I have just finished the second Dark Souls and I am currently working on a NG+ in the original so it seems like a good chance to compare them.
Lets start with the common failings. Mechanically these games are a mess. Look at all those symbols on every piece. Most of them you can guess what they are and how they work. But what is poise and agility? And how does stat scaling work? And there are more. It’s really opaque and it took months for the internet to really pound out what does what and for Dark Souls 2 there is still work to be done. Some of this adds depth, but most if it is just obscure for no good reason.
In the first game poise kept you from being stunned by hits. In the second it seems to do absolutely nothing, thus the name Fashion Souls 2 because your armor doesn’t matter much. The best armor is not that much more protective than the worst and dodging avoids all damage. This contrasts with Dark Souls 1 which had a pretty tanky feeling of attack/block with a bit of dodging. So in DS2 you dodge a lot, but not really to get out of the way. Instead you become invincible for certain frames which increases with your agility stat. It looks pretty ridiculous rolling through strikes and taking no damage. How agility is accumulated is a non-trivial combination of a bunch of stats and then how it interacts with rolling is hard to predict.
Speaking of the combat, DS2 has too many enemies that recover too fast from attacks/being hit, have wide weapon swings or track your character far too well with their attacks. If a monster is doing a heavy vertical smash it shouldn’t be able to follow my character so well that a non invincible dodge doesn’t work, but it happens. This makes a lot of enemies painstakingly slow to kill as you can get at most one hit in after very specific attacks since they recover so fast and you can’t hitstun them. Yes in DS1 backstabbing was bit too easy, but I should be able to punish enemies for misses and a lot of times you really can’t. The best example is the 2h mace Drakekeeper in the Dragon Shrine near the end of DS2. He never stops attacking, his 2h overhand smash tracks, he doesn’t flinch and has exactly one move with enough time to get one attack in. Stuff like this encouraged me to pull out my bow and shoot things with poison arrows, a tactic that was far too successful far too often.
DS2 also likes to throw many more monsters at you at once than DS1. All the hardest fights in both games are with multiple monsters and that is because the combat isn’t exactly friendly in those situations. Smough and Ornstein is legendary in DS1 because it was two people. Similarly, the Rat and Gargoyle fights in DS2 are pretty much guaranteed to annoy especially the latter. Take the problems mentioned in the previous paragraph and multiply it by 4 for the Gargoyle fight. What a tedious boss…
In both games the bosses are kind of hit or miss. DS1 had stuff like the Gaping Maw Dragon, which looked cool but ended up pretty boring. Or the hydras which were just stupid. DS2 on the other hand has far too many humanoid bosses that fight like each other and like the humanoid trash mobs. Again you mostly chip away after baiting very specific attacks where you can actually land hits. I found most of DS2 bosses hit very hard, too hard really, depleting all of your stamina or very nearly one-shotting you even with substantial points dumped into increasing health. There are good boss fights in DS2, but so many being humanoid and similar really detracts from the status they had in DS1 where every fog gate was a potential source of dread.
I still don’t like spellcasting and DS2 added yet another type. So many different ways to shoot stuff with different graphics and different stat scaling. All the spells are kind of similar in my eyes and the multitude of stats needed makes it hard to diversify. You are a sorcerer or a hexer or a strength melee and you kind of get stuck in that even though the game might be more fun if characters had more skills without extremely high levels. Also you have to have a different casting implement for each school and it’s really just a mess. At least DS2 lets you equip up to 6 things in quick slots.
Also stat scaling is a terrible mechanic. Why don’t they just show you the final damage output? It makes comparing upgrades nearly impossible since the letter grades don’t even mean the same thing for different weapons. And trial and error is a no go as it’s not like crafting mats are plentiful for most of the game. DS2 is better, making most of them purchasable at some point, but the games still punish you for upgrading things you might not be wearing later.
Levels in general feels kind of weak. The combat is setup for very few hits to be lethal on either side so you need a large increase in defense or attack to actually increase the number of hits before you/they die. Yes, it means all areas are always potentially dangerous, but it does reduce the enjoyment from the RPG half other than meeting requirement for spells and equipment. Though, DS2 is pretty stingy with equipment for much of the game. Eventually you find out it didn’t matter except that you don’t look cool for about half the game.
OK so I am kind of down on the games. But the combat in both is still great, a completely different feel than the button mashers that currently abound. Some people complain that it is too conservative and you can’t cancel most attacks, but there are enough games like that and really, once you commit to swinging a giant sword there isn’t much you can do to stop it. It is also still the only game where having shield is awesome, cool and useful and DS2 actually makes attacking with them not as terrible, so go slam some faces.
The other key component is the environments. I agree that DS2 has too many crumbly castles, but I guess I love crumbly castles. I also much prefer the ability to teleport from the beginning of the game in DS2. Yes, the myriad shortcuts connecting the world of DS1 were cool, but lets be honest, it didn’t make any sense, just as the DS2 world doesn’t make any sense. DS2 is also like twice as large as the first game so it gets points for that, though each area seems a little smaller than those of the first. I think they both have their high points. Black Gulch was freaky Cthulhu style stuff I would put up against anything in the first game.
Where DS2 does a lot better is not having any low points. Blighttown in the first was just awful, along with the Great Tree. I disliked the Tomb of Giants and am glad they brightened up DS2 to avoid similar lighting induced challenges. There aren’t any really cheap spots in DS2 either. DS1 isn’t as cheap as its detractors make it out to be, but it has its moments. The toxin guys in Blighttown? The devs know they were cheap and that is why they stay dead after you kill them. The snipers in Anor Londo? Bonfire right after so you never have to do it again suggests that again they know they were bastards. There is also a lot less of precarious ledges and jumping in the sequel, though still too much for the terrible jumping controls.
Lastly, are the minor quality of life improvement in DS2: better interface, the upgrade system isn’t as convoluted now with enhancements and elements being separate, healing is more prevalent but harder to pull of mid combat, you can snipe with spells. Actually the latter makes spells even more broken than they already were, but having to lock on to cast properly was dumb in the first one.
In the end I would rather play DS2 again, but I really wish the combat was tuned differently and that I still had some of the awe I felt while playing the first. It will be interesting to see if the success of the franchise rubs off on other games because I am hearing a lot of lip service but nothing concrete has yet emerged.