The fundamental Demon's/Dark Souls beginner's experience goes something like this: You start out, kill a few mundane monsters, die horribly at the hands of something far more powerful than yourself, and suddenly find yourself running about as a ghost. Heck, Demons Souls didn't even waste any time with this; the first thing you do in that game is die to an obscenely high-level monster.
The developers at From Soft intended to make the Souls games a mission to regain your life, with the undead state not being a penalty, exactly, but certainly not as ideal as playing in a corporeal state. But a fair number of gamers decided they actually like exploring the world of Souls in their undead form, as it allows them certain perks not available to the living. The most significant of these is that an undead player's world can't be invaded by other players -- which means they're safe from game-hacking jerks, among other things.
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Far be it for From Soft to offer an experience anyone might characterize as "friendly" or "easy." They've seen your habits, and they scorn your decision to take advantage of this means of making their creation slightly less hostile. That's why for Dark Souls II they've decided to make the undead state hugely disadvantageous. Because if you're a big baby, they have no sympathy for you.
Un-life as the undead sucks in Dark Souls II. For starters, it makes you ugly. The longer you play in an undead state, the more your character's appearance degenerates. Bad enough that your skin turns green and your face becomes ugly; over time, though, your hair falls out -- and according to director Yui Taimura, even worse things than that can happen as well. One of those things is that, if you re-die repeatedly in an undead state, your character's maximum health will steadily degrade. "You thought that griffin was slaughtering you quickly while you were at full health," From is sneering. "Try it with half as many hit points, sucker."
Also -- and this news freaked out some of the Dark Souls fanatics in attendance at our Tokyo Game Show demo session yesterday -- undead games can now be invaded by other players. So it's just as disadvantageous as playing the normal style adventure, except now you'll potentially have less health. Have fun!
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Really, though, Taimura says these design choices are simply an attempt to balance the playing field and ensure both styles of gameplay are equally challenging. "Generally speaking, we people prefer being living, not undead," he told us in a roundtable interview. "We want to make the goal -- to become the living -- clear. But we have no intention of simply making game more difficult while being undead."
Among the changes to the undead state comes a new benefit: Undead players can summon friends to help pass difficult areas using an item called White Sign Soapstone. Summons now are limited by time, with smaller pieces of soapstone resulting in briefer duration for aid.
Another major chance helps makes things easier for living characters whose world is being invaded by hostile players: By forming a pact through a covenant, players can summon help immediately upon being invaded. Alternately, high-level characters can use their pact to make themselves available to protect other members of their covenant who come under attack. This should help mitigate the danger caused by abusive players with an eye for griefing.
Even more helpfully, Dark Souls II now uses server-based matching rather than running its connections from the player's end. This should offer a few benefits, including creating a much larger pool of potential players to summon or collaborate with through a covenant. Taimura says it also should help diminish the disruptive exploits caused by hackers. "Yes," he stated, "we are aware that cheating is going on -- not only on PC but also on consoles -- and that is why we have decided to move to server-side multiplayer."
In other words, Dark Souls II may be a hostile, hateful game designed to crush the joy from your life, but never let it be said that it will do so unfairly. From Soft wants to create the most level playing field possible as they aspire to destroy you. They're thoughtful like that.