Eurogamer Expo 2013: Dark Souls 2 hands-on
Two years ago, when the original Dark Souls was being showcased at Eurogamer Expo, it was one of the few games that you could stroll up to and play without having to shuffle at the pace of a snail through a cordoned off maze. From Software’s Demon’s Souls had accrued a modest cult following, but its spiritual sequel was still flying low on most people’s radars. Fast forward to today, however, and appreciation for all things Souls has reached critical mass.
This year, waiting in line for Dark Souls 2, I witnessed the full extent of the franchise’s new found popularity. In front of me stood a man with a bonfire tattoo on his upper arm, more than happy to show me his ink and wax enthusiastically about his adoration of the series. There was a Namco Bandai employed cosplayer, fully kitted out in the Warrior class’ animal pelt and iron armour, stalking the booth and its surrounding areas. And a stretch of patient fans coiled around the display arena and its sixteen screens, some of them having waited for two hours, all of them eager to see if From’s first numbered sequel in the series could still serve them that mysteriously addictive brand of punishing gothic fantasy. The answer, deduced from a survey of those patient fans, was emphatic: yes, yes it does.
The twenty minute slice of Dark Souls 2 being showcased at Eurogamer Expo 2013 was the same as that shown at E3 earlier this year. There were four pre-defined characters to choose from – Temple Knight, Warrior, Sorcerer and Dual Swordsman – and a crumbling, grassy castle to explore, with a gauntlet of tricks, traps and treacherous inhabitants. I chose The Warrior, partly because the Great Sword was one of my preferred weapon types in Dark Souls, and partly because I overheard a fellow queuer suggesting that this was the only class capable of defeating the Mirror Knight – the shiny, white-gold armour clad boss who awaited at the end of the demo.
The Warrior felt like a classic heavy Dark Souls build – slow and graceless, but with strong attacking power to make up for a lack of agility. In this case my character wielded a humongous Great Sword that could inflict a significant amount of damage, and wore the fur lined armour that the protagonist has worn in much of the promotional material released for the game so far. Playing as The Warrior felt just like playing as any Dark Souls character carrying over half their maximum weight budget, albeit one with presumably maxed out stats for the purposes of this demo. Dodge rolls were slow, as was swinging the Great Sword, but there was a nice sense of physical weight and momentum to movement and actions.
Awakening at a Bonfire in a moss-covered room, I first descended a ladder into the bowels of a white stone castle where some low-level undead lay in wait. These were the typical Firelink Shrine-style grunts: harmless by themselves, but deadly in a group as they had a tendency to erupt into wild fits of slashing, which, if unblocked, would prove deadly.
Passing them I came to the head of a pitch black stair case with a fire blazing in a raised dish nearby. To descend into this darkness with any hope of survival I soon learned that I needed to light a torch in that fire and carry it in my left hand, forsaking the comfort of a shield for the luxury of illumination, which is a trade-off that felt distinctly Dark Souls-like in its fiendishness when you consider what awaited below.
At the bottom of this descent, a few strides outside of my crackling torch-lit sphere, awaited a huge turtle-like monster, clad in silver armour and brandishing a huge mace. This chunky aggressor wasn’t the fastest of opponents, but his stature belie a surprising amount of agility, which caught me off guard without a shield to protect myself.
Improvements to enemy AI were the first noticeable difference on show in how Dark Souls 2 plays. Most Dark Souls opponents were highly predictable. They had a limited number of moves and an obvious string of behaviours that could be mastered and manipulated. Whilst it seems that the same is still true of Dark Souls 2, there are definite changes in how enemies react to your actions. When I took the time to heal, for example, I was rushed by two gangly limbed aggressors. When I circled around the huge tortoise-like beast, he flung himself backwards in an attempt to crush me. And succeeded, in this case.
Returning to its shadowy lair, I finally bested the metal monster and found an exit to the dark castle. Here I came to an outside area where a grass covered bridge lead to another building with a thin ledge running along its side. Trying to open the door to that building I was interrupted by a monster on the other side, who incongruously smashed it and myself down to the ground.
Making my way back to this area I decided to attempt the thin passage instead, knowing what awaited on the other side of that seemingly innocuous door. Little did I know that at the end of the passage awaited an archer, as he remained outside of my field of vision when I first entered the scene. The camera, instead, directed me towards a clearly visible soldier directly opposing me as I entered. Approaching this soldier on the ledge, I was surprised to receive a quarrel in my back, which, on this precipitous path, led to a headless chicken-style sprint away from danger.
After a few more deaths I managed to proceed past this point to an indoor area that I mistook for a sanctuary. Here I took a short rest to investigate the newly designed inventory screen, but through the transparent background of the item menu I noticed three glowing red figures appear as if from nowhere at the other end of the room. Fumbling the circle button on the DualShock I recognised the spherical stature of the middle figure lumbering towards me – it was the silver turtle. Panic stricken I made a dash around them as they all struck at me in unison and found a bonfire hidden behind a collapsing wall, which felt like a godsend considering my dire circumstance. It blossomed with the usual orange glow and a new puff of white pink petals and transported me to a long thin Cathedral area, the second, smaller location of the demo.
At the far end of this cathedral stood a dark sorcerer, and in between knelt a series of ornate, spear wielding statues, some of which animated and pursued me once I passed them. Behind them awaited a fog covered archway, which, from my time observing other players in the queue, I knew concealed the Mirror Knight, so with this in mind, and taking into account the few minutes that I had left to play, I took my chances and attempted to sprint past these foes – a viable and oftentimes essential tactic in Dark Souls. Surprisingly enough, I was successful.
Spending two hours queuing for the game had given me plenty of time to watch other people face the Mirror Knight, so when I did eventually make it to him, I had my strategy planned out. I would sprint away from his deadly lightning based attacks, weaken the black phantom sidekick that he can summon from his shield, and only approach for a strike once he’d planted his gargantuan great sword into the ground with a misplaced blow.
It was with a certain amount of unearned confidence then that I traversed the fog to reach the gleaming warrior’s arena. What I wasn’t expecting was that he would rush me as soon as I entered, leap ten feet in the air and descend with a brutal strike that flattened my figure and removed all but a pixel-thin sliver of red from my health bar.
As I strafed around the ornery giant, waiting for a window of respite in which I could heal myself, the second immediately obvious change in how Dark Souls 2 plays presented itself. Using an item no longer locks your feet to the ground, but instead you’re now allowed to move slowly whilst consuming herbs, healing gems and other items, which will no doubt become an important factor in dodging the games’ newly astute enemies.
Healing using the Estus Flask also doesn’t instantly revive a chunk of your health – your red life bar now refills gradually over the course of a few seconds, which isn’t helpful when you’re being relentlessly pursued by a twelve foot statue with a ten foot sword. It does, however, regain your health at a faster rate than the abundant supply of healing gems that I carried around. These restorative stones are a new addition to the series, and replenish your health meter even slower than the Estus Flask now does. You need some clear space between you and an assailant to use one effectively – one thing the Mirror Knight never allowed me – but if you’re struck during the healing process, you still continue to recover the gem’s set amount of health points.
From that embarrassingly unimpressive beginning to the fight I never truly regained my composure. Any attempt I made to heal myself was quickly thwarted by the Mirror Knight’s summoned Dark Phantom ally, whom I had failed to weaken because I was messing up my inventory in the newly dense menu screen, which looks like a vast improvement over the endless lists of Dark and Demon’s Souls. And with a lightning fuelled swish of his blade, it was over.
Dark Souls was a brutal game, one that punished your every mistake, but it was rarely unfair. Its rules and systems were all tangible, often buried behind a translucent, fettered exterior and a quagmire of statistics, admittedly, but they were learnable given time and experimentation. And once you understood them, safe progression became about mastering the rhythm of combat, making sure that you spent as much time protecting yourself as you did cutting swaths through the hordes of undead. It rewarded your patience and skill where so many other modern videogames do not require it.
From the demo on show it certainly looks like Dark Souls 2 will be as rewardingly obstinate as Dark Souls, if not more so. Tomohiro Shibuya, one of the franchise’s new directors, may have said that he wants Dark Souls 2 to be more “accessible” than its predecessor in an early interview with EDGE, but from my time with the game it doesn’t appear that he meant easier.
Playing Dark Souls 2 felt distinctly like playing a version of Dark Souls that has been fine-tuned. The soul of the experience is still there, only some of the finer details have changed. Whether that adherence to the original’s template is a good or bad thing depends on what you thought of the first two games. Myself? I loved every sanguineous, death fuelled minute of it, because that mysteriously addictive brand of punishing gothic fantasy that has accrued the franchise such a passionate following – that’s still there.