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Dark Souls II beta impressions

19:4013/10/2013Posted by Chris Braithwaite3 Comments

I was lucky enough to be one of the 5,000 people who were able to access the Dark Souls II PS3 network test beta on Saturday night. The purpose of the beta was to test the online functionality of the game. This meant that the beta was a limited time deal: a scant two hours, to ensure that the maximum stress was put on the server, with all beta participants online together. But two hours was plenty of time to get some insight as to what might be in store for the masochistic gamer when Dark Souls II is released in March 2014.

“You died.” That’s what appears to be in store. Dark Souls II seems to continue the series’ effort to prove Thomas Hobbes’ right: where everyone else may be seeking to profit from your death, life will be nasty, brutish and short.

The beta gave access to the area of Huntman’s Copse, a series of dark forests and darker caves. It feels like this area probably sits a few hours into the game, after progressing past maybe one or two bosses. We got to pick from six level 20 characters based on familiar classes: powerful warriors, wise mages, and anything in between. A new addition is Dual Swordsman, which is something of a labelling update: it’s always been possible to dual wield in the series to date. It’s just never been hugely effective, given the complete absence of defensive abilities that it affords, and the importance of defence in Souls games.

Naturally, being an idiot, I chose the Dual Swordsman. And then I took a wrong turn from the opening bonfire and died. Respawning mere steps away, I decided that jumping off a cliff again was probably a bad idea, so headed up a hill the other way, to meet my first enemy: a shambling zombie-like creature, evoking the hollows from the Undead Burg of Dark Souls, and offering as much challenge. One dead zombie later, and despite the foreboding pitch black cave that offered the only option for progress, I confidently pressed on. And fell off a cliff to my death.

Long falls and painful landings became a recurring theme of my time with the beta, but eventually I managed to stop jumping off cliffs long enough to reach a second bonfire, and was then promptly smashed into the ground by a dual-scimitar wielding troll on a bridge. After exacting my revenge on him and his colleagues, and just about surviving a series of ambushes by groups of agile rogues (who appear very fond of surrounding you and attacking from all directions if their original ambush didn’t kill you), my progress was finally halted by a necromancer and his resurrecting skeleton horde. And a nearby cliff.

The summary of my time with the beta is this: If you’re worried that the departure of series director Hidetaka Miyazaki might have imbued Dark Souls II with a more forgiving nature, stop worrying. But the sense of fair play that made death a curiously satisfying experience in previous games in the series remains: you’ll die with great regularity, but it’s still because you weren’t smart enough, or quick enough, or patient enough. You’ll learn, you’ll improve, and when your blood, sweat and tears yield real, definable progress, even within the meagre realms of the beta, it’s a cause for celebration.

The experiences in Huntsman’s Copse seems to confirm that the core ethos of the game is largely unchanged from that established in Demon Souls, and in fact, there seems to be little that is new beyond minor tweaks. However, these tweaks come together nicely to make the beta feel like it has a chance to be the best in the Souls series to date.

Death is a near constant state, and it has consequences, but only minor ones: about 15% of your health bar becomes off limits until you return to the land of the living. Dual wielding is a viable tactical option, particularly when facing large, powerful enemies, where avoiding attacks entirely is preferable to trying to block them. Combat generally feels slightly more polished and agile, and your character is noticeably quicker running forward into battle than in previous Souls games (and noticeably slower when retreating, you coward!).

Summoning (and being summoned) was easy, although it remains to be seen whether this will continue to be the case in the final game, or was simply a function of the concentrated nature of the beta environment. Summoning appears to be more useful than previously was the case, simply because once summoned you can now heal yourself, making summoned companions useful allies, rather than wayward children to keep a watchful eye on. Healing in battle continues to be near-impossible, but healing outside of battle has been bolstered by consumable lifegems (available on top of your limited-use but refillable estus flask), which feels like a helpful addition, without compromising the constant fear of death present in previous games.

All in all, the couple of hours I got to spend with the Dark Souls II beta were a hugely positive experience, allaying the concerns that I had about the potential softening of the game with new directors Yui Tanimura and Tomohiro Shibuya on board. If I had to use one word to describe my feelings towards Dark Souls II, it would be sanguine: optimistic and hopeful, but as a bonus, it also means bloody.

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