GOTY 2014 - Top Ten - #7

Here it is: our list of the top ten games of 2014. The result of dozens of hours of preparation, discussion and debate, this list represents our consensus on the ten best and most-significant games of the year. Don't miss out on any of our Game of the Year coverage. Check out our full schedule here, and follow us on Twitter and Facebook for instant updates.

Dark Souls II

From Software | March 11, 2014 | PlayStation 3, Windows, Xbox 360

We’ve never featured a game from the Souls series on our top ten list before. It’s not because we don’t admire the franchise; it’s because collectively we never gave previous iterations a chance. But something changed in the last 12 months, and suddenly the series’ blend of unforgiving combat and haunting environments clicked with us. And this year, we’re rectifying things by honoring the most-accessible and best-designed game in the series: Dark Souls II.

Demon’s Souls and its successor Dark Souls were both grueling and frustratingly opaque for newcomers, but a little persistence from the player revealed the groundwork for a whole new wave of action-RPGs that pull no punches and truly put the protagonist’s fate in players' hands.

Grinding for higher levels and better gear can't save you in any Souls game. Instead, players are guided along a steep but attainable path of skill development toward mastery of the game’s unusual timing-based combat, and learning how to read environments for threats, traps and other unexpected pitfalls. By the time you slay the final boss in a Souls game, you’ve earned it. Few games offer such a sense of accomplishment.

So what makes Dark Souls II the best in the series? Well, there are two standout reasons why.

First, it’s a very conservative sequel from a design and execution standpoint. No superfluous systems were added; the game’s stark narrative structure and buried lore remained murky; combat remained risky and unforgiving. Instead, the developers invested most of their effort in identifying the best ways to refine and iterate on the core systems desperate for rebalancing and refreshing. That’s why the feel of combat is so much more responsive, and even somewhat more complex, which in turn breathes new life into the game’s unique player-versus-player combat. Magic use and leveling have also been streamlined to retain the challenge of each system while simultaneously removing unnecessary bottlenecks.

Second, it’s by far the most accessible entry in the series to date. Gone are the anti-tutorial from Demon’s Souls and the massive-boss-out-of-nowhere intro in Dark Souls. Instead, Dark Souls II introduces its world in a suitably bizarre but much-easier-to-understand manner. Taking it further, From Software structured the game's world intuitively to make navigation and progression a less-frustrating task. The game also allows the summoning of up to two allies before boss fights (up from one in the previous games), which makes bosses surmountable to newcomers while also enabling developers to create more nuanced encounters.

In an era when RPGs are feverish with bloated sidequests and crippled by stat-crunching, Dark Souls II reminds us that antidotes can seem unapproachable, but they will always cure what ails you. – Nick Cummings