The real reason I enjoy them is because they constantly make you think, and consistently challenge your sense of security. The Souls series is a paramount achievement in gaming because you never truly feel at ease, even in many of the supposed "safe zones."
Thankfully, most of my fears were squashed after actually playing it, although I do have some slight concerns.
[The Dark Souls II beta is currently under NDA, but Destructoid has been granted permission to publish impressions. All impressions must have the expressed written consent of a Namco Bandai representative.]
After booting up the PS3 beta and selecting from the optional light, medium, heavy, magic, and ranged classes, I was immediately on my way with my heavy knight. But classes are merely an easy way to ease new players into the realm of the Souls series, and as always, they are completely customizable -- so after quickly realizing that I didn't like my slow rolls due to my heavy armor, I outfitted my character with some medium-class robes.
Once I rocked my black robes, I felt completely at home and started wrecking shop. Hilariously enough, immediately after starting the beta (every participant gained access at the exact same time), I saw some bloodstains on the floor, which meant that some other players had died mere seconds into the launch, falling off a cliff or into one of the holes in the first cave.
I made my way through said cave, making sure to avoid the pits that claimed other souls, and fought a few standard zombies before making my way to a castle. With my shield prepped, I predicted an enemy ambush, and sure enough, an undead thief-type enemy sprung out, which I quickly dispatched. I made my way through the castle and down into a forest area, where I encountered my first challenge -- a putrid executioner enemy with two sickles in tow.
Most of his moves were fairly predictable as he was slow on the draw, but depending on your character he can easily rip through your stamina/guard and kill you in a few hits. I decided to avoid this encounter for now and head up a hill, where I tangled with a smaller version of the executioner, and four red NPC phantoms in a row (two had sickles just like the prior enemies, and two had whips).
After baiting out one phantom after another to avoid a giant battle royale, they were gone forever, and I made my way across a bridge to the first boss fight -- and thus my first death, turning me into a Hollow (undead), and chipping off a bit of my maximum health in the process. In Dark Souls II, subsequent deaths now chip off more and more health if you're Hollowed, so in that regard you do have to watch your death count. But you shouldn't be dying as much in general, which I'll get to later.
Although I would come back later and best said boss by solving its puzzle of sorts, I decided to go the other path and see what I could find before I returned to him -- but not without using an item to regain my humanity and health bar. In that area, I found a network of mountains and caves, which we've all seen before, but designed very well nonetheless, and filled with thief-like enemies that were quick on their feet.
The thieves were formidable, if only because you usually encounter three or four of them at once. Given the fact that they can attack very quickly and bust out a bow at will, damage can add up fast, especially if you happen to get stun-locked. Using a rush-down technique and whittling down their numbers fast is the best way to go.
Combat has been slightly changed, as rolls seem to have less invincibility frames, but parrying also seems to be a bit easier to pull off. Jumping is now mapped to clicking in the left stick which is an improvement, but the animation itself still feels unwieldy and unpredictable. The game also feels more fluid in general, most likely due to a more stable framerate. I have no technical specifications to back that up, but that's how it feels anyway. Nothing in the beta chugged quite as hard as a lot of areas in the first Dark Souls.
I decided to I picked up two friendly players along the way, and we faced some predictable challenges before diving into the other boss fight found in the beta, which we cleaned up in no time at all -- even if we had ton of fun in the process. But the area beyond said boss was gated off for the beta, so I backtracked a bit, grinded out some soul experience to level-up at the bonfire checkpoint, and went back to finish off the boss that had bested me previously, which was also really fun.
So far, so good, right? Well, as I made my way through the beta and completed every possible area, I did notice that I had an easier time getting through it than I did in past games. While I could chalk part of it up to skill after completing both previous titles multiple times, I did see a few major design choices that influenced my perception as well. For one, I didn't notice any major traps in the beta outside of a few chests, or anything that would otherwise perform a one-hit kill.
Although this is just a beta, and thus a slice of the game, I did expect a few "holy shit!" moments like a Raiders of the Lost Ark boulder that never really came. Every tricky situation I encountered usually had some sort of telegraphed moment that has been done before, or some way to avoid it. I'm sure in the final game we'll see more surprises, but for now, it felt like standard fare -- things most players would have no trouble conquering after a few educational deaths.
Lifegems are another major tweak that made the Dark Souls II feel a bit easier. Simply put, gems are items that can be used while walking (unlike your Estus Flasks that you have to stop and use, and are now slightly slower to drink), and cause a heal over time effect. The amount of healing is not only rather large, but you can also use them while avoiding enemies, and they drop like hotcakes all over the beta when you slay enemies, and you can seemingly pick them up at every turn.
During boss fights or particularly tough mini-boss encounters, all I had to do was pop one off after getting hit, with little fear of running out of them as I could earn more within the confines of each battle. This could just be an isolate incident of giving players more tools to test the beta, but personally, I hope the gems are toned down in the final release. The actual boss fights themselves also weren't really up to par with the rest of the series in terms of difficulty even if they were enjoyable in their own right, and you can read about those in my accompanying piece to avoid spoilers here.
I also had some time to experiment with PvP, which is as great as it's ever been. Since it's completely governed by the player base, you really can't go wrong here, and the vast amount of styles available in the beta really lends itself well to showing off the solid foundation. In Dark Souls II you can now be invaded by red phantoms while in Hollowed form, which is one major improvement, and almost balances out the easier feel of PvE. Since Dark Souls II feels more fluid, the tweaked engine only benefits PvP. Backstab hitboxes also feel smaller, which makes for less cheap tactics when playing against others. There's even a Covenant that deals with protecting those who are invaded, so expect an even deeper PVP system overall.
I have some concerns about Dark Souls II, but overall I had an amazing time, and I really wanted to dive in again after the short beta period ended. While I'm not certain that it can live up to the expectations of the first two games based on my play session, those are some pretty big shoes to fill -- and I have little doubt that it'll be anything less than worthy of calling itself a Souls game. For those of you who are keen on giving it a try for yourself, a new beta round opens up on October 27, 2013.
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