Dark Souls 2's world is an extremely dangerous place, one that forces you to be aware of your surroundings at all times. Because the environment plays an incredibly active role, it feels eerily real, like a character all its own. It pushes back in an attempt to halt your progress time and time again with thin pathways and other tricky obstacles. Some Dark Souls vets might feel put off by the fact that Drangleic is more of a central hub with many intricate, branching dead-end paths than it is a sprawling interconnected world, but each of these pathways offer tons of environmental variety, challenge, and self-contained secrets.
Dark Souls 2, like its predecessors, has unique online functionality. While you're playing through the game, you'll see the ghosts of other players who have fallen victim to Drangleic's many perils. You can summon them for help, and even invade their worlds to straight up murder them for a variety of rewards. Alas--the servers weren't active during my first playthrough, but I've already begun a second to dig into the online play post-launch.
Some are immensely perilous (to the same degree as the infamous Blighttown), but none feel frustratingly cheap. The layout of each feels meticulous and logical; I often cursed traps and enemies, but never blamed level design for my deaths. Even Drangleic's dark underground areas are enjoyable to explore thanks to the inclusion of torches, a surprisingly great addition that provides a mobile source of light. Using these produces a great deal of tension; yes, equipping one in your off-hand means you can be sure of your footing, but--as it turns out--it's rather difficult to block incoming attacks with a stick.
You'll get a great sense of discovery as you piece together the layout of each new zone, and having the ability to warp between the checkpoint-like bonfires right from the start is a godsend. You'll still fear overcommitting to exploration and losing your hard-earned souls, but you don't have to slog through 30 minutes of territory you've already memorized just to press on should you die.
There's a much bigger emphasis on environmental interaction, too, which again adds to Drangleic's appeal. Sometimes you can kick down tree trunks to form bridges, or manipulate elements of the world that have a surprising effect on certain boss fights. For instance: I'm struggling with a boss whose arena is practically pitch black. Because I can hardly see her, she kills me in about five seconds flat. So I backtrack and explore the area just outside her den, and stumble upon some obscured oil gutters, which I proceed to catch on fire with a torch. BAM--now I can see that jerk plain as day. Every one of these interactions feels like finding an answer to your prayers, and they make Drangleic feel less like a decorative tapestry and more like a physical place.
One of the Souls' series most defining features is its intimidating boss encounters, of which Dark Souls 2 has many. Going toe-to-toe with these powerful foes provides a familiar rush of adrenaline, and beating them often results in an overwhelming sense of achievement. There are some on par with Dark Souls' more iconic foes, such as Ornstein & Smough, or Sif, the Great Grey Wolf (soon we'll be mentioning The Last Giant and The Rotten in the same breath), but a handful are just tall-ish dudes in bulky armor. These more underwhelming encounters are mechanically challenging, but lack scale or eccentricity.
Most fights--including encounters with basic enemies--do a great job of forcing you out of old habits. Is your default strategy in Dark Souls to run up to enemies and strafe around them in circles to sidestep attacks? That works for the first few hours of Dark Souls 2, but you'll quickly realize that enemies and bosses have more variation in their movesets. Large, sweeping attacks are frequent, meaning you have to adapt and branch out into the game's other systems: parrying, roll dodging, etc. Not only does this further increase your skill, but you'll gain a deeper appreciation of all the mechanics at play once you're forced to explore them.
Dark Souls 2 also features some great quality of life changes that make the experience far more approachable. Should you figure out 50 hours into the game that you did a poor job of building your character, you can use a special item to respec instead of having to start the game over from scratch. These are limited in number to prevent players from abusing the system, but their inclusion means you can experiment with new builds without wasting days of your life on grinding. Other changes, such as a streamlined messaging system that makes communicating with other players a much quicker process, are just as welcome. None of these additions make Dark Souls 2 an easier game, but they do make it a far more convenient one.
That's really what Dark Souls 2 is about--it takes everything that made the original so great, but expands on them in its own unique ways. Sure, not every single boss fight will impress, and you might be resistant to the world's hub-like structure, but these are minor notes in an otherwise phenomenal journey. Dark Souls 2 is an incredible game, one that demands alert play and rewards perseverance. You will die many times in many ways, but push on and you'll find this to be an excellent sequel that not only captures the essence of the original, but is a memorable experience in its own right.