Is This Dark Souls?

From Software's sequel adds to the original's formula, but questions remain about how much it takes away. Eurogamer's Martin Robinson investigates.

Article by Pete Davison, . Based on an original article by Martin Robinson, Eurogamer.

On the steps outside an east London church there's a smiling PR checking names off a list.

Next to her, in the early twilight shadow of a late January evening, is a hired hand dressed head to toe in clunking steel armor. He guides us down the steps and through the courtyard, flaming torch held out ahead of us, as we all exchange an awkward smile with the PR on our way into the catacombs. Inside, Peter Serafinowicz -- the gravelled voice of Darth Maul, and Spaced's Duane Benzie -- tells us how he's played the original Dark Souls for some 1800 hours, how excited he is to be playing the part of mild-mannered Pate in its sequel, and how proud he is to be providing the grunts and groans of the suffering player in From Software's game.

We're a long way from Lordran, and even further from the cold, surprising enigma of the game that started it all. 2008's Demon's Souls - itself a continuation of From's miserablist fantasy King's Field series - was that rare thing, an unheralded, unannounced mid-budget console game whose reputation was kindled through word of mouth. Its spiritual successor Dark Souls was a grander, more intricate production, yet its enigma remained intact, the dignity with which it unravelled cementing the game's status as one of the greats of its generation.

A snap from a lengthy cut-scene that follows on from the tutorial, which was made more unsettling when I realised that a friend's ex-girlfriend was providing one of the witches' voices.

Well over two years later, Dark Souls has become a phenomenon. Its publisher, Bandai Namco, is acutely aware of this, even if its treatment of Dark Souls 2 sometimes suggests its interpretation of the series' appeal doesn't always chime with the fans'. Celebrity-fronted events, pop-up cafes and tie-in comic books penned by American authors feel several worlds away from these masterpieces, famously fuelled by their own self-contained sense of mystery.

It's another layer of doubt to be added to those that have wrapped around Dark Souls 2 ever since the game's reveal. Hidetaka Miyazaki, the visionary behind Demon's and Dark Souls, has stepped aside, and the new director Tomohiro Shibuya's comments about a more understandable, straightforward game rung the wrong kinds of bells. There have been more soothing sounds from co-director Yui Tanimura, yet still a thick fog of doubt hangs over Dark Souls 2's new setting of Drangleic.

So, sitting down with the final build of Dark Souls 2 a mere matter of weeks before its release, the biggest adversaries aren't the hulking demons or well-concealed hollow soldiers, but the anticipation, expectation and nervous trepidation that inevitably surround the follow-up to one of the very best games of all time. You approach Dark Souls 2 as you approach the series' notoriously hostile worlds: shield up, eyes open and often fearing the absolute worst.

It doesn't take long for the old rhythm to set in -- about 40 seconds, to be precise. After a long, lavish pre-rendered intro, you're cast before a dark field where ratty creatures furrow through grass that dances in pale light. Adorned with nothing but a tattered red robe, I start an ill-advised fist fight which summons a swarm of the beasts, sending me crumpling to the ground within seconds. An embarrassed silence, and then the ping of Dark Souls 2's first trophy, awarded upon your first death: 'This is Dark Souls'. As if there was ever any doubt.

Walkways in the Forest of Fallen Giants are great for knocking enemies off. Or falling off yourself, of course.

The next hour of exploration, thick with danger, intrigue and flashes of pure confusion, certainly backs that up. This is From Software's series as brutal and as brilliant as you remember it, where half a second's inattention can wipe out half an hour's progress. It's not easier, and it's not necessarily harder. It's most definitely different, though, and the points of comparison and departure will be the focus of much debate, and much consternation, well after Dark Souls 2's release.

Dark Souls 2's tutorial is a little more heavy-handed than its predecessors', a less organic primer for the difficulties to come in which tombstones tell you of the base mechanics, as well as introducing some of the newer ones. The most significant addition to your basic move-set is something as simple as the jump being bound to a different button, meaning that running and leaping are no longer part of the same sticky motion. Attacking an enemy from the rear, meanwhile, is now a more ornate process, and one that's less tricky to pull off. There are other additions, introduced through your own experiments and failures later on -- you're more prone to a stagger state when your stamina's low, dual-wielding weapons is a new option and the lock-on is now more far-sighted, an amendment that's equal parts frustrating and helpful.

It's a measure of the perfect balance of design found in the original Dark Souls that every new feature in the sequel takes away much as it adds, and some of the shifts are more controversial than others. Fast travel between bonfires adds convenience, but at the same time it doesn't insist on the same intimacy with the world that Dark Souls embraced so well. Voice chat is now implemented, though it's opt-in, and the process of finding friends to fight alongside has been smoothed by a system whereby you can align yourself to certain gods within the game. Worship the same deity as your friends, and it's more likely that you'll be summoned side-by-side. A diminishing of the cold-faced distance traditionally kept between players in the Souls series, or a necessary concession to modern audiences? It's all a matter of perspective.

Majula's a soothing replacement for Firelink Shrine. It's also worth noting that while background music isn't commonplace, it wasn't just restricted to the central hub this time out.

As are introductions such as the Soul Vessel, an item you can take to a certain location somewhere within the world to reset your parameters and re-spec your class. The dead ends of progression are no more, but is the electric sense of being in a world where wrong decisions are duly punished undermined? The health system is rejigged once more, with Estus flasks now joined by life gems that are slow to replenish your lifebar but plentiful in supply. As you die again and again, becoming more and more hollow, your lifebar slims piece by piece, a process mirrored in the appearance of the player, their hair thinning further and their skin rotting more upon each new death. A muddling of Dark's stripped-back approach, or a return to the nuance of Demon's herbs? Right now there's no definite answer either way.

Dark Souls 2's new setting of Drangleic will likely split opinion, too. Set up by some atypically dense exposition by way of a post-tutorial cut-scene, it's a brighter, slightly less bleak world than its predecessor. Perhaps it's a result of prejudice built up through exploring the depths of Lordran, but it's a location that, in the opening hour at least, feels less dense with detail, and less steeped with a mournful sense of foreboding. Majula, a central hub that acts as an analog of Dark Souls' Firelink Shrine, is a village set upon golden shores where a huddle of traders offer you their wares. Just beyond, The Forest of Fallen Giants -- a tangle of felled trees and destroyed stonework interspersed with sun-kissed courtyards -- is a less involving backdrop than the Undead Burg, though that's not to say it's a lesser creation.

Most importantly, away from the subtle shift of systems and a brightening of the aesthetic, Dark Souls 2 has retained the ability to surprise and to challenge. There are secrets to be found around dark corners -- one long corridor squirrelled away hosts a fire-belching frog who guards a fire-spitting sword -- near-impossible feats, and impeccably realized enemies to fight.

An early boss is like an S&M mascot cast in wattle and daub, while stalking the opening area are colossal rhino-like beasts, placed to tease in the brave and intimidate the starting player. I run straight past, but a couple of screens away one of our number decides to get involved in the insurmountable fight, taking the creature on with nothing more than a dagger and a high heart. Within minutes a crowd assembles, sharing strategies and offering encouragement over a long, clumsy duel to the death, and that rare sense of community that From Software's peerless series offers rises up. This is a different game, one where some edges have been blunted while others have been sharpened to a prickly shine - but it's one that's indubitably, proudly and defiantly Dark Souls.

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Comments 8

  • Avatar for hiptanaka #1 hiptanaka 4 years ago
    I'm afraid there will be too few surprises in the game. A big part of the fun I had with Dark Souls was discovering all the mechanics and systems I didn't know existed before I started playing. Finding the first blacksmith, for example, not only came with a huge sense of relief for finding a new safe spot, but it also made me ecstatic for learning the game had an interesting crafting system.

    Tweaking the existing systems is all good (but backstab really should be made harder to pull off, not easier. It's too useful in the first game), but more importantly I hope they've added some entirely new systems to discover and explore.
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  • Avatar for Mad-Mage #2 Mad-Mage 4 years ago
    @hiptanaka Backstab may be easier to pull off, but I heard you are no longer invincible while you do it.
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  • Avatar for hiptanaka #3 hiptanaka 4 years ago
    @Mad Mage That sounds like an improvement. I remember the first footage also had a monster with a special attack for when you tried to get behind it.
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  • Avatar for DogNozzle #4 DogNozzle 4 years ago
    @hiptanaka Sounds like maybe you didn't play Demon's Souls before Dark Souls (not sure). If it's any comfort, I don't think anyone who did was like "Meh, it's just more of the same" when playing Dark Souls for the first time. =)
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  • Avatar for hiptanaka #5 hiptanaka 4 years ago
    @DogNozzle That's correct. I didn't play Demon's Souls first, which of course made Dark Souls an even fresher experience to me than to those who did. Still, the world structure and various systems are quite different in Dark Souls compared to Demon's Souls, as I understand it. More of the same wouldn't be such a bad thing when it's Dark Souls - just a new world to explore with new monsters would be pretty cool - but it would be a lot more interesting if they mixed things up more than just changing the jump button. Being a direct sequel under the same publisher, now with higher stakes, I'm afraid they may play it too safe.
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  • Avatar for DogNozzle #6 DogNozzle 4 years ago
    @hiptanaka Yeah, it does sounds like there will be more continuity this time around WRT the game systems. At this point I'm just willing to trust From until they make a misstep. It will be interesting to see how everyone reacts once the game comes out!
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  • Avatar for Blackcompany #7 Blackcompany 4 years ago
    The only question I have is will it be difficult, like they keep promising and failing to deliver, or will it simply be tedious, annoying and cheap, like they have so far managed?

    Dying to a trap that offered no clues, in order to learn its there, is not difficult. Its cheap and annoying. Dying in a single hit, to every enemy above grunt level, without even an opportunity to learn their patterns, isn't hard. Its tedious and annoying.

    You want hard? Check on Deadly Combat for Skyrim. Better AI. Smarter enemies who do more damage, know when to break blocks and block your attacks, know how and when to move and counter. Not a single large health bar or ridiculous degree of damage resistance to be found. And no one hit kills.

    That's hard. That's a challenge. Dark Souls does not offer hard. It offers annoying. Which is a shame, because it nails atmosphere, world building and making death a mechanic as opposed to a holdover. It has so much going for it, were it not for its constantly trying to mask tedium with this label of 'elite difficulty.'
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  • Avatar for hiptanaka #8 hiptanaka 4 years ago
    @Blackcompany You agree Dark Souls makes death a mechanic as opposed to a holdover, but still you argue that getting one hit killed by a boss isn't part of the pattern learning.

    To me, the challenge aspect of Dark Souls is about 1) learning by trial/error and experimentation, then 2) getting consistently good at it so that you can survive to the next bonfire. 2 can't be ignored, even if 1 is a part of it.

    But what really made Dark Souls stand out to me was the atmosphere, storytelling and exploration (complete with fun secrets and clever interconnections between areas). Edited February 2014 by hiptanaka
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