When Dark Souls 2 was announced, we – meaning Dark Souls fans, not the editorial we of The Dude – rejoiced at the prospect of a new challenge on the horizon. Then Edge reported that its co-directors wanted to mould the experience into something more approachable and into the pit of despair (a well-travelled place for videogame fans, admittedly) we went. Our beloved RPG is to be made more ‘approachable’. More accessible. More easy to play, perhaps? Its innate hostility stripped out to attract more sales? It sounded like Dark Souls 2 would be going the way of Dead Space 3 and become a watered down version of the core experience you had come to cherish.
But it appears it was also premature. According to Dark Souls 2 director, Yui Tanimura, the use of the word ‘accessible’ was taken to mean something he didn’t wish to convey. What he meant to do was to express the desire to make Dark Souls 2 more streamlined than its predecessor; to cut every ounce of fat and tedium from the RPG and to plunge the player into the unforgiving environment Dark Souls is known for as quickly as possible.
Dark Souls 2 is going to be far from easy. It is a nasty game. If it was a person, it would be nastier than the Nasty Boys performing a cover of Nasty Girl with Nas. This was evident even from the brutally short first-look preview recently shown at the Namco/Bandai Global Gamer’s event last week. In a demo that took roughly ten minutes, death was witnessed a number of times. In one instance, a warrior gesticulated wildly before being rammed by four pig-bulls, sent flying into the air, and then hurtling down the side of a cliff. Another warrior proceeded into a pitch-black tunnel, swapped his shield out for a torch and suddenly found himself attacked from both sides by gargantuan brutes. Both of these creatures looked like the result of a monstrous union between armoured mammoth and turtle and they finished off the warrior in a matter of seconds.
But like all deaths in Dark Souls, these scenes were meant to teach us something. The latter instance, for example, showed how much closer to the atmosphere of a survival horror Dark Souls 2 is than its predecessor. The shadows of the interior environments in this game swallow entire hallways, making forward progression impossible without sacrificing one’s shield arm in order to carry a light. An ever-present wind roars through the outside world and even the odd rays of sunlight, when they break through the clouds, seem to convey a sense of defeat. When combat comes, the soundtrack is a series of clanks and grunts punctuated by the wet sound of blade meeting flesh.
Death also taught us that creatures now react to the player’s actions both aggressively and tactically. At one point in the demo, a warrior took a shot at a monster through the bars of a window in a thick wooden door. This prompted said creature to batter down the door and pursue the player through a wide, Gothic-looking hallway, with the sounds of their battle echoing up into the rafters of its high ceiling. In another encounter, the AI showed just how nastily it had been tweaked; as the warrior avoided a large opponent’s blow by rolling behind it, the creature reacted by simply flinging itself backwards, flattening its quarry and knocking off a substantial chunk of health.
There are also environments that react to the players’ activities in Dark Souls 2; as the warrior progressed through a hallway containing the bones of a dragon, he picked up an item glinting on the ground, which caused the huge skeleton of the dragon behind him to spring to life and try to bite him in half. In another short scenario, we watched a warrior place an item in an opening called a ‘Key Mouth’, which illuminated a room. We were told there were numerous environments the player could ‘activate’ in different ways throughout the game.
Most of all, though, the point that was rammed home again and again, fellow Dark Souls fan, is that Dark Souls 2 is every bit as unforgiving as its predecessor. It’s designed from the ground up like a spring-loaded death-trap. Success in this game hinges as much on navigating the environment with the trepidation of a tightrope walker as it does on learning and becoming adept at its combat system.
There are literally hundred of ways to die in this game. In one brief scene, a warrior approached an enemy who proceeded to hurl axes at them. Using their shield, they battered the projectiles away… until a mis-timed defensive move resulted in an axe embedding itself in the warrior’s skull, killing them instantly. In another scene the same warrior found themselves staring off into the distance at a castle linked to the cliff they were standing on by a long wooden bridge being tossed in high winds. The warrior stepped onto the bridge and made it about a third of the way across… before a Wyvern landed on the bridge, let out an ear-splitting shriek, and then took off, tearing the bridge in half and causing the warrior to fall to their death in the chasm below.
It’s moments such as these, we were told, that are meant to prompt a sense of hopelessness and vulnerability in the player. They’re meant to recoil and think ‘what the hell do I do now?’ In the aftermath, they will have to rethink their strategy since proceeding in the same fashion will simply get them killed. It’s a realisation that can only be reached by seeing things like their character being mowed down by a glowing chariot with scythe blades bolted to its wheels, in a corridor that’s too narrow to dodge in. That, and knowing those souls – those precious souls – they’ve collected are now gone.
And as unfair as all of that sounds, we are assured – nay, promised – by From Software that the balance between cheap insta-kills and the overall difficulty levels of Dark Souls 2 is meticulously maintained throughout. The game may be ball-breakingly hard, but what it is first and foremost, is fair. Every death should bring reflection. Every death should prompt introspection. Every death should be a learning experience. And if the demo for Dark Souls 2 is anything to go by, players should be walking fonts of knowledge and experience within a good hour or so of sitting down at its controls.
There will also, of course, be features that will strike players as familiar. The bonfires are back, as are the Covenants and apparently players will be able to carry over some content from Dark Souls to Dark Souls 2, although when the developers were asked if players could import characters, the answer was a resounding ‘no’. The game sports a new engine, we were told, which will hopefully put paid to the frame rate crawl players became accustomed to in the last game.
But what we expect above all – indeed what you are right to demand – is the core appeal of the game remains unchanged. Dark Souls 2 sports some new accoutrements, new monsters, a new engine and a new narrative, but on the evidence presented, it remains as hostile towards newcomers as its predecessor.
Clamber up out of the pit of despair, Dark Souls fan, and prepare to die… again and again and again.