Eurogamer's Simon Parkin recently weighed in on Dark Souls II, suggesting the series is going soft with this latest entry. After spending time with the game's recent beta, Bob Mackey begs to differ.
Even though a chance to play Dark Souls II feels like a gift from the gods, From Software didn't exactly welcome their beta players with open arms. Huntsman's Copse, the single area made available to beta participants, features one element found in some of the most treacherous areas of Demon's and Dark Souls: utter darkness. And not that typical blue filter, day-for-night video game version of darkness -- think "Tomb of the Giants," and when you've finished recovering from your memories of that harrowing Dark Souls level, you'll know the sequel isn't shy about putting unfriendly content up front.
It's unclear just where this area will fall in Dark Souls II's world, but the use of Hunstman's Copse in the beta doesn't seem like a random choice. If anything, the danger lurking around every one of its shadowy corners emphasizes the importance of multiplayer, which presents some major improvements over Dark Souls' peer-to-peer jankiness. While the ease of finding other players could be chalked up to so many people simultaneously cruising through the same area, the unified server of Dark Souls 2 makes finding help much easier than in the past game, where I'd often have my 3DS at the ready while waiting for someone to summon me. And this improvement does more than pacify the impatient; it makes multiplayer in certain areas feel almost mandatory, and not just to have some extra brute force on hand.
My first few attempts at stumbling through Huntsman's Copse's pitch blackness ended just as well as you would guess. I soon gave up any hope of going alone, threw down my summon sign, and joined a few other players. Here I discovered that the boarded-up windows throughout the indoor areas could be smashed apart, letting some moonlight stream in, and bringing the surroundings up to only moderate darkness. Still, I couldn't help but feel like something was missing -- why would From give us an area so dark with no way to illuminate our surroundings? Even the sorcerer build available in the demo lacked a simple light spell.
After pulling a few people into my own game, I noticed a few of them came equipped with something entirely essential for this area: a torch. While this took up one of their right-or-left hand equip slots -- making them choose between offense of defense -- the light it provided proved invaluable; not far from the starting bonfire, Huntsman's Copse throws a dark cave full of dangerous pits in your path. After getting my team killed horribly, I noticed that I couldn't buy a torch from the nearby shopkeeper, or light one from the bonfire myself. But after being summoned into someone else's game, I noticed I could light a torch from the bonfire, and carried back into my own game after I died. The Souls series has always been about figuring out and becoming familiar with a complex system of rules, so this whole torch business feels right at home.
Even though I only had the chance to see one possible use of Dark Souls II's multiplayer, just how easy it is to join or pull in other players -- based on my experience with the single-server Demon's Souls -- will hopefully make for some interesting scenarios. The first Dark Souls certainly attempted to broaden the possibilities of multiplayer with the covenant system, but the anemic peer-to-peer network setup made all but a few of the options completely unviable. Based on what I saw in the beta, From has thought a little harder about the opportunities a readily available pool of players can bring.
There's no denying, though, that Dark Souls II feels a bit different than the past two games. It features some head-slappingly obvious improvements, like allowing you to jump with a simple click of L3 instead of the completely unintuitive method from the last game, and sorting your vast inventory into different item categories, rather than a long and cumbersome list. But combat feels a little mushier, as enemies and yourself take a little more effort to kill, rather than a few quick slashes -- though this could just be how the pre-built beta characters were meant to play. And despite their history with the platform, From still hasn't gotten that whole "frame rate" thing figured out; Huntsman's Copse doesn't turn into a Blight Town-esque slide show, but it's jittery enough to be slightly annoying. Like Dark Souls before it, Dark Souls II will no doubt see some major improvements when the PC version arrives a bit later.
Assessing a game based on a random two-hour slice is like trying to determine if a book will win a Pulitzer after reading only a single chapter. That said, after playing 200 hours of Dark Souls, and 100 of Demon's Souls, my all-too-brief session with the Dark Souls II beta had me running around like the panicked idiot I was during the early stages of the past two installments. While I can't say if the area offered in the beta is representative of the challenge found in the rest of the game, From Software still seems to understand the essential elements of the Souls series' rewarding uphill climb.