E3 2013: Dark Souls II – hands-on impressions and new details on FromSoftware’s sequel

We rather set the world on fire when we revealed that FromSoftware wanted Dark Souls II to be more accessible than its predecessor. So we shrink into our seat when Brian Hong, director of strategic and digital marketing for Namco Bandai US, references it. He admits there have been “incremental improvements to make the game experience better” but insists there is “no easy mode, no invincible mode.” He points out that no-one has defeated the new demo’s boss, the Mirror Knight, all day. Not even Matt Warner, the QA lead playing it for the press, has managed it.

And when we later pick up a DualShock and try it for ourselves, Hong’s claim seems vindicated. We die a lot, of course, even to the most basic of foes. Improved AI animation means enemies now launch straight into multi-hit combos of their own that do a lot of damage. One of the Mirror Knight’s combo enders is a thrust designed to catch you as you backroll to safety. They backstep now. Some kick to break your guard. They don’t dumbly commit themselves while you sit there with your shield up. A backstab isn’t necessarily a done deal; it’s now a multi-hit attack that begins with a quick whack to your foe’s shoulder, and if that attack misses, the backstab will too. Dark Souls II’s new engine also does away with the first game’s canned animations: if you’re surrounded by a group, you can’t game the animation system and buy yourself time with the invincibility frames of a backstab or riposte.

Combat itself is more fluid now. Health and stamina bars are seemingly maxed out for the purposes of the demo but we’re able to do lengthy combos of light attacks that are far more natural-looking than Dark Souls’ rigid strings.The game’s core rhythm – aggro the enemies one by one (“try luring it out”), watching their movements, creating an opening and moving in – remains, and is as delightful as ever.

Other little tweaks emerge. You can carry three weapons instead of two, with one of the demo’s character builds carrying a Halberd for big damage, an axe for speed and a catalyst for sorceries. You can dual wield weapons now, and shields too.  You carry a torch which you light using lanterns dotted about the place to let you see in darkness – at the expense of your shield. We use it to ignite some explosive barrels, that destroyed a wall, that revealed a bonfire.

There is much here to like. There is an awful lot that reassures us this is still Dark Souls. And yet we have concerns.

You can warp between bonfires from the very beginning of the game – as long as you’ve already visited them, of course. Dark Souls kept this ability from you until a good way through the game, until you had learnt area after area like the back of your hand. Even then it limited those you could warp to a relative handful. We worry that letting us move freely from one bonfire to the next will mean we feel less connected to Dark Souls II’s world than we did to its predecessor’s.

That desire for accessibility means that Dark Souls’ character creation system, which was admittedly baffling on first playthrough, has been replaced by what Hong says will ask you to define “parameters and preferences about the way you want to play the game.” It will then present you with a number of choices for a starting build. The four available here – Warrior, Sorcerer, Temple Knight and Dual Swordsman – serve only to streamline this particular demo, and won’t necessarily be in the final game. The reasons for this are clear, and understandable – and you’ll still be able to switch class completely as you progress through the game – but it does rather pull the game away from its D&D roots.

In the sequel’s most worrying deviation, FromSoftware appears to have overhauled the health management system to reduce difficulty. In the demo a single, non-upgraded Estus flask refills our health bar completely, even when we’re down to the last pixel. We hope that’s another concession made solely for demo purposes. Perhaps most distressing of all is the Lifegem, a storable, usable healing item dropped by fallen enemies. If it’s a drop, can you buy it, too? We’ll go back and ask.

Yet these concerns aside, this is still clearly Dark Souls at heart. Healing items may be plentiful but when the first enemy we encounter takes off three quarters of our life bar with a single combo, those doubts start to fade. It’s beautiful, too, the new engine making the previous game look positively last-gen – and the framerate held stable. With a March 2014 release date now set, FromSoftware has nine months to tinker with balance, and history suggests it knows exactly what it’s doing.

sssss