There aren't many games where, at a hands-on session, you'll joke with other players and even the game's publishers about how often you died while playing it.
At a preview event for hardcore RPG sequel Dark Souls II, that's exactly what happened - joking about the number of times you died like it was some kind of achievement. But the real achievement is how the fine folks at FromSoftware and Bandai Namco have managed to create a follow-up that is just as unrelenting, challenging, and ultimately rewarding as the original.
Dark And Dank
The setting for the evening was the crypt of St Andrew's, Holborn, a 13th Century church that still holds one dead body - very fitting, considering the number of in-game deaths expected that evening. All the stops had been pulled out as the place was decorated with suitable medieval décor and even a chap wandering around in full Warrior Knight armour (see our gallery below). The scene was very definitely set for us to roll our sleeves up and prepare to die.
Now, fans of the original Dark Souls already see it as one of the greatest games of all time. One such fan - actor and comedian Peter Serafanowicz (Shaun of the Dead, Spaced, the voice of Darth Maul) - was also present this evening, gushing about his love of the game and the 1800 hours he put into it. In return, he's been put into the sequel, voicing the character of Pate.
The creators of the game are quite rightly proud of the "challenging and emotionally rewarding" gameplay that Dark Souls offers, and, understandably, there has been a lot of trepidation about whether a sequel could possibly live up to it, or that changes could be made to change the pure experience. Changes have indeed been made, but these will only serve to enhance the gameplay of Dark Souls II.
Save Our Souls
Indeed, many of the changes barely affect the gameplay at all. Certain UI elements have been tightened up, making it easier to navigate through your items and to see your own character when navigating during gameplay. You can also equip up to four rings this time, instead of the previous two, one of the only concessions to make gameplay a little more manageable (the other being an improved jump mechanic, which no-one can challenge as a real game-changer...).
Co-op mechanics also got a few enhancements. Voice Chat will now be possible, but only with allies during co-op, for greater teamwork. Regional match-making is also now possible, giving you the choice of playing with other gamers from your region or worldwide. Further match-making comes within the game itself with the new Name Engraved Ring. Simply engrave your ring with the name of your chosen god, and you'll be matched up with other followers of that deity, calling them to battle for an enhanced co-operative experience.
PVP combat sees some changes, too, with the added option of Blue vs. Blue or Red vs. Red battles, but only at specific locations within the game, and consecutive victories will earn you an increased aura, showing just how tough and should-be-avoided you are to other players.
We'll also see some changes to invading other characters, with a new automatic Sin Level Count meaning that Sin levels will increase without votes, with a cap of 50% HP now being applied of players with high sin levels. Those with a higher Sin Level Count now lead the new order of invasion, followed by co-op players, living characters and then the undead.
And undead is how we spent the majority of our playing time. After a stunning opening sequence, complete with ancient crones telling us our fate as the Cursed one and a little bit of guidance on how we might save our souls, we were off into the wild world of Dark Souls II. And we saw... not a great amount of it. Granted, our visit was to be restricted to the "Forest of the Fallen Giant", but we only saw a small amount of that forest due to the high mortality rate of the game.
But what we did see did not disappoint. The visuals were stunning, paired with spot-on audio to create a real atmosphere. There were some more sunlit, open-air spaces than we'd seen in the last game, but this was matched by the greyer, broody interiors that have helped define the Dark Souls aesthetic. The darkness offers plenty of nooks and crannies to explore, but don't forget your torch or you may just end up taking a fatal tumble off an edge you didn't know was there. Indeed, falls that in any other game would simply injure you will kill you, just another reminder that while there are handy hints on screen from time to time, this is an unforgiving beast.
The combat was also as unwavering as you would expect, made even tougher by each successive respawn leaving you with a little less HP, and Estus flasks being largely replaced as your go-to energy replenisher with much less powerful Life Crystals. On top of this, and any loss or damage caused to your weapons carrying over to your next life. So we spent our last few attempts having to fight off the enemies with a near-useless broken sword.
We'd really love to share more of Dark Souls II with you, but we had a feeling we'd see the legendary red text of "You Died" more than any other part of it, and we were right. If anything, the fact we saw so little has gone on to assuage any fears that this would be any less hardcore than the original game. Speaking to our hosts afterwards, they agreed that the few hours we had to play was probably not enough to get a real go at the game. Fortunately we don't have long to wait to get another crack at dying time and again it when it releases this March.