Dark Souls II: FromSoftware’s quest to create the last great adventure of the PS3 and 360 generation

Dark Souls II

Format: 360, PC, PS3 Publisher: Namco Bandai Developer: FromSoftware Console release: March 2014

Ever since co-director Yui Tanimura was quoted using the word ‘accessible’ in relation to this new entry in the dark fantasy Souls series, the teams at developer FromSoftware and publisher Namco Bandai seem to have taken great pride in proving that Dark Souls II will be every bit as pad-shatteringly difficult as Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls.

“It was a mistranslation,” says producer Takeshi Miyazoe. “It’s about streamlining, cutting off a lot of fat. That is what we were trying to say, but we used the word ‘accessible’ in a casual manner, I think.”

The idea is not to make the game any easier, he says, but to make it less frustrating, especially for series newcomers. That doesn’t mean simplifying the combat systems, making boss battles easier, or offering less choice in how you level your character, though, as a recent invite-only network test involving 30,000 players in the new location of Huntsman’s Copse proved. No, FromSoftware has more subtle methods in mind.

“Dark Souls isn’t really a game that’s going to hold anybody’s hand,” says Miyazoe. “But it’s not impossible. Just take your time, try to pay attention to the surroundings, be patient and continue to challenge yourself. From a technical standpoint, what we’re trying to do is ensure that you understand what mistake you have made. I think the new engine, the new motion [capture], the new visuals – everything that has been enhanced will help the player better understand that.”

One way in which FromSoftware intends to achieve a fair balance for new players is through an enhanced Covenant system, which should also facilitate deeper roleplaying. In Dark Souls, joining a Covenant brought certain items and benefits, but this time around the groups will have new powers that inform playstyles. Similar to the Darkwraith Covenant in Dark Souls, the Brotherhood Of Blood allows its members to invade others’ games more easily. But since players in a Hollow state are no longer protected from invasions, other Covenants will play a more defensive role. When invaded, followers of The Way Of Blue will automatically summon phantom assistance from the Blue Sentinel group, for instance. Heirs To The Sun, meanwhile, functions a bit like Warrior Of Sunlight, collecting together a band of co-op-minded players who will be summoned by priority for PvE encounters as well as invasions.

The Mirror Knight showcases a creative approach to both online play and boss battles, with a magical shield that can summon other real-life players to help defend it.

Brotherhood Of Blood and Blue Sentinel apostles can even fight PvP battles within their own Covenants, though details of this system are being kept secret. Gaining superior status among Covenant brethren will result in an aura around the character, though; in the case of Brotherhood Of Blood, this is achieved by a kill streak of invaded hosts or of Blue Sentinels. And those in a fifth Covenant, Bell Keeper, will automatically invade any who wander haplessly into an area of the game where twin bells are located.

Miyazoe hints at one more Covenant that will act as a police force to hunt down serial invaders, adding an element of risk for those who would seek to prey on weaker players. Think of it as a wanted system with a bounty on the heads of griefers.

All of which may not soothe the concerns of Dark Souls players who prefer to stay Hollow and avoid PvP encounters altogether, particularly now that your max HP will diminish with each death until you restore your human form with a Human Effigy. Miyazoe is unapologetic. “This is going to sound a little bit rude, but being invaded is part of the game,”  he says. “It’s like an enemy in the game that just happens to be controlled by another player. The Covenants system is a good way to be helped; that’s how we want to structure some of the roleplaying as well. So if you’re an invader, if you’re a bad guy, there always has to be a policeman who tries to get rid of the bad guys, and that element will be blended into the Covenants as well.”

Miyazoe – or Tak, as he chooses to introduce himself – grew up in Canada and came to his parents’ home country of Japan a decade ago. He speaks with an easy confidence that betrays his western upbringing. We meet him in the huge reception area at Namco Bandai, which has become a winter wonderland. It’s decorated with a fake snow scene replete with life-size snowmen, Christmas trees and Pac-Man wearing a Santa hat. With not a pool of blood in sight, the stage is most definitely not set for our demo of Dark Souls II, beginning with an exclusive viewing of the opening movie.

Members of certain Covenants, such as the Brotherhood Of Blood, can fight for supremacy in their faction.

What we see is darkly atmospheric and very much a step up in production values from its predecessor. A witchy old lady holds the camera’s gaze with milky cataract eyes and a lonely leafless tree is swarmed by delicately rendered fireflies. It’s an intro laden with unsettling effects (a woman’s face melts clean off, ghostly skeleton spirits take flight) and an eerie sense of place. A beautifully pitched voiceover tells us of the fate of the cursed while an armoured knight approaches a land of ruins by boat.

The sequence’s production values are an indication of the general improvements the game will bring. With its development team roughly doubled, FromSoftware is making the biggest game in the studio’s history. It’s also easily the most hungrily anticipated, with some 2.5 million fans to please. Working with a budget that is bigger than before but still nowhere near that of a western triple-A release, the studio is nonetheless aiming to create blockbuster entertainment that looks and plays the part. In order to meet that vision, production has been spilt in two, with battle mechanics and gameplay directed by Tanimura, and Tomohiro Shibuya in charge of world and design. But the pair are apparently being overseen “closely” by series creator Hidetaka Miyazaki – in contrast to the picture we were given last year.

Character animations are now motion captured, giving a more natural fluidity, while an increase in lighting sources made possible by a new bespoke engine means illumination plays a bigger role in the game. The player and some enemies carry fiery torches with custom mobile lighting effects, and this in turn has given the team a merry excuse to create caves and other interior areas that are plunged wholly into darkness.

Fan feedback from the beta was overwhelmingly positive, yet the darkness of the woods was a common complaint – not only because players wanted to relish the series’ glorious High Gothic environments, but also because it makes progress harder. You can carry a torch in your left hand, lit from a bonfire (the series’ sanctuary for restoring health and levelling up) but extinguished when unequipped, or you can carry a shield for protection. Choose.

Disciples of the Bell Keeper Covenant will be called on to invade players who reach a location where the Twin Bells are kept.

“I don’t think that we’re going to make it any brighter, but we do understand that there are dark areas,” Miyazoe says. “The cave is pretty much pitch black if you don’t have a torch, but that’s part of the gameplay as well. After playing it ten or 20 times, you’ll start to memorise how the path goes and then you won’t need a torch.”

And if fear over Dark Souls II’s accessibility got the better of you, just ask Miyazoe what to do if you find yourself torchless in a deep, dark place far from a bonfire. “Um, you’ll die?” he laughs. “There will be critical moments where you are forced to choose between the shield’s protection or vision, but there are other gimmicks when you know the way. There’s a stone object, which doesn’t have a name yet, but it’s a big stone face on the wall. You place an object in its mouth and it might trigger some lights to go on. So if you find yourself in the dark for hours and hours, there’s probably something you’re missing.”

Indeed, one subtle yet vital shift in Dark Souls II is towards puzzle-based level design, as glimpsed in the network beta by the tantalising placement of a bonfire behind a locked gate – a safe haven so close and yet seemingly impossible to reach.

“We want to encourage players to explore and find things for themselves,” Miyazoe says. “In the beta build, the first and second bonfires were pretty easy to find, but the third one was behind a closed gate, and you can only get in from the top; you have to jump down off a ledge to the bonfire and then flick a lever to open the gate up. That sort of thing is playing with the players’ minds a little bit, in the sense that you can see the bonfire there and if you want to go to the trouble of figuring out how to get in, it’s up to you.”

The timing required to pull off attacks and defensive moves has been tweaked since Dark Souls, thought the concept of waiting for the opportune moment to strike remains.

Miyazoe demonstrates this in the beta by walking to that area and attempting the jump, missing and falling to his death. Nobody ever said the puzzles will be easy to solve, after all.

Boss battles, too, look as if they will be adopting new angles in Dark Souls II. The team has gone to great lengths to avoid spoiling the majority of these, but the bosses seen so far – the Skeleton Lord, which plays out more like fighting a horde of skeletons; Mirror Knight, which can summon networked players to attack you through its mirror shield; and the Executioner’s Chariot, a hide-and-seek encounter with a barrelling two-headed horse and cart – give an idea of what to expect. Miyazoe says that these are mid-level bosses and that Dark Souls II’s biggest monsters will not necessarily be bigger than those in Dark Souls, just more interesting in terms of design and fighting styles.

The network beta was held primarily to test the load on servers. The online aspects of Dark Souls – PvP invasions and player messaging functions – were handled through P2P connections, but Dark Souls II will have dedicated servers, allowing for a more reliable and richer experience. Miyazoe says that the results of the test proved that Namco Bandai’s Japan-based servers have plenty of capacity, though it will likely set up local servers in Europe and North America as well. The beta also provided a wealth of other data and fan feedback useful for balancing, and the game’s final month or so of full production, through to mid- or late December, has been spent tweaking the systems highlighted.

Another area of concern for some fans who played the network test was the framerate, which was a downright disaster in some areas of the previous game and still seemed choppy on occasion in the beta. Miyazoe insists this will be fixed at 30fps on PS3 and 360, and maybe a little higher on PC, by release. Careful observers also noticed a smattering of low-res textures, particularly on the ground but also some walls and clothing elements. These will be fixed as far as possible, but Miyazoe says they’re not a top priority. “If it’s far in the distance, we might just leave it,” he says. “If it’s very crucial to the gameplay, we will definitely fix it. The visuals have improved a lot from Dark Souls, and we want to capitalise on that.”

Die as a Hollow and you’ll lose a bit of your health bar – the studio’s solution to make human form more attractive.

Balancing is a concern, however. A new system revealed in the beta is that your health bar gets a boost when your blood messages are rated by other players, but the exact amount of energy needs to be finalised, as Tanimura feels it made the beta too easy. Then again, with 30,000 players in the same game location at the same time, it was probably an exceptional circumstance.

“The other thing is that in the last round of network testing we cranked up the difficulty of the enemies,” Miyazoe says. “Tanimura and I feel that [those harder enemies got] closer to the difficulty level that we want. But we’re still debating whether it’s too hard or too easy.”

No one wants Dark Souls II to be easy. The trial-by-fire nature of these adventures is what makes them memorable. Errors are greeted with death, and you quickly learn not to make the same mistake twice. But those systems could be better expressed. Short, clipped dialogue boxes did a terrible job of explaining things in past games, and this is an area that FromSoftware will address in the sequel – to a degree.

“We want players to try to figure it out,” Miyazoe says. “How to jump, how to roll or how to swing a weapon will be taught through the tutorial, but trying to experiment is what will remain for Dark Souls II. The UI will be more usable, but the concept of trying things for yourself and realising that you can do something new is part of the experience.

“If you think an item seems useful, try to use it. If it doesn’t work and there are very limited numbers…” Miyazoe pauses to deliver a smile filled with mischief. “Well, that’s a chance you took.”