FromSoftware’s Dark Souls series is one of many highs and only a few lows. While each game built upon the mechanics introduced in the previous entry, the core experience has roughly remained the same. However, in 2014, FromSoftware took a gamble by replacing director Hidetaka Miyazaki (as he was working on Bloodborne at the time) and risking change to a few mechanics fans were already familiar with. The result is far from perfect, but it may as well be a shining example of a game that takes a new direction for the series while retaining what we all still love about it – a feat that very few franchises cannot possibly live up to.

Dark Souls II takes place in the fallen kingdom of Drangleic, which once prospered but fell to the tyrannical rule of a mad king and diabolical queen, Nashandra. The player, as an Undead, is tasked by the Emerald Herald to find and collect four Great Souls from the mighty Old Ones and journey to the capital to find the king. However, things take a turn for the worse when Queen Nashandra instructs the player to kill the king, and only after witnessing for yourself what has become of the mad king, you realize your true objective and the real nature of evil in the queen.

Dark Souls II’s plot, like the previous games, isn’t clear-cut but hidden behind fascinating lore scattered around Drangleic that the player must ultimately piece together themselves. However, it’s worth noting that Dark Souls II features the most straight-forward and easy to grasp story of any Souls games as the events you engage in all flow in a mostly linear way – a step ahead of the first Dark Souls which presented you with a large open world with any accessible path, but it came with the slight disadvantage of being difficult to really follow a definitive plot moving ahead. Dark Souls II’s world is divisively linear, even though it does have a central hub area that branches off into many paths. Eventually you figure out that the paths, unlike the first game, aren’t all interconnected which does give some finality and accomplishment to the player but at the expense of an open world.

Drangleic is a vast, treacherous place to explore, and like the brutal challenge of previous games, is an absolute nightmare to engage in if you aren’t prepared. Dark Souls II’s biggest change is its style and combat system. The game doesn’t have a glossy tone like the first game but instead, this sequel is drenched in moody atmospherics, grim and dirty visuals, and unpleasant sights. The combat plays a huge part in how the player traverses the world. While the combat system mostly remains in tact, the penalty for dying is your biggest pitfall. Every time a player dies, not only do they have to find a Human Effigy in order to restore their humanity, but they lose a bit of overall health from their health bar until the Effigy is found. This can be quite strenuous especially if you’re stuck in a rut and need to have a few more inches of health to get past a nasty enemy.

The reason most people play the Souls series is due to the boss battles, and in Dark Souls II, most of them are extraordinary and actually the fan favourites of the entire series. For example, the Mirror Knight, whom you encounter on top of the Drangleic royal castle, is an eye-opening fight. Players are required to perform an intricate routine and pattern of attack as the Mirror Knight fights much more cautiously than any other boss. It honestly feels like the showdown between two warriors set amidst the backdrop of a stormy night. Another spectacular boss battle is The Old Iron King, who oddly resembles Balrog from The Lord of The Rings (I’m sure the comparison has been made before). Using only a small platform to keep yourself level, the battle takes place inside a volcano. Players are forced to make the best of their surroundings while coming up with a sure-fire strategy under pressure to combat The Old Iron King’s insanely powerful barrage of attacks – a staple gameplay mechanic of Dark Souls.

Dark Souls II might have a few stumbles along the way and isn’t necessarily as solid of an experience as Dark Souls III or Bloodborne, but it does manage to present a different style and tone to the games with harsher restrictions that come to define and shape the experience of the game. The boss battles are exciting and the world of Drangleic is immersive enough to invest plenty of time in. Dark Souls II is FromSoftware at their best when it works and worst when it fails, but overall, it’s an unforgettable ride.