From Software recently put Dark Souls II back in the spotlight with a fresh batch of screenshots, the new“Despair” trailer, and over ten minutes of gameplay footage complete with commentary from the one of the project’s directors. These tempting little tidbits have given us a better idea of what to expect when the game is finally released, but they’ve also stirred up some foreboding questions and maybes about the future of the Souls series, with the most prominent being, “Will it feel like Dark Souls?”
The footage and trailers we’ve seen thus far have shown several key changes. Dual-wielding will be heavily integrated into the combat system, enemy A.I. has been improved significantly and enemies will be more dynamic, actual combat will be few and far-between in many areas, and we can expect to encounter a number of puzzle-esque mechanics during our adventures. There has also been a noticeable shift from the Gothic-revival aesthetic that shaped the original Dark Souls to a more modernized, almost Victorian style in many areas. Otherwise, its appearance closely resembles the action-RPG that we already know; the HUD is virtually identical and the lore looks as obscure and subtle as ever, so we’ll still be praising the sun.
These changes reflect the underlying mentality of Dark Souls II’s development: preserving the core appeal of the series by emphasizing caution and risk-and-reward scenarios, while streamlining the experience to eliminate tedium and improve player accessibility. While we do know that there won’t be an “easy mode,” the very notion of streamlining a Souls installment is still raising a few eyebrows, as it poses a threat to the series’ foundation.
The Souls games are rare remnants of the gaming age of old, a time when a certain level of skill was demanded from the player. We’re spoiled rotten nowadays; the current generation of games, great as it is, coddles the player with checkpoints, quick-saves, and hand-holding hints and tutorials. In the face of this benevolence, From Software chose to do the unthinkable: force the player to live as the jackal among wolves, and challenge them to learn or die. This started exclusively on the PlayStation 3 with Demon’s Souls, but continued into the multi-platform successor, Dark Souls, which later saw a PC release.
This approach to difficulty offers an incomparable sense of accomplishment and serves as the keystone to the series’ success. As a result, any deviation from that approach could easily send the games crashing down. And, disconcertingly, Dark Souls II is poised to do just that. It’s the first time the franchise has ever seen a direct sequel (Dark Souls was merely a spiritual successor to Demon’s Souls), and the mind behind the first two entries, Hidetaka Miyazaki, is no longer in the director’s seat. Add that to “accessibility” being the buzzword of the development process from day one, and you’re looking at a recipe of disaster for this cult classic.
However, the game set to inherit the legacies of Lordran has not yet been consigned to an early doom. The current directors, Yui Tanimura and Tomohiro Shibuya—who were practically hand-picked by Miyazaki—have repeatedly acknowledged the importance and value of challenging the player. In a recent interview with Forbes, Tanimura was quoted saying the “sense of satisfaction achieved through challenges is a great feeling for players.” He also clarified that the development team has “no plan to make the game easier” when questioned about the possibility of a lowered difficulty.
We’ve also heard quite a bit about the strides Dark Souls II is making to refine various gameplay aspects. The process of improving your equipment, for example, will be dumbed down considerably. While Demon’s Souls’ X-stone upgrade system was fairly straightforward, Dark Souls went with a series of tiered Titanite (the ore used in equipment ascension) pathways that were unlocked by obtaining Embers, unique items hidden throughout the world. Although this system did add a new layer of depth to weapon reinforcement, and simultaneously encourage the player to explore more thoroughly, it could also prove frustrating if a player was unable to locate the necessary Ember. In an effort to combat this sense of restriction, grinding for specific materials and hunting down unique items (the would-be Embers of DS2) will be minimized, if not entirely removed.
From Software is also hard at work redefining the concept of an open world Souls game. In stark contrast to Demon’s Souls hub world, the Nexus, whose portal-style level array can be likened to the portal-paintings in Super Mario 64, Dark Souls presented us with Lordran, a seamlessly connected world of vibrant disparity. You could start in the ruins of a guard tower, trudge through a dense forest, and suddenly find yourself in an enormous ravine inhabited by slightly peeved blue Drakes. Despite this colorful level variety, Dark Souls is still a predominantly linear RPG, in that certain areas are only truly unlocked once the player becomes powerful enough to deal with the enemies within. Dark Souls II, however, aims to tear down this hidden barrier and allow the player to explore the world in a less constricted manner. Similarly, warping between bonfires—an ability heretofore limited to the second half of Dark Souls—will be available from the get-go, allowing players to travel more easily.
Pretty words from the developer have helped quell my Souls-anxiety, but I’m still left with several questions that will likely remain unanswered until I can play the game myself. Will the scarcity of enemies in some stages succeed in instilling a sense of tension, or is it simply a charitable way of labeling overly simplified combat? Can exploration be made more open-ended without reducing enemies to level-matching monotony? Is dual-wielding being implemented in an effort to further diversify the combat, or will it prove to be nothing more than a lure designed to attract the fans of other RPGs? Will the newly showcased torch mechanic, combined with the new puzzle themes, make the game feel more like a dungeon-crawl experience and less like an action-RPG? Would that be a bad thing? Can the game uphold its claim of serving as a true sequel to Dark Souls, or is the title just a way to keep players interested?
The more we learn of Dark Souls II, the more questions and concerns arise. However, the most recent batch of trailers and teasers has finally shown us a product that truly conjures the weighty title of “A Souls Game.” There’s still plenty of time before the game’s long-awaited debut later this year, and more rumors and what-ifs will undoubtedly pop up before we see the final product. But at least one thing is certain: In our checkpoint-riddled gaming world, where we have infinite lives, stockpiles of ammunition, and enough healing items to last a lifetime, there’s nothing I want to do more than die as hard as I possibly can. Here’s hoping that Dark Souls II will let players do just that.
Date: April 22, 2013