Earlier this week I played the first hour of Dark Souls II. I died exactly eight times: Three times by falling off cliffs, once by drowning, once by the hands of a hulking troll whose swipes were so powerful he occasionally over-balanced and fell, once by the poison of a horrific man-lizard-thing with a fleshy sac hanging off its stomach, once by the sword of a fifteen-foot-tall beast of a man clad in fearsome black armor, and once by way of some demon pigs which swarmed me and chewed me to bits.
Yes, demon pigs. The kind that would live in a demon farmhouse.
And each time, the same now-infamous admonition of the original Dark Souls: YOU DIED. Then back to whichever bonfire I'd rested at, ready to throw my tired ol' hollow bones against the gauntlet of enemies one last time--hopefully a little wiser for the previous attempts.
Dark Souls was a breakout hit, for myriad reasons--it was an exceedingly hard game with semi-realistic medieval combat released in an era where most games are considered "too easy," with a plot that rewarded engagement and exploration. Completing Dark Souls became a status symbol. It was a sign of patience. Of diligence. Of sheer, hard-headed stubbornness.
Whenever a niche game becomes a breakout hit, there's always that fear of dilution. Many a game has been ruined by good-hearted developers trying to "broaden a title's appeal." Fear not: As far as I could tell in the little time I played at a preview event in San Francisco, Dark Souls II is just as inscrutable and difficult as its predecessor.
The open hand of friendship, the mailed fist
After the gorgeous opening cinematic--a lush affair that details Drangleic, presumably your goal in Dark Souls II--you're dropped into the world with nothing. No class. No name. No equipment. No direction.
So you walk. You soon come to a bridge, and across it a well-lit tavern of sorts. And you enter, with trepidation, grasping for a sword that isn't there, preparing to bash gloved fists into leering enemy faces if necessary.
Three old women welcome you, red-robed and eyes blind with cataracts. These women help contextualize the character creation process, grounding it in some semblance of story. You'll choose your name and class here, and customize your appearance.
Classes are just as opaque to newcomers as in Dark Souls. Stats aren't even labeled, so good luck puzzling out the picture labels. Descriptions are maddeningly vague. Gifts are alternatively frivolous garbage and mysterious items that just might be useful later (if you're lucky). And by now fans of the original game are probably cheering, because all of this sounds in line with Dark Souls.
Remember the first time you watched Evil Dead 2 and halfway through you went, "Wait a second--this is the same exact film as Evil Dead except prettier and a lot more hilarious?" Dark Souls II is Dark Souls. It's set in a different world and different monsters, sure, but the basic formula hasn't changed.
Let me give you an example from my own play session. After choosing my class (Warrior, because it came with a sword and shield) and turning my character's hair blue for the hell of it, it was time to face the world--an entire world full of monsters who wanted to kill me. As one of the women in red said to me, "You'll lose your souls. All of them. Over and over again."
Her lack of faith was promptly rewarded. I walked outside, turned down a side path, and came face to face with a surprised troll. I swung my feeble iron sword. Instead of collapsing to the ground and rewarding me with its much-coveted souls, the troll swung and swung and swung and--despite some masterful dodges--killed me with a solid three blows. YOU DIED.
It was around this time I started wondering about a tutorial. Half an hour later I realized I'd walked right past the tutorial without knowing. It was squirreled away near the tavern. The game never pointed it out, or forced me to play through the introductory sections of the game. It set me loose and told me to make my own damn mistakes, like a parent from the 1950s.
It's this frankness--this lack of "hand-holding"--that draws people in. Dark Souls plays like an action game, but it's essentially a gigantic puzzle box where the solutions happen to be swords, arrows, and spears instead of Sudoku boxes.
A dash of color
That's not to say nothing is different. The thing that struck me most in Dark Souls II is how alive and populated the world feels.
I think I talked to more non-hostile characters in the first hour of Dark Souls II than I did in the first ten hours of the original game. They're everywhere, from Shalquoir the cat merchant to the poor knight who complains of a statue blocking his path. Coming from the sparseness of the original Dark Souls, this full roster is almost overwhelming--a feeling heightened by the environments you traverse.
The original Dark Souls (and its spiritual predecessor, Demon's Souls) were bleak experiences. Even when the world opened up into spectacular vistas, the sun kept an entirely unpleasant, grayish pallor. It was a sickly world--a world for the undead.
And while that feeling still remains in Dark Souls II, the game largely ditches the desaturated look (though the PlayStation 3 build I played--Xbox 360 and PC versions are also planned--was clearly still a graphical work-in-progress). One of the first areas you'll enter after the tutorial is a modest village, situated on a Cliffside and bathed in the warm glow of the sun. It's forlorn and melancholy--a place past its prime--but entirely different tonally from the cold, dead lands of the first game.
The tavern at the beginning of the game is another great example, lit as it is with soft orange candlelight. You instinctively know this is a safe place. I have no doubt the developers take advantage of these subliminal color patterns in later areas to subvert your expectations and transform a "safe" place into a trap, but it was a relief to sit and rest a while.
Because hey--even cursed warriors need a place to call home between fights with hulking trolls and demon pigs.