Dark Souls II Hands-On Preview


It’s still a bit hard…

Let’s make this clear from the off. I make no bones about the fact that I am one of those truly insufferable Dark Souls evangelicals, who given the slightest hint of a keen ear will bore it clean off with ramblings of how it’s the best game in goodness knows how long. There are few things in this world that can awaken me at 7am on a Sunday, or make me excited about the prospect of travelling across our fair capital to queue up amongst the great unwashed, but in the name of seeing what’s next for From Software’s finest, these incredulous tasks were achieved (the network stress test and MCM’s hosting of the TGS demo respectively). As such, presented with another opportunity to see another early snapshot of Dark Souls II prior to its launch next month, I jumped at the chance.

Having been assured that this is the opening of the game as it will remain in its finished form, let’s start at the beginning, shall we? Snippets of the slick opening cinematic have already appeared in trailers, and focus on introducing ‘the curse’ – or more specifically, the grim fate of those who succumb to it. Setting the scene figuratively before dropping you right into an equally dark and lonesome area, the game begins. After finding your bearings and bumbling through a few small passages, you encounter a room full of characters – characters who do more talking than you might’ve experienced in many hours worth of time with the game’s predecessor. It’s only at this point does the game allow you to shape and tune your avatar, and whilst the options themselves are familiar enough, the manner in which this all of this happens is instantly many leagues more cinematic than the clinical approach taken by its predecessor. That’s not to say that it doesn’t feel familiar – it still looks, feels, and plays like Dark Souls – just perhaps a bit more self-aware, and with the kind of visual improvements here and there that you’d expect for a game that’s now very much at the forefront of peoples’ minds.

What is immediately obvious too is that the game is still more than willing to let you progress without any overt sign-posting of what is and what isn’t appropriate. My earliest death was a direct result of over-curiosity, and within what must have only been the first minute of taking the reigns. It wasn’t long afterwards that an entire series of deaths ensued at the hands of another entirely optional foe, who bested my finest combat moves and eventually my resolve with repeated demonstrations of brute force. Even in the presumably straightforward task of collecting the Estus Flask, the single-most essential addition to any adventurer’s inventory, I’d managed to unintentionally bypass this essential moment for almost two hours, before having to ask another attendee to the event – tail firmly between my legs – where he’d found it. In the volume of branching paths you’re presented with, exploration is unlikely to ever feel too pre-determined either – and whilst bonfires still serve as checkpoints between areas, their utility has been further increased, with the ability to teleport between them available from the very beginning.

Areas themselves are still meticulously considered in their design; Majula, as a new, coastal base of operations is a surprisingly picturesque and habitable place. Far less claustrophobic than the Nexus, and far vaster than Firelink Shrine before it, it’s a boldly warm location for the game, and yet talking to its residents does still underline the air of solitude and despair that the game constantly impresses upon its players. The Forest of the Fallen Giants is a bright and leafy den that weaves in and out of a grand battlement – impressive to behold, and yet plagued with undead behind unknowing corners and outcrops throughout. Heide’s Tower of Flame is home to a breathtaking vista, yet its elevated walkways are punctuated with an array of stone knights some ten feet tall, and equally colossal in their lumbering attempts to pound, gouge, and slash at you. Taking flight of foot seems sensible, yet narrow paths and unprotected ledges mean that the terminally clumsy may want to instead proceed with a little more caution, and perhaps provoke their foes to an untimely fall in their place. There were of course bosses in each of these too – bosses that you’d rather I not pore over in too much detail, to avoid spoiling the surprise, but that I’d still assure you can pose plenty of danger.

If as a fan of the series you weren’t yet convinced that Dark Souls II was strictly necessary, these first few moments of the game do an excellent job of allaying any concerns. As my time closed out, and as adrenaline levels came back down with the tension slipping away, excited conversation sparked up in its place, with the stories being shared already highlighting the same breadth of experiences that harken back to your first time in Lordran. The team responsible may be down one Miyazaki as series director, and may not have done anything too revolutionary with his mould, but it would seem they’ve reshaped it bravely, and with the respect it deserves to create a new game that feels fresh, original, and exciting all over again. I can’t wait for March.

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