Dark Souls has proven that even in an age when games tend to spoonfeed the player, a niche game can still attract a reasonable following. Its blend of simple yet engaging combat mechanics, fantastic visuals and unforgiving difficulty is a rarity in the industry nowadays that managed to wow players all over the globe, especially those longing for a challenge. Despite that, it was a bit rough around the edges - edges that the sequel smoothened out to some extent. Still, if you loved Dark Souls, you can't help but feel slightly disappointed about this one.
At its core, it's Dark Souls all over again: You roam bizarre fantasy environments, fight monsters and upgrade your gear in order to fight monsters more effectively, interrupted only by the occasional invader who is after your hard-earned souls. The differences are in the details.
Take the combat, for instance. Essentially, the mechanics remain unchanged, only now your character's moveset lacks Dark Souls' distinctive sluggishness. As a result, combat in Dark Souls 2 feels more fluid, slightly faster and more direct. Unfortunately, it also feels rather weightless. What I always liked about Dark Souls was that its sluggishness conveyed the feeling that the player character's gear actually weighed something. Watching the character struggle when swinging his greatsword gave the combat a certain grittiness - a grittiness that is mostly absent in the sequel.
The PC port of Dark Souls is notoriously bad and thankfully, From Software has taken steps to avoid another shoddy porting job. Dark Souls 2 features all the good stuff a spoiled PC gamer is used to. Still, the game manages to be somewhat underwhelming visually.
A lot of that comes from the inconsistent art design: Sometimes it's great, sometimes it's lackluster. And sometimes it's just plain awful. A giant castle decorated with spikes within a sea of lava? This is just a few steps above Super Mario World.
The environments in Dark Souls are wondrous places and mostly bizarre variations of established fantasy designs like "old castle" or "mysterious forest". And yet, they possess the quality of making the player stop whatever he's doing and simply enjoy the scenery for a moment. Dark Souls 2 has those environments as well, but they are more scarce.
Despite the higher resoultions, the texture work is surprisingly bland and makes repeating textures even more obvious. Many environments suffer from looking washed out and rather grayish. Better lighting and shadowing could have improved the atmosphere.
The enemies share a similar perceived blandness in design, in addition to some of them seeming like mere copy and paste jobs from the previous game.
Despite its unforgiving nature, Dark Souls rarely felt cheap. Now Dark Souls has turned into the posterboy for "the hardcore game" - something that even From Software acknowledges in their promotion material.
If you died, it was usually your fault for adapting poorly to the situation. However, much of the difficulty in Dark Souls 2 feels cheap and inflated. Most of the time, it seems that the team knew no other way of providing a challenge than pitting you against multiple enemies at the same time or turning enemies into damage sponges. This is especially painful considering that Dark Souls had quite imaginative and challenging boss fights. Not that the game wasn't guilty of taking a shortcut every now and then, but in Dark Souls 2 it's more of a bad habit.
Speaking of shortcuts: The areas aren't interconnected anymore, making Drangleic seem less of an "actual place" compared to Lordran. At the same time, it's getting rid of the sense of wonder when discovering a new route into a previously explored area.
All of this may sound pretty negative, but it's just nitpicking, really. Dark Souls 2 is weaker than its predecessor (even the soundtrack made by the same composer seems like a step back), but it's still a phenomenal game since the aspects that made the first one great are still present, although slightly fainter. In fact, you should have a blast with this game if PvP was your focus in the previous one. There are far more options that allow you to help other players, fight them or to flat-out turn the game into a glorified griefing engine.
Dark Souls 2 is an exceptional game and a good sequel, even though it's lacking in some areas that made the first one great.