Prepare to Die... 23 times to be precise.
4,848**Although the following preview only covers the first few hours playing through Dark Souls II, there may be low-level spoilers contained within, depending on your sensitivity**
Without wanting to state the obvious, the original Dark Souls’ blend of harsh gameplay lessons and cruel player punishment was hugely divisive. On one hand its melee and ranged combat RPG mechanics were the stuff of legend; rewarding patience, timing, knowledge and skill like few other titles. But the flip side to that was a difficulty curve that wasn’t so much a mountainous climb but rather a vertical sheet of ice, on which fellow climbers worked together to helpfully point out handholds or, alternatively, knock each other into the depths if they so chose.
Even for a game that actively goes out of its way to make its audience uncomfortable and push them past their limits, there were probably a few too many bodies hitting the floor of that slope within the first few minutes and never bothering to hoist themselves back up; too many souls that fell by the wayside before they’d even reached the sanctuary of Firelink Shrine. After playing the opening two hours of Dark Souls II, it's clear that FromSoftware appears to have at least taken a slow, ponderous stab at getting newcomers to reach that first weary-bodied pitstop.
Following an excellent opening cinematic, the game begins in a murky forest populated by a bunch of low-level enemies (the kind that can still kill you in a couple of hits) while a few lumbering troll-like beasts wander beneath the suspended paths without a clear route towards their inevitably brutal challenge. Under guidance from three mysterious red witches and their younger house servant (who sounds distractingly like Daphne from Frasier), new players are tasked with creating their character, choosing a class and completing a series of tutorials (marked out by separate paths), eventually making their way beyond the tree-line and setting off on adventure proper.
Before seasoned players are worked into a frenzy by the thought of a Dark Souls title actually hand-holding newcomers however, the repeated mantra in this demo room is that “Accessibility does not equal lower difficulty”, and even then, I’d hardly describe the opening moments of Dark Souls II as particularly accessible by the standards of other titles. Character stats are still hidden behind obscure icons, and although the choice of classes translates well to anybody versed in traditional RPGs, there are still numerous mysteries that carry over - such as the selection of seemingly innocuous starting items.
Those (entirely missable/skippable) tutorial sections - although helpful in getting to grips with basic movement and combat controls - are also implemented in the spirit of Dark Souls. Their contents have to be actively discovered, pursued and manipulated to learn their teachings, and most just act as a basic schooling in the sort of pain that’s to follow. There are diversions too. What happens if you light all the torches in the training area? Exactly how can I get to those trolls, and why is one on the floor? Why did I just die falling out of a tree in the same place that I JUST DIED TWO MINUTES AGO? (the answer to that was quite simple; I’m an idiot).
So despite a few extra signposts and a slightly more structured explanation of combat mechanics over the course of that opening 30 minutes, Dark Souls II’s starting area feels true to its source. And if you really don’t want to discover that jump is now mapped to L3 or that dash feels a little more responsive, you can just push past the forest area entirely and follow the golden windswept coastline towards the sun-drenched village of Majura, and its homely bonfire.
It’s here that Dark Souls II will start feeling familiar to previous players.
Majura is an apt replacement for Firelink Shine. It’s a hub area scattered with a few shops, covenants and trinkets, all of which are presented in a similarly melancholic and mildly sinister atmosphere. As with the original, Majura is also home to several murky characters that likely play a role in a larger narrative, and it may well end up as the only true refuge players will experience. It’s a refuge that’s much, much easier to reach than Firelink ever was however, with players now able to warp from bonfire to any other bonfire without specific penalty.
Perhaps this is where the fabled accessibility kicks in then. Reaching Firelink Shrine after a slog through distant lands was a hugely demanding task in the original, but the journey was something that tied the world together in a tangible fashion. It forced you to make decisions on whether to push on or retreat, and it gave everything in Lordran & beyond a sense of scope so sorely missing in other open-world titles. Heading “home” to Firelink meant wading through a legion of previously-defeated enemies, remembering the best shortcuts and marvelling at just how interconnected those tunnels and pathways actually were.
Why did I just die falling out of a tree in the same place that I JUST DIED TWO MINUTES AGO?Whenever warping to various bonfires opened up in the second half of Dark Souls, the temptation was always to work your way home and level up in the process. Even within my short hour battling in areas adjacent to Majula, it was far more convenient to just reach a bonfire and warp back to town than spend time battering back through the path I’d just trodden. It’s convenient. And without experiencing the rest of the game proper, at the moment it’s a concession that warrants attention.
Elsewhere though, the exploration and combat in Dark Souls II shows no such desire to make things smoother. This is tough, tough stuff, made even more overbearing by a health bar that gradually chips away to 50% capacity as you die. Burning a human doll returns you from your hollowed state and regenerates the missing capacity, but at the same time leaves you far more open to invasion by other players, which unfortunately wasn't a facet of the game I was able to experience during this session.
The curbed health regeneration is also part of a series of checks and balances that FromSoftware has considered with regards to its community. Players that take the dark path and choose to invade others will be punished even more harshly by whittling away their capacity to as little as 10%, whilst players that choose to remain in human form are much more open to attack (invasion can also happen when you’re hollow, but the chances are dramatically lessened). Inventory slots have been shifted around to also provide a little more leeway for character specialisation, with four ring slots and the promise of an item that can completely reset your stats and allow for a total re-spec midway through.
None of that really matters at low levels though, and as I butted heads against a series of ridiculously overpowered enemies for the best part of 30 minutes during my session, the thrill of figuring out combat animation timing and slightly trickier back-stabs was enough to confirm Dark Souls II will sink its hooks just as deep as the original.
I died 23 times. In two hours. One person in our group managed a total of 64.
There are several places to explore that spin directly off from Majula, and all of them were open, save for a few locked gates and a puzzle that revolved around a stone statue and a solemn Knight sitting on the ground before a blocked entryway. There are castle ruins filled with incredibly slow and lumbering armoured warriors that lead to a boss battle set on a round stone plinth and a drop to the death on all sides; there are a series of waterways rammed with lower-level grunts and a red scorpion-like creature visible in the depths below (sadly I didn’t have time to make it down that far), and then there are the forests and riverbeds that lead to a battle against a literal knight in shining armour with a lunging attack that moved quicker than anything I experienced in the original.
And archers, bloody archers everywhere. Or cursed beasts with revolting venomous sacks of poison dangling off their stomach like a nightmare baby. And pigs; bastard, bastard pigs that look cute enough to eat, but then swam your feet and send you to the grave as you futilely chip away at their improbable health bars. I died 23 times. In two hours. One person in our group managed to best that and ended up with a total of 64.
Although I only had time to play as my trusty warrior build during this session, Dark Souls II’s combat mechanics are reassuringly familiar. Most encounters revolve around trial-and-error as you work out attack patterns and the best angle of approach, and then subsequent attempts involve keeping your nerve and executing with as much timing and crowd control as you can muster. And then failing, and trying again; and again. Animation priority is as much a factor in II as it was in the original, and the sword swings, parries, blocks, rolls and jumps feel comfortably familiar in practice. If you've a good grounding in either Dark or Demon's Souls you'll be off to a flying start.
In a manner that only fits a very specific breed of person, Dark Souls II feels great then, even when played against that familiarly choppy framerate that also marked out the original on PS3 and Xbox 360 (the PR chap was unable to confirm any further details for the upcoming PC release).
Despite the concerns I have around the inter-connectedness of the landscape and the changes that might have been brought about by unlimited bonfire warps, those first few hours left me assured that we're in for another epic test of skill. Although the suite of subtle tweaks and balances will have inevitable ramifications for the long-term experience and online facets of the series, the underlying challenge of a simple one-on-one encounter with even a basic enemy remains faithfully intact.
As long as FromSoftware never deviate from that solid foundation, we’ll always end up with games that positively demand to be discussed, and either revelled in or reviled by. On that basis, get ready for March, and Prepare to - yet again - Die.
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