Victory achieved

Dark Souls II's relentlessly unforgiving nature drives its superlative power fantasy

The Spectrum

Game: Dark Souls II

Platform: PlayStation 3 [Reviewed], Xbox 360 and PC

Developer: From Software

Publisher: Namco Bandai Games

Released: March 11 for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360; April 25 for PC

Grade: A

Dark Souls is like a psychologically abusive relationship.

It entrances you with its sense of challenge, adventure and power, but is eventually depleting. It tears you down time and again but keeps you coming back for more.

It is an addictive cycle that's hard to break and even more gratifying to overcome.

As fans of the series know, Dark Souls thrives on providing players with a never-ending sense of challenge, allowing players to return to cleared areas levels later to lay waste to the enemies that once destroyed them - fulfilling the game's power fantasy.

Many games teach players how to swim before letting them make their way to the deep end, but Dark Souls plunges players into the deep end and forces them to figure out how to swim on their own.

Players might briefly find success, but it doesn't take long for the game to force them into witnessing the visceral loss of all their progress at the hands of one of the game's earliest bosses, and for the game to fracture their confidence in beating it.

Though Dark Souls II has a few tutorials and characters throughout it that help the player understand the game's core elements, it certainly isn't easier than its predecessors. It quickly becomes another unnerving reminder of humanity's frailty, even in the treacherous, decaying, clandestine and fantastical land of Drangleic - the game's setting.

The game starts with the player's character awakening in "Things Betwixt" - the first area of the game - with no memory of his or her former self. The character is cursed with an insatiable need to acquire souls, particularly those of the game's four grand bosses that might lift the curse.

Souls act as currency for everything in the game including weapons, armor, spells, potions, upgrades and level-ups. And though collecting them from the bodies of hundreds of slain foes is remarkably satisfying, it can also be heartbreakingly infuriating to lose tens of thousands of them at a time when you die.

Death in Dark Souls II is certain - it will likely happen hundreds of times in a play-through - and causes a player to drop all of his or her souls. The dropped souls can be collected if the player makes it back to where he or she died, but if the player dies again, those souls are lost forever.

At the game's onset, spending souls to minimize the risk of losing them is easy with levels and items costing little. After a while, however, the game forces players to carry increasingly sizeable number of souls and face the game's cruelty head on. Between traps, bosses, enemies and other players invading your session to try to kill you, the game's propensity for being unforgiving and relentless finds plenty of chances to assert itself.

But the utter satisfaction of seeing "victory achieved" pop up on the screen after clearing an area and killing the boss that has, time after time, defeated the player is something few games can match.

Dozens of levels later, going back through earlier parts of the game and obliterating enemies that once singlehandedly slaughtered the player furthers this sense of satisfaction and the game's power fantasy, which thrive on overcoming its inherently challenging design.

This becomes more rewarding as players progress through the game and encounter previously defeated bosses who have become less important enemies scattered throughout each level.

Dark Souls II amps up almost every aspect of the original Dark Souls with a larger, more detailed and varying world, more types of enemies and more bosses for players to conquer. The game improves online play and adds features like a fast travel system.

Those improvements keep the game's grueling atmosphere at bay by constantly leaving the player with something new to discover - even when it leads to an untimely demise at the hands of an enemy far too powerful for the player's level in the game.

Despite Dark Souls II's length, which can take 40 to 100 hours to complete per play-through, the never-ending sense of uneasiness and challenge never impedes on the game's sense of adventure.

It may be hard, even infuriating, but the gratification of completing Dark Soul II is well worth the countless hours it will take.

Don't give up.