Everything you really need to know about Dark Souls II, you could have learned by looking at my hands after playing the demo at E3.
They were sweaty, of course, and shaking. I’d just spent the last five minutes trying to defeat the Mirror Knight, a boss with an oversized electric sword and a shield through which human-like enemies periodically materialize. Before the fight began, I’d been told that no one had managed to beat him yet. As if I needed any more motivation.
I had a winning strategy: Keep a safe distance, cast spells, roll away from the Knight’s dash attacks and quickly dispatch the humans with a few quick sword strokes as they appeared. Slowly, I was chipping away at the supposedly unbeatable boss.
But the realities of being at E3 got in the way. With another meeting coming up, and a crowd of other people waiting for their turn, I became anxious. I tried to hasten the Knight’s demise with some close-quarters swordplay–a big mistake. Three strokes of his sword later, I was just another chump who couldn’t beat the boss.
Yes, Dark Souls II still feels like Dark Souls. The constant fear that one wrong move could bring instant death hasn’t diminished, despite an earlier claim by the game’s producers that they were trying to make Dark Souls II more “approachable.” (From Software has since tried its best to clarify that statement, saying they want to make certain parts of the game less confusing to figure out, while preserving the difficulty of the game itself.)
Even though a new director, Tomohiro Shibuya, is at the helm, the team at From Software hasn’t lost touch with Souls’ cleverness. Earlier in the demo, I was about to attack a large, heavily armored foe, when I heard a sound behind me. It was a couple of enemy soldiers, who’d been lying dead on the ground moments earlier. My haphazardness left me no time to retreat, and they made quick work of me.
This wasn’t a cheap death. I’d dealt with several of those zombie soldiers before, and had walked past the bodies of my eventual killers. But because they didn’t immediately rise up to attack, I assumed they were harmless. That was my mistake.
So, in what ways will Dark Souls II be more approachable? For one thing, From Software is taking a different approach to character selection. Instead of choosing from several archetypes, such as “Sorcerer” or “Tower Knight,” the game will ask how you want to play the game, and assign opening stats based on your answers. Players will still be able to branch out their characters in any direction, as they could before. Dark Souls II will also allow players to warp between any Bonfire (the game’s checkpoints), so there won’t be as much pointless backtracking as in the previous game. I’m still wondering what kind of changes there will be in how you level up and upgrade weapons.
My biggest worry right now is the way Dark Souls II handles health and magic. In addition to the preset number of healing Estus Flasks and spells that players get with each life, they’ll also be able to pick up “lifegems” that restore health over time, and herbs that restore magic. It’s somewhat of a hybrid between Dark Souls and its spiritual predecessor, Demon’s Souls, but is it an improvement? By putting strict limits on health and magic, as Dark Souls did, players had to be extra careful about when to heal or cast a spell. Dark Souls II may eliminate that tension, and require players to waste time grinding for health and magic pickups.
Perhaps this is a geeky concern, but that’s what loving Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls is all about. They’re such finely-crafted games that it’s easy to obsess about even the slightest mechanical differences. But no matter how the small stuff changes, at least Dark Souls II can still leave me an excited, shaky mess.
Dark Souls II is coming to PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC in March 2014.