Following on from 2009's Demon's Souls and its 2011 spiritual successor Dark Souls, Japanese studio From Software is preparing to unleash Dark Souls II into the big wide world. The question is, are we ready for what could quite possibly be one of the most incredible gaming experiences ever created?
This is a series of games that divides gamers firmly into two groups. Firstly, there are those who played one of the games for half an hour and never want to go anywhere near any of the related titles ever again. Seeing as we like to keep things family-friendly round these parts, let's call them “scaredy cats”. And secondly, there are the hardcore masochists whose eyes will glaze over as they stare into the distance and recall their own personal journeys through Boletaria and/or Lordran, forging their way through endless sorrow and despair and loving every single second of it. I'm with you, brothers and sisters. Although I very nearly wasn't...
There's a big reason why these games have become so divisive. Souls titles are brutally unforgiving, relentlessly bleak, and difficult to master unless you're prepared to put in a serious amount of time and effort. For my own part, even though I was totally on board with the idea behind Demon's Souls I never really managed to get anywhere with it, and the same thing almost happened with Dark Souls. After four aborted attempts at tackling it, each time getting further than the last but ultimately ending in failure, a breakthrough finally occurred during my fifth (and what I told myself would be final) try. A year ago it was “that really good game that I can't do”, but now it's “the game that's taken over my life and I can't stop thinking about”.
Seeing as I've been binge-playing Dark Souls for the last week or so and the sequel will be with us very soon, now's as good a time as any to look back at a modern masterpiece and cast our eyes over some of the treats (or threats, if we add an extra letter) that Dark Souls II has in store.
After creating your “hero”, choosing what you look like and what style you want to adopt for your character (melee combat, magic, that sort of thing), players start Dark Souls with absolutely nothing, locked in a cell in the Undead Asylum where cursed souls are sent to await the end of the world. After leaving your cell (the only easy task in the game), your first few steps take you through the briefest of tutorials and introduces you to bonfires (more on those later) before you're mercilessly crushed by the game's first boss. And here you learn the first of many important lessons - this game isn't going to hold your hand and tell you what to do. You don't even get a map. Ever. It's immediately clear within the first few minutes that you're going to need sharp reflexes, a clear head, and mountains of patience to survive this evil world. Working out how to deal with the first boss at this stage in the game leads us to lesson number two - sometimes it's OK to run away now and come back later to finish what you started.
Eventually you make your way out of the asylum and end up at Firelink Shrine, a place you'll see a lot of during the first few hours. The Shrine acts as a crossroads between several early areas of the game, and its bonfire is a useful resting place. Each area has at least one bonfire, and lighting them is extremely important. They act as a respawn point when you die, as well as allowing you to save your progress, replenish your supply of healing flasks and magic spells, and level up your character using souls gained by defeating enemies. The downside to all this is that resting at bonfires also resets all non-boss enemies, bringing them back to life and ensuring your journey will always be filled with hideous hazards of all shapes and sizes.
Each area has its own distinct types of enemies, and on top of the “regular” hordes of half-rotting dogs and bug-eyed poison-spewing frogs there's an astounding array of monstrous bosses just waiting to smash your face in. Even though the Gaping Demon in the video below isn't too far into the game, it's possibly far enough that a lot of people will quit before they even get there. It's too good not to see though, so here we go:
If we go back to the first important lesson from the opening few minutes of the game there's no shame in turning tail and running away when you come across something that you either can't or simply don't want to deal with. Example: at one point you'll find yourself being harassed by a gang of shiny lumbering monsters made out of crystal. You do your best to hack them to pieces, but suddenly a shower of magic flies across the screen and destroys them. Inching forward to investigate, you see a gigantic hydra sitting in the middle of a lake. Bugger that for a game of soldiers, let's see what's up that hill over there instead.
Fortunately there's a massive amount of items and equipment to be found that will help you on your way. Thorough exploration will often provide you with new weapons or amour, and there are merchants and blacksmiths dotted around the world who will happily (or sometimes not so happily) provide you with further useful equipment and upgrades. The thing is, they're going to want souls in return. Souls that you could use to level up your character at those all-important bonfires. What's it going to be? Buy a better sword so you can kill things with one less hit, or level up and get an extra slither of health so you last another few seconds before dying?
Speaking of dying, this is (of course) another area where Dark Souls can be incredibly punishing. The game is undoubtedly difficult but it's never unfair, and 99% of all deaths are a direct result of your own mistakes. As an added bit of cruelty though, dying in Dark Souls means you frustratingly lose all of the souls you were currently carrying. They can be regained if you manage to make it back to the bloodstain on the ground at the spot where you died, but if you happen to die again before you get there they'll be lost forever. Important lesson number whatever it is: use them or lose them.
It's not just your own bloodstains that you'll find throughout the environments. If you're connected to the internet, Dark Souls' unique multiplayer system both helps and hinders in equal measure. Touching bloodstains summons a ghost which replays the final few seconds of someone else's life, enabling you to see how they died and hopefully learn from their mistakes. Players can also leave messages on the ground which will show up in other people's games, alerting them to potential danger or hidden treasure. We won't go into the invasions here though. You really need to experience those for yourself to get the full effect...
With reports of single player campaigns lasting between 30-50 hours, and multiple replays being possible to obtain higher levels with increasingly better weapons,
and that's not taking into account the whole player vs player aspect that I can't even bring myself to think about going anywhere near just yet, Dark Souls really is the gift that keeps on giving. Or at least it can be, if you dare to let it.
What further twisted horrors await in Dark Souls II? According to developer interviews, it's going to be even more difficult than Demon's /Dark Souls although steps have been taken to make its mechanics more accessible for newcomers to the series. With a world comparable in size to its predecessor, filled with more varied environments along with bigger, badder, and more intelligent enemies, it sounds like there's going to be countless hours of misery in store. Lessons will be learned, lives will be lost. Traditionally mid-March sees the start of spring, when new life turns our thoughts to happiness and joy and all that sort of stuff. Not this year though. This year, we're all going to die. And it's going to be tremendous.
DARK SOULS II is released on PS3 and Xbox 360 March 14th, with a PC release coming later this year. Spring begins on March 20th.