Hands-On With Dark Souls II

Hands-on with Dark Souls II

I was way behind. The day started with a 12:00 PM appointment, the same time as when the doors open on the first day of E3. The unwashed masses descend upon the South and West halls and inexplicably form orderly queues despite the rampant disorganization that soon follows the opening bell. This is how E3 meetings and demos fall behind schedule; they simply start out late. This, however, is also how I got my hands on Dark Souls II for nearly a whole 30 minutes.

Settled into the waiting pen for Namco Bandai, machines appeared before me unattended. So I grabbed a controller and set about playing a game I knew only in passing and had seen a trailer for once just the day before. I’d played both Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls but finished neither; to me, they were casual games I would pick up, get stumped by a battle, and put back down all in the span of 15 to 30 minutes.

But let’s talk about Dark Souls II. It opens with me standing in a dimly lit room. It gives me a moment to refamiliarize myself with the controls, which are largely unchanged from Dark Souls, and scope out my current location. There’s a hole in the ground and a door that doesn’t open, so I position myself above the crevasse and peer over.

A bit too far, it seems, as I fall in, gleefully ignoring the ladder right beside me and losing about 75% of my health from the 15-foot drop. So far, so Dark Souls. It’s much darker down here, but I do see that there’s a body lying on the ground shambling back to life to try and take the last quarter of my vitality. He does so quite easily. Time to start again.

This time, I manage to remember the ladder. Success! Oh, but I forget to use it. Dammit! Back down to 25% health, but I slam down a health potion and I’m almost as good as new. In related news, that corpse goes down a lot easier this time around. Some well-timed rolls and not-so-well-timed swings of my sword put him down and me only slightly down. All that animation priority goodness you love from Dark Souls is back, so don’t worry. After crossing a bridge and entering a nearly pitch black basement, though, I’m reminded of the other chief property of the series: the opportunity to make stupid mistakes.

Combat is all about mitigating risks and knowing when you have an opportunity worth seizing. Navigating the world, however, is all about not being a complete fucking idiot, which I fail to do in the most spectacular fashion in this subterranean dungeon. First off, it’s almost completely and totally dark in there and yet I go in without a torch. Second, I haphazardly run around like I own the place. (Note: I do not, in fact, own the place.) Third, which is a net result of the first two failings, I show how I can be equally ignorant to helpful things like ladders as dangerous things like the giant hulking Turtle enemy right in front of me. He’s about a third taller than me but way bulkier, covered from head to toe in armor, and just killed me with his humongous hammer.

Dark Souls II

Third time’s a charm, though, and I finally do it; I used the ladder! However, I die at the Turtle’s hands again because, I dunno, I thought maybe I could be a hero or something. Anyways, if I’d learned anything from the first Dark Souls and life in general, it’s to run away from your troubles, so I take another bridge outside, run away from a few more life lessons, and warp into a long hallway.

This hallway looks kind of familiar. It’s the throne-like runway from the trailer where all the dudes are swiping at you as you run towards the camera. Well, I don’t see any dudes, but I do see a lot of statues with pikes and a, uh, statuemancer at the end. While he casts spells at me, I put two and two together and decide to take a page from the trailer’s playbook and haul ass down the corridor. Recklessly and fruitlessly, I take damage from his dark fireballs and the numerous blades shivving me in the side to the point where I only brief touch a wall of mist just behind the wizard before collapsing in a heap of failure, regret, and poor risk analysis.

A few more attempts at trying to defeat the statues (they go down rather easy as long as you don’t let them overwhelm you and take proper cover from the incoming projectiles) and the dark magician (he is much more resilient and now the bane of my existence) pass by before I decide to just try to bee line it straight for the mist. It’s a tense affair of pushing slowly into the sparkling barrier and hearing my doom slowly encroach on me, but I push through…

Dark Souls II

And am immediately greeted by death. Well, not death, per se, but the massive Mirror Knight you also see in the trailer. He is, however, the harbinger of my imminent doom, so details like who he’s PR for aren’t all that important. I run up to him and dance around, trying to feel him out. I want to tease him to find out where his head is at. Is he a brute? Does he cast spells? What’s with that big shield? All of these questions go running through my head as he jumps into the air and brings down a swift and brutal end to my life. His blank, unchanging face taunts me as I fade to black.

And so this goes on for the next 10 minutes or so to varying degrees of success and ways of being crushed. It takes a lot of patience and nuance to get around his large, sweeping but fast attacks and spanning lightning spells. He has a pose that could lead to one of three moves that become harder to predict the closer you are to him (it just so happens that the moments prior are the best for inflicting damage). And when he slams down his shield, a soldier busts through the mirror and comes after you. He’s easily handled if you rush up fast and unleash naive hell upon him, but that depletes the stamina you would otherwise be using to avoid the Mirror Knight’s attacks. Slogging through just a fourth of his health is painful and takes more concentration than I’d used the entire day prior. It is, basically, everything you’d want from a Dark Souls game.

From what I can tell, From Software has made no effort to make the game any easier—there is no easy mode—but they have tried to facilitate the ways you play it. There’s a new engine powering the game that gives more clues about enemies with greater visual and audio capabilities; improved enemy AI will result in less outcomes where you feel cheated; and there is now persistent bonfire warping. There’s also a character generator now that asks your questions and guesses the best match of what type of play style you would want based on your answers.

Dark Souls II

Gameplay changes are indeterminate, however, in regards to difficulty impact as there are now life gems that can regenerate health without stopping to down a potion, you can dual wield weapons, and you can carry three weapon or shield items now. Some more die hard Dark Souls fans I spoke with said that the movement felt a bit faster (perhaps it was their particular loadout) and that a few combat things felt different (in what ways, they could not readily articulate given the short demo time), but from what I saw, the philosophy of the franchise was there. It was brutal, it was mean, and it was consistent. Just in the brief time I spent with Dark Souls II, I failed at so many things, learned a few lessons, and overcame a couple of obstacles. For the first time that day, falling behind wasn’t so bad.

Look for Dark Souls II on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC in March 2014.

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