to realize this game won't hold your hand or give you a prize for showing up. You'll have to work for every advantage you can scrape up.
In the opening scene, three witch-like creatures actually cackle at you and tell you how quickly this deadly virtual world will destroy you. And they're absolutely correct. You'll face impossible situations, die over and over, be resurrected, and only after picking up minute clues in each round of repeated death will you learn enough to eventually make it through to the next soul-sucking challenge.
Prepare to Die … Again
As the cackling echoes around you, your "grand" adventure begins with a broken sword and a rough shove toward a fallen kingdom called Drangleic. You don't really know how or why you're being sent there. But you soon realize that you're just as fallen as the nasty world around you. Indeed, you are an "Undead"—a cadaverous wanderer who's lost all memory and has some unknown task to fulfill in the usually vain hope of stopping a curse from fully turning you from wounded flesh and bone into nothing more than a rotting pile of corruption.
Along the way to that nondescript goal, however, there's really only one thing consistently on your gaming mind: finding souls. If you can kill other undead and human inhabitants of this crumbling open-world kingdom and snatch up their souls, you can upgrade your skills, armor and weapons to give yourself a sliver of a chance.
And that's pretty much the game. You troop through dank graveyards, mist-filled castle hallways, hellish lava pits and pitch-black hidey-holes. Sometimes you'll kneel and swear spiritual fealty to some blood cult or talking rat in order to gain a special power boost. But for the most part it's all about seeking occasional booty, picking up scraps of information, running into one impassable dead-end after another, and trying to kill everything that moves.
The T Doesn't Really Stand for Temperance
If you're wondering about the difference between this T-rated follow-up and the earlier M-rated games, well, it's not all that appreciable. There are similar scores of continually spawning zombie-like creatures with sharp blades or nasty gnashing beasties that scamper through the undergrowth. But, in truth, those are only there to jump at you and keep you on your toes anyway.
It's everything else that's the real challenge, both then and now. Those nasty things include huge undead knights with nearly impenetrable armor, skeletal horse demons, enormous laser-belching spiders, a Medusa-like serpent/woman who chucks her screaming severed head in your direction, and a beast made up of hundreds of rotting corpses.
Battles with these ghoulies are a little less gory here—with blood sprays vs. blood deluges. The language is mostly "limited" to uses of "pr‑‑k" and "b‑‑tard." And sexual visuals here include a female boss with her naked breasts partially covered by long hair. But this is every bit as dank and spiritually twisted an environment as the last game. And, of course, the main semi-masochistic fanboy challenge remains ever true. You'll do your best to vanquish those who don't gut you first. Oh, but they will gut you first. They will.