In the basement of a derelict cliff-top house in Majula, where the reeds tilt, the birds craw and the rock-face is craggy, a map of Dark Souls II's world is etched into the granite floor. A flame burns above this location on the game map, and its rugged contours provide unlikely sanctuary in this otherwise grimly inhospitable world. Like its critically acclaimed predecessor, Dark Souls 2 is a dark fantasy world that views you as a foreign body; it sends its multitude of minions – skeletal charioteers, raggedy pirates, mummified swimmers, oaken giants and other assorted indescribable night terrors — to expel you at every turn. But here in numinous Majula, you're safe for a while.
Game review: ‘Dark Souls 2’ a brutal, mysterious, astonishing game
In this basement — an optional locale, inaccessible unless you retrieve the relevant key from the relevant far-flung person — you chat to a pensive cartographer. He has no explanation for the ethereal fire, but he understands its worth. "There is something greatly comforting about that flame," he says. "It seems to fulfill something precious within the soul."
Warmth, refuge, hope — From Software, the idiosyncratic studio behind the Dark Souls titles, understands the primal appeal of fire. It's hard-coded into the game. As you flinch and tumble through the diverse locations (the dingy Elizabethan docks of No-Man's Wharf; the crumbling ramparts of The Lost Bastille; the luminous poison-green cave walls of Black Gulch and a dozen more) you long to find one of the few bonfires that punctuate the world, a rare point of safety, where you will respawn if killed, allowing you to infiltrate a little farther into the mystery. So it was in 2011′s Dark Souls, but here the fire burns more brightly: the world is filled with torches which, when lit, provide a reminder of where you've been, a mark of hope on the otherwise hopeless landscape.
Dark Souls has a reputation for being a difficult game. It's a half-truth: Dark Souls is an unforgiving game, but it's never less than fair. The odds are stacked against you and the game's perils are multitudinous. As well as the cast of monsters, you've falling rocks, doorways that lead to sheer drops and other environmental hazards to deal with. But they are at least consistent. You soon fall in line. You take tentative steps, always walk with your shield raised, watch while the game's awful bosses swing their giant clubs and scythes at you in order to learn their rhythms of combat. Fears that this sequel might have been dumbed down are unfounded. There are many times when you'll come up against an enemy that requires a great many attempts before, in a drunken swell of endorphins, you finally remove them from the game world.
There have, however, been some fundamental changes to the way the game is structured. You are now able to teleport between discovered bonfires from the beginning of the game (something you were only able to do late into its predecessor). It makes the game seem more forgiving, but it's more than a concession. The teleportation function allows you to extend your reach into the world on multiple fronts, flitting between them when you become bogged down or reach an impasse. It makes the game less linear; this adventure and its itinerary is entirely yours.
Other changes: the game now reduces the number of enemies in a location if you repeatedly die there, which has the benefit of aiding progress, but at the expense of reducing the number of 'resources' from which you can collect souls, the game's currency for buying equipment and statistical upgrades. At the start of the game you are given just one use of 'Estus', a health-restoring substance quaffed from a golden flask. Now you must locate Estus fragments in the world, and upgrade the flask to increase the amount of health you can regain before revisiting a bonfire.
Finally, you can equip four status-affecting rings on your character (twice as many as before). These offer crucial benefits: one ring gradually restores your health; another allows you to survive higher falls… They drastically alter your chances in the world, allowing for greater customisation to boot. These are subtle changes but they alter the experience in fundamental ways. By the end of the game, it's difficult to imagine ever going back to how it was before.
As with its predecessor Dark Souls II's story is told not in Tolkien-esque reams of descriptive text, but in snatches and fragments. Item descriptions reveal something of the world in which they were smithed and travellers slumped against rocks mutter about their experiences. The cast is much larger than before, and adds a great deal to the curious and memorable ambiance. Not that they offer much help, beyond the odd trinket, but many can be lured back to Majula where you begin to build a ragtag commune; the sense of community that comes from the presence of these others is potent.
You must pay attention; there's no mission marker leading you on to the next objective. Your rate of progress is not only dictated by your skill and aptitude, but also how observant you are to notice and log the nooks and pathways that open up as the game unfurls. It's possible to miss great swathes of the world if you for example, neglect to talk to a particular character, or miss a darkened corridor. It's also a game that demands you make meaningful choices, ones that incur losses. When you pledge allegiance to one of the game's covenants (clubs or guilds, for which you must carry out tasks), you do so at the expense of others, whose benefits you can no longer enjoy.
It's a huge game, larger than its forebear and it offers perhaps the greatest sense of discovery, victory and, at times, frustration of any video game yet made. There is something mystical in its secrecy, in the obscured rules and storyline that compel you to explore deeper and deeper; there is something primal in the David vs. Goliath stand-offs with hulking beasts and the satisfaction of licking your wounds by a bonfire thereafter; there is something human in the delight at defining your character according to your own individual whims and tastes, choosing their weapons and armour and particular aptitudes; there is something playful in the risk/reward dynamic of venturing back into the world to collect what was dropped at the point at which you were last felled.
Dark Souls II is an extraordinary game. If it stops short of fulfilling something precious within the soul, it certainly has the heart, mind and fingers covered.