While Dark Souls II isn't easier, it is more accommodating to newcomers, and more mindful of the time investment it requires. This is a big game that throws up some big challenges, and so adjustments have been made to the way the pacing and certain mechanics work. Dark Souls II doesn't drop a boss on your head just as you've figured out how to swing a sword. It allows you a little time to become acquainted with your own capabilities before trying to squash you, even offering an optional tutorial at the start.
Meanwhile, many of the game's core features have been tweaked. You can now teleport between any two bonfires, meaning there's no arduous backtracking to the game's hub if you want to follow a new path or explore a previous area in more detail. In addition, certain status effects such as curses no longer cripple your character, instead chipping away at your health bar, curable through restoring your humanity.
These are sensible changes that reflect the increased size and scope of the game, and eliminate one of the few aspects of Dark Souls that was genuinely unfair. Yet From Software have made other sensible changes that don't work so much in your favour. Previously it was safer to play the game as a hollow than a human, as playing while hollow prevented you from being invaded. This is no longer the case. Now, while hollow, you lose a little chunk of your health bar every time you die, which can only be restored by consuming one of the new Human Effigies to restore your humanity. Furthermore, your Estus Flask, the primary method of increasing your health, now starts with only a single sip of Estus in it, and requires you to find Estus Shards in order to increase its uses. Both of these alterations mean that even experienced Dark Souls players won't be able to recklessly charge through the game's early stages.
More important than the issue of difficulty is that Dark Souls II hasn't sacrificed mystery in favour of accessibility. That wonderful reticence and understatement in storytelling that was a key theme of Dark Souls' world remains precisely so. Some things are more explicitly explained by characters, but only if you make the effort to talk to them first. As for secrets, put it this way; occasionally you'll acquire items called Pharros' Lockstones, which act as keys to special doors in the world that reveal anything from small chambers with a treasure chest to entire areas complete with their own boss fights. And these are obvious concealments. Goodness knows what we've missed in pushing forward toward the Great Souls.
Not all tweaks to the game's systems succeed improving the experience. Levelling up is no longer performed at bonfires, instead a specific character helps you do this, and you must return to her every time you wish to increase your stats. Given you can teleport between bonfires anyway, this is just an irritating additional step, that offers nothing meaningful in terms of how the game plays. Moreover, in what may prove to be DS II's most controversial design choice, standard enemies eventually disappear from the world after being defeated multiple times, which on the one hand can be a relief when you're banging your head against a particular boss, but on the other is somewhat antithetical to Dark Souls' demand for excellence.
That this marks the biggest departure for Dark Souls II from the path set by its predecessor leads us to the biggest criticism that can be levelled at game, which is that Dark Souls II plays it safe. It is very much about giving Dark Souls lovers more of what they want, while perhaps smoothing the difficulty curve in the first few hours to attract some new players. This is absolutely fine, except that Dark Souls was such a bravely innovative creation, even compared to its own prequel Demon's Souls, that it's difficult not to feel From Software could have pushed themselves a little more than they have.
Dark Souls II doesn't surpass its elder brother, but it succeeds in retaining that ability to suck you in, chew you up, spit you out and then suck you back in again. Drangleic is another eerie and wholly absorbing world courtesy of From, the secrets of which will take many months yet to be fully unveiled. Good work, From Software. Victory Achieved.