Dark Souls II (PC, PlayStation 3 [previewed], Xbox 360)
Developer: From Software
Publisher: Namco Bandai Games
Release Date: March 11, 2014 (PS3, Xbox 360) / (PC TBA)
In a far away kingdom known as Drangelic, players take on the role of a cursed warrior looking to end their suffering. Once a mighty and prosperous land, the kingdom fell into madness and ruin for reasons yet to be discovered. Upon learning the secrets of the kingdom, which is now inhabited by powerful monsters and dragons, the player character ventures toward Drangelic in search of a cure to end their curse.
For those not familiar with the series, players must explore and work their way through an environment filled with traps, monsters, and other dangers while collecting souls to level up and expand their arsenal. Death is a normal part of the game, and dying is sometimes necessary to understand the environment and for your own growth as a player. With network functionality, players can also view others online and see their progress in real-time as ghostly apparitions to learn more about the dangers ahead.
As in the previous game, Dark Souls II takes place in an interconnected world that players can explore and travel across either on-foot or through fast-travel using the various bonfires, which also serve as checkpoints.These bonfires are also your only safe haven from monsters and other players looking to invade your game.
After the stunning intro cinematic detailing the history of the kingdom, players find themselves in a seemingly abandoned and overgrown field known as the "Things Betwixt." Unarmed and without any supplies, players must venture forth in search of answers. Eventually, players find a small house where they get to meet the first NPCs of the game.
Unlike in the previous game, the starting area for Dark Souls II is fairly open and allows for some wandering. While the beginning areas are open for exploration, trailing off the beaten path and backtracking to previous areas will reward players by essentially throwing them to the wolves. Literally. After creating my character build and receiving some gear, I decided to head back the starting place near a field of tall green grass, and I was soon ambushed by a pack of creatures that resembled a horrific mix between large rats and wolves.
After barely clearing out these monsters, I went towards a small opening away from the field and found a small path leading towards a creek. On my way, I saw a large troll with his back turned guarding a treasure on the ground. Of course, I took the opportunity to get the upper hand -- but I found myself outmatched, as my weapon barely did any damage. As he fell to the ground after attacking, which was amusing to watch, I quickly snatched the treasure and ran off to continue the story.
I should mention that all this was entirely optional and was before reaching the first bonfire. If I chose to continue on forward without backtracking, I would've come across the game's tutorial sequence, where you battle more standard undead and learn the controls. A much easier option for my character.
Throughout my time with the game, I never wanted to feel too comfortable and confident. All my victories were minor in the grand scheme of things, and I focused just on staying alive and in good condition. Just when you're getting confident in your skills, the game will quickly knock you down several pegs and show you who's boss. After completing the tutorial, I found myself ambushed by two massive trolls and was forced to retreat. This was still the first 15 minutes of the game.
There's been much talk about how Dark Souls II has been made easier and more friendly for players. While a number of those concerns are understandable, I came away pretty pleased with the balance From Software made for the sequel. One thing I was relieved to see is how there are more options for the player to support themselves.
For instance, Lifegems are a new restorative item that recover health for the players. Similar to the restorative herbs from Demon's Souls, there are different versions offering unique levels of potency, and they are also in a plentiful supply early on. Moreover, your character can actually move when recovering, though you're reduced to a slow walk.
All this may sound like the Dark Souls II lost its nerve, right? From Software went and sold out to the casual audience, eh? Wrong. Lifegems heal much, much slower than the Estus Flask (found later on), which makes them a greater risk to use during battle. Even if you successfully use the item, you still have wait for your health to slowly regenerate. And if you're up against an enemy that's able to take chunks from your health, then he can easily cut through whatever health the Lifegem restored and what paltry sum you've got left. If that happens, then you've not only been killed, lost all your souls, lose more health while in hollow form, and you've just wasted a Lifegem. How’s that for a challenge?
And on the subject of death, which is what the game is all about -- death now has greater consequences for players. Much like in Demon's Souls, when you are restored to life in a lesser form, your health bar suffers a penalty. Unlike the previous Dark Souls title, repeated deaths in Hollow form are penalized. The developers at From Software were aware of the fact that some players preferred to play in Hollow state, and this is to encourage people to return to their human form when they can.
One reason why people preferred to stay in Hollow form was to avoid invasions from enemy players. That is now not the case. Unless players have special items or within special situations that prevent players from invading, they will always be at the risk of black phantoms.
Of course, combat is one of the key aspects of the Souls series, and it's received a bit of an upgrade for Dark Souls II. In addition to the enhanced and refined inventory system, the combat mechanics have been given much more depth and feel much more tight as a whole. Dual wielding now feels much more effective and practical, and magic feels as a bit more flexible, as you can acquire staffs to use as tools for your spells. Keeping a healthy defense by utilizing parries, rolls, and your shield is vital for success. But at the same time, you must not be afraid to run in and attack when you see an opening.
For the most part, the combat system has improved and feels very smooth. However, the enemies feel much more aggressive as a result. Because of this, I felt much more inclined to be on the defensive and wait for enemy attacks to pick more moment. Unless it was one of the lesser enemies, I always felt I needed to see them attack first before I could make my move.
One issue with the previous Dark Souls title was the frame rate drops throughout the game, but thankfully performance for the sequel has been quite improved. During my time, the frame rate was solid. However, I still found the camera to be troublesome in spots -- specifically during cramped and tight areas. Sometimes the view would be obstructed or snagged on the wall or an object. It didn't happen often, but I felt fearful of the idea of it happening during combat, which is very possible.
Visually, the game is quite an improvement from the original. While it's difficult to see in these pictures, many of the locations you see even early on are pretty stunning and take full advantage of the improved lighting engine. There will be a larger variety of environments in DSII, and these early areas, including a ruined castle on the coast populated by stone knights, make me excited to see what's next.
In many ways, Dark Souls II does a better job with easing players into the experience; learning the controls, abilities, and making the acclimation period a bit easier, at your own pace, and more accessible. Yes, you just read that this game is a little more accessible. And that's OK. I died more times in the opening hour of this game than I did in the previous Souls games. And that was after going through the tutorial sequence and learning controls I'm already familiar with.
It felt as though they made the opening of this game for players who wanted a challenge or were too confident in their abilities from the previous games. I felt constantly on edge, and had to think about what's going on and what to do next. While it's understandable to feel apprehensive about this game's slightly different approach to starting players off -- what Dark Souls II has essentially given players is more rope, just so they're able to climb an even steeper cliff. And it all felt pretty fair to me.
Surprisingly, I felt there were many callbacks to the original Souls title, Demon's Souls. A steeper learning curve, a trial by fire scenario -- after letting my experience with the game digest, Darks Souls II seems to be a nice blend of the best qualities from both its predecessors. As there's a greater focus on putting pressure on the player, without making them feel too overwhelmed and frustrated. For the people that welcome this experience, of course.
I had a good feeling about Dark Souls II and I came away pretty excited to jump into the full game once it's released in March. It's clear that they look plenty of notes from fans during the beta period, as many issues relating to the health items and combat flow have been tweaked for the better. Early 2014 is still looking pretty great, and fans should prepare to meet their maker once Dark Souls II is out in March.
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