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Dark Souls II adds a hint of kindness to the series’ sadism

At the beginning of the original Dark Souls, your character escapes from the Undead Asylum—a place where the most evil of zombies are tortured until they die, only to be reborn as…zombies! (Who are then tortured until they die and so on for eternity.) It is a horrible place that your character can willingly revisit throughout the game. If you can get past the morbidity of it all, it’s not a bad idea to stop by the Asylum. It houses treasures that will aid you in the rest of your quest. And in a game that’s out to kill you at every turn, you need all the help you can get.

Problem is, the process of getting back to the prison would be almost impossible to figure out to without the help of the Internet’s vast Dark Souls knowledge. It requires jumping off an elevator to a secret ledge and leaping to a seemingly empty tower where you have to lay in the nest of a giant bird for long enough that it mistakes you for an egg and takes you for a return trip. There is no indication, aside from cryptic notes left by other players, that going back is even an option. And worse, jumping in Dark Souls is a difficult and awkward stunt, so even after all that wiki sleuthing, you still have to time things immaculately or you’ll repeating the process over and over again.

This pursuit of perfection in the face of overwhelming odds is the foundation and half the fun of all the games in the Dark Souls family, including its predecessor, Demon’s Souls, and now Dark Souls II, the superb sequel. Completing a successful spree though hordes of gargantuan ironclad knights—knowing that they will reappear if you visit a lifegiving bonfire to recuperate—is damn satisfying. It’s like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day on his final run through February 2, catching that falling kid then continuing on with his day like it was no big deal. It’s fun to feel like the master of your domain.

Dark Souls II still rewards the obsessive study of enemy movements, and the game teaches you (by killing you off and forcing you to start over) that tolerance is the first step toward catharsis. What Dark Souls II won’t do, however, is keep unnecessary secrets. There is nothing I’ve encountered that parallels that mysterious trek back to the Undead Asylum. Yes, you still have to double-check every nook and cranny of the sequel’s abandoned prison—the Lost Bastille—to find every little knickknack. But play long enough and you will, at the very least, make your way to the prison. Insane leaps of faith, both metaphorical and literal, are no longer a part of the game. Dark Souls II makes more sense than the original, so there’s nothing distracting from the rich, haunting, and surprisingly funny quest.

Yes, this sinister fantasy role-playing game manages to mine humor from your frequent death. At one point in the Lost Bastille, while I was sprinting away from enemies, I opened a door and rolled through it only to learn that there was nothing on the other side. I fell into a pit and died. Maybe it was the brutal quickness of my demise or just the fact that this tower’s architect designed a door with the sole purpose of tricking fools into a cartoonish death—either way, I laughed.

This is a dimension of the Souls series that I had never anticipated, and it likely came about from a fresh set of eyes. Both Demon’s Souls and the original Dark Souls were directed by Hidetaka Miyazaki, a devilish taskmaster who ensured that every action had consequences. The new game was helmed by the duo of Tomohiro Shibuya and Yui Tanimura. This was a red flag among some fans—new blood that would surely ruin the master plan of Miyazaki. And early on, Tanimura was quoted as saying they wanted to make the game more “accessible.” Wary Dark Souls worried that this meant that the sequel would be easier and include annoying reminders of what you should be doing and why.

Those fears were unfounded. Dark Souls II is more “accessible” because, for instance, jumping and running are no longer controlled by the same button. There are fewer unintentional glitches to exploit. There are more ways to restore your character’s health (BLASPHEMY!), and the friendly characters you encounter don’t speak in riddles. I chatted with a lost warrior who told me her story over a couple of encounters. She eventually apologized for taking up my time, as if the game was set in Canada. At another point, a character gave me a ring that reduces damage taken, because, he told me, I had died too many times. None of these moments are required to get through the game, but they are surprising and welcome acts of kindness.

I was especially grateful for that kindness, because Dark Souls II doesn’t skimp on the savagery. It also keeps its setup lean and vague. Set in the geographically diverse kingdom of Drangleic, you once again take the role of an unnamed undead. You are led to a coastal city and told that in order to become human again, you must defeat four big bad enemies. Then you’re off. A few roads are open to you from the beginning: A forest full of camouflaged soldiers and a gigantic pit in the middle of town, leading to a rat lair, are the easiest to locate. But it’s just as easy to get lost in the journey and forget what’s going on. Following the path to a castle brings you to its sewers, then to a shipping port, and then you set sail for…who even knows? But it’s exciting to find out.

The game thrusts you forward with the promise that new areas will appear without warning, and you won’t be entirely screwed if you go down the wrong path. Dark Souls II introduces the ability to warp between bonfires—the only sources of respite in this maniacal world and the points from which you start again after death—and you can do so from the beginning of the game. (That feature also ignited an Internet firestorm). The world of the first Dark Souls was more cylindrical, and the further you went into it, the closer you came to circling back to a place you’d already been. Drangleic, though, forks and spirals off in different directions. The knowledge that you can return to town at any point is an invitation to continue exploring, as you’ll likely find yourself wandering into situations you aren’t equipped to handle. For example, one boss in the initial forest area is very simple. The other is a crusher of dreams. I never once felt like I had to beat the second one; there was plenty of other stuff to see, and I could come back at any time.

Shibuya and Tanimura’s game takes the best parts of Dark Souls and streamlines the brutality. If you die in Dark Souls II, it’s because you forgot to check around a corner—or, you know, walked through a trick door into an abyss—not because of a superfluous glitch that punishes you for, say, swinging a katana on a narrow walkway, hitting the wall, and bouncing off to your doom.

The developers have also given thought to every wrinkle they’ve introduced and how those design features harmonize with each other. Every death diminishes the maximum amount of health you have (until you reach 50 percent or restore it with a specific item), but there’s a tradeoff. When you beat any enemy 12 times, it stays dead for good instead of reappearing after you rest at a bonfire like it normally would. This can make it easier to traverse an area, but it also hampers your ability to “grind”—i.e., to kill the same guys over and over to improve your character’s powers or upgrade your equipment. Souls, the one and only currency, become a precious and rare commodity. But never fear: While Dark Souls II may have diminished its grindability, you can warp back to town at any point and spend your precious souls like they’re Bitcoins. The design details are so seamlessly intertwined, you don’t have to give them much thought. Instead, you can focus on more pressing matters, like whether or not to beat up that burly, mysterious knight over there.

Dark Souls II wants you to play it—all of it. Each dimly lit room and crumbling bridge offers a chance to die but also a chance to fight for your life. You’ll still run across messages of encouragement left by other players, but now the game itself is quietly rooting for your success. It’s still a hell of a journey, but unlike your character, Dark Souls II isn’t soulless.

Dark Souls II
Developer: From Software
Publisher: Namco Bandai Games
Platforms: PC (out April 25), PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Reviewed on: PlayStation 3
Price: $60
Rating: T