Souls games are different things to different people. If you were to go off their reputation, you'd think they're hard for the sake of being hard with a nonsensical story aimed at those with a masochistic streak. While those elements are certainly present, the true appeal and the elements that result in the series having such a dedicated fan base are a little harder to convey. From software aims to bring these factors out of the shadows with this latest release as well as increase that rabid following the earlier games created.
For the most part they have succeeded in this endeavour, even is they may have missed certain elements out that made the previous games so special. That's not something that will really come to light within the greater community for quite some time but I don't think this will be the Souls game remembered for it's player versus environment aspect. It's still a fantastic experience and I would advise everyone give it a go, I just wanted to get the "Is it a good as the first game?" aspect of the write up out the way so I can talk about all the other stuff that the game has to offer without trying to make it too much of a comparison piece. (Which as a fan it very well turn out that way regardless)
The central combat mechanic is as strong as ever, having a nice meaty feel to strikes right from the wind up. While it looks like a hack and slash, to get anywhere such a preconception needs to be dropped. The order of the day is measured, tactical and thoughtful movement with strikes when theres the smallest chance of reprisal. The strength of this system shows itself most when the situation is one on one, be that NPC monster or player. The focus on PvP for this game really shines through in this aspect of the experience and an already top of the class core mechanic has been polished to a luminescent sheen. This unfortunately excludes the parry system and back stabs. The changes work well for PvP but don't translate so well into the single player experience. Iframes (certain parts of a characters roll where they become invincible for a few animation frames) have been tones down significantly so those who rely of rolling around foes are going to have a hard time adjusting. Arguably these mechanics are for higher level play so shouldn't effects the majority of the player base but it's strange why From insisted on messing with some of the best parts of the established gameplay.
Weapons have been rebalanced to reflect this focus along with stats, dexterity characters get to concentrate on poison and bleeding (the latter of which effects stamina rather than health this time around) while strength adds guard break and general defence. As an aside, oversizing "great" weapons can now be redirected at the last minute, making much more viable against fast foes. Magic is now more on an even ground with faith, which used to be the ginger stepchild of the souls character builds, and both these stats boost dark damage, making pure casters truly horrifying in the right situation. This is balanced by pyromancy which is scaled by your characters pyro glove so even those who are melee only can get some casting capabilities. Even a pure archer is a viable play style now, with a wider array of arrows and stamina being taken from each shot, eliminating the potential for a cheap sniper character. Dual wielding now has a proper mechanic as well with its own extra move set, making for some truly horrifying dual great sword invasions and potential for even more gameplay variety.
Shields are the only real casualties here, where 100% physical damage resistance is no longer a given but an exception to the rule. While relatively low stat requirement ones do exist, they don't appear until later and a certain knowledge of the game is required to get access to them before a fair chunk of the game is out the way.
The covenant system had also been retooled with a similar focus on PvP and evening things up. Two of the orders you can join have dedicated arenas for example with another two based around asymmetrical challenge. For those more inclined to help rather than hinder, there's the return of the Sun Bros and their special brand of jolly cooperation. There's now a secret PvE covenant as well, although that's best left to be found by the player as it ties into the greater lore of the series.
What doesn't work so well is when you come across situations where you fight several enemies at once. While these situations do pop up in the series, From have really gone overboard here, throwing in archers or mages in many of these situations for good measure. One of the most challenging sections of the first game was the Anor Londo archers, where you'd be fighting several enemies while being shot at by extremely powerful archers. You then needed to run up a narrow walkway towards the archers, kill one, then get to a balcony. Many a pad was destroyed during this section but you'd think that From would be smart and tone down such blatantly cheap sections. Not so, they're featured throughout and go to highlight how the team may have missed some of the aspects that made the first title such a classic. An entire stage of the game based around waist deep water and a hard to see cliff really highlights this, complete with mages with homing magic that can easily stagger towards a watery doom. Basically a whole section that revolves around the most frustrating part of the incredibly fiddly Hydra battles of the previous title. There's many more sections like this and it can genuinely detract from the enjoyment that the rest of the game brings. On the flip side there's plenty of new troll mechanics in the environment to discover, but I won't be spoil any here.
The structure of the game will no doubt divide the fanbase, but delight most fans of expansive role playing games. The game drips atmosphere with a great sense of exploration. Should the player have trouble going one route, there's always somewhere else to go. There's four places to head to for the majority of the game, coming together in a more linear set of levels towards the end. The difficulty curve is fairly smooth bar the aforementioned spikes. What Dark Souls 2 fails to capture here is the sense of scale and interconnectivity that characterised Lordran. It's a bigger game by a long shot but you won't be having many special moments like when you realise how one of the trees in Dark Souls actually passes through several discrete areas of the game.
The smoother difficulty is just as well as enemies no longer respawn after a certain point. Those who like to grind between sections will have to either get better or get in on the coop to get some extra levels in. Theres always the option of bonfire aesthetic of course, but this upgrades enemies to the strength of the next game cycle. This brings it's own problems to players who are already having trouble making progress.
Talking of new game plus, it's no longer about fighting the same mobs with a extra chunk of health and damage. There's new enemies that can pop out of nowhere and new phantoms to invade you. New spells and items can be accessed to offset this jump in challenge of course, but it's fair to say that the old "the real souls starts here!" message applies more than ever upon completing the game for the first time.
So then, should you get Dark Souls 2? Yes, you owe it to yourself to see if the Souls series brand of Dark Fantasy tickles your fancy. It's one of the best RPGs out there and will no doubt have a healthy community based around it for years to come. It's just a shame that it doesn't quite hit the highs of it's predecessor, what I would call the game of the generation. It'll just have to settle for exceptionally good rather than near perfection then.