Generally speaking, I don't get excited for games that end in numbers. Sequels, prequels and spin-offs can be good - great even (hi, Uncharted 2!) - but the sense of awe is often dulled the second time around. Dark Souls is the exception. I recall playing through the first one and thinking, "This might be my new favourite game of all time. I could play these forever." Two years later my sentiment hasn't changed.
I think this is because the Souls series holds a place in the upper echelon of games that really know how to capture a sense of surprise and wonder. People make a big deal about how difficult these games are - and indeed their fiendish challenges are remarkably thrilling to overcome due to possibly the most polished combat system in gaming today - but I've always maintained that what makes the Souls series really special is its sense of discovery.
Yes, toppling a five-story knight and manta ray the size of a football field is enormously rewarding, but so is rolling credits on Super Meat Boy, collecting all the stars in a Mario game or besting a Platinum title on its hardest setting. Challenge is great, but challenge isn't what makes From's Souls series unique. My favourite moments in any Souls title came not from besting a boss (though defeating the False King Allant solo remains one of my crowning video game achievements), but from uncovering new areas. Often the two are linked, as bosses tend to block off new sections, but one of the series' standout moments for me was the first time I attacked a wall only to see it vanish and give way to a cobwebbed cave containing a mute spider woman and her diseased mutant of a servant.
"What is this?!" I thought, as the melancholy choir kicked in to reveal these relatively peaceful cursed creatures hoping to acquire me into their cult. Now the spider lady cave is common knowledge - as is the Drake Sword, Ash Lake, and the Painted World of Ariamis - but that first time I stumbled into it upon the game's first week out, it felt like I was the only person on earth who'd set foot in this clandestine corner.
Not all discoveries are quite this exotic, but even its smaller surprises - like an NPC appearing in a new location for god-knows-what reason - spark a twinge of excitement. "What are you doing here? What did I do to trigger your migration? No wait, don't tell me. I don't want to know!"
To this day there's loads of content in these games I don't understand. While the community has collectively scoured the two existing Souls titles for secrets, I've opted only to skim info about its more mysterious features like Demon's world tendency and Dark's bizarre covenant system. Even after rolling credits on each game twice I still don't understand how to infuse weapons with electric buffs or how to access that blacksmith in the catacombs who I can hear tinkering away at some probably unique goodies. I'll find you next time, pal.
Unfortunately, these are just crumbs of content: a hidden ring here and a covenant there. The most exciting discoveries, like titled areas and bosses, have all been encountered and conquered by yours truly.
This makes me immeasurably sad as From creates what are, for my money, the most perversely beautiful settings in the industry. If there's a virtual environment out there as dreary and imposing as Demon's Souls' Valley of Defilement or as lonely and melancholy as Dark Souls' wintry Painted World, I have yet to see it.
Amazingly, the Japanese studio rarely resorts to cliche, even though its world is heavily inspired by traditional medieval European dark fantasy. Why resort to a simple dragon when you could have one whose body resembles an unholy mixture of a piranha plant and female genitalia? Why make all bosses gross and disgusting when you could create an wondrous stand-off with a malevolent glowing butterfly? I'm not sure who decided to make the dominant colour in the The Tower of Latria's murky bowels pink, but it was a masterstroke.
Dark Souls 2 doesn't need to reinvent the wheel to stay exciting - just look at how the umpteenth Mario game somehow became our Game of the Year. So long as the sadistic pixies at From continue to give me fresh and exciting worlds to uncover and glorious monsters to fight, I can keep playing these in perpetuity.
Wait no more! The game's finally here, and we've got plenty of guides to get you through even the toughest boss fights in Dark Souls 2.