When Namco Bandai’s surprise Dark Souls II announcement cleared my inbox Friday night, my first thought was “Why am I seeing this at the end of the week? At 10:52 p.m. even?”
And then: “Oh right, that something something game awards show I never watch.”
So Dark Souls II, now definitely happening according to Namco Bandai, though that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Demon’s Souls, a PS3-exclusive, was one of those games that emerged from the void like a thunderclap, relied solely on critical plaudits and word-of-mouth to capture the public’s imagination…and actually pulled off a sales coup. As EEDAR analyst Jesse Divnich put it to GameSpot one month after the game’s U.S. release:
Demon’s Souls is probably one of the most statistically relevant games released in the gaming world as it helps answer an often asked question: how much would a high quality game sell if it was supported by no mass marketing, released by a little known publisher (no offense to Atlus), and was a new intellectual property.
That answer? According to Divnich, “about 30 percent less than the average in the action/RPG genres.” Pretty darned good, in other words.
Dark Souls sold even better, according to Namco Bandai, moving about 1.2 million copies in the U.S. and Europe by this spring (it was released in early October 2011).
Whither Dark Souls II? Japanese developer FromSoftware’s still behind the wheel, so that’s good news. Also: It’s still being developed for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360, which if we assume all the rumormongering’s right about the next Xbox or PlayStation in late 2013, could mean we’ll see this earlier than expected (to get out ahead of all the next-gen hullabaloo).
Here’s the who-knows-what-it-means news: Instead of Souls series creator Hidetaka Miyazaki calling the shots, Tomohiro Shibuya is helming development this time. That could either be a mediocre thing or a good one, depending. (Then again, Miyazaki was himself responsible for Armored Core 4, so playing the track record game’s iffy.)
The trailer doesn’t tell us much, though certain scenes may suggest we’re talking about a prequel.
No surprise, Dark Souls II involves a new protagonist, new story and new game world. It’ll also feature “a revamped server-based multiplayer mode” that Namco Bandai promises puts a “distinct Dark Souls II twist on the concept of playing with others.”
Here’s Shibuya himself chatting up the sequel:
This new chapter in the Dark Souls saga presents opportunities for us to drive innovation in gameplay design, develop an entirely new story, and expand the scope of the world in which the player interacts with the game. We have taken these necessary steps with Dark Souls II in order to evolve the overall experience of the Dark Souls series. The entire development team is striving to make Dark Souls II an experience that is fresh while not forsaking its roots in presenting players with challenging gameplay. Our goal is to surprise and delight our fans with new experiences and plot twists while enticing new players to join our dark journey.
Speaking as an enthusiastic fan of both games, here’s a list of things I hope Dark Souls II doesn’t do.
Don’t change to change. Too often we mistake change for progress, trapped by attention-deficit thinking (this expectation that a game reinvent itself every time). Sometimes football‘s just football and chess is just chess. The Souls games’ poker-like base gameplay mechanic — having to decide, as Kenny Rogers would say, when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em — is essential and elegant as-is. I’m not sure it needs to evolve, say turning soul-wagering into a pachinko mini-game, Final Fantasy-style.
I’m not saying Dark Souls II needs to be as slavishly homogeneous as a Blizzard sequel, just that change for change’s sake has a tendency to backfire when you’ve already perfected an idea.
Don’t shovel in the same ol’ messaging system. The first few times I played Demon’s Souls, I was enthralled with the little messages sprinkled throughout each level, glowing like rune-shaped brands. “It’s safe here,” read one just outside a safe zone — the same missive appeared again shortly thereafter, only this time it was outside a cubby-sized space concealing a bunch of torch-swinging zombies. The world becomes a lattice of clever lies and paranoid facts…and then it gets kind of boring, seeing the same old messages, expecting the same old tricks.
I’d like a more sophisticated messaging system in Dark Souls II, please. Yes, it’d probably be immersion-killing if you let players graffiti up the joint with their favorite blasphemies, but surely FromSoftware can do better than the handful of repetitious blurbs the last two games offered.
Yes, the world made no sense. Don’t change that. For me, the Souls games’ plots were superfluous. I vaguely remember something about ringing bells in Dark Souls. I haven’t the first clue what I was doing in Demon’s Souls. I never cared. In fact, had the stories been more than all but nonexistent, I worry they would have been intrusive (or just plain bad).
What makes the Souls games so wonderfully weird is that sense of existential disconnection from the world itself — call it “minimalist post-apocalyptic fantasy.”
Don’t ditch the character development system. The Souls games’ character classes are like different runways at an airport where everyone’s flying the same plane. You take off from a slightly different vantage, but where you go next is up to you, no arbitrary D&D-like limits, e.g. “magic users can’t wear armor” or “fighters can’t cast spells.” More of this, please.
Keep it hardcore. Don’t dumb it down. The Souls games aren’t for casual players, or beginners, or anyone who feels entitled to progress by simply slugging away at a challenge. These games require actual skill, punish button-mashing and — even if you’re cheating by watching someone’s YouTube how-to video — usually require multiple tries to solve a problem, whether it’s clearing an area at lower levels, defeating an enemy leader or racking up enough souls (without losing them) to buy something.
Sure, you can play the game from a ploddingly methodical angle, but that’s like pointing out you can reliably win Blackjack by counting cards. Dark Souls has a reputation for being tough because most players want to progress quickly, pushing against a framework that doesn’t allow saving/reloading, and where a single misstep can set you back big time. Coming to grips with that is why these games are rightly marketed as grueling.