I’m in a bit of a love/hate relationship with DS2-SotFS right now. When I play it I quickly become annoyed and it just feels tedious to trudge through its levels. DS1 could feel like that in some later areas, but never so intensely.
But then I watch some gameplay video and it makes me want to get back to the game and inch closer to completion.
I think the biggest difference for me is that DS1 was much more immersive to me. It’s a game designed from the ground up around a few core principles that permeate the world, the levels, and the mechanics creating something that’s greater than the sum of its parts, like the sometimes clunky combat, the (superficially) threadbare story and patchy lore, the inconsistencies, …
DS2 seems to do what many other games that follow in DS1’s footsteps do: they do the combat, even improve on it. But they skimp on the other parts which were what drew me into Dark Souls - I’ve always considered myself a tourist in Lordran. I played the game because I wanted to see the sights, explore its secrets, and pry what meaning I could from them and take in all the little details. I don’t usually play very hard video games (or games without difficulty settings), but DS1 kept me compelled.
In DS2 I feel much more like playing a video game, not like I’m exploring a mysterious (ruin of a) world. DS2 feels more like Castlevania (a series I don’t have much interest in) whereas DS1 was more evocative of Zelda for me (being thrust in a strange world like in the original NES game, the gameplay similar to Ocarina of Time, the dark themes from Majora’s Mask …).
Undead Burgh or Anor Londo or New Londo felt like places that could have been alive at some point. Heide’s Tower of Flame, or Iron Keep feel like they’ve been designed around gameplay challenges.