Dark Souls II Hands On: Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger

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Dark Souls 2 is out and we’ve given it a verdict in our Dark Souls 2 review.

Dark Souls II has to be the first demo I’ve sat in–during perhaps any E3–in which I’ve watched our demonstrator (of all people, the head of QA for Dark Souls II!) die over, and over, and over again.

Despite rumors that Dark Souls II director Tomohiro Shibuya said this game would be more accessible, at E3 Namco Bandai were at pains to point out that the title would be as brutal as series fans have grown to expect.

Which reminded me that Dark Souls has never been particularly fun to watch someone play. It’s like that horrible sinking feeling you get when a family member or unwitting bystander, completely unfamiliar with games, spots you playing something, and then says “that looks fun, can I play?” and then you grit your teeth, watching your mum run Mario right into the first Goomba about sixteen times.

Except in this case, there’s a worse feeling: the sense that given the chance, you probably wouldn’t do any better. And to be honest, I didn’t. After snorting at the QA lead (let me reiterate: the person whose job it is to be best at playing the game) who actually died by attempting to parry the very first enemy he faced, I managed to — at the very same spot — fall down a ladder, completely miss every strike, and then plunge off a balcony.

I had to be thankful that there weren’t any buckets on the floor for my hero to get his foot stuck in.

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I’ll be honest and admit I’ve never really gelled with Dark Souls playstyle of slow, canned animation that makes everything hideously deliberate (if predictable) and while Namco Bandai are quick to tout that the game has a brand new game engine and animations, it still feels pretty much like its predecessor, animations clipping through walls and all. It still feels, to put none-too-fine a point on it, like a Japanese video game. It’s maybe a little faster?

Of course, that new engine is rather lovely, as this time there’s no artificial resolution cap. It’s still not going to test even a modest PC, but at least on a nice monitor you’re not going to have to rely on a hack to get it looking any better than a smeary mess.

Minor tech improvements aside, the big stories with Dark Souls II include the decision to no longer offer prescribed character archetypes: From Software realised that players tended to spend their souls to essentially “multi-class.” Now players use a character generator, intended to allow players to instantly start tailoring their character to their play style.

Dark Souls II however offers some interesting twists for veterans looking to mix-up their play style. Characters can now carry up to three weapons and shields at one time, and may dual wield weapons — no longer will a weapon held in the offhand be useless. Oh, and if you were bloody sick of only being able to warp between certain bonfires, you can now warp between any that you’ve already found. So actually, it is getting a bit more accessible.

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And on that score, there are plenty of new items too, such as the Lifegem. That one allows timed-health regeneration, for those situations where stopping to go through a laborious Estus Flask chug just aren’t going to work.

Other than that, though, Namco Bandai are still holding their cards pretty close to their chest. While they’ve revealed that there will be multiplayer for up to four players, they haven’t gone into detail with how it will work. It’s not likely to be too different from before, but they are having fun with it. Take the Mirror Knight, the enemy at the very end of the demo and which the QA man hadn’t managed to beat once by the time of our appointment (and he didn’t during it, either.) A huge lumbering, almost mechanical monstrosity (looking rather Greco-Roman, unusually) could slam his huge, ornate mirror shield down from which enemies could appear. Excitingly, however, when played online these enemies could take the form of other players who have chosen to invade your world.

Well, I say exciting: the Mirror Knight is hard enough without that twist.

If there was one big disappointment with Dark Souls II it was Namco Bandai’s lukewarm response given to questioning on how well they’ll respond to the stability of the PC version in the face of the original title’s struggles with hackers, paying merely lip-service to doing what they can. As a series that relies heavily on a sense of fairness, more’s the pity some players are never going to want to play fair. But I hope that Namco Bandai makes sure they do.