I spent a good portion of the morning battling my way through hordes of unyielding, malevolent beings hell-bent on my destruction. Once I’d got through London though I arrived at BandaiNamcoUK’s office near Hammersmith for a 3 hour hands-on with an almost finished PS3 copy of Dark Souls 2.
I’ve got what I call a love-hate relationship with the first Dark Souls. I love the environment and the feel of the game, though I at times found the game to be far too unforgiving and wilfully obtuse. That said, it still wormed it’s way into my affection so I was quite excited at my chance for some hands-on time with the sequel.
There has been teacup-sized storm surrounding some of the initial information around this game: specifically the apparent ‘dumbing down’ to appeal to newer players. From my play-time I can say that the fears, for me at least, are unfounded. I died 15 times during my hands-on time, (though one was on purpose to see if you could fall into the pit surrounding the starting area; you can) and that was despite me playing quite cautiously.
After an initial (beautiful) cut-scene you’re dropped, rather unceremoniously, onto a sort of altar-cum-plinth with no weapons, items or clue what to do first. This encourages you to explore and while I didn’t encounter anything in that opening area that could kill me, a scream from a fellow journalist nearby informed me that there were in fact nasties out there that I should be worried about. Within a minute I stumbled across a hut that’s lit up like a beacon in the dark and moody environment I’d first found myself. It’s in here that you meet a haggle of older women and are given your first taste of character customisation. After picking a name and a gender/class you’re let loose into the world to fend for yourself.
There was a decent range of classes to chose from, initially I went for a knight; simply for the reason that it was the only class that started with a shield, and this being Dark Souls I knew I’d need one. In a later play through I opted for a bandit who wields an axe and bow, which actually suited my play style much more. The person sat next to me though played as a ranged mage; so there should be a style that’ll work for most people.
The new game keeps the bonfire checkpointing system seen in previous games and it’s here that you can refill your Estus flask (a Dark Souls staple) and perform other task such as use covenants (summoning and PVP enabling items), use spells and sort your gear. Additional to the Estus flask (and one of the contentious additions) are the life gems; these are collected off fallen foes or simply by finding them within the environment. As far as I could divine they work exactly the same as the Estsus flask, though perhaps restoring less health. They’re reasonably common, as at one point in my play through I had 15 of them, and while they’re not exactly a ‘win’ button, they do take the edge off a lot of the battles- assuming you can find breathing space to use them. Though as I was midway through one of my more successful lives, they could in fact be quite a nice reward for longevity. I’d need more time with the game to decide on that one.
One of the first main areas you encounter, Majula, is a decrepit village on the edge of a cliff occupying some castle-ruins and a rather deep pit. The first time you enter this area you’re moving from dark tunnels and underground layers onto windswept, sunny countryside. It’s to the credit of the art direction that this shift in local doesn’t jar and despite the beauty, is just as bleak and unforgiving as you’d expect.
Here you’ll find a number of NPC’s, including a real-gem that I won’t spoil, and you’re able to buy items should you have the available souls. There is also a monument to keep track of your world’s-kills (i.e. your death count). I will avoid going into any more details that you might want to discover for yourself, but there might be some minor spoilers to follow.
I encountered a variety of enemies, ranging from undead ‘people’ and emaciated skeletons to giant ogres and brutes with massive swords. Even the lowest type of enemy is quite capable of killing you (I died twice to a tiny pig. No kidding). The different weapons and attacks the enemies possess will force you to think on your feet and react quickly to any perceived attack. In fact I found two that actually feint, they spool up what looks like their main ‘big’ attack only to sidestep and get you as you lunge.
On top of these oh-so deadly ‘normal’ enemies there are also quite regular ‘mini’ bosses scattered around who will cause you real trouble and on top of those you have the actual bosses – massive, terrifying and exceptionally difficult to defeat monstrosities. I only made it to one, and died three times before, conscious of time, I had to gave up and explore elsewhere.
The combat itself, on the whole, is good. I didn’t miss the auto-face in the locking mechanism, I think it actually gives you more freedom once you’re used to it and the blows certainly feel kinetic. If I had one criticism here it would be the recovery timings of the enemies seems off. This is especially noticeable with your heavy attacks with the enemies sometimes recovering and countering within a fraction of a second. This is despite landing a two-handed blow across their forehead. In contrast, some enemies are temporarily exhausted following a heavy attack of their own. This seems slightly off-kilter and can mean you think you’ve got more time to react than you actually have.
The biggest thing you’ll be minding through combat is your stamina. It runs out quickly and if you do run out in the middle of a fight, you’re in trouble. This encourages evasion and as a consequence you’re far less likely to run into battles head first, increasing your chances of survival considerably.
The game’s as fiendish as ever and the level (designers) AND the AI seem to like laying traps for you. At least in the ones I encountered you had some sort of warning, if you were close paying attention, but that doesn’t make them any easier to cope with. The slight warning though does remove a large part of the ‘unfair’ feeling from the game though. I also encountered a number of puzzles and obstacles that I had no idea how to get past. A promising sign.
One aspect of the game that is still a big question is the multiplayer, given we weren’t able to play it. Here’s hoping it has received the same polish the rest of the game has.
Finally, there are secrets abound. I found precisely one, but after our time was up we all sat around for five minutes discussing what we did and didn’t find and without exception we’d all found something different and further, had no idea how the hell the others had found what they did. This too, is promising.
I only got to play for just under three hours, so obviously my experiences are limited to the first portions of the game, but I think I came away with a good feel for the title as a whole assuming this is a representative slice. After I’d acclimatised to the game, which to be brutally honest took over an hour, I found I came to relish every challenge and set back. I was engrossed in the world more than I would expect of such a title and more importantly, and perhaps surprisingly for me, I never really felt frustrated. This is the key thing for me, if Dark Souls 2 can effectively sit there and punch me in the spuds for three hours and I’m still wanting to go back for more (where in the original I’d have long quit) then I think we may have something good here. The tinkering that they’ve done has maintained the spirit and core experience of the game while enhancing the less favourable aspects.
All in all it was a very enjoyable three hours and I can’t wait to get my hands on the review copy…
Jon was invited to BandaiNamco’s UK headquarters for this hands-on. Jon paid for his own travel expenses.