The lights are on
How do you make the sequel to one of the most difficult modern games even harder? That’s the question From Software is answering with Dark Souls II, releasing next March. I played an hour of the punishing game during a pre-Tokyo Game Show event at Namco Bandai’s office in Shinagawa, Tokyo, Japan. New torturous tweaks to the game include the constant threat of player invasion and penalties to your maximum health.
The basics of the third-person action series remain firmly in place. Players battle through a grim world filled with ruthless enemies that want you dead. Killing them earns you souls, which are used to upgrade your stats and buy items. All your collected souls are on the line at any given point, and are dropped when you die. Players have to retrieve their cache of souls in order to bring them back to bonfire checkpoints, where they’re converted into the aforementioned upgrades. Dying while en route to your dropped souls makes your precious collection disappear – a potent slap in the face after grinding or making good progress.
I suit up as the soldier class. The beta demo offers me a handful of souls to spend on initial upgrades. I prioritize boosting my health, strength, and stamina. Stamina is consumed when attacking, blocking, and evading attacks, making it important to enhance. Pressing the select button on the PS3 controller brings up explanations of all the individual character stats, a basic but helpful addition to the sequel.
After spending my souls, I pass by a cackling old merchant lady to explore a cavern near the bonfire. A walking corpse emerges from the pitch black and starts wailing away. Combat still has a deliberate feel. Due to the lethality of every strike and limited stamina, timing and patience is key. Players still have the same basic abilities at their disposal (shield bash, light attack, heavy attack, etc.), but player movement and landing blows feels less clunky than the original Dark Souls. The first enemy crumples after a few attacks and I enter the cave.
Several blood messages are written on the cavern’s floor, indicating that I should bring a torch. Leaving messages for other players no longer requires an Orange Stone, and can be left at any time. From Software encourages players to leave helpful notes with a new system that replenishes a portion your health when someone rates your blood message highly. With no torch in sight, I feel my way through the absolute dark of the cave. Touching blood stains on the ground shows the ghosts of previous adventurers who fell off steep cliffs into the darkness. I attempt to avoid the drop, but I fall anyway. A trio of undead enemies attack from the dark, and I barely make it out of the scuffle alive. I open a nearby treasure chest and a cloud of noxious smoke envelopes my character as he begins coughing. I quickly loot the chest and start chugging healing potions from my flask. Unfortunately I succumb to the poison and die.
I resurrect at the bonfire as an undead soldier with all the gear I grabbed, but my precious souls are lost in the bottom of the pit. I equip the shiny new armor and use a consumable Human Effigy that restores my humanity. Unlike the first Dark Souls, there’s no benefit to staying undead. Pesky invasions by other players could be avoided in the original game by remaining undead. From Software is ending this strategy and applying a malicious penalty. Not only can enemy players invade undead players at any time, every consecutive death reduces their maximum health (eventually stopping at around 50%). The only way to regain your life is with a Human Effigy. Should you run out , you could end up in a dire situation as a handicapped undead with no hope in sight. Par for the course for the Dark Souls franchise.
From Software advises players to rely on using Soapstones to summon up to two random co-op friends to help them through tough spots in order to find more Human Effigies. Unlike the first Dark Souls, the sequel imposes a time limit on you buddies’ visits. The more enemies they kill, the faster the gauge depletes. The developer wants to ensure nobody is relying too heavily on the kindness of strangers throughout the staggeringly difficult game. Helping hands appear as blue warriors, and enemies as red.
I didn’t encounter any red invaders during my time with the game, but I still got my but kicked. After resurrecting at the bonfire, a Namco Bandai representative notes that players can now light torches at bonfires. I take his advice and pass through the caves with less trouble, though the torch is dropped and extinguished when I pull out my shield. Outside the cave I explore a dark building with a pit of enemies and an archer on the other side. I immediately retreat and write a blood message warning future players about the hidden sniper. After a harrowing battle in the dark and an ambush on a narrow ledge, I find another bonfire. Lighting up, upgrading stats, and journeying into new territory is just as satisfying as in the original. Only investing dozens of hours into the game will reveal how the big changes affect the overall experience, but so far Dark Souls II delivers the intoxicating allure of hard-won accomplishment.
My adventure ends with a battle against a pair of hulking enemies armed with sickles. A mix of light attacks and last-second dodges proves successful, and after some persistence the lumbering foes eventually fall. The dark, creepy forest path winds beyond these enemies, but I’ll have to wait until Dark Souls II releases on March 11, 2014 for PS3 and 360 (PC coming shortly afterwards) to find out where it leads. One thing is for certain: From Software will make sure I die when I get there.