As the player base over the past decade has widened considerably, difficulty has shrunk, perhaps with the notion to not alienate any potential fans. More players equates to more buyers, after all.
Yet in recent years there's been a revival of those games that skew difficulty upwards. The rogue-like genre - defined by permanent death, harsh restarts and any missteps being brutally punished - has become increasingly popular within the gaming fraternity. Challenge defined by pure gameplay skill rather than being able to follow a Hollywood-like plot. 2010's Demon's Souls was the embodiment of that ideal, a cult hit turned success story thanks to those that took to social media channels to champion its particular zeal for constant death.
The same fascination with punishing the player carried through to spiritual sequel Dark Souls in 2011, and now again in Dark Souls II. Death was central to gameplay. A franchise in which you died often, and the difficulty would just increase every time you did. You learnt about the world and its dangers through coming a cropper, and trying to better your reactions and skills next time you played. It wasn't a clean restart either; you lost any collected souls - the in-game currency - that needed recollecting from where you last died, and your health bar diminished. As you'd expect, not a series for everybody.
Those who embraced the frequent resurrections and dark, twisted fantasy world the games inhabited worried that this sequel, pegged as being more accessible, would lead to a game dumbed down to pull in a wider audience. Changes include a Fast Travel system, letting you quickly move between the various campfires which form the game's checkpoints, while menus were tidied, while there was more elaboration on stat and weapon descriptions. There's now Life Gems, purchasable potions that replenish your health.
For a seasoned fan this may sound as if the game has become too easy. Believe us, that's not the case.
You begin again as a character trying to break an undead curse before they turn into a mindless zombie that'll kill any in its path. You've eight classes to choose from, and buffs to help you on your way (there's an option to select no weapons, no armour, no buffs if you want - a must for any masochist). After a short tutorial you're dumped out onto the costal town of Majula, that you'll return to throughout the game, to either upgrade equipment or level up. Otherwise it's up to you to strike a path into the wildernesses beyond.
The greatest trick the game pulls is making you realise that any defeat - any hit, death - is entirely your own fault. You're impatient, or not watching enemy attack patterns. You're as slow as you'd imagine you would be with armour and heavy weapons, and a stamina gauge only lets you pull off a small number of moves, defensive and offensive, before you need to let it recharge.
We die, and die often. Shrinking health bar making for a uphill struggle to survive. And this is just the very first area. Just surviving the first encounter with undead soldiers feels an achievement in its own right. Get to the second checkpoint, and you feel like you've conquered Everest.
There's more freedom this time. You can either follow the obvious route that inevitably leads to a boss battle, or look around and find equipment that increases your chances of defeating enemies ahead. Your options are limited at first, but as the game progresses and you obtain keys for secret doors, or defeat mini-bosses that open new areas, you suddenly feel less restricted.
This is of great benefit as, if you get stuck, you can strike out somewhere else - finding the path of least resistance to your new goal. Another new feature limits how many times defeated enemies respawn. It may sound as if it is done to make the game easier (and it does help newcomers) but it also means you can't repeat the same easier area to upgrade quicker.
It's impressive how many improvements From Software has made. If you're a fan of the Dark Souls universe, do not hesitate to play Dark Souls II. Despite a more accessible gaming experience, the game has lost none of its relentless difficulty, and the many improvements make it a great experience for veterans and newcomers. But it may not be for everybody.
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