For many Western gamers, From Software's star has only just begun to rise. The developer has gone from relative obscurity and niche success with titles such as Eternal Ring and Lost Kingdoms to darling of the hardcore set with its Souls series. These dark fantasy action RPGs are notorious for their staggeringly steep learning curves in an era in which players are more often swaddled in checkpoints and coddled to the finish line.
In March, From Software will release Dark Souls II, and it should come as no surprise that players will continue to die, and die again in loving and addictive fashion.The series uses death as a learning tool, and punishes players who attempt to defeat an enemy the wrong way. Players will know that they have only themselves to blame when they succumb to claw, tooth, blade and spike. Never rinse and repeat – get a new strategy and get more souls. To see the little wisp of light, which represents souls collected, float away from a player’s dead body is to see a carrot dangled, begging for another challenge in order to gain the souls back.
The story is directly linked to the original. Centuries after the first Dark Souls, known as Drangelic, a cursed warrior must fight his (or her) way through the monster ridden kingdom of Drangelic to find a way to cure himself.
The game’s introduction caters well to newcomers and more experienced players alike with several avenues to traverse from the get go. After a cinematic introduces the forlorn Drangelic Kingdom, players land in the middle of nowhere.
A cut-scene featuring a gaggle of old ladies helps to explain the context of the game’s story and objectives. For those that are new, or need a refresher, the tutorial battles demonstrate the width and breadth of the game's battle mechanics. From here on in, the paths multiply, thus starts the journey through Dark Souls II.
The world feels bigger than its predecessors with obvious graphical facelifts showing greater detail. It's also unmistakably a Dark Souls game, and the grim fantasy setting saturates. Animations have undergone significant improvements, and these are particularly evident in rolling motions and dual wielding.
The battle system is the art of this game. Players must watch, observe, think and play the scenario in their heads if they hope to succeed in combat. Remembering most encounters with opponents who are at similar strength or generally much stronger represents half the challenge. Two or more mistakes during battle will usually result in a grisly end so studying the weak points in an enemy’s move set is crucial to success.
The original Dark Souls perfected the basic technique of rolling, single strike, pivot and then run, which the sequel holds to well. If executed correctly, as the game encourages, players will be rewarded with souls that are then used to upgrade a vast array of skills catering to different playstyles. This is by no means the only technique to win each battle, and it will take a lot of practice and dying to truly master each challenge.
The use of lifegems are essential throughout. Movement is possible now whilst hitting the D-pad to use the health recovery item, albeit slowly. Poor timing will give enemies an opening to strike and do more damage than the lifegem would’ve restored. Dark Souls II doubles down on the punishment if the player is killed whilst using a healing item. Not only will all souls be left behind but the health bar limit will decrease and the item that was being used is now gone forever. This is From Software’s way of telling a player “I warned you”.
Soon after Dark Souls II was announced, the game's producer said he wished to create a “more accessible” game, a statement met with a groan of dismay from the series' most zealous and sadistic fans. Takeshi Miyazoe later claimed this was a mistranslation, but the taint and the worry lingered for some time. No more. Dark Souls II looks set to be a brutal, worthy successor to the franchise.
Dark Souls II is scheduled to release March 13 for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. A PC release will follow.