Dark Souls II impressions: Prepare to die harder

Posted on Apr 18 2013 - 11:20am by Gabriel Zamora

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Dark Souls stands out for many of reasons – though in this writer’s opinion, its incredible challenge, methodical action combat, brilliantly thought-out world and lore, and impeccable attention to detail are what set it in a league of its own. The DLC content released during the fall of last year, titled Artorias of the Abyss, further expanded the rich world and lore of Dark Souls. Everything about Dark Souls‘ gameplay and setting is rooted in the mythos of the game world and vice versa, creating a wonderfully rounded and mature action/RPG/adventure.

The reveal of a direct sequel to Dark Souls stirred notable excitement and concern among “Souls” fans. Dark Souls II is the first Souls title that is directly related to its predecessor, as well as the first game in the series not directed by Hidetaka Miyazaki, who lead the development of Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls previously. To complicate matters, the Dark Souls II reveal trailer, first showcased during the Spike TV Video Game Awards, was purely cinematic and showed no actual gameplay. With early interviews suggesting an increased focus on accessibility, fans of the series feared that Dark Souls II would be a casualized, directionless mess.

How Dark Souls II ultimately turns out remains to be seen. Publisher Namco Bandai held a press event in New York recently to showcase the very first bit of (hands-off) Dark Souls II gameplay. Dark Souls II features much of the challenge and attention to detail that the series is known for, in addition to a tremendous amount of polish. After the demo, Dark Souls II director Yui Tanimura and Namco Bandai global producer Tak Miyazoe held a brief interview, with Miyazoe translating for Tanimura and injecting his own answers from time to time.

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We were told that Dark Souls II is using an improved graphical engine that promises greater graphical fidelity than previous titles. The demo we were presented played on a PC version of the game. According to Miyazoe and Tanimura, Dark Souls II is being developed simultaneously for all three platforms (PC, Xbox 360, and PS3).

While the game certainly looked good, the very first thing I took note of was the revised user interface. While the health gauge, stamina gauge, item display and soul counter are very similar to what we’ve seen in Dark Souls (and Demon’s Souls, for that matter), the “Humanity” counter on the left side of the health gauge was curiously absent. It is replaced instead with a sun and double moon symbol. Dark Souls II director Yui Tanimura avoided answering or explaining this change, or the meaning behind the symbol, stating that, “unfortunately, we want to save that information for a little bit later on… We’ll keep you posted.” Perhaps the symbol represents a day and night cycle? Or a light and dark dynamic?

There was also another significant change that I noticed, in respect to the item display on the bottom left corner of the user interface. In previous games the item display represents the player’s left and right hands, consumable items and spells (which players cycle through with the left, right, down and up buttons, respectively, on the controller’s D-pad). Dark Souls allowed players to equip two weapons in each hand, as well as five consumable items. Dark Souls II is trying to push that to at least three weapons on each hand. The demo pilot cycles between a great sword, shield, bow, hatchet and a pair of longswords during the session, for example. Tanimura told us that the team wants to give players more flexibility in terms of the items and gear they can carry at any given time, though this feature is still being worked and hasn’t been finalized yet.

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On the subject of equipment, I asked Tanimura how equipment burden would work in Dark Souls II. The character piloted in Dark Souls II moved incredibly fluidly, despite being overburdened with full armor and six weapons. He answered by explaining that “the relationship between weight and movement speed will be maintained. For the sake of the demo, and because we haven’t fully tuned the mechanics yet, it did seem faster than what it should be.”

The demo starts with our protagonist standing on a dusky precipice overlooking a valley, with mountains looming in the distance. The player turns the hero around, and we’re guided into a darkened stone shrine, where an overgrown statue of a maiden stands over a bonfire. Thus, bonfires make their return in Dark Souls II, cementing the relationship between Dark Souls II and the original game. Bonfires serve as a base of operations for players. They function as checkpoints when activated, and players are revived at the last bonfire visited whenever they should die. In Dark Souls, players could also level up, forge and reinforce weapons, manage their inventory and eventually warp between bonfires.

The hero ventures deeper into the temple after activating the bonfire and climbs down a ladder, where he’s ambushed by undead soldiers. The targeting reticle is a strong blue rather than the dull gray of past games, making it easier to see which enemy the player is targeting. Attack and movement animations are noticeably more fluid than they were in Dark Souls as well. We’re told that the development team has utilized motion capture for all player actions, hence the smoothness in the animations. Once the player defeats the soldiers, the player looks around the room. A stone bridge grants access to the other side of the shrine, while giant, fiery salamanders haunt the parched ground below. The player instead turns back and down a flight of stairs, where he’s ambushed by an undead soldier playing possum.

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After dispatching this soldier, we turn right to find another staircase, this one leading into a pitch-black abyss. We are told of a new mechanic in Dark Souls II. Often times, players will encounter darkened areas and cannot make proper progress without the aid of a light source. We turn back and interact with a standing torch at the top of the staircase, and light our own torch. This gives us the light we need to make sense of the darkened rooms downstairs.

This darkness also makes me suspect that darkness and light with play a major role in Dark Souls II. Dark Souls had a section like this (the Tomb of Giants), so traversing darkened areas is hardly “new.” Yet the feature is brought to the forefront during the demo, suggesting that it is an important element in Dark Souls II.

Within the now illuminated room, a heavily armored creature (that looked like a bipedal man-turtle, in all honestly) with a steel mace bares down on the player. Its swing smashes through a pillar as the player avoids the blow. The enemy is powerful, but slow, and the player gets behind it to line up a backstab… only to be flattened into the ground as the creature throws itself backwards. We’re told that enemy reactions will be greater and more varied in Dark Souls II. This particular turtle-knight, for instance, will attempt a back-drop attack when players sneak up behind it.

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The hero gets up and flees the turtle-knight, only to be cornered by another. He is quickly beaten to death and re-spawns at the bonfire. From here, he takes a different path and finds himself in a room with a monumental sword that has fallen through the wall, revealing the vast sea and dusk sky in the distance. Standing on the sword monument is an axe knight, who throws oversized axes at the hero. We’re told that, in addition to new reactions, the team is trying to expand the player’s own attack options during combat as well. “We want to provide the player with as many options as possible in terms of how they want to tackle and strategize when getting through the game,” Tanimura explained. The hero switches to a great sword and bats a few of the hurled axes away, then closes the gap and kills the enemy. This is obviously one such “option” the team is implementing – weapon deflection. Another axe knight stands at a higher level of the temple and tosses an axe. This time, the hero mistimes his swing and catches the falling blade with his head, and dies from the damage.

After this death, we are shown a new area of the game. Tentatively called the Mansion of Dragons, a massive dragon skeleton lays in ruin within the foyer of the mansion, and Tanimura tells us that the place was used to experiment on dragons at some point in time. The player descends the staircase to collect an item off the ground, only to awaken the dragon skeleton momentarily. The beast lunges blindly while the hero evades the rush of bones, and the skeleton crashes into the wall behind the hero. As any Souls fan can attest to, any innocent item laying near a hulking mass of death, tends to be a not-so-innocent item after all. Clearly, Dark Souls II carries on the wicked spirit of its predecessors.

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The Mansion of Dragons is interesting in that there are no actual enemies in the area. Rooms are eerie and foreboding, but nothing comes at you directly. Tanimura stated that this was designed deliberately, so as to build up tension and stress.

After moving through a few rooms in the mansion, we come into a great hallway. Immediately before us is a massive cube monument with a vague face carved into it. Its mouth is open to accommodate a magic stone. By interacting with this monument, the player is prompted to place such a stone within the monument’s mouth. (I assume this is a key that must be collected at some point during play). We are told that these monuments are scattered throughout the world of Dark Souls II, and they trigger certain events when used. The magic stone has a variety of uses, we’re told, so it’s up to the player to decide whether to use it on the monument or hold onto it and use it elsewhere. In the case of the demo, the magic stone illuminates the blackened hallway and allows players to see what lurks within the shadows.

After walking down this passage for a few moments, the first of the mansion’s denizens can be seen. A bloated, cycloptic monster stands trapped behind a steel door. While I personally would have left it alone, the demo pilot decided to goad the creature by shooting an arrow through the door’s barred window. Immediately enraged, the cyclops pounds against the door, and after a few smashes, destroy’s the wall entirely and attacks the player. This is yet another example of the new enemy reactions players can expect to see in Dark Souls II.

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That concludes the bulk of the demo, but we were shown a few other unique scenarios in Dark Souls II afterwards. The first of these takes place in a dusky valley much like the one seen at the beginning of the demo. The protagonist walks down a rocky slope to see a murder of hellkite drakes flying overhead. A rickety wooden bridge connects the edge of the cliff the hero is standing on to a ruined castle on a mountaintop. As the player crosses the bridge, the drakes become more agitated. One eventually lands on the bridge and crushes it under its weight, sending the player to a quick, squishy death on the rocks below.

Immediately, my thoughts went to the Painted World in the original Dark Souls, which had a similar ruined structure connected by a wooden bridge, though the Painted World was frozen over, and the structure was in greater ruin. Whether or not the structures share any genuine connection remains to be seen, but it’s an interesting parallel nonetheless.

Another scene reveals the hero walking down a stone corridor. As he closes in on a few undead soldiers, a boss monster known as the Silver Chariot barrels towards him, crushing him under the stomping hooves and bladed wheels of the war machine.

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As scripted as these deaths seem (like the first Seath battle in Dark Souls), we are told that there are in fact ways to avoid these deaths. The Silver Chariot in particular illustrates an interesting feature the team is working on. Rather than utilizing the now-standard template in which players venture through areas to get to the boss of that area, the Silver Chariot shows up part-way through the stage when it attempts to run over the player. We’re told that it is actually possible to defeat the boss at this point. It should be interesting to see how clever players tackle such boss encounters when Dark Souls II is released.

One of the Souls games’ most interesting aspects is the multiplayer, where players can invade one another’s worlds and duel (or murder) each other for soul rewards, or summon players for assistance and jolly cooperation. Demon’s Souls had dedicated servers to accommodate multiplayer play, whereas Dark Souls utilized a peer-to-peer system. Dark Souls II returns to server-based multiplayer gameplay. “We’re not going to mimic what we did in Demon’s Souls,” said Tanimura, “but because it is going to be server-based, there are obviously going to be things we want to take advantage of with that server-based system. We’re not ready to give you very much information on this at this point, but stay tuned.”

Demon’s Souls utilized a mechanic called “World Tendency,” which changed enemy and NPC encounters around depending on the “light” or “dark” tendency of the server. Some areas could only be accessed when servers were a specific tendency as well. Dark Souls, on the other hand, utilized a covenant system to define its multiplayer. Players could align themselves with specific deities or cults to open new areas, participate in cooperation, or invade one another. Covenants, according to Tanimura, will be carried over to Dark Souls II in some form. “Covenants will remain,” answered Tanimura. “Not necessarily as it was in Dark Souls, but the mechanics of Covenants will remain and we’re revisiting that to hopefully bring you some pleasant surprises.”

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Storytelling will continue in much the same way that it was presented in Dark Souls as well. In the original game, NPC dialogue and item descriptions were all you had to piece together the cryptic story of the game. Every item gave us a small nugget of information about the regions of the world and famous people who once lived there, or the gods and their relationships with one another, or the fall of the regions you explored. NPCs added their own spin on the story, giving us lore filtered through their own eyes and experiences. The beauty with this method of storytelling is how non-intrusive it is. Players who wish to immerse themselves in the world can study every piece of flavor text in the game, while those who don’t give a fig can ignore or outright murder NPCs and never read a single item description, yet still complete the game.

“In terms of our storytelling methods, we plan to continue in the same way we told story in Dark Souls,” Tanimura replied when asked about the storytelling. “We’re not going to directly communicate story to the players. What we want to encourage is for players to try and imagine and utilize their experiences with NPCs and events in the game to piece together the story.”

Dark Souls II is being developed for the PC, Xbox 360 and PS3. No release date has been set yet.

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Gabriel Zamora is a freelance writer, ghost writer and hardcore video gamer. He has contributed written works for 2D-X, Examiner and MultiplayerGames among other sites.

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