The best way to experience Dark Souls 2 is to play it from scratch, completely blind to what is coming in terms of level design and challenges; for this reason, this preview will comprise two clearly defined sections. The first will focus on those details which do not relate to exact game events, instead highlighting those mechanical changes that set it apart from its predecessor. The second will be a series of reflections on the gameplay experienced during the three-hour preview session I was a part of, going into more detail about the exact progression of levels and aesthetic.
Section One – Mechanics and Design of Dark Souls 2
Although the build of DS2 I played had no multiplayer function built in, it contained much of the single-player framework – levelling up, navigating the world and exploring. Claims that the game would be made more “accessible” in the negative sense – compromising the depth of exploration and difficult that defines the Souls series – are quantifiably false; mechanically, in single-player terms, the game is no different mechanically to its predecessors. The same structures of a hub from which levels extend out feature, with the same respawning enemy and bonfire-based gameplay encouraging experimentation and repetition to master the challenges each level presents. Similarly, more advanced levels than the player is properly prepared for may be attempted to gain higher levels of experience and better items – one thing that the Souls games are renowned for is this emphasis on player skill as the gating mechanism rather than impassible barriers until enough progress has been made. In a nod more to Demon’s Souls, a fast-travel system is introduced; at certain points in a level, the player may use a bonfire to return home and spend experience – which may now only be spent in the hub area.
What was present within the initial levels was a sense of how the multiplayer functionality will be more strongly emphasised – yet also more controlled – than in previous games. Items and covenants facilitating invasion and protecting against them are available from a very early point, and can even be taken at character creation as a starting bonus.These add new options; one turns in-level enemies against an invader, to allow the player a chance to escape. That said, without the opportunity to test this function – and without knowledge of how NPC “Black Phantoms” will interact with the player – little more can be said about what will be involved. Another new item type allows some control of the difficulty – the Bonfire Ascetic claims, with a number of warnings, to irreversibly increase the difficulty of a particular area, both adding variety for a second run through the game and also making returning to old areas a new challenge. The largest change, however, is in the death process: this now works subtly differently. Restoring to human form refills the player’s health bar to its full capacity; each subsequent death removes a section from it until it is back to half length, where it will remain until another human effigy is used to restore humanity. At the same time, continued deaths lead to subtle changes in the level layout and enemy positioning, adding some uncertainty and occasionally an easier challenge.
Generally, Dark Souls 2 has seen a subtle increase in challenge; enemies are not specifically tougher, but instead fight more intelligently. It is easy to, when presented with the Hollowed Soldiers of early levels that evoke those of 1-1 in Demon’s Souls or the skeletons of the Undead Burg in Dark Souls, become overconfident and thus die. Enemies in general attack less predictably; this is not to say the pattern-recognition based game design and capacity to learn the game’s systems is not there, but instead that enemies have a wider range of patterns to learn and generally leave fewer openings to exploit. Similarly, ranged enemies will switch to melee attacks when up close – but also have sufficient programmed AI to not chase the player in order to use weaker attacks, instead holding back when necessary. This is a significant improvement in some ways on past Souls games – as a complete entity the AI works to create an interesting and varied challenge, yet one that does not feel random. There are many mini-bosses and unique enemies to find, and the same surprising yet avoidable special attacks as in previous games still exist.
Section Two – The Initial Levels of Dark Souls 2
To complement the above description of the core mechanics of the game this section will include information about the various levels encountered during the preview, and more specific game details. The preview comprised an incomplete build of the initial section of the game, apparently finished up to the end of the level Forest of Fallen Giants. During the three hours I played the game, I failed to reach the end of the content available to see.
Section 1 – Prologue: The prologue level, much like in other Souls games, provided an introduction to the controls and mechanics. The player was permitted a little time to explore their surroundings and get used to the usual “traps” of a Souls game such as apparently unbeatable enemies and chasms to fall down, before beginning character creation and class selection. I spent a significant amount of time attempting to beat a cyclops found at the top of a side-passage, and failed. What this enemy did provide, however, was a good example of how Souls works – the player saw a side-passage hidden slightly behind foliage, and was rewarded for exploring. On entering, footprints could be seen on the slope – if the player had not visited the witches’ hut and received a weapon, this would have then served as a hint to turn back. A detail such as giant-sized footprints implies, in Souls logic, a giant at the end of the path and indeed, following the path led to the cyclops. It was a fairly straightforward pattern-based miniboss, with a number of different telegraphed combos to dodge, and with enough practice it could probably be beaten at the start of the game. The fight also introduced the idea that some enemies can “break the rules” – if the cyclops grabbed the player, it would eat them for an instant kill.
After receiving items and weapons, the player was offered a number of other tutorials, including an introduction to the cyclops if they had not found the first one, and some souls and basic items to set them on their way. This area was designed as if at some point the player would return; a boat guarded by cyclopes seemed to suggest there was more that could not be easily reached with an inexperienced character. From here, the player went to:
Section 2 – Hub area: Entering the hub area immediately sets Dark Souls 2 apart from its predecessors. While Firelink Shrine was windswept and bleak, overlooking a haunted castle and graveyard, and the hub area of Demon’s Souls was a gothic-looking temple, the hub for Souls 2 is a beautiful clifftop village. Crucially it is well-lit; abundant natural light is something missing from some levels of the Souls games as they seek moody interior atmospheres or cold, abandoned ruins. The hub of Souls 2 is instead in a kind of permanent golden sunset, with ruined cathedrals and primitive wood-and-stone huts set together in the kind of vistas seen in Skyrim or Dragon’s Dogma. It is no less bleak – the town is clearly ruined and contains a number of dangerous surprises – but it is a very different kind of majestic aesthetic to Firelink Shrine. Such a small detail – a daylit, golden vista rather than greyness – sounds minor but is a real asset to Souls 2 – it not only sets it apart from other games in the series but shows that a scene can be traditionally beautiful and still unsettling and isolated.
In the hub area, the player finds basic shops, some quests to begin and the NPC responsible for levelling up – as well as Souls 2‘s greatest detail for gameplay purposes, the memorial. Checking the inscription provides a running tally of deaths in a game based around difficulty, which is highly amusing. As with the prologue area, there are mysteries to work on – a soldier talks about a statue of a panicking woman that may or may not come to life, there is a deep pit filled with items that seems to invite death and a locked hall. From here, there are two options – heading underground into a stone sewer leads to the Tower of Flame, while following a mountain-path down under the memorial leads to the Forest of Fallen Giants. I chose the former route first.
Section 3 – Tower of Flame: If the hub was a major aesthetic departure from what may have been expected, the Tower of Flame is even more so. Travelling through the sewer leads out to a spectacular area that looks among the most impressive in a Souls game. The Tower is a huge Greek-esque observatory with an almost industrial tone, suggesting perhaps a development of the traps of Sen’s Fortress in Souls 1. The high walkways above waterfalls and massive statues of knights evoke the depictions of Asgard in Thor or the elf-cities of The Hobbit, while the level is populated with almost-mechanical knights, huge metal giants that patrol the bridges and towers. One of the defining features of Souls games is the immersion and the aesthetic shock of new areas – the Tower of Flame is a real surprise to enter not least because it, like the hub, is brightly lit. It is clean and new, and yet still unnerving because of how mechanical and lifeless it is. The horror of autonomy is something the Souls games have not really touched on – Sen’s Fortress, for all its traps, still had snake-men and lightning demons as much as its Iron Golem. Although progression through the level was possible, it was exceptionally difficult – the game built up the challenge in increments, with first a sword knight in a large arena, then one on a narrow bridge, and then three in a single room. Eventually, for an unlevelled character, this became too difficult to attempt – and a fog gate at the end leading to a boss was too much of a challenge. Thus all that remained was to return to the “proper” first level, Souls 2‘s equivalent of the Undead Burg, the Forest of Fallen Giants.
Section 4 – Forest of Fallen Giants: When I entered this level, through a cobwebbed cave, I was expecting a reprise of Darkroot Garden or Blighttown; a night-time level of toxic swamps and weird foliage. Instead I entered a verdant forest of flowing springs, trees overgrowing buildings and the same bright sunlight as elsewhere. The enemies were conquistador-esque Spanish-styled knights, with plumed helmets and broadswords, while an optional, Red Eye Knight-esque enemy in an open area was dressed in typical Arthurian style with cylindrical helmet and stereotypical plate armour. The level in time became more chaotic – the forest merged with a ruined castle and in there could be found enemies playing dead to ambush the player, a dungeon filled with salamanders and ogre-like knights with maces – yet throughout it had a very noble medieval fantasy aesthetic rather than the expected gothicness. Indeed, the aesthetic variety throughout the level was very welcome; it made the progression seem much more like an exploration, moving from one area of the forest to another.
In terms of difficulty, the level had a good progression – the basic enemies increased their variety of weapons from fists to daggers to sword-and-shield to axe and then more exotic things like fire-bombs, broadswords and halberds, culminating in pike-and-shield enemies and a particularly evil trap in a ruined guard-house best left as a surprise. Into this mix were thrown dormant enemies (introduced in stress-free fashion at the end of a large open area, and then added in confined spaces in the corridors of the castle) and a very curious ambush reminiscent of the Black Knights from Souls 1. A large courtyard offered a good vantage point to ambush some enemies, but a careful observer would see a griffon flying around above it. Entering the courtyard caused the griffon to fly low and drop its rider, an angelic knight way out of the player’s league. Like the cyclopes of the tutorial area, or the fallen white knight from earlier, these apparently insurmountable enemies invite the player to return later, to progress so that they may be beaten.
Section 5 – Thoughts: This was the farthest I reached in my alloted time; I was able to reach a fog gate after a second bonfire in the area, but died trying to pass it from a mace ogre. In all, my enduring impression of Souls 2 is that the levels are engaging; their aesthetics are unexpected and suggest new ground for a Souls game.In talking with other previewers, I was told about details and shortcuts I had missed – apparently there was a way down to the salamander pit in the dungeon, and a shortcut to the bonfire near the ambush room. Nobody was able to work out the mystery of the petrified woman, or if it was possible to beat the griffon knight – although apparently magic-using or ranged-combat classes could beat the cyclopes in the tutorial area. The general consensus was that the best part of Souls games was these conversations – playing, learning things, and finding out how others learned differently.
I played Dark Souls 2 at an event hosted by Namco Bandai which I visited as a representative of D+PAD Magazine (www.dpadmagazine.com), attended by other games industry representatives and overseen by members of staff. The event also offered free tea and coffee, and no merchandise was offered.
The build provided was described as incomplete past the end of the Forest of Fallen Giants, and content described above is subject to change between now and release. It was run on development PS3s.