In my review of Dark Souls 2, I argue that this third iteration of From Software's Souls series is the most approachable yet. But it's still a Souls game; it's still got a lot of quirks to learn, strategies to master and secrets to uncover.
Whether you're fresh to Dark Souls or a returning fan who mastered the first game, there's a lot to figure out in Dark Souls 2. Here are a few (largely spoiler-free) hints to help you on your way.
After a short introductory sequence at the start of Dark Souls 2, you'll create the hero you'll be spending the next 50-100 hours with. Choose your class carefully but also don't get too worried. Class choices work differently in Souls games compared to most role-playing games. Every time you level up, you'll choose which stat to pump points into, so even if you start as a magic user you can build yourself into a beefy, sword-wielding knight eventually.
As far as starting classes, sorcerer is a great choice for beginning players who are a little bit cautious about wading into combat. You begin with a powerful spell, and you can take out a lot of enemies just by keeping at a distance.
On the other hand, a lot of fans will tell you (rightfully so) that the real joy in Dark Souls is in melee combat. If you'd prefer to go down this path right from the start, I recommend the warrior. This class has all-around balanced stats and starts the game with a shield, making it a great choice for surviving early on.
Once you've picked a class, you'll enter Dark Souls 2's tutorial area. It's worth noting that unlike in previous Souls games, the tutorial is completely optional and does not feature a boss at the end. This means if you've played the game before or feel like you have a grasp on the skills necessary, you can run right through and begin the game proper.
However, even if you're a hardcore fan, I suggest going through the tutorial and thoroughly exploring the zone it takes place in your first time through the game. In addition to learning some lessons about how everything works, you'll be able to pick up a few basic items, weapons, and bits of armor to start your journey stronger.
If you've never played a Souls game before, you're going to quickly realize that combat in Dark Souls 2 feels quite a bit different than most third-person action games. There are two stats you need to keep track of at all times: your health and your stamina, both represented by bars in the upper left corner of the screen.
Every action you do — blocking a hit, swinging your weapon, dodging out of the way — drains some of your stamina meter. Do too many actions at once without taking time for your stamina to refill, and you can be caught by an enemy, unable to roll away or block an incoming attack.
More so than almost any other game I've ever played, combat in Dark Souls is about patience. You need to watch an enemy's attack patterns, make your own moves only when there's an opening, and then back off and rest. Running in wildly swinging an axe will get you killed swiftly and painfully, even by low-level, early-game enemies.
Center of the world
After you leave the tutorial area, you'll enter Majula. This zone is essentially your hub city in Dark Souls 2. Many of the characters you find as you explore will make their way back here, and you'll return constantly to purchase items, upgrade your equipment and level up.
There are a few characters you should take note of immediately. In the group of three houses, the house on the left as you approach has the game's first merchant. His list of armor and weapons for sale will grow as you progress through the game, so be sure to check in from time to time. Across from him is a house containing a talking cat. This creature allows you to manage your status with covenants — groups that affect online play.
The feline also has a few things for sale, most notably a ring that decreases damage taken by falling. Surely you noticed the giant pit in the center of Majula? At some point later in the game — when you have a lot more health and a lot more souls to spend — you'll want to purchase that ring, equip it, and begin the long, terrifying process of dropping down that hole. A whole new set of areas awaits.
Growing your power
As in any good RPG, leveling is a key part of Dark Souls 2. Where the previous game let you level up at any bonfire, here you'll need to return to Majula and talk to the mysterious green-cloaked lady who hangs out near the Majula bonfire. The first time you chat with her, make sure to keep talking until a menu opens up.
From here, you can spend souls to level up. Each level allows you to bump up one stat of your choice. Different stats are important depending on the type of character you want to make and the type of weapons or magic you're trying to use, but some are essential for everyone. For example, I strongly recommend putting a lot of your souls into the "endurance" stat. This will increase your stamina bar, making it easier for you to block hits with a shield or get in an extra attack before you need to back down.
One other major change from Dark Souls is that you aren't barred to your choices forever. You can find a rare item called the soul vessel that allows you to refund all of the levels you've gained and redistribute them across different stats. If you've found one of these items and want to respec, just take it to the hut next to the very first bonfire in the game in the tutorial zone. Souls vessels are extremely rare, so only use this path if you're absolutely certain that you need to change your build.
In Demon's Souls, healing was accomplished via one-time-use consumable items. In Dark Souls, you healed via your Estus Flask, an item with a set number of uses that could only be refilled by resting at a bonfire. In Dark Souls 2, you get the best of both worlds.
In addition to letting you level up, the lady in Majula will present you with an Estus Flask that gives you one use. As you journey through Drangleic, you'll find Estus Flask Shards. Bring them back to her, and she'll power up your Flask, giving one more use each time. Check out the well in Majula if you want your first shard early in the game.
You can also increase your healing capabilities by finding sublime bone dust. Take this item to the bonfire in Majula and burn it there. That will increase the power of your Estus, so each drink will heal more of your health. Your first sublime bone dust drop will likely come from one of the first enemies in Heide's Tower of Flame.
Choosing a direction
There are a few paths out of Majula, but most of them lead to dead ends or enemies that will be a little tough to tackle early in the game. When you're ready to move on, I suggest taking the path along the coast near the bonfire. This will lead to an area called Forest of the Fallen Giants.
Eventually the forest part of this zone will give way to a fortress. When you find your first bonfire there, take note of the merchant nearby. She'll sell you consumable healing items as well as the very important key to the blacksmith's shop in Majula. Buy that as soon as you can, return to town and unlock the workshop. The next time you return, the blacksmith will be able to repair and upgrade your items.
Life and undeath
There are two equally harsh but important punishments for dying in Dark Souls 2. First, when you die you will drop all of your souls at (or near) the spot where you died. You'll need to run back and touch them in order to recover that precious currency. If you die again before recovering the souls, they're gone for good.
Second, dying turns your character increasingly more hollow (or undead). In visual terms, this means you'll look more and more like a zombie. In gameplay terms, it means your total max health available will become increasingly limited. That may sound harsh compared to the first Dark Souls' lax penalties, but long-time fans who played Demon's Souls will recognize this system.
At its worse, your character can be cut down to 50 percent of their max health, but there are two ways to manage this curse. If you explore Heide's Tower of Flame carefully, you'll discover an item called the ring of binding. When you have this equipped, your health loss will be limited to a more manageable 75 percent of the total.
In more serious situations, you can use a consumable item called a human effigy to restore your humanity completely, bringing you back up to 100 percent health. Human effigies aren't exactly rare — I found 20 or 30 during my initial playthrough — but they're not something you should use frivolously either. It's best to save effigies for right before a boss fight, especially if you think you'll need co-op help. You'll need to be fully human to summon other players into your world.
Secrets in shadows
One key to exploring in Dark Souls 2 is being extremely thorough. You need to check every corner of a room and every side passage in a cave, because you never know when you'll find an incredibly useful item tucked away or a switch that opens up progress. For example, in the sewer passage below Majula, if you don't look carefully, it's easy to miss the cord on the wall that opens up the door leading to Heide's Tower of Flame.
Another pressing example from a little later in the game is in No-Man's Wharf. This difficult dock area is very dark and full of tough enemies, so it's easy to miss things in the stress of trying to survive. On top of one of the buildings in the area, there's a lever that will summon a ship containing a boss as well as passage to a new zone. Skip over that and you might miss that incredibly cool boss altogether!
For fans of the original Dark Souls, there's also one important change to secret passageways to keep in mind. In the first game, you would open invisible walls by slashing at them with your weapon. In Dark Souls 2, you need to tap the use button ("x" on a PlayStation 3 controller) in order to activate and open a hidden entrance in a wall. These generally aren't the path forward, but they often lead to treasure or extremely useful hidden bonfires, so be sure to check often.
Finally I'll leave you with one tip for how to progress in the game that I suspect a lot of people will get hung up on — it's one of the only parts in Dark Souls 2 where the progression is very obscure.
In Heide's Tower of Flame, after you fight the first boss in the circular arena outside, take the stairs up and talk to the miracle worker there. Once you've cycled through all of her dialogue, she'll mention moving on to a new place.
Next, return to the passageway between Majula and Heide's Tower. The miracle worker will have taken up residence there. In addition to buying miracles, you can pay her a couple thousand souls to activate the strange contraption there, which will open up a new entrance to a whole branch of areas.
Don't feel rushed to open or take this path early. It leads to some higher-level zones, and you're probably better off exploring other paths first, but you'll want to make it back here eventually.
Talking the talk
That last tip has an important lesson embedded within it: whenever you run into a friendly character in Dark Souls 2 talk to them. And then keep talking to them. And then talk to them more. Talk to characters over and over until their dialogue loops. Often they'll give new tidbits of information, present you with important items or progress a sidequest at the end of their dialogue. Even if you don't particularly care about the story, don't forget to keep chatting just in case something like this happens!
Share your tips
With these tips, you should be off to a great start on your journey through Drangleic. Have other tips I've missed? Discovered a secret you want to share? Post in the comments below, but be careful to spoiler tag anything story-related or anything from later in the game!