The Irish comedian Dylan Moran once said that your hangovers change as you get older. When you are young they’re direct and painful. You know that you’ve done something wrong because your body tells you so, usually in a manner that feels like goblins using mining equipment on your prefrontal cortex. However, as you get older, a night out on the piss has a completely different effect on your mental and physical state. You awake the next morning to find yourself refreshed and probably still pissed. “Maybe I’ll go for a walk” you say, “it is after all a lovely day. The birds are swaying, the trees are singing” you begin to believe your own bullshit. Then once you’ve been lulled into a false sense of security the monsters get you when you least suspect.
This same metaphor applies to the Souls games. Demon Souls and, to a slightly lesser extent, Dark Souls rewarded your mistakes with repeated smacks to the back of the head followed by several more until you were a simpering mess on the floor or you learned your lesson and ducked.
As a result, many were put off by the unforgiving, hard as nails reputation the series earned itself. Sure, it was tough, but it was fair. If you were killed, more often than not it was because of your own incompetence.
It’s clear from the outset that what From Software are attempting to do with Dark Souls II is to make the game more inviting to new players whilst catering to the sadistic whims of their current fan base. They could have achieved this by simply making the game easier. But an easier Dark Souls would be no fun at all. No, what From Software have chosen to do is far more insidious: They’ve decided to give players hope.
Dark Souls was a straight slog through hell, it felt exhausting to play at times because it was utterly relentless. After a time the giddy thrill of pressing on and conquering your foe simply wasn’t enough for some because it often felt like there was no end in sight, just another trudge into the shadows that always inevitably home to some new horror waiting to kill you.
After a while, you either pushed on or gave up. Finishing the game felt more like a badge of bloody mindedness than anything else. You had persevered where many had come to their senses and played something less rage inducing.
In the hopes of combating this, From Software’s latest doesn’t just repeatedly knock you back until you either win or get sick of it and quit. No, Dark Souls II is much more insidious, like a hangover you don’t see coming, this time they’re going to build you up, help you gain a little confidence, maybe too much, make you believe your own bullshit. Then they knock you right back down on your arse.
This change of tact is evident from the off. The opening of Demon Souls was relatively unassuming until a massive ogre beat the crap out of you, Dark Souls started in a dank dungeon that you never escaped from, Dark Souls II on the other hand starts with a beckoning finger and a welcoming light in the distance.
After a rather spiffy CGI opening, an extended version of the recent Cursed trailer, my character started his journey in a small clearing. In the distance was the welcoming light of a small cottage, in the undergrowth were dark gibbering creatures that ran from me. I pressed on across a small bridge and entered the ramshackle but homely structure to be welcomed to the game’s new setting of Drangleic by three crones. After a brief, and mostly friendly, bit of banter concerning your curse they gave my character their first human effigy: a new item which restores your humanity as well as keeps other players out of your game.
I then created my character. This process is nigh on identical to Dark Souls. The customisation options for your character are mostly the same with maybe a couple of minor additions. After a little playing around with the look of my character, I chose the dual wielding Swordsman class and took one of the 7 new gifts available. Most of these in retrospect aren’t as useful as they initially appear. However, they are for the best part more straightforward than they were in Dark Souls. There are some healing items, another human effigy, a couple of cryptic choices that are probably very helpful later on if you ever figure out what they’re used for, and one that actively makes the game harder once you toss it into a nearby bonfire.
I decided to choose an additional human effigy, which in retrospect wasn’t the best choice because although it’s a very useful item, in the build i played at least, they were relatively plentiful. In fact there was one waiting for me in a chest in the upstairs of the cottage
Armed with a pair of swords I made my way out of the cottage, lit a nearby bonfire and then pressed on to a series of caverns that were full of hollows.
Combat in Dark Souls II is exactly the same as previous games in the series. Maybe it was because I already had a fair bit of experience of the series but it felt like the first hollows I fought didn’t put up that much resistance at all. Hmmm. Maybe they had made the game easier I thought as I ventured through the caves, cutting down everything I came across and dodging their easily read strikes.
Eventually I came to the shore of a river that was home to a whopping great ogre. This won’t be too much of a problem for a mighty warrior like—-. YOU HAVE DIED. The bastard jumped on me, then rolled on my broken body, then finally smacked me about the head and killed me. OK, maybe they haven’t made the game any easier.
Awaking back in the cottage as a hollow and with 10% deducted off my max health for the trouble. I went back to where the ogre was milling around, however this time I decided to scarper once I’d regained my souls. I ventured back through some more caverns and dispatched some of the easier to handle hollows, finally I arrived at a long passage with an almost blinding light at the end of it.
This pretty much sum up thoughts on my time with Dark Souls II. You feel as though you’re forever running towards the light at the end of a tunnel and that eventually you’ll get there. It eggs you on and keeps you motivated whilst feeding your curiosity. As such, it’s the polar opposite to the unremitting bleakness of Dark Souls in which you dove down into the darkness with only your own resolve to keep you going.
At the end of the passage was the game’s central hub: The dilapidated settlement of Majula. Possibly one of the few safe places in the entire game, I took a moment to just stand back and appreciate just how beautiful and calm it was. I could almost feel the warmth of the sun on my character’s skin as the waves lapped against the shore, the gulls crowed in the distance – a brief moment of respite before the inevitable storm.
After having a look around the tiny hamlet and talking to some of its inhabitants, which in typical Souls fashion all spoke in riddles even when they were trying to sell you supplies, I ducked down a curious looking passageway through a vacant sewer and emerged in the Forest of Fallen Giants. A lush forest with a river flowing through it peppered with more Hollows to slay. After taking care of business, I climbed a ladder to another open area with more Hollows milling around and a huge tree with what looked like a dead Knight propped up against it. After killing the Hollows I took a look at the knight and stupidly decided to see what would happen if I struck him with my sword. To my surprise and horror, the bugger sprang back to life and after a brief game of cat and mouse (guess who was the mouse) he cut me down, shaving another 10% off my health bar.
So back I went, even worse off in the the health department and looking noticeably more ramshackle. However, this time I decided to leave well enough alone and press on through the mist to a small keep that felt eerily reminiscent of the battlements from Dark Souls. I guess if you’ve seen one decaying medieval castle crawling with the undead, you’ve seen them all.
Several deaths later, I found myself in a small room with the game’s new merchant, Hag Melentia, who offered to sell me a key to open up the blacksmith’s back in Majula.
Since my weapons were practically blunt at this point it seemed like a great idea. Until I remembered that I would have to battle my way back to the hamlet, or at least I did until I sat down at a nearby bonfire and noticed that I could fast travel between any bonfires I had previously lit: Including the one next to the monument to the fallen in Majula.
The ability to quick travel without needing to first acquire the lord vessel as you did in Dark Souls might not seem like a major change on the surface, other than making exploration easier, removing the very real possibility that you will not make it to your final destination, thanks to an ever-decreasing health meter and failing equipment. It changes the fundamental function of the game’s bonfires from a base camp to a conduit back to the welcoming respite found at Majula and with it the ability to regroup, restock and venture back into the unknown in a much better state, thus improving your chances of returning from your latest excursion alive.
Considering the penalty for dying is much harsher in Dark Souls II thanks to losing 10% of your health with every death to a max of -50%, as well as the constant threat of invasion from other players whilst in your hollow form. Retaining your humanity becomes a vital necessity, and trial and error suicide runs a much less viable strategy and maintaining your humanity all the more important.
Your chances of success or at least a successful retreat are also greatly improved thanks to a new healing crystal that allows you to slowly regain health whilst moving. On several occasions, I managed to set one off and dodge out the way just long enough to scarper from some of the more imposing enemies such as the giant knights I came across when I ventured to Heide’s Tower of Flame. An area as beautiful as it was deadly, made up of classical columns and courtyards with a colossal spire in the background, the titular Tower of Flame, dominating the skyline. This was another moment when I couldn’t help but stop for a moment to take in the scenery, something I never felt the need to do in Dark Souls. I would often marvel at the humongous and intricate designs of the games many bosses but the gameworld was little more than functional window dressing the creatures that inhabited. This imbalance appears to have been rectified from what I’ve seen so far of Dark Souls II, the greatly improved environments gave the equally impressive creature designs a better sense of place and made the overall experience all the more immersive.
It was at this point I was rewarded for gawping at the scenery with a giant sword to the gut and my time with the preview build came to an end.
Although I’d spent three hours exploring the world of Drangleic I felt that I had barely scratched the surface. I left the preview quietly confident that From Software has created what could prove to be the best entry in the series to date. Capable of enticing new and even less skilled players to the series whilst not sacrificing the core ‘tough but fair’ principles that make the series so compelling to begin with. But most of all I was looking forward to returning to the land of cursed souls when the game launches next month on PS3, Xbox 360 and PC.