I'm pretty sure Dark Souls 2 is impossible.
Not, like, in terms of mechanical difficulty — though it sometimes feels that way — but rather, it seems impossible that the thing exists at all.
Dark Souls 2 is, pound for pound, the biggest game I played all year, but after 60 hours of white-knuckle adventuring, the experience never got long in the tooth. So much so that I immediately began (and completed) a second playthrough after the first, spurred on by the release of the super-improved PC version of the game. I anticipate — hell, I'm excited about a third session when the game hits current-gen consoles next year. I've loved a lot of RPGs released this decade, but I've never obsessed over one quite like this.
The sheer size of Dark Souls 2 makes it an impressive feat, but what's more impressive is the careful consideration that went into every inch of its world. Every area is memorable: If I say "Black Gulch," "Heide's Tower of Flame," "No Man's Wharf" or the goddamn "Shrine of Amana," players not only know what I'm talking about, they probably have a visceral reaction to the very concept of those locations, hence the profanity. (The Shrine of Amana really put me through the wringer.)
Dark Souls 2 is respectful of your time in a way that almost no RPGs are. Each location is distinct, and each area's monstrous inhabitants have more character than most other game's leading cast. It propels you forward with supersonic force, making roadblocks all the sweeter when they're overcome. It's all killer, no filler, which is appropriate, because just about everything's trying to kill you.
That concept carries over to the mechanical level as well. In Dark Souls 2, every single stat point matters — every level up brings new capabilities, new survival methods and more meaningful development than any other numerical progression system has ever mustered. Every item is desirable; new weapons open up new builds, new paths for upgrades and new play styles. The breadth of build options is staggering, and a big reason for my rapid-fire multiple playthroughs.
Dark Souls 2 is respectful of your time in a way that almost no RPGs are
Of course, previous Souls titles had those traits. The franchise has always been focused on enduring locales and mechanical satisfaction, but Dark Souls 2 is the most balanced the series has ever been. The occasional, brutal unfairness of past games has been replaced by more principled brutality. Fast travel is more ubiquitous, making exploration fun and rewarding, rather than a nightmare that could potentially leave you trapped in an area you couldn't possibly return from.
Dark Souls 2's slightly larger focus on accessibility has been a divisive subject for franchise fans, but for me, it made me realize what I love about the franchise. The difficulty of Souls games isn't a defining trait; it's one of many, many traits designed to build an experience that delivers tribulation and triumph in equal, gratuitous measures. Dark Souls 2 has been tuned at the molecular level to deliver that feeling — the feeling of being a fucking video game champion — and, in my opinion, it does so better than any video game ever has.
This piece is part of Polygon's 2014 in Review series. Throughout December we'll be exploring the games, people and events that shaped gaming in the past year. You can check out more 2014 in Review stories in our StoryStream.