2014 was a very eclectic year, at least in terms of what landed on my top ten. Danganronpa, a hybrid visual novel/adventure game, nearly nabbed my number one spot, but in the end, Dark Souls 2 won out.
Of course, we now live in a post-Bloodborne world, and Dark Souls 2 still receives its share of hate for not being directed by Dark and Demon's Souls lead Hidetaka Miyazaki—a misguided criticism from people who don't really understand how video games are made. Since its release, I've sunk at least 200 hours into the Dark Souls 2 family, which includes three DLC chapters, as well as the remixed Scholar of the First Sin edition. Even if you dismiss this current-gen port—released in early 2015—that's a whole lot of content.
At this point, it's safe to say I've spent more time with this Dark Souls sequel than any other entry in the From Software RPG series. But was it time well spent?
What we said at the time
From the review: "Dark Souls II provides the best of both worlds: an admirable sequel for series veterans, and a perfect jumping-on point for gamers who've shied away from From Software's RPG brand until now. And if you're afraid of the series' tough-as-nails reputation, From has made sinking into Souls addiction a much more effortless process. You just have to let Dark Souls II break you first."
It's been a good 20 months since I wrote those words, and my stance really hasn't changed. Even though we live in a reality that now includes Bloodborne, I'd still recommend Dark Souls 2 to anyone interested in From's particular brand of RPG. It features the same extensive character customization of the first game, with a few added features to make things more approachable for newcomers—like how enemies disappear from the world entirely if you kill them enough times. While it's also a great game, Bloodborne ultimately emphasizes a direct approach to enemy encounters, which may be overwhelming for someone new to this demanding series. In Dark Souls 2, you can at least hide behind sorcery, pyromancy, hexes, and miracles if you want to opt out of hand-to-hand combat. Even with 200-odd hours under my belt, I feel like I've barely touched the many, many ways to play Dark Souls 2.
Dark Souls 2 holds a pretty high rank on Metacritic, with most reviewers agreeing this installment rarely disappoints, even with the reduced presence of director Miyazaki. But, as indicated earlier, a certain segment of the Souls community views this sequel as vastly inferior, and for reasons that strike me as a little petty. Though I'll fully admit their claims do have some merit: I definitely prefer the organic congruity of Dark Souls' world to the hub-and-spoke layout of Dark Souls 2. And I do think Dark Souls has the stronger story, what with Dark Souls 2 opting to tell a handful of shorter narratives rather than concentrating on a singular plot.
But these issues don't make for a terrible game. Instead, it's just another, equally valid interpretation of Souls. I'm sure part 2 would be perfectly fine if it slavishly followed the formula of the original, but the slight deviations found in the sequel—even the absence of verticality in level design—make for an experience that's a bit different, but still worthwhile. And Dark Souls 2 definitely benefits from From Software's experience developing two very similar games before it: Both Demon's and Dark Souls have their difficulty spikes that can be chalked up to poorly implemented ideas rather than intentional choices (*cough* Bed of Chaos). Going into the development of Dark Souls 2 with years of feedback from past projects definitely helped this sequel turn out so great.
The content since release
Throughout 2014, Dark Souls 2 was basically the game that kept on giving. Numerous patches and tweaks improved the experience greatly since its original release, and the three outstanding DLC installments essentially answered criticisms the core game faced in its initial reviews. Crown of the Sunken King, Crown of the Old Iron King, and Crown of the Ivory King were more than just extra content; they brought about entirely new challenges not seen in the main game, including some honest-to-god puzzles, and some of the hardest bosses in the entire series. And this DLC did much to address some of the holes in Dark Souls 2's story for all those who thought the original ending was a little vague.
And I may be cheating by including it in this discussion, but the Scholar of the First Sin edition went even further by remixing the Dark Souls 2 we knew into something much more devious, with different enemy placements, more foes to fight at once, and a general shuffling of just about everything to keep veterans of the game on their toes. It could have been just a simple visual upgrade with the DLC bundled in, but From wanted to give Dark Souls 2 one more pass before they finally closed the curtain—now that's what I call devotion.
So does it hold up?
If you couldn't tell by the hundreds of words that preceded this sentence: Yes, I still feel strongly about Dark Souls 2 and my score of 5/5—one of the few "perfect" scores I've given after more than two years of writing for USgamer. Sure, Bloodborne is much prettier, and has its own unique charms, but I find myself much more inclined to go back to Dark Souls 2, simply for the variety it offers. I still haven't found an RPG I've loved more since its 2014 release, but who knows? In just a handful of months, I may be giving that honor to Dark Souls 3.