Following the Dark Souls 2 beta, Screen Robot considers whether a push for mainstream success has compromised the game’s infamous difficulty level
There are four black phantoms waiting for you in the canyon. One or two of them is enough to cause the heart to rise to the back of the throat. Four of them is a meat grinder with you at the centre. Low on Estus flasks, the only option is to move on – in Dark Souls, to turn back is not only to admit failure but an assurance that you will relive your mistakes.
When you die in Dark Souls, it is exhilarating. In Dark Souls 2, death does not come as often or as brutally, and the game is lesser for it. With much of the draw of Dark Souls coming from learning to speak the language of a game built on difficulty, can Dark Souls 2 possibly have the same impact as the original?
Nietzsche’s infamous diatribe “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into the abyss the abyss also gazes into you” has never been more true than in the case of Dark Souls.
There is an authenticity of experience in Dark Souls that is lacking in most modern videogames. With the lack of a convoluted tutorial, the unwavering difficulty and the game’s near impenetrable depth, the struggles and triumphs of the game are all your own.
When unforgiving combat forms the meat of gameplay experience in a game with a minimalist approach to narrative, it also becomes the way in which the game communicates its themes.
This is when Dark Souls is at its most primal – by reducing the archetype of a hero’s journey to a core tenet of overcoming staggering odds and repeating this motif throughout, Dark Souls makes combat the core of your experience with the game. This is where Dark Souls discusses its themes of death, the cyclical nature thereof and the ultimate futility of human endeavour.
So, when considering the elements that made Dark Souls great, what can be taken from a short three hour session with its sequel?
First off, Dark Souls 2 feels right. Even when restricted to an unwieldy Dualshock 3, the Dark Souls 2 beta felt every bit as nuanced as its predecessor, if not a little less weighty.
Movement has never been more important in a Souls game. Character manoeuvrability has been improved and feels somewhat looser whilst the new stat ‘Agility’ determines the speed of character movement, the delay between switching weapons and using items. Furthermore, the click targeting of the original has been refined – you have to be facing in the direction of an enemy in order to lock on and your character will not turn automatically to face them.
Playing with an agile character, the nuance of dodging between enemies, exchanging blows and switching weapon sets now feels more natural. As a result, Dark Souls 2 is coloured with more of those breathtaking, skin of your teeth moments that defined the best of its predecessor’s encounters.
While none of the changes are radical, the cumulative effect on a system that is built on an analytical understanding of its combat is staggering.
In the Dark Souls 2 beta, additions come thick and fast.
An extra equipment slot on both the left and right hand allow for more options in combat. Bow weapons are now a viable and satisfying alternative to melee or magic builds. Areas of near impenetrable darkness now require the wielding of torches in your off hand, offering illumination of your surroundings in lieu of a shield. The reintroduction of consumable healing items alongside Estus Flasks is a flashback to Demon’s Souls though conversely, your maximum health cap is lowered following each death. From Software’s additions are all welcome, though none substantially change the core of Dark Souls’ gameplay.
Dark Souls was notorious for its unforgiving and unwavering difficulty. Playing the Dark Souls 2 beta, I was struck by its relative ease. Having played Dark Souls to the point of obsession, there is of course an argument to be made that veterans of the last game will find the new one easy.
That said, once there was the requisite amount of reorientation, I found myself completely unsurprised by the section of gameplay on offer in the Dark Souls 2 beta.
In one sense, this allayed any concerns that new Dark Souls 2 director Yui Tanimura would be unable to grasp the essence of the series in an attempt to make it appeal to more casual gamers. Conversely, the best parts of Dark Souls were new introductions or radical changes from Demon’s Souls. Capped uses of spells instead of a recharging mana bar. Bonfires. Open world.
The problem Dark Souls 2 faces is that it appears to be relatively content to subtly refine instead of reinvent Dark Souls. Whilst this is an endemic feature of modern videogames, much of the enjoyment of Dark Souls came from the surprise, challenge and eventual triumphs offered by its increasingly difficult and subversive design.
There was never a moment in the Dark Souls 2 beta that I felt out of my depth or was surprised by what From Software had laid out before me. My heart was still in my mouth, but it was not beating as frenetically or bloodily.
Dark Souls 2 cannot hope to have the impact of the original but by resting on its laurels, the game faces the danger of losing the base elements of what made its predecessor so compelling.
The two bosses of the beta were each dispatched in a single attempt and were examples of molehills masquerading as mountains. The traps and foibles of the area in the Dark Souls 2 beta were easily navigated – there was no surprise equal to that of the first Mimic rising up to grip you in its jaw nor a death trap as nauseating as Blighttown.
Player versus player encounters were the most engaging moments of the beta – with invasions now possible whether you are human or not, the real difficulty of Dark Souls 2 may emerge from the sadistic and unforgiving whims of other players.
To its credit, Dark Souls 2 appears to have made no concessions in its attempt to reach a larger audience though it still faces the problems encountered by any sequel – chief among them being the expectations of a rabid fanbase.
Did you play the Dark Souls 2 beta and find your experience to be different to mine? And will From Software still be able to surprise veterans of the last game with Dark Souls 2?
Dark Souls 2 is released in North America March 11 2014 and March 14 in Europe.