An intentionality of design has long been a hallmark of the Dark Souls series. Every environment and structure feels purpose-built. Enemies are painstakingly arranged, like chess pieces on a board, always perched on their original mark when you respawn after death. Discoverable items are frequently placed in specific locations based on opaque lore considerations.
This deliberate approach to design makes scrutinising a Dark Souls II demo that much more enjoyable. You can begin with the assumption that every part of the demo exists for a reason, to communicate some specific aesthetic or gameplay ideal, and quickly get on with the business of puzzling out what those purposes might be.
One of the themes telegraphed throughout what we’ve played of Dark Souls II is that it aspires to be far more of a prankster than either of its predecessors. Nearly every single frame features a booby trap or gotcha of some description. The benign-looking corpse that climbs to its feet when you approach appears so many times over the course of the demo that it risks becoming a cliché.
The hulking frame of a foe called the Turtle Knight tempts you into circle-strafing him to attack his posterior – surely he’ll be sluggish in spinning around to deflect your attack? – only to surprise you by flopping backwards onto his shell, crushing you flat. In the same vein, a number of the statues lining the bridge connecting the final bonfire and the Mirror Knight boss will lurch to their feet and attack, unless you can preemptively smash their heads off before they come to life.
“Gimmicks such as these are important elements and characteristics to the Dark Souls series,” Dark Souls II co-director Yui Tanimura tells us, “and are something we prioritise for Dark Souls II as well. We feel it is important to enjoy the variety of deaths one faces and we want to emphasise this throughout the game.”
It’s a fascinating reversal, this notion of death morphing from fail state to a kind of fan service, like jump scares in a teen-horror flick. But the variety of deaths in Dark Souls II doesn’t just comprise the obvious snares mentioned earlier. Over the course of several playthroughs, we found enemy movesets to be noticeably broader than previous games where each opponent might have a total of three distinct attacks. This wider arsenal can easily knock you off balance.
Just when you think you’ve mentally catalogued an enemy’s entire set of potential attacks, they produce yet another – and almost always at the most inopportune moment. This means the number of combat variables players must keep in their heads increases exponentially. The kilted demon statues preceding the Mirror Knight are a prime example: after wrongly assuming we’d seen all they had to offer, one unleashed a close-quarters roundhouse kick that left us vulnerable to his colleagues’ finishing blows.
In the interest of fairness, players now have additional tools at their disposal. The Temple Knight class has an additional weapon slot, bringing the total to three, which allowed us to alternate between a halberd, an axe and a magic catalyst that resembled a bell. And a new class of items called Lifegems will rapidly restore health for several seconds, and are only partially interrupted if you sustain damage midway through the replenishment.
The usefulness of lock-on targeting with enemies has been nullified in the case of select weapons. We were surprised to find that the swing of the Warrior’s enormous two-handed blade depended on the direction in which we pressed the left analogue stick, regardless of existing lock-on reticules that happened to be active. If this is indicative of a more sweeping revision, certain powerful weapons will also take more precise player guidance to wield effectively.
In the room following the mid-demo bonfire warp, we discover an image of a tree, with its root system exposed, carved into the wall. When we ask Tanimura to elaborate on its significance to Dark Souls II’s intricacies, he confirms that the image is “important to the lore of the game” but that the development team isn’t prepared to reveal anything further at this time. How very Dark Souls.
When asked if the relatively short distance between the bonfire and the Mirror Knight boss fight was a concession made expressly for the demo, or indicative of a conscious effort to cut back on the dead air resulting from gruelling treks back to retry boss fights in Dark Souls, Tanimura whips out a serrated Jagged Ghost Blade from behind his back and slices off our tightly crossed fingers. “This was specially tuned specifically for the playable build,” he says.
“For the final retail version, this will depend on the concept of the individual level designs. For example, it may be a long distance to the boss but shortcuts may help the journey, or if one is able to find a hidden bonfire, the distance may shorten but the enemies may be extremely strong. These are not final decisions – but again, it will depend on the concepts of the level designs.”
By the time you read this the Dark Souls II network test beta will be underway, placing participants in a wooded location called Huntsman’s Copse. New details from September’s Tokyo Game Show reveal that it will contain six pre-built characters: Warrior, Soldier, Sorcerer, Temple Knight, Dual Swordsman and Hunter. Your chosen starting character class in Dark Souls was a fairly meaningless distinction given the game’s wide-open levelling flexibility, and From has no plans to change course in the sequel. “We feel that binding players to a character class chosen at the beginning takes away from the freedom of gameplay and goes against our game creation concepts,” Tanimura says.
Another key change involves the lack of immunity to having your game world invaded by other players when in a hollow (undead) state. In Dark Souls, players could avoid intrusion by other players by simply not restoring their human form at bonfires. No longer: if the idea of another player bursting into your world and hunting you down like a piece of quarry makes you squeamish, you’d best be prepared to sever your Ethernet cable. With Dark Souls II moving to dedicated servers, it’s as if From simply wants to showcase the seamlessness of its improved online experience – whether you want it showcased to you or not.
In case you were still concerned about everything in this sequel being streamlined to eliminate friction, it’s clear the game still wants to make you mutter and curse and fume – just like the bad old days that Souls players love pining after. For those keeping score at home, Tanimura says the team is “approximately 70 per cent complete in the development process”. Not long to go now.