Dark Souls 2, by most accounts, is a decent game. While its faults were apparent and many fans of the series don’t like it as much as Dark Souls or Demon’s Souls, it still met favorable reviews and currently sits at an 91 on Metacritic; the re-release sits at an 87. But why don’t people like it as much as the original Dark Souls?
Dark Souls 2, on a fundamental level is the same game as Dark Souls, but a few core mechanics changing makes all the difference. Basically, Dark Souls 2 is a good game, but a bad sequel. Changing the bonfire system, level up system, and Estus (healing) system all in one game is quite the shock. Not that the changes are bad, elements of all of them have persisted into Bloodborne and Dark Souls 3, but from Dark Souls, it makes a huge difference. Not to mention the simplified layout of the world of Drangleic.
Exploration is a core mechanic of the souls games and I think it was kind of lost on Dark Souls 2, in Dark Souls, bonfires were placed sparingly, but strategically to keep tensity up and make you choose whether or not to risk your souls or to sit down and spend the little you have. You also couldn’t fast travel until the latter half of the game, making you explore every aspect of the map, looking for shortcuts, killing every enemy, and eventually finding the next bonfire. In Dark Souls 2, the ability to fast travel to any bonfire removed both the feeling of urgency and suspense, while eliminating some of the exploration involved in having to walk from each bonfire.
Dark Souls level up experience was much more streamlined than Dark Souls 2 and its successors. No loading screens, no dialog to get through; just sit down, spend your souls, and be more powerful. In Dark Souls 2, however, you had to get to a bonfire, sit through a loading screen, mash through some dialog, level up, and sit through another loading screen just to get back to where you were. Not inherently a bad thing, but definitely takes something away from the feel of the game. Not to mention the bloated stats compared to the first game. Dark Souls had 8 stats to level up and spend souls on each one making you powerful in more than 1 way (i.e Endurance increasing both your stamina bar and your equipment load) while Dark Souls 2 had 9 stats to level up, and most of them had been split (i.e having to level both Endurance and Vitality to accomplish essentially the same thing as just Endurance in Dark Souls). And, it goes without saying, Adaptability is a shit stat.
Dark Souls 1 is considered to have some of the best 3D level design in gaming, and Dark Souls 2 just didn’t capture that same feeling, the levels look and feel uninspired, (minus Drangleic Castle, it had a feeling of verticality that is unrivaled by anything else the base game offers) and when compared to Dark Souls 1 or even 3, the game just doesn’t hold up. Too many bonfires, boring level layouts and looks, and most glaringly, bad enemy placement. I’ve stressed this plenty in the past about this game, but more enemies is not more fun. Enemies placed haphazardly throughout the levels and there are way too many, one area in particular stands out in my mind, right on the lead up to Velstadt, there are like 7 armored enemies right before the boss fight that are hard to fight, and hard to skip. This is not good, put 1 or 2 harder enemies there, make me think about the encounters and strategize rather than be bombarded and forced to flee or panic. Also fuck Shrine of Amana in every way.
Okay, I have something to admit, I love Dark Souls 2. Having missed the boat on Dark Souls 1, Dark Souls 2 was the first souls game I played when the community was alive and engaging in PVP or Jolly Cooperation. I put 100+ hours into perfecting different builds and I ended up playing through the whole game 7 times. But, looking back, and when comparing to Dark Souls 1 and especially Bloodborne, Dark Souls 2 just pails in comparison, level design is lacking, there are some unwelcome changes, and it just doesn’t feel like the Dark Souls we know and love.