“Welcome to Play Expo. Prepare to die…again. Because you’re about to go beyond death. This, is Dark Souls II.” These were the first words I heard upon entering the Namco Bandai area at Play Expo in Manchester last weekend. Strong words indeed, but overly dramatic as they may be, it certainly hammers home what the sequel to one of 2011’s most surprising cult hits is all about. Because that line really does sum up Dark Souls 2, in that it’s more of the same. And by no means is that a bad thing.
Our preview was 20 minute session in level in the game. As it was explained to us, there was also a competition running throughout the day. It sounded simple enough; get to the end of the level, and defeat the boss. Do so within the 20 minutes, and you win a t-shirt. Sounds simple enough, but as anyone who’s played Dark Souls (or its cousin, Demons Souls) knows, this was going to be a lot easier said than done. Indeed, throughout my entire day at Eventcity, I probably only saw two or three people actually win one.
Yes, the Dark Souls formula is back with a vengeance, and if the rest of the game is anything like the short section I played today, then even die hard fans of the original are in for a treat. Though the whole preview level was not large at all (it consisted of perhaps 6 or 7 small rooms); simply getting to the boss room itself proved more challenge than many players could handle, myself included. The demo started quietly enough, but no more than a short descent down a ladder brings you face to face with two innocuous looking undead soldiers. Again, anyone that’s played Dark souls before knows that these plain soldiers are not mere fodder. Indeed, as I approach, both rush me at the same time. I panic, hit the wrong button and get pushed off a ledge to my death. The first of many deaths.
Starting again, this time I’m ready. I kill one before he even has a chance to react, and deftly roll away from the second. My skills are returning. Locking on to him, I sidestep the soldier’s second attack, step behind him and pull off one of the game’s execution attacks, which make a welcome return. Encouraged, I move on. Down a flight of stairs and I run into a new enemy; what appears to be a large, armoured, bipedal turtle (think the big, fully armoured aliens from The 5th Element). I edge forward, slowly, and in true Dark Souls fashion, this big lumbering creature suddenly leaps forward unexpectedly with a blindingly quick series of attacks. Trying my same tactic from earlier, I attempt to sneak round to the creatures back for an execution attack. However, as soon as I get in position the monster pulls out another unexpected move, and simply falls backwards and crushes me instantly. Restart.
Finally, I did make it to the boss chamber, but only after giving up and running through the whole lot. Even then, I have a close call as I get ambushed by a bigger and nastier version of the armoured creature, and even a sorcerer who almost felled me with one hit. Finally, I reach the boss fight; a huge, towering armoured knight with a sword that can perform devastating lightning attacks. Great. Ornstien and Smough, eat your heart out. But before I even get a chance to try again and put up a fight; my time is up.
Safe to say then, Dark Souls 2 certainly builds on its predecessors reputation for taking the word ‘challenge’ and beating it with an oversized meat cleaver. The game’ director has already gone on record and said “there will be no easy mode”; that’s certainly an understatement. Namco Bandai have even kept the suitably dark, foreboding environments, giving the game its signature dark fantasy atmosphere. Alongside with the return of the now famous difficulty , is the open world format that was introduced in Dark Souls. Once again, there will be a whole land filled with exciting secrets and unexplained areas, and the director has promised this map will be even bigger and better than before.
But then again, Dark Souls has never been about the size of the map, it’s been about the gameplay. And though this gameplay has been preserved, the only criticism to be said at this point is that Namco could be accused of sticking to what they know just a little too much. While sticking to their guns means the welcome return of many things that made the previous game such a cult hit (like the covenants; mysterious factions that players can discover and join); I saw practically nothing new or different in the gameplay to make this game stand out from the original. Right down to the animations; while they’re good, as is to be expected, the attacks, interface and enemy behaviors are so similar to almost look identical to the first game.
In that respect, I got the feeling that Dark Souls 2 feels more like an expansion rather than a sequel. However, Namco have been keeping very quiet about the game so far, and with plenty of time before the game’s release next March, we’ll simply have to wait and see what else comes out of the woodwork. But regardless of whether or not Dark Souls 2 brings anything new or innovative to the series, it’s certainly shaping up to be more if the same hardcore, dark fantasy that we all know and love. And that’s certainly no bad thing at all.