Words that are very, very familiar to anyone who has ever picked up a controller and stepped into the worlds of Boletaria or Lordran. The Souls franchise, starting with the PS3-exclusive Demon’s Souls, and then the 2011 smash-hit Dark Souls have managed to capture the heart, soul and emotions of gamers everywhere. Being able to crush their self esteem back to nothing with its grueling difficulty, only to reward with a rush of euphoria that few other games can match once you overcome the odds. Now, Dark Souls II looks to expand that even further.
Dark Souls II is still a little over a month away (literally), but recently I was able to sit down with the guys at Bandai Namco, grab a controller and get stuck into the complete build of the game. I left a changed man. I had seen some things, and I now know that I am ready to go beyond death.
Loading up the game takes you straight into the opening cinematic. The intro drags for a little bit but basically gives you a run down of the world and how it became so corrupted. In typical Souls fashion, we are only given brief snippets of the truth, and the rest will be for us to discover in our own time as we play through the hefty campaign. I wont spoil anything, but by the time the cinematic has ended, you will be as eager as ever to get into the action.
From the cinematic, the game dumps you straight into an old abandoned forest, completely unarmed so that you can get used to the way the game operates. Your character will be donned in a hooded robe so that we cannot see who he or she is, as that part comes later.
Anyone who has played a Souls game before will feel right at home with the controls, which by and large haven’t changed much since Demon’s Souls hit the PS3 over 4 years ago. You equip weapons to either your right or left hand, and you swing them using the shoulder buttons – L1/R1 for a light attack (or to block with a shield), or L2/R2 for a stronger, but slower heavy attack. You still switch between weapons and items using the D-Pad, and all in all the whole control scheme remains by and large unchanged. The old adage of “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it” is very applicable here, as the way the game has played has remained the same through all three games.
So after running around this little area and making sure you are acquainted with the game’s controls, you head up to a small decrepit shack, inside of which you will find a bunch of witches draped in red robes. Another cut-scene plays here, which is already a bit of a deviation from the past installments, which were very light on the cinematics. We get a bit more back story of the world, and the curse that afflicts you, before jumping into the character creator.
The character creator has all the bells and whistles you would expect from a modern RPG Character creator. The previous two games in the series have stumbled a bit with this aspect, and you might have had a character who looked perfect in the creator, but turned out having bright red skin (trust me, it can happen). While the Dark Souls II creator is by no means perfect, it is still leaps and bounds ahead of its predecessors.
Then the game begins. You are introduced to the little tutorial area. Much like the Undead Asylum from Dark Souls, this new area features a series of relatively easy challenges that allow players to get accustomed to the game’s mechanics. One thing that did jump out at being different was the fact that you could collect a torch, which could then be lit and aside from providing light in darkened caverns, was also used to light sconces along the path. During the little tutorial area, I noticed a bunch of seemingly innocuous looking sconces, and decided to try my best to light them all within the torch’s 5-minute limit. I came close, but didn’t quite make it. Are there secrets and rewards given for lighting them all? I don’t know, but it is that kind of mystery and intrigue that Souls players demand from their games. Another key difference, and one that definitely impacts on the difficulty of the game is that Estus Flasks (the game’s renewable health items) Are much fewer. Once you have access to the Estus, you are initially only given a single flask, and are tasked with finding shards to unlock more.
The tutorial felt relatively easy in comparison to Demons’ and Dark Souls. Until something caught my eye. Over a ridge, I could see a giant troll, just idly standing there. I knew what had to be done next. Gamers everywhere know that feeling and that anticipation of a tough challenge ahead, it is like it is a sixth sense, and Dark Souls II had mine tingling. As I made my way over the ridge, I noticed that the draw distance for the map was incredible. I was a fair ways away from that troll, and yet I could see it clear as day. As I neared the troll’s hunting ground, and I edged ever closer to him, someone behind me spoke; “You know how there are some areas of Dark Souls that you just shouldn’t go to too early?”
Another troll had charged at me from no where and crushed my fragile body under his giant foot. “This is one of those areas.” I should have turned tail and ran away. I wasn’t strong enough to face these brutes, but if Dark Souls, and subsequently Dark Souls II thrives on overcoming the odds. I battled back and forth with the trolls for over 20 minutes, dying repeatedly as I learned their attack patterns and how far out they would chase me. Eventually I was able to lead them to the entrance of a cavern where I could slowly pick away at them. If there is one thing to say, it is that Dark Souls II still carries that lofty feeling of excitement, euphoria and bliss when you overcome one of its many obstacles. Felling the two beasts gave such a rush that I needed more.
I headed back through the tutorial area, and made my way to the next location. Finally after some off-the-beaten tracks exploring, I had reached the small hub part of the world. This desolate village had a few sparse NPCs, and was definitely my way point in the world of Drangleic.
Here is where some of the more nuanced and intricate gameplay mechanics were made apparent. Firstly, the leveling up system has changed from how it was in Dark Souls, and now more closely resembles the original method used in Demon’s. While you still collect souls from fallen enemies, and use them as your experience points, you are limited to WHERE you can level up. In Dark Souls, you could rest at any bonfire and level up accordingly – not so anymore. Much like Demon’s Souls, you are forced to talk to a specific NPC to level up. This adds a bit of strategy to the events, as the NPC isn’t at every bonfire.
I also discovered that the Bonfires in Dark Souls II are all linked to each other, and allow for fast travel between them. This is a slight let down, as fast travel was earned in Dark Souls, and it was still only usable in certain locations. Now you can travel across the map to any bonfire that you have discovered and lit. This takes some of the stress of “will I make it” out of the game, as you can just travel to the most ideal location and head off from there.
Covenants also make a comeback in Dark Souls II, and you have access to a handful of them a lot earlier in the game. Not only that, but the NPCs who welcome you into the covenants give you a bit of a rundown on the perks of joining them. This is made a lot more clear than it was in the original Dark Souls, which had you filling in the blanks a lot of the time. One covenant really jumped out at me here – The Covenant of Champions. Interacting with a large engraved obelisk near the top of the town gave you the option to join, and also a warning that if you elected to do so, the game’s difficulty would spike up dramatically.
Now, anybody who was a part of the Network Beta Test in November will know that the difficulty spike really does change things. It shifts the game basically into NG+ territory. It is a great option to have if you are a series veteran who is looking to challenge themselves from the get-go. If you are new to the franchise, or it has been a while since you played, then I would strongly advice not going down this route to begin with, as the game itself is still really difficult.
The difficulty was a big concern for players ever since the game was announced. And I can tell it with an audible sigh of relief that there is nothing to worry about. The difficult has remained in tact, and you will still be dying over and over again until you are red in the face.
The most intriguing part of the little town however, was a large pit near the center. I’m talking like 300 style. As I peered over the edge, I noticed that in criss-cross pattern descending down the pit were a series of planks. “I wonder if I aim my fall properly, will I be able to descend make my way down this pit?” No. No I was not. Although I aimed my jump perfectly, and landed on the topmost plank, it was still enough of a fall to immediately kill my character. Speaking to a nearby merchant NPC, I saw he had a ring that reduced fall damage, albeit for an obscene price (13500 Souls). I figured I would come back later, and set off on the way to my next challenge.
I headed through some sewer-like ruins, and ended up in a castle that was ruined beyond compare. Although it was filled with rubble and broken stone, I was in awe at how great it looked. The guys at FROMSOFTWARE have really come leaps and bounds with the visuals – especially considering the first one only released in 2009. There was incredible amounts of detail on the cobblestone buildings, and even the enemies were all elegantly detailed. It isn’t a next-gen title for sure, but it really does look great.
It didn’t take me long to figure out that I had headed the wrong way and ended up in another area that I wasn’t supposed to be. Not only that, but I was still equipped with the base level gear. If you want a real challenge, then only level up a few times and forget to buy better gear. I was facing down knights that were literally twice my size, and who’s weapons could kill me in roughly two swings. Regardless, Dark Souls II is a game about pushing forward, so I did that. I learned how to dodge all but one of the enemies, and plotted my path around them to the boss encounter at the end. Here is where things got interesting.
The boss battles in Souls games can be a bit of a mixed bag, but usually if you can find the weakness you will be set. Dark Souls II carries that torch proudly, by making bosses an exercise in problem solving just as much as they are combat. Sure there are different ways to go about it, and you will find the one that works best for you, but when facing down a 12 foot, red armored knight called Dragonrider, who’s halberd can send you flying off of his tower in one hit, you need to think somewhat strategically.
I am proud to say that after a long, long time battling Dragonrider, I eventually figured out his weakness… but that wasn’t enough. I was still too poorly equipped for the battle, and was barely doing any damage. So I decided to head down another path, and see if I could get something better. That is what has always been a favourite thing about the Souls games for me – the fact that there is no set in stone pathway that you should follow. Branching roots, secret passages and surprises galore. Even better is the fact that there is nothing and nobody even suggesting where you should go. You figure it out for yourself, usually through trial and error. There is no hand-holding in Dark Souls II, and that is amazing.
So after failing to overcome Dragonrider, I headed the other way into a small forest. The enemies here felt much easier to kill than the giant knights I was dealing with before, and it made me realise that this is the way I should have been going. Human-sized enemies that I can block and kill without having to worry about one hit KO’s are definitely the way to go. As I made my way through the forest, and into another set of ruins – I fought undead soldiers who were trying to hinder my path, and encountered a ominous looking knight who didn’t attack, but also didn’t respond to my prompts. Even more suspicious was the fact that he could be targeted like any other enemy. Another mystery to be unraveled by playing through the game.
When I had enough souls, I decided to gear myself up a little better – I purchased a better headdress and a new weapon in the form of the battleaxe. I had planned on heading back into the forest, but the challenge of the Dragonrider was impossible to ignore – so back there I headed. It was a long battle, that really tests players on how to properly use their stamina (including when to hold your shield or not). Eventually however, the Dragonrider was toppled, and I reigned victorious. One thought entered my mind; “Now I can buy that ring.” As I entered the hub again, I purchased the ring, but before I could jump down the pit, I something back towards the forest caught my eye and off I was again.
At the end of the forest was the official first boss encounter of the game – The Last Giant. Old, withered, and decomposing but still a formidable enemy. The Last Giant used his hands and legs as weapons as he stomped around the battle area. Staying out of his reach, and running in for a few quick slices was easy enough… until he ripped off his own arm. Now his reach was doubled, and I was severely freaked out. Evolving boss battles is something that have been a part of video games for an eon, but they are still awesome to see. Having to change your strategy and your style midway through an encounter really tests the player without being unfair.
Having two bosses under my belt, I had one last job at hand – to finally explore the pit. I warped to the Hub, and headed towards the giant, ominous hole in the ground. I equipped the ring that lessened fall damage, angled my jump just right, leaped off the edge … and… fell to my death.
So that rounded up my five or so hours with Dark Souls II. I managed to defeat two trolls by exploiting their AI (in typical Souls fashion), vanquish two different bosses and fall to my death over and over again. Five hours and I have barely scratched the surface. There are still secrets to unravel, souls to collect the entire world of Drangleic to explore, and I absolutely cannot wait to do so. Seriously it is time to get aboard the hype train, because it looks like Dark Souls II will be everything we all dream it should be, and more.
You can pick up your copy of Dark Souls II and go beyond death this March on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC, so as always make sure you stay tuned to Capsule Computers for all the Dark Souls news as it becomes available.