I actually did get some time to play online and will be making an entirely separate post on that front; I played around 50 hours of just however many online activities I could do. So this will be a somewhat shorter post covering a few days; I've been busy for a bit so haven't been able to write this up until now. I gather from last time I left off at the end of the Undead Purgatory. It took quite a while to find the damn lever, but I eventually figured out how to find my way forward in the rest of the Huntsman's Copse; the guide showed up a day or two later and while I didn't use it much prior to beating the game I did eventually use it to save another 4 hour search for the way forward. If part of exploration is getting lost in the world then this game definitely has that and in even greater quantities than the first Dark Souls.
I was really powerful when I was first in the Copse so the enemies didn't seem too challenging and I went on to fight the boss. I gather this boss was in the beta but I was never able to get on at such a weird time; it's not a particularly difficult boss but if you're super aggressive as I was you can get overwhelmed by the secondary enemies in the fight; if you take it slowly it's reasonably easy. Sort of qualifies as yet another puzzle boss in this game which has like 5 or 6 of them.
The next area was the "Harvest Valley" and the long foreseen Ore Merchant was here; she's actually a pretty interesting NPC; like if Gwynevere was disgusting fanservice she's just perfectly acceptable fanservice; but her voice actor is excellent and she's just quite useful given what she sells. Harvest Valley has poison areas that people are already bitching about but for the most part they don't restrict your movement and it's mainly your loot lust that will get you poisoned. One curious thing about the game is that 2 lifegems will ultimately deal with poison at the cost of 1/3rd of a poison moss (600 souls vs 1500 souls), and the poison moss vendor is always in an obscure spot.
The only time I died in this area is a spot where you have to fight 4 "Artificial Undead" (giant dudes with Scythes that don't stagger) to get some loot in a massive trap area, it's actually kind of a cool area since once you know what to do you can run in, run out, and have some nice loot each time for about 3-4 goes of it. If you actually try fighting in there then good luck I suppose.
I took a detour at this point to fight another set of Gargoyles; these perhaps being the most difficult set of Gargoyles given their numeric advantage but also not being inherently unfair due to them being straight up optional. In this fight a new Gargoyle spawns at 3 different percentages, leading to you having up to 5 to fight at once; but if you're smart about it the most you'll fight is a measly 3 at a time. The fight isn't horrifically dangerous if you take your time, if you're overly aggressive you could get smacked though.
I now made my way into the "Earthen Keep" an area so large I only assumed it would be where the next "Great Soul" was. The first boss you fight here is Jabba the Hutt essentially and people seem to be calling out this boss as too easy; but I've seen firsthand people die to it and I myself took a shitload of damage the one time he hit me; even if a boss seems non-threatening in Dark Souls II they've still got an extremely good chance of killing you at least once or twice. He has an absolutely hilarious grab attack that removes all of your equipment for example; maybe you'll never get hit by it but the fact that it exists is rather amazing.
Immediately after this is a reasonably long area with a little more fanservice enemies; but they're the only ones in the game and it's not that bad, at least they're not gigantic. I proceeded to fight the boss of this area whilst the area was completely covered in poison, healing the boss and damaging me; I even went to look for the poison stuff merchant but failed to find him. It occurred to me at this point that there was probably something else to the fight, which I won't spoil. But, even if you didn't do that thing the NPC summon for this area dual wields pyromancy flames and is called "Jester Thomas," if anyone should find Dark Souls II easy it would be that guy.
Beyond the Earthen Keep was the glorious castle sinking into lava, also known as the official bottleneck area of Dark Souls II. A lot of the art design in this game could be described as "Anor Londo + X" and this area is no exception. That doesn't really bother me that much since it still looks really good and is a very rewarding area. The enemies here give a ton of souls and are relatively challenging, but not horrifically so. Eventually if you're going for the Platinum you might have to go through a certain horror show that I'll discuss later.
The first boss in this area is just an absolute monster; he's easily the hardest boss in the series and he's totally optional... But you do have to be on the lookout. Turns out lorewise he actually killed the previous owner of the Keep who is actually the final boss of the area; so I guess in some ways his ridiculousness makes sense. It won't be apparent at first but this is one of the dodge-only bosses in the game; have fun with the timing. There are evidently ways to make the fight much easier, but assuming you're fighting it with a vanilla build on a blind run it's just going to brutalize you, I bypassed him at this point in time.
This area is also littered with various elaborate traps to kill you, mostly involving lava; they're all fairly interesting and they make you fight giant turtles in narrow hallways as well as having Anor Londo style archers scattered about. The soul income you get for clearing this area is very high though so you never feel ill compensated for your efforts. My first time through this area I ran past a few enemies/ did some interesting platforming. and was greatly exhilarated when I reached the final bonfire. Running past enemies is definitely a valid tactic in this game but don't confuse your ability to do that with the game being less challenging; those enemies are still there.
The last boss of this area is the giant fire demon looking guy from various trailers; and while he looks impressive what's most interesting is how different the fight is from everything else. It plays more like you're avoiding projectiles and his various attacks instead of the standard "Hold shield/circle strafe" routine and it's quite fun. I don't consider this boss to be overly difficult but there are certainly people having trouble with it and I did wind up getting tossed into the lava a few times myself. That's the thing with this game, there's really only 2 pushover bosses in the whole thing out of around 33 bosses, you might kill 15 of those bosses on the first try or whatever but rest assured you could have easily died in that process and you could easily die in the future. I'm watching Northernlion go through the game at present and he's frequently died to things he's never died to before on his second playthrough; while there are certainly overpowered builds in the game your chance of lucking into them on a truly blind solo run is miniscule. Even the relatively easy bosses generally are very dangerous if you get hit by them. The best barometer for a bosses' difficulty (to negate your own bias) is to play a summoned character without a particularly powerful build (simply being of slightly above average strength is sufficient), you will see hosts die at a rate much higher than in the previous 2 games; note this usually isn't because they're totally incompetent it's because the game is straight up hard as balls.
At this point I had no clue where to go, having gathered all four "Great Souls." The area where you have to go is ridiculously obscure and I just eventually looked it up in the newly arrived guide; this is one of a handful of situations where I used it just to save a few hours of aimless wandering. I do think it is a valid criticism that the largest over-arching path isn't more obvious, it doesn't need to be in this narrow ass staircase in the side of an inscrutably brown area; this doesn't really hurt the game that much but it can be frustrating.
And now I made my approach to the beloved Drangleic Castle; this is one of the more impressive looking areas in the series; Anor Londo in the Rain. This area has cool enemies and a really interesting mechanic, and it's also just quite difficult as you might expect. I guess the question is does it match up to Anor Londo? Eh, debatable; there's no walking over buttresses section which some people will like a lot and some people will dislike, that was ultimately an extremely cheap move by From in Dark Souls but it was certainly memorable. The closest thing to that level of absurdity is the first room after the first bonfire. In this room you have to kill enemies in the proximity of doors to open them, but if you're not careful you'll aggro way more than you could possibly handle. If you take it calmly and methodically opening every door in this area will take you merely an hour or so and you'll find some good items on the way; if you're very fortunate you'll pick the right way straight out and it'll only take 5 minutes; I really like this design even if it seems abnormally cruel; it's a very, very interesting room.
After this it's not too far to the boss of this area, the twin Dragonriders. This is why I don't feel the original Dragonrider is too much of a joke as this boss is reasonably difficult, perhaps not overly so. But that soul you get is just so damn useful so I will certainly never look upon either fight with scorn. Directly prior to the fight you'll meet the queen, and evidently a lot of people just never talked to her so the latter portion of the game didn't make a whole lot of sense; I didn't find the talk prompt that difficult to see but I may actually be in the minority. To be blunt the story in these games is largely an elaborate extraneous thing so it doesn't matter that much, but I could see that being confusing/annoying.
The second area of the castle is actually much more impressive than the first, after going through a series of varied rooms with numerous enemies and hazards you'll wind up in a stormy corridor. I gather this is one of the first areas they demo'd and for good reason; it is visually incredible. If the game wasn't so long this might actually be the bottleneck; the Looking Glass Knight (formerly Mirror Knight) is quite a difficult boss with a standard build, at this point in the game you're perhaps a little more likely to have some overpowered stuff but if you don't this fight's extremely intense and I was rather happy with myself that I only died 3 times in the process (I've already heard tales of people dying 20-30 times to it); I probably won't have a ton of trouble in the future, but this is another one of those bosses that requires you to "escort" NPC AI through it to complete a quest, and that just makes it much harder.
After this you'll wind up in the beloved Shrine of Amana; oh what a gorgeous looking area. One of the brightest areas in the game is also perhaps the deadliest as enemies here will fire long range homing soul arrows at you ad infinitum. This is actually possible with a melee character, the trick seems to be to roll diagonally forward instead of directly into the oncoming projectile; with said dodge it's not too bad until the final pack which you'll probably still have some trouble with. Most people are just sniping them from afar and that makes it not much of an issue at all; but I salute those who went through this area as melee.
The boss of this area isn't too bad but he does still hit extremely hard, assuming you don't have the summon in this area you'll probably die once or twice. Again another boss that some people will perceive as easy and then lo and behold on another run they'll die to it multiple times (the Iron Golem phenomenon if you will). I'd say there's around 7 or 8 bosses that could potentially fall into that category, there's other bosses that you can simply be powerful for because you did that area last out of the first four major branches, but that's just an obfuscation of the true difficulty.
After this area (which has just a shitload of stuff to find off the beaten path) you come to the Royal Crypts, it's time to see the King guys! Despite it being a dark, grey-ish area I had just a ton of fun with this place because the enemy design is really great, the pacing is solid, and the exploration element is very strong for a fairly confined space. I died only once to a sort of ambush in this area, but I never ceased to feel challenged by it. Oddly enough the boss here isn't particularly hard, but again he hits like a mammoth, maybe you won't get hit by him but if you do watch out. After this you meet the King, he's a jolly kind fellow I assure you (actually he just totally ignores you); pick up his ring and move on.
Now you can finally open those enormous doors that have been taunting you so, and it takes 30 seconds to open them, every single time. This is another very small complaint with the game. I went to the area in Drangleic first since it seemed it might be the most prominent, but turns out this is just a boss walk a la the Kiln of the First Flame. It's certainly an impressive area but not quite as impressive as the Kiln. The boss here was going to be my first legitimate disappointment with a boss in the game, since the two easy ones were very early on, but then I died with the boss at 10% health and summoned aid to try to make it go faster next time. Well lucky me, the fight is MUCH harder with summoned assistance even of the player kind as the enemies will get faster, more aggressive, and take half the damage they were taking; I eventually figured this out and went back to soloing it, but the AI seems to have greatly improved in that timeframe and it still took another try or so. This a rather interesting boss because of all of the above, I would not classify it as easy, it's simply somewhat random how the enemies approach you during the fight but becomes less random/more aggressive the more people/NPCs are in the fight. And once you win the area's just empty, but you can go talk to the queen and have a sort of general sense of direction I suppose.
The next "main" area is a sort of monster's menagerie type place, with enormous enemies in cages and loads of optional stuff to do. If you just blitz the area it might only take you 20 minutes but if you take your time it's a very interesting area. There's an NPC here who's basically Mephistopheles but he's also schizophrenic depending on if you're undead or human when you talk to him; and furthermore there's a lever, oh boy there's a lever with the only offline messages in the game before it. I won't spoil it but they basically made Yurt in a much, much better fashion than previously. I suspect Navlaan will wind up being one of the most beloved(or despised) NPCs in the series' history. The boss of this area isn't particularly hard but the area where you fight him looks really awesome and again he can pretty much kill you in 2 hits. You'll eventually be adept at fighting this enemy and probably never die to him but if you don't approach it correctly from the get-go you could have some trouble.
Following the keep, which if I had to guess maybe 95% of players did not explore on their first go around, you'll come to the most visually impressive area in the entire series. It's that big ol' area with Dragons that you've seen in various previews. This one of the last areas in the game so it's a little weird that it got so much pre-release showing, but there are definitely a wide range of different graphical qualities in the game, so I guess it makes some amount of sense. The Dragon Aerie isn't too long but it is quite fun/rewarding and it has a few rather interesting mechanics that won't be apparent immediately.
After you cross a very rickety bridge (well, maybe) you'll come to the Dragon Shrine (Anor Londo in the Sky), and oh let me tell you about this place. The Dragon Shrine houses the most difficult regular enemies in the series, and it's not even close; there's another area with Phantom type NPCs, some of which are on par but the Drakekeepers here are just fucking serious business; they will fuck you up and just utterly destroy you. So what will people do? Run like hell. Sure you can try to cheese them with ranged attacks or what have you, but in a Melee fight some of these guys are just unbelievably tough. People are already saying "DIS GAME SO EZ" but there is nothing, nothing even close to the 2H Mace Drakekeeper with a melee build, that guy is harder than almost every boss in the series by himself; if he had like 5000 HP he might even be harder than Smelter. I do think the enemies here are probably a little too hard, maybe they could have made the NG+ version psychotically difficult; but the ol' run away from everything strategy still holds up. Eventually you meet a Dragon that's like bigger than anything you could possibly imagine, he's probably as big as the room you fight Ornstein and Smough in, maybe a little bigger. He's friendly though, I'll get back to talking about him later; he gives you the awe inspiring power to travel into the past.
And now the game sort of comes full circle and you can go to the Forest of Fallen Giants and explore their memories; I didn't realize it at the time but most of these are totally optional. One of them, the Memory of Vammar, is even more difficult than the Dragon Shrine. Basically you have a time limit, there's absurdly hard enemies and you're kind of just sprinting to get items. Nothing is even remotely as challenging as this area in the entirety of the series, but it isn't super long and the proceedings will eventually be over. The main items you get in these areas are "Souls of a Giant." And while it doesn't seem to be explained anywhere Vendrick is weakened by how many of these you possess, he's basically invincible if you have less than 2, I managed to go in and fight him with 3; which to give you an idea chewed through the entire durability of 2 very powerful large 2 handed maces (Malformed Skull and Great Club). The fight with Vendrick isn't overly hard he just basically kills you instantly if you're not careful; he's certainly much better than the alternative boss fight.
After you kill the Giant Lord in one of the memories (fairly simple, just has a time limit) you'll get another item, and maybe you'll figure out what to do with it, maybe not. Basically you just go back to the "Throne of Want" area which definitely gave a "final boss" vibe; and you'll fight the last boss when you get there. This boss isn't horrifically difficult and it doesn't have the ridiculously awesome music that Gwyn had; but I mean really any minor mistake and you're dead pretty much. People will say this boss is easy for whatever reason but again you're sort of walking on eggshells the entire time, barring a specific pretty obviously overpowered spell build. This is a boss that will kill a fairly large number of players multiple times, probably over 50%; that seems a sufficiently difficult final boss fight. True, it's no Guildenstern but there can be only one Guildenstern.
After beating the last boss the game doesn't force you into the next playthough, which is a godsend; you're able to explore the rest of the world at will which could take as much as another 30-40 hours depending. Personally I went to explore the "PvE" covenant for lack of a better term. This lets you go into the Dark Chasm of Old and fight some ridiculously difficult enemies to get some decent Hex spells and just challenge yourself in general. You have to use a human effigy every time to enter which means limited attempts and some people will straight up not be able to do it in 15 attempts or whatever; you have to take these areas very, very calmly. If you rush, you're fucked so just calm down. After you clear out these 3 areas you'll come to the boss, Darklurker.
Darklurker is a pretty nasty boss, then you get him to 60% and he splits in two and you have to fight two of one of the harder bosses in the game at once; I don't think it's quite as hard as Smelter and it's certainly easier to cheese than Smelter but this is probably the second hardest boss in the series. If you do this with a melee character I salute you; it's not quite as hard as fighting a Drakekeeper with a 2 handed mace while you don't have a shield (I find this to be hilarious) as melee, but if you can do one you can probably do the other. Every time you die to the boss you have to clear another Dark Chasm area, in which any enemy can murder you if you're not careful; but after taking like a 60 odd hour break to make my online character when I got back to Darklurker I managed to beat him on that try.
And here we are at the Death Count, my final tally was 192 at the end of the game, about 40 of those deaths were due to platforming for ridiculous items so I "count" about 152, which is still higher than Vagrant Story and Dark Souls II takes the title of hardest RPG ever made. The question then becomes is it harder than XYZ other game in other genre? Well, in terms of time investment and ability to boost the challenge of the game without setting up a challenge run yourself, it almost certainly is; in terms of just ability to make it through the game on a solo blind run it might merely be like the 4th or 5th hardest game of all time. If you're not playing blind you could probably make it through with like 75-100 deaths, if you're summoning people nonstop maybe even under 50; but in a blind solo run most people are going to be at or exceeding 200 deaths at the end of the game, and that is an extraordinary figure. The game gets even harder in NG+, adding amongst other things enemies during boss fights; and all of that contributes to the overall difficulty of the game. Guildenstern is still the hardest last boss and it doesn't look like he's ever going to be supplanted, but this is a tough as nails game and a truly excellent experience.
Falling - 10
Ore Pit - 2
Gargoyles - 1
Poison Mytha - 3
No Poison Mytha - 0
Iron Keep Traps - 2
Smelter Demon - 4
Old Iron King - 2
Stone Sentinels - 3
Looking Glass Knight - 3
Shrine of Amana - 2
Song Demon - 1
Throne Watcher/Defender - 5
Guardian Dragon - 1
Dragons - 2
Drakekeepers - 6
Giants - 9
Giant Lord - 1
Nashandra - 4
Vendrick - 6
Dark Chasm of Old - 9Darklurker - 3