Dying again and again and again in the latest hardcore action-RPG by FROM Software
Anytime anybody talks up their video game skills, a good way to see how much of a badass they really are is to check how they handled Dark Souls. A spiritual successor to FROM Software's Demon's Souls (which itself is a spiritual successor to FROM's King's Field series), Dark Souls doesn't hesitate to quickly kill you as hard as it possibly can, using death as a learning experience and always leaving a light at the end of the tunnel--nothing's impossible in Dark Souls, but it's always going to be very difficult... and very worth it.
Dark Souls II continues in the tradition of the last game, with players stepping into the very fragile armor of another Undead (who you of course get to name and design) and creeping through the ruined, cursed kingdom of Drangleic. At the Namco Bandai New Year's Kickoff Event, I was lucky enough to get a chance to talk with Brand Manager Brian Hong, who was not only excited as hell to talk about the game, but was very well-versed in the last title.
With Demon's Souls and Dark Souls--and even going back to King's Field--they're kind of a rarity in today's gaming scene. They're really difficult, compared to a lot of games that like to hold your hand and make things easy. Were you surprised by the popularity of the Souls series, or did you or the developers think that gamers were ready for this kind of challenge?
BRIAN HONG: We weren't expecting that at all. The developers have stated that they were really surprised at the popularity of Demon's Souls (and later, Dark Souls)--I mean, this game was really a labor of love for them, they wanted to make the kind of game they wanted to play. Fans got back to them, and gamers found it to be very rewarding, a real throwback. It's really difficult, but if you keep at it, you'll get better, and in some ways it gets easier. For a lot of these people, Dark Souls reminded them why they got into video games in the first place, and I really think there's no greater compliment you can give a game.
FROM implemented online in a really cool way--you would see the "ghosts" of other players who were online, you could read their messages and check their bloodstains and learn from their mistakes, and limited co-op and PVP. Will we be seeing any big changes to online in Dark Souls II?
BH: You're going to find a lot of under-the-hood adjustments to the game, and fans already know about Dark Souls II's dedicated servers, as well as the beta and online load tests we've performed to make sure there aren't any problems with the game's online. I won't say that there are "changes" so much as "wrinkles" to the existing system. One big adjustment comes with matchmaking and PVP--if you remember before in Dark Souls, you could use a Red Crystal and invade another player's world. However, a lot of players were keeping their Soul counts low, and intentionally invading the worlds of weaker, less-powerful players so they could have easy prey. What Dark Souls II will do instead is perform matchmaking based on your complete Souls history, compared to just your current Souls count--that way, you're always picking fights with people at your level.
Personally, I like studying and mastering combat systems in video games, but it's safe to say that I won't be "mastering" Dark Souls anytime soon. Can you tell us about any additions to combat?
BH: In Dark Souls, a lot of players were finding that backstabbing gave a pretty hefty advantage, and that there were "safe" moments while rolling or healing. These won't be as advantageous as before--it'll be more fair, and a little less exploitable. There's also the new dual-wielding option, which removes the ability to block and parry for the chance to inflict more damage, and the chance to carry three weapons or items per arm instead of two. There's also the Life Gems, which provide certain pros and cons for healing compared to Estus Flasks.
Boss difficulty varied in Dark Souls. Some were difficult, while others were surprisingly easy--I mean, I parried the final boss to death--and there were some other, more unique bosses, like the Bed of Chaos, which was a big multi-part battle. What can you say about the bosses in Dark Souls II--will it just be a raising of the base difficulty, or will we see a greater variety of the kinds of bosses we'll fight?
BH: We can't reveal too much regarding the bosses, but I can say that the uniqueness of Dark Souls' bosses really got the community going. Players were effectively sharing notes, talking to each other and figuring out different strategies to take on the game's bosses. Dark Souls' players loved that sense of discovery and surprise, so I think it's safe to say that there will be plenty of surprises in Dark Souls II. Some of these creatures, though, some of the things they can do... man, personally I'm wondering what kind of recreational drugs they have over at FROM Software.
While some demand a more direct narrative, many found the way it was implemented in Dark Souls refreshing. There's a story there, and a deep lore there, but you have to pay attention and you have to want to dive into it more. Was there an effort to continue in this direction with Dark Souls II, and do you find it enhances the gameplay to embed the story more naturally and avoid wedging in cinematics?
BH: Yes, definitely, that unique style of storytelling is back in Dark Souls II. It was actually unintentional how that developed, and how the community took to it so strongly--I mean, who knew? There are so many different ways to tell a story in a game, I mean a cinema will tell you a story and that's one way to pull you into that world, but you discover and interpret the story in Dark Souls. Lots of things are left to interpretation, and you can look online and find fans picking apart all the lore of the game's world and how they interpret it, so yes, you'll be seeing more of that.
Just out of curiosity, what weapon upgrade paths did you take in Dark Souls? (ZWEIHANDER 4 LIFE, YO)
BH: I'm actually gonna need some help on this one! (he calls over Namco Bandai Community Manager J. Kartje and asks him the question)
JK: I was pretty straightforward, I went with Sword+15 to Magic Sword.
BH: I went for a Sorceror/Swordsman hybrid, that worked the best for me.
This game is a special kind of (fun) cruelty. Check it out on GOG!
And one final, personal question: aside from Dark Souls, what's the most challenging video game you've ever played?
JK: Do you remember Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines? The first one, on PC? Yeah, that one.
BH: I'm kind of in a unique position here, but I'm just gonna say Dark Souls II.
For our hands-on time with Dark Souls II, we were ushered into a separate room to play a PS3 build of the game, and given exactly one hour to play. They were pretty strict about it, since a lot of people from the press were there to get time with the game.
Starting the game, we did our initial brightness and controls setup, and the game started with a foreboding intro movie. An old woman tells the tale of a broken, ancient and walled-off kingdom named Drangleic, how it's "a place where Souls may mend" my "ailing mind." Our Undead walks through ruins until he reaches a cliff, and comes across a huge, swirling maelstrom... and then leaps into it.
As the game starts, we awake in an abandoned field, unarmed. I immediately look around for enemies, but only see a few strange, scavenging creatures that run at my approach... and lots of skeletons scattered around. Remembering the horrors of Dark Souls' Firelink Cemetary, I run for a house, and find three old women inside--the one(s?) narrating the opening movie. Here, I'm given a chance to "recall my name" and create my character. The customization options are much more in-depth than Dark Souls, giving me plenty of sliders, making the whole character creation process much less of a pain than it was in the original. After I finish and choose my character class (Warrior) and my gift (Life Gems), I'm told by the old ladies to take the Souls of my enemies, how they're the key to my salvation. "Oh, but you'll lose your Souls," one of the ladies cackles. "All of them, over and over again."
And with that, I'm off, down a dimly-lit cavern path toward the sunlight. I'm greeted by the sound of the ocean, and a seemingly-abandoned seaside town called Majula while quiet, eerie music plays. There are people here, but many of them sit with their heads down, content with simply being alive for another day. There's a man named Maughlin in one of the houses who sells armor. I don't have any Souls, so I can't buy anything, but another man in town says that Majula is one of the few places in Drangleic where life is still somehow "normal."
Bypassing a huge well in the middle of town (which I can't descend just yet), I head underground. Surprisingly, there's nothing in the catacombs next to the town except for a contraption that won't work. Heading back out, I return to the seaside cave system outside Majula and get my first death, caused by my own greed--there's a treasure chest next to a cliff, and from the chest, you can see a dead body with loot. Unfortunately, "swimming" is not one of the skills your new Undead has, so with a hearty BLUB BLUB, I revive at the Bonfire in Majula.
I head down a different path outside of town and end up in the Forest of Fallen Giants. There are lots of Hollows by the riverside, but they all go down fairly quickly, although I almost die from one that's wielding a sword-and-shield combination. The controls in combat feel much smoother than Dark Souls, and you're able to run while keeping your guard up, which is pretty handy. I climb up a long ladder and come to a clearing with a huge Undead knight sitting at the base of a tree, with a bunch of Hollows milling about. I take down one or two of them, but they quickly overwhelm me and I find myself back at the Bonfire in Majula.
Going to a different path, I find a wanderer sitting outside what looks like a cathedral. He warns me that it's a dead end inside the building--the way is blocked by a statue. I'm not sure what he means, so I go inside and find that a lever to open the door is--sure enough--being held down by a stone statue. Hearing scrabbling and grunting, I see that there are two doors in the cathedral just next to the door, and open one... and I'm suddenly attacked by a freakishly strong zombie thing armed with a club. I manage to not only not die, but take it down after a few tense moments. I find another, similar (and thankfully unarmed) creature in the adjacent cell and kill it with a quick backstab.
Feeling a little more confident, I decide to go back to the Forest of Fallen Giants and retrieve my collected Souls at the spot I last died. I do that, all right... and then kill three Hollows before I anger their giant friend and he cuts me down (while an archer is up high filling me full of arrows). It's at this point that I'm tapped on the shoulder, letting me know that my time with Dark Souls II is almost up.
And with that, I'm gonna have to wait until March 11th, when Dark Souls II arrives for PC, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360. Are you prepared to die, again and again and again? Let us know what your plans are in the comments!