Here's how good Dark Souls continues to be after nearly three years: It's practically impossible to preview the series. A single play session isn't nearly enough time to get a real feel for what the series is all about, even when given more than an hour of uninterrupted play.
Apart from the sheer scope of the world, playing Dark Souls is often an intensely personal experience. It's not something that can be properly expressed in a simple vertical slice. On that note, I did spend about an hour playing the sequel on Tuesday, and in that time I did my best to play it as I would at home. I started a new game and spent some time crafting a character, then took my first tentative steps into the new world. My overriding impression?
"Yep, this sure is Dark Souls."
I don't mean to be overly blithe or general, but I'm sure fans of the first game will know what I'm getting at. There's just something distinctly Dark Souls about standing amid a handful of huts with nothing but the sound of the wind in the air, a cave yawning invitingly (or threateningly) in the distance. I even went and attacked the merchant in one of the huts, just to make sure it was still possible. For the record, it was, and his response was still to pull out a massive broadsword and hack me to bits.
As with the original Dark Souls (and to a lesser extent, Demon's Souls), the sequel does a good job of evoking the sensation of standing on the precipice of a huge and interesting world. Where the original game began on the outskirts of what appeared to be a ruined castle complex built into a mountainside, the sequel kicks off near a cave complex set in a canyon of sorts. Neither scenario provides any real hints on where to go. Wander through one of the cave in Dark Souls II and you might end up on a quiet seashore... or you might end up battling a handful of zombies. For first-time players in particular, it's both intimidating and exciting.
The same goes for the initial character customization. As in the original game, little context is given when rolling a character -- just the appearance customization tools, a handful of classes like "Knight" and "Bandit," and an initial loadout. The first is fairly straightforward, but the second requires some thought, since it can have a large impact on elements like skill development and equipment. The trick is in understanding that there's no wrong answer when choosing a class in Dark Souls, at least not so long as you put together a smart build and play to your strengths. The trick, of course, is in understanding what a "smart build" entails, since there are a lot of different factors to consider beyond raw power, such as mobility. Ultimately though, it's down to taste.
Where the sequel gets really Dark Souls-y is in your initial gear loadout. Your most obvious option might be to pick the adventure pack full of healing items, but there are a few other choices as well, such as an expendable item that will make you human again (until you die). The one item that will give most everyone pause though is the hunk of wood that "maybe be useful at some point in the future." It's vintage Dark Souls, in that it's more than a little mean in its ambiguity. Basically, it forces you to trade an immediate benefit (restoratives) for a very uncertain future. Needless to say, it's not an option I would recommend to newer players, but it ought to be intriguing to those embarking on their second or third (or hundredth) run.
I ended up rolling a knight and picking the restoratives before heading into the mountain face, where I found... not much at all. Mostly, I tooled around, periodically stopping to fight the odd zombie here or there while trying to get my bearings. I eventually ended up in a coastal dominated by a rather morbid stone monument listing the total number of deaths worldwide (at that time, there were only six). A pit of sorts was nearby, so I decided to wander over and peek over the edge. Within it, I could make out a series of walkways, as well as a handful of zombies. For the hell of it, I decided to jump in to see if I would survive, which shattered my poor knight's legs on impact. She collapsed into a heap, bringing the worldwide death total to seven, and then it was right back to the nearest campfire.
Admittedly, jumping into the pit was stupid, but exploration and experimentation is really the essence of what Dark Souls is all about. Even in the opening hub area, there's just so much to find and do. What's the locked door all about? Are there any secret tunnels? Where do the other caves lead to? Did you remember to check the upper level in the witch hut? Heck, I could have spent an hour just messing around with the initial customization and getting a feel for the various classes.
That's the real beauty of Dark Souls -- it's one of a handful of modern games with the courage to leave players to their own devices with a minimum of guidance. No, it's not the easiest thing in the world to capture in a preview (or for that matter, in a review); but really, good preview coverage is like a baseball team winning in the offseason. At the end of the day, it's the final product that matters, right?
It's on that note that I will say that I'm cautiously optimistic that Dark Souls II will be just fine. Its heart is in the right place, the atmosphere is just creepy as ever, and the combat feels fine (at least does right now -- it's hard to comment on elements like weapon balance at the moment). That at least is readily apparent in the preview build that I played; but whether it can truly match the foreboding grandeur of the original is still very much up in the air. Certainly, it'll be a tough act to follow.
For now, I'm like everyone else -- eager to play more. As usual, an hour isn't nearly enough time for a round of Dark Souls.