A giant statue of the player character watched me in the Namco offices as I played Dark Souls II. Like playing the game itself, I was ever aware that the statue could burst into life, backstab me and then gesture over my body as my precious souls drift away. Luckily, this did not happen but the mix of anxiety, dread and excitement is still present in Dark Souls II and no need to worry hardcore Souls fans, it’s still the Souls we know and love.
The opening to Dark Souls II is a lot gentler than the previous game, giving you a lot of exposition and world building as you get used to the controls and the changes the sequel has made to combat and movement.
The starting area called ‘Things Betwixt’ gives you the ability to go through a series of training chambers, where you can learn or refresh yourself on all the basics of Dark Souls’ combat, without the fear of a giant hammer-wielding demon jumping down from the roof and killing you. You can quite easily ignore all of these tutorials and run straight on and down to this game’s hub, the seaside outpost of Majula.
The first sight of Majula is something to behold, with the new lightning really brightening up the whole place and giving the players the sense that this is a safe zone, even if the haunting background music suggests otherwise.
Unlike Dark Souls and more like Demon Souls, Majula acts as your place to level up, buy equipment and improve items with all the NPCs being there as soon as you arrive (with a couple of tasks to get them all up and running). One thing to note is that NPCs now have finite numbers of items, like the smith Lenigrast, having only 10 titanite shards to sell you in order to upgrade your weapons, which causes the player to really consider their purchases.
The way you level up in this game is through the Emerald Herald, a woman who not only levels you up but upgrades your Estus flasks and gives your first big task of seeking out King Vendrick. The change to how Estus flasks work gives the first inclination that the sequel is still as hard as the previous games, with you only being given one flask and the only way to get more is to find Estus Flask shards hidden throughout the world. Even then, the flasks are incredibly slow to use items, causing my death a few times in the demo as I froze in spot to drink and waited for my health to replenish while dodging enemy firebombs.
While the lightning was fantastic and the revamped character models look much more human and undead, the game still suffered from some slight slowdown in high action areas and some textures seem blurred or jagged but nothing to really distract from the overall experience. I did notice some glitches, like enemies reverting to their neutral positions when dying but again, these were only minor grievances.
After exploring Majula and finding some dead ends, I was able to get to the first area of the game, The Forest of Forgotten Giants. This was the main thrust of the demo, with the guys at Namco giving us three hours and two bosses to defeat during our playtime.
The combat in the game was as brutal as the first game, with enemies getting the drop on you from high places and hidden points, swarming on you to kill you quickly or devious traps to end your progress. One journalist next to me died from a trapped chest, containing a crossbow which instantly killed him, showing that From is still their sadistic self in level creation.
As to the structure of this area, it felt incredibly reminiscent of Dark Souls, with looping paths leading you back to bonfires and shortcuts being opened up by defeating bosses.
In terms of changes from Dark Souls, the way characters are built has changed, with stats like Resistance being completely removed, Endurance being split with Vitality to govern stamina and equip load respectively and Vigour now being used for health. Also, players can now warp between any bonfire found, store items and can even burn certain items to change aspects of the game world. One such item, called the Bonfire Ascetic, allowed players to increase the difficulty of monsters in that area which will no doubt give up more souls and give sadistic players an extra challenge.
One part which certainly surprised me was the introduction of an enemy called the Pursuer, a giant silver knight who was randomly dropped into the fortress I was fighting through only to murder me horribly and later appear as a boss monster. The two bosses I fought (and defeated) measured up to the boss fights of previous games, with the effective melding of music, background and gameplay to create an experience of you fighting a real threat.
There is still a great deal of mystery and surprise left to experience in Dark Souls II and my 3 hours was only a taster of what’s to come.
From my first impressions, Dark Souls II is looking to be a worthy successor to the Souls franchise, with it keeping the series focus of a game world which is both immersive and terrifying, whilst preserving the difficulty the series is known for and a story which requires the player to do the work in order to unveil its intricacies. Grab your soapstones, fill up that Estus flask and prepare to die all over again.
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