HIGH Conquering the Gargoyles on my own after countless defeats.
LOW Accidentally killing an NPC after 50 hours of trying to not kill NPCs.
WTF Why is it even possible to miss the tutorial area?
As a longtime follower of From Software's work in the gothic-survival-adventure genre that one might say King's Field and the Souls games fall into, it's always been an irritation that Dark Souls garnered so much praise and attention (it became an industry-wide descriptor!) while I see its predecessor, Demon's Souls, as the superior work.
I was disappointed with Dark for a number of reasons, primarily because its second half felt rushed and unfinished, but also because of several iffy experiments with the formula. This combination resulted in a very uneven, often unpleasant experience. Clearly, someone at From must have shared those feelings because Dark Souls II is a significant course correction away from Dark's template and back to Demon's. While I'm sure a portion of the fanbase is unhappy with this, for me it's like a wish being granted.
Kristin did a great job of outlining what makes this game so superb in her main review, and I agree with nearly all her points, especially when it comes to the increased accessibility. However, as she suggests, no one should mistake being accessible for being easy—removing arbitrary restrictions that don't enhance the experience isn't the same as dumbing it down. A huge example is the ability to respec.
The Souls games have never been overt (or even clear) about how their systems work, and in prior installments, people would have to start an all-new character if they made mistakes in allocating hard-won stat points. Considering how long and challenging these games are, it was an incredibly shortsighted decision not respectful of a player's time. Just adding this one thing in Dark Souls II eliminates needless rigidity, and it's smart to let players salvage a playthrough they might have messed up twenty hours before they grasped what Poise meant and how Covenants worked.
Another change that makes Dark Souls II a more approachable adventure is one that Kristin didn't mention—the philosophy of the level design. The tightly-interwoven, almost mazelike world of Dark Souls has been cast aside in favor of a hub system with branches extending outward from the center.
While Dark was able to pull off some neat topographical shortcuts that aren't possible in Dark Souls II, I think the trade-off was more than worth it. Not only does Drangleic make more sense conceptually, it's inherently more focused and supportive—once starting out on a given path, it's fairly easy to keep pushing forward without much danger of becoming frustratingly lost or wandering aimlessly. At the same time, the areas are open and rich enough to support plenty of exploration and backtracking, and the bonfire fast-traveling makes doing so a simple matter. If the player comes up against a boss that's too tough or they want to go back and search a promising nook in a ruin two areas back, they're free to jump around as they see fit.
Speaking of which, I must also recognize the beauty and appeal of Drangleic itself. From sinister forests and solemn marshes to crumbling castles and seas of molten rock, each area transitions smartly to the next, and the journey from the disgusting bowels of the earth to wind-swept peaks drenched in sunlight (and back again) is one that won't soon be forgotten. Of special note is the hub town of Majula, brilliantly designed as both a refuge from and the beginning of the game's horrors.
While each new locale remains as tricky and as deadly as they ever were, I adored the wide variety on display, and was glad to see that intensely dark areas occur only rarely. Crafting places that are difficult to see in takes no real skill, so From's designers flex considerable muscle by offering a full spectrum of environments. Of course, there are still creepy crypts and black holes to struggle through, but there are also plenty of well-lit areas where visibility isn't an issue. There's also a secondary benefit apart from the aesthetics—fighting in a wide-open wilderness space is totally different from close-quarters combat inside a castle, and the variation in tactics that occurs naturally in these environments was just as appreciated as their visuals.
On the other hand, the developers stumbled a bit when pacing the adventure. The explorable geography is unbelievably huge, and there are a few sticking points when the player will likely find themselves unsure of how to advance. That's even truer in the endgame. The adventure builds towards an obvious goal, and then bizarrely deflates the dramatic build-up by continuing on for several more sections. Worse, it puts forth a confusing set of tasks and then goes out on a disappointingly flat anticlimax. To be clear, it's not that these sections are bad, but they seem more appropriate as optional side areas rather than sequences that should occur immediately before rolling credits.
This strange stutter-stop at the end is my only major complaint, though. Despite the eleventh-hour oddness, Dark Souls II remains an incredible achievement from developers who had me genuinely concerned after their previous entry. Seeing them return to form on such an epic scale is a wonderful thing—not only did they correct what Dark got wrong, they delivered the most polished and accomplished Souls yet. It's rare to see a developer look honestly at their own work and then implement so many substantial structural changes, but that's exactly what From has done here, and Dark Souls II is absolutely better for it.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 75 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. 5 hours of play were spent in online modes.