A couple years ago, when NamcoBandai was showing off a preview of Dark Souls at E3 2011, my pal and fellow writer Andrew Groen said something that stuck in my mind: “I’m very particular about my Demon’s Souls.”
He was referring to Dark Souls’ spiritual predecessor, which launched on the PlayStation 3 less than two years earlier and became an unexpected hit. I don’t quite recall his particular concerns–something about movement speed or the way it felt to swing a weapon, maybe–but what struck me is how defensive one can be about the game. That’s the natural byproduct of a system that makes you fail, over and over, until you either quit in disgust or commit to understanding its ways. Loving these games is like wearing a badge of honor that you feel duty-bound to protect.
Which brings us to our first glimpse of Dark Souls II. IGN has posted a 12-minute preview of the game, with commentary from Yui Tanimura, director at From Software, and Tak Miyazoe, general producer at NamcoBandai.
As someone who has poured at least 200 combined hours into Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, the preview footage has left me excited, relieved and also a little bit uneasy. In the spirit of being particular, here are my gut reactions:
Thank Goodness, It Still Seems Pretty Deadly
When NamcoBandai revealed Dark Souls II last year, the developers talked about making the game more “approachable” for newcomers, which led to concerns that the series’ infamous difficulty would be neutered. So I watched this first taste of action closely, looking for signs of an easier game. To my relief, there’s a part where a fairly standard-looking character rolls backwards onto the player, depleting half of his health. It’s clear that Dark Souls II will still make you pay dearly for your mistakes.
Tanimura even clarified the company’s earlier comments about accessibility: “We understand that a lot of fans took the word ‘accessible’ and translated it to ‘it will be easier,’” he told CVG in an interview. “We apologize for casually using the word.”
The earlier claims about accessibility were more about getting rid of tedious elements, like backtracking through areas instead of warping, and making the interface easier to understand. Those would all be welcome changes.
A Little Too Deadly, Perhaps?
As my colleague Matt Peckham noted last December, Souls series creator Hidetaka Miyazaki is no longer at the helm. So you have to wonder whether Dark Souls 2′s co-creators, Tanimura and Tomohiro Shibuya, fully understand what makes the series so special.
Here’s a line from the IGN preview that worries me: “One of the underlying concepts for the combat system in Dark Souls is the simple controls and sort of the trial and error and strategic gameplay behind it.”
Ah, but here’s the subtle distinction: the Souls games kill you a lot, but they’re not about trial and error. They’re about learning the system so well that you eventually understand how to die less. Some trial and error is inevitable–especially when tackling a tough boss–but that’s not what makes Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls so good.
IGN’s footage ends with the developers showing off a bunch of unique ways to instantly die, and talking about how they’ve really focused on having a variety of deaths in the game. The idea is that if you die a lot, you’ll feel all the more satisfied for overcoming those challenges. Again, it’s a fine line that Dark Souls II must walk. Frequent deaths tend to be a bigger factor earlier on in the Souls games, enough to make you understand the risks and dangers of playing. Over time, you become a better player, and the frequency of dying starts to decrease. Instead of tormenting you directly, death casts a shadow over everything you do. Let’s hope the makers of Dark Souls II can strike that balance and lay off the cheap shots.
The Tone Is Intact
The first footage of Dark Souls II looks tailor-made to convince players that it’s still the same game they fell in love with. The interface looks the same. The health/stamina bars look the same. You get souls when you kill enemies and–from the looks of it–lose them all when you die. Bonfires act as checkpoints, and even basic enemies look menacing.
Best of all, the forlorn atmosphere of Souls games seems intact. (Part of me wishes the developers had talked a little less during the preview, to let the gloomy ambient noise flow through.) I even spotted what could be some classic moments of Souls subtlety, in the form of portraits cluttered in hallway and a gigantic sword lodged into the side of a building. I hope the game never explains why those things are there, and leaves it all to the imagination.
With a game like Dark Souls II, it’s hard to pass too much judgment based on preview footage. The biggest lingering questions for me are whether the game will maintain the series’ understated storylines and dialogue, and how well the level design will hold up throughout. Those things would be hard to evaluate in a demo.
At the very least, the preview footage has scratched that particular itch that many of us Souls fans have. But with no release date for Dark Souls II in sight, this tiny glimpse at the game is sure to cause a bit of agony. How appropriate.