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An embargo has clearly been lifted, given the sudden emergence of so much Dark Souls II coverage, encompassing previews, interviews and even some new gameplay footage, showing a few areas that we had only glimpsed in trailers so far.
GameSpot offers a retelling of the writer's deaths during his brief time with the title, and an interview with director of marketing Brian Hong:
Heading out the house's back door, I light the first of Dark Souls II's bonfires--checkpoints that save the game, but also respawn every enemy in the area. One of the new mechanics introduced in this sequel is the ability to light and carry a torch from any bonfire. Taking the place of a shield in your equipped items, a torch provides crucial visibility in pitch-black areas, whilst also scaring some enemies if waved menacingly in their direction. It's as reassuring as telling an arachnophobe that a spider is more scared of him than he is of it.
But the area I come out into is completely free of darkness. This new hub world is bathed in the warm glow of the sun. Against the beautiful shoreline vista are actual houses. The fact that these abodes look like liveable spaces is new to me. This doesn't feel like a Dark Souls area at all. I want cold, unfeeling stone, mouldy catacombs, and an overwhelming sense of dread. This place looks nice.
Engraved into a rock is a real-time global death tally for every player in this preview build. It sits at just over 18,000. A sense of dread begins creeping back. I take a winding path away from the hub world into a small, circular cavern. A lower platform in the middle, with an item pickup clearly visible, is surrounded by running water. A message left on the ground by another player that reads "Try jumping!" spurs me on. I jump. At the apex, it's clear I'm not going to make it. I fall and am swept away by the rushing current.
Death #2: Drowned, because Dark Souls II players still be trolling.
What I learned: Trust no one.
In many ways, Dark Souls II does a better job with easing players into the experience; learning the controls, abilities, and making the acclimation period a bit easier, at your own pace, and more accessible. Yes, you just read that this game is a little more accessible. And that's OK. I died more times in the opening hour of this game than I did in the previous Souls games. And that was after going through the tutorial sequence and learning controls I'm already familiar with.
It felt as though they made the opening of this game for players who wanted a challenge or were too confident in their abilities from the previous games. I felt constantly on edge, and had to think about what's going on and what to do next. While it's understandable to feel apprehensive about this game's slightly different approach to starting players off -- what Dark Souls II has essentially given players is more rope, just so they're able to climb an even steeper cliff. And it all felt pretty fair to me.
Surprisingly, I felt there were many callbacks to the original Souls title, Demon's Souls. A steeper learning curve, a trial by fire scenario -- after letting my experience with the game digest, Darks Souls II seems to be a nice blend of the best qualities from both its predecessors. As there's a greater focus on putting pressure on the player, without making them feel too overwhelmed and frustrated. For the people that welcome this experience, of course.
PlayStation Blog (I have to admit it's a bit weird to see a preview on a console manufacturer's official blog):
Though Dark Souls II wastes no time in throwing the player into the deep end of the pool, its core gameplay has also undergone many subtle tweaks that further contribute to its bruising difficulty level. One example is your life bar, which shrinks slightly each time you die.
This means you'll grow permanently weaker with each miscalculation unless you use one of your precious Human Effigies (standing in for Dark Soul's Humanity) to restore your full human form. And the health-restoring Estus Flasks, so critical for survival in Dark Souls, so far appear to be downplayed in favor of life crystals, a slow-healing, consumable item that isn't restored each time you rest at a Bonfire.
But I also noticed a host of welcome refinements that make Dark Souls II a more graceful and user-friendly experience. The user interface is now vastly easier to navigate, making weapon swapping and inventory management a speedy affair compared to Dark Soul's overwhelming lines of text. Jumping, a famously finicky maneuver in Dark Souls, is now bound to L3 in a small but crucial tweak that will make battle-scarred veterans weep tears of joy. And perhaps best of all, you can now fast travel between different Bonfires from the very start of the game, cutting down on monotonous backtracking.
In a recent event, the developers allowed the press to experience the game straight from the start screen for thirty minutes. Within that time, it become clear what Dark Souls II co-director Yui Tanimura meant when he said that it would be more "accessible". Once your character emerges from the character creation screen, a series of tunnels (blocked by mist, of course) with stone pillars that relay tutorial messages explain how the game works. And the opening levels aren't terribly difficult, with the town of Majula right beyond the tutorial level, several bonfires within reach, and slow-moving undead that are easily interrupted with a dagger swipe.
This opening, though, is meant to lower the hurdle for newcomers and will be rather breezy for veterans, but that won't be a concern later on once the likes of the Mirror Knight become commonplace. If anything, From Software understands the challenge that its audience wants and will harden the experience as the game goes along. If you're particularly sinister, you can join the Brotherhood of Blood to make it easier to invade other people's games and make my life more miserable than it needs to be. They also won't be adding any DLC to the game so that it can be a full experience right out of the gate.
There are several paths you can take once you've emerged onto Majula. Remember, in Demon's and Dark Souls the world dropped you straight into a boss battle and demanded that you die. While other game tutorials teach you how to crouch, jump and swipe your sword, Souls games teach you how to die. It is a central mechanic.
There's no such tough love to be had in Dark Souls 2, but be warned: don't be lulled into a false sense of security. Getting a foothold on Dark Souls 2 is in many ways more difficult than its predecessors. While there are several paths to choose from in Majula, you need to figure out which is the most sensible quickly, and here's why.
Dark Souls 2 punishes death more severely than in previous games. It punishes you for superfluous deaths. Each time you die, a fraction of your HP meter shrinks, meaning you'll be worse equipped for each consecutive run. The only way (that I know of) to raise the HP meter back to its full capacity is to use a Human Effigy, which also evolves you from undead into human form (you need not be at a bonfire to become human anymore). These Human Effigies are not in abundance, and if you die you'll be rendered undead again and the gradual decline will commence.
I think I talked to more non-hostile characters in the first hour of Dark Souls II than I did in the first ten hours of the original game. They're everywhere, from Shalquoir the cat merchant to the poor knight who complains of a statue blocking his path. Coming from the sparseness of the original Dark Souls, this full roster is almost overwhelming a feeling heightened by the environments you traverse.
The original Dark Souls (and its spiritual predecessor, Demon's Souls) were bleak experiences. Even when the world opened up into spectacular vistas, the sun kept an entirely unpleasant, grayish pallor. It was a sickly world a world for the undead.
And while that feeling still remains in Dark Souls II, the game largely ditches the desaturated look (though the PlayStation 3 build I played Xbox 360 and PC versions are also planned was clearly still a graphical work-in-progress). One of the first areas you'll enter after the tutorial is a modest village, situated on a Cliffside and bathed in the warm glow of the sun. It's forlorn and melancholy a place past its prime but entirely different tonally from the cold, dead lands of the first game.
As with the original Dark Souls (and to a lesser extent, Demon's Souls), the sequel does a good job of evoking the sensation of standing on the precipice of a huge and interesting world. Where the original game began on the outskirts of what appeared to be a ruined castle complex built into a mountainside, the sequel kicks off near a cave complex set in a canyon of sorts. Neither scenario provides any real hints on where to go. Wander through one of the cave in Dark Souls II and you might end up on a quiet seashore... or you might end up battling a handful of zombies. For first-time players in particular, it's both intimidating and exciting.
The same goes for the initial character customization. As in the original game, little context is given when rolling a character -- just the appearance customization tools, a handful of classes like "Knight" and "Bandit," and an initial loadout. The first is fairly straightforward, but the second requires some thought, since it can have a large impact on elements like skill development and equipment. The trick is in understanding that there's no wrong answer when choosing a class in Dark Souls, at least not so long as you put together a smart build and play to your strengths. The trick, of course, is in understanding what a "smart build" entails, since there are a lot of different factors to consider beyond raw power, such as mobility. Ultimately though, it's down to taste.
Where the sequel gets really Dark Souls-y is in your initial gear loadout. Your most obvious option might be to pick the adventure pack full of healing items, but there are a few other choices as well, such as an expendable item that will make you human again (until you die). The one item that will give most everyone pause though is the hunk of wood that "maybe be useful at some point in the future." It's vintage Dark Souls, in that it's more than a little mean in its ambiguity. Basically, it forces you to trade an immediate benefit (restoratives) for a very uncertain future. Needless to say, it's not an option I would recommend to newer players, but it ought to be intriguing to those embarking on their second or third (or hundredth) run.
Ten minutes in, no enemies in sight. Phew. After leaving Dark Souls' Retirement Center For Ominous Geezers, I happened upon a chest that had a sword and an assortment of items in it. Relieved that I would no longer have to punch my way through any monsters I might find, I continued along what seemed to be the only path forward.
What I found next rather surprised me. Unlike the dark, gloomy forest I had left behind, the collapsed settlement of Majula was a sunny town (or rather, the remains thereof) that sat atop the face of a cliff overlooking the ocean. The music here was soothing, and a few NPCs populated the area. None of them gave me any particularly useful information, but some offered to sell items for souls, which I didn't have. I did find a lighthouse, though, and was prompted to examine it when I got close. So I did. A box popped up on my screen, with the title "worldwide deaths." The number underneath sat at 0--unsurprising, considering I was playing on an offline preview build.
While not a preview per se, I had initially discounted these GameFAQ spoilers as fake (you can find a summary on Reddit), but now that several previews have been released matching those details I feel confident they're real. I won't quote a snippet because they go more in-depth than a first-time player would probably like.
Moving to the interviews, both GameTrailers and Giant Bomb have one, while Giant Bomb also has a lengthy video chat about the title. Finally, GamesHQMedia has a long gameplay footage video set in an overgrown castle.