Full disclosure: I'd not played the first one (or the real first one, Demon's Souls, or the real first one, the King's Field series), although I've watched some playthroughs (some more bizarre than others), and enough people whose opinions I like and respect had raved about how good it was that I became excited for the sequel. That was odd, because it's not really the sort of game I play these days. Action-RPGs aren't my thing, as a rule. I like pause buttons. What got me hooked in, however, was the idea that the game would deliver some of the experiences that I most enjoyed about the games I played growing up: the fun of exploring a world full of secrets and wonders; learning new systems and persevering through new challenges to get through that world; and most of all, the extent to which this was a game which seemed designed to be enjoyed as a shared experience. It's meant to be talked about, in the way we used to as kids - have you found that secret area? Have you beaten that boss? Here's something you can do, let me show you - and it's in this sphere, in the rekindling of that joy of playing games and jabbering about them, that Dark Souls 2 shines.
Like everyone and their maiden aunt says, it's challenging, although the claims of the series' insane difficulty always seem overblown to me. I finished it in a par time, with a keyboard and mouse, and I'm not really very good at games. "Difficult" isn't really the right word. There's nothing you can't do, no information the game is holding back (even among the ludicrous lists of numbers that make up character stats). Instead, it's relentless. You work out how to kill one enemy, do so, pump your fist, and then run into the next one. You Died. Rinse and repeat. But the genius of Dark Souls 2 is that it embraces this process so fully, and executes it so well, that you're very rarely left feeling frustrated, even in the face of multiple, stupid failures. There are only two sections which annoyed me - these are, I think, becoming notorious among those who've played the game, involving a bumrush by multiple enemies - and normally, even when I was flailing wildly and unsuccessfully, I was happy to respawn and come back for another go. And when you do succeed, it's joyous. You did something. You worked it out. Well done! Then you misjudge a roll and fall down a hole. You Died. Fuck's sake.
That sense of challenge rather than grinding difficulty is helped by the online functions - if you're genuinely stuck, or can't be bothered trying a boss another ten times, you can usually find someone else online to help you with that section, although your mileage may vary with the amount of "help" some summoned players are providing.
The sense of exploration probably isn't as good as in the predecessor - it rarely feels like a truly open-world game (although Dark Souls was fudging it), more a system of broadly interconnected dungeons, and the ability to warp from bonfires from the off short-circuits one of Dark Souls' apparent joys: the inclusion of gruelling backtracking as a core experience. That said, these design choices do help make the game feel just that bit more welcoming, and I don't feel like it diminished the experience. Traversing many of the game's areas - most of which are well- and interestingly-designed, with one notable exception involving sand - is a challenge in itself, and there's plenty for the intrepid explorer to find, from hidden rooms to secret routes, to ways to cut out some of the game's more maddening bosses entirely.
And there's those bosses. I don't think the designs quite hold up to some of the previous game's more outré nonsense - no illusory butterflies, giant wolves clutching swords in their mouths, or Ceaseless Discharge (heh) here, but they do cohere more strongly along a theme of Nightmare Medieval Fantasy (viewed through a Japanese lens) than the predecessor's bosses do. There's plenty of variety among them, and most walk the line between tough as nails but doable and cheap, bullshit nonsense successfully. If I had a problem, it's that a couple of the fights actually felt way easier than I was expecting. Still, though, most of these fights are memorable, and the one or two which utilised area and exploration mechanics before or during the fight will stick with me for a while. Pay close attention to your surroundings, and always remember you have a torch for a reason, kids. You... do have a torch, right?
As well as the thrill of beating challenges, you're kept wanting to progress by the art and the storytelling, both of which combine wonderfully to create a compelling sense of mystery. Each new area uncovered and boss beaten leads you further down the rabbit-hole of just what the hell happened in the cursed realm of Drangleic. Although it's sparse, the way the game tells its story is itself a triumph. You're never bludgeoned on the head with it, and, indeed, so little is outright said that piecing together the narrative is an enjoyable task in itself. This nuance and subtlety, by which as much is said with imagery, symbolism and music as with dialogue, is refreshingly at odds with the way big-budget videogames often try and Do Story. Nobody in Dark Souls 2 is telling you "we gotta" do something. You're not catapulted from area to area in a storm of bad action clichés. Instead, the sun is gently setting over the clifftops of the ruined town of Majula, while a soft vocal wails over the wind-rustled grass. Seek the King, you're told. It's the only way.
Still no idea what the tiny evil pigs are doing there, mind.
Dark Souls 2 gave me everything I wanted: challenge, beautiful visuals, a real sense of achievement, and long conversations about what to do here, how to beat this, and what some of the game's mysteries actually meant. It's a bizarre, compelling adventure which keeps taunting and goading you on into one more go, just another try. You'll fail, over and over, but when you succeed, it's as thrilling as anything a videogame can deliver. It's my favourite game of recent years.