Dark Souls II may not be a next-gen release, but it remains one of the most anticipated games this year and Namco's biggest offering at E3. FromSoftware flipped the industry upside down back in 2009 when they introduced us to Demon's Souls and taught us the true meaning of death. Virtual death, anyway. From there, we saw Dark Souls, the wildly successful follow-up that expanded the series to beyond PlayStation.
Prior to E3, we were able to get our hands on the upcoming Dark Souls II and experience, once again, the soul-crushing feeling of defeat. Sort of. FromSoftware was kind enough to at least activate God Mode for us, so that we might never die. Except on the inside.
During our time with the game, I played as that armored fellow shown in the announcement trailer, and faced down against several bosses intent on killing me.
Survive or Die Trying
At a glance, Dark Souls II is very much like its predecessor both in visual style and gameplay. The world is vast and its enemies frightening, while magic swords surrounded by fire are your only true sanctuary. Thank goodness for bonfires. The HUD remains largely unchanged in the version I was able to play, but the Humanity icon has been replaced with one of a sun and a moon. I can't say for certain whether this means Humanity has been completely replaced (Doubtful!), that the icon is simply a placeholder, or we're seeing an entirely new feature implemented. Time will tell.
Light and darkness are, of course, a big part of Dark Souls II. This mechanic is so integral when it comes to setting a proper atmosphere, while also forcing players to make that hard decision between wielding a shield or being able to see where they're going. After all, one is born with only two hands. Sacrifices must be made.
Think you can get away with running around in the dark? Think again. Certain areas in the world are practically pitch black that you really can't see anything without some sort of illumination. That's where your trusty torch comes in handy.
Not that the fire does much against the bad guys. During the course of my preview playtime, I ran into four bosses. Well, more like three pseudo-bosses and one scary mofo. The first two were variations of a single enemy: a turtle monster wielding a massive hammer. Not surprisingly, he was impervious to direct attacks, and could only take damage when he was knocked over onto his back.
The third was a lich-like being who stood at the very end of a long corridor lined with statues of knights. Yeah, like those aren't totally going to come to life and attack me all at once. Turns out, they did. Combat is as you might remember it to be in Dark Souls, where attacks and dodging eat up Stamina, forcing the player to really consider their approach to every situation with more careful consideration. No, you're not allowed to run and hack away until your foe falls. More likely you'll try that, then end up without any means of escape or proper damage, then get murdered by additional mobs (like these knights).
On the bright side, Dark Souls II does allow you to keep three right-hand weapons handy now, having expanded the slot count from two in the last game. Similarly, left-hand slots might be raised from one to two.
As always, what weapons you choose to equip are an important part of any combat situation, though there are definitely those moments where you wonder if it might be better to just lay down and die. The final boss that awaited me at the end of this demo was, as we called him, a massive Mirror Knight. Why "Mirror"? Because he had a shield with souls trapped inside -- souls that would periodically escape to make your life further hell. And while you're trying not to get hit by the adds, the boss would fire out lightning across the area, and his attacks were so difficult to dodge that I shudder to think how many times I would have died here without God Mode enabled.
I couldn't give you an actual verdict on Dark Souls II just after spending 30 minutes with an early build. But from what I experienced, the game seems to bring with it much of what made the first so popular. The visuals are fantastic, consistent with the Dark Souls style, and the combat is no less punishing. A part of me certainly dreads having to re-experience all of that as a mere mortal, but hey, that's part of Dark Souls' charm, isn't it?
Dark Souls II will be out March 2014 for Xbox 360, PS3, and PC.
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