While most of my fellow writers were having the best time ever at GaymerX, Namco Bandai invited me out recently to check out a handful of their upcoming titles. The games ranged from the latest incarnations of the Dragon Ball Z and Naruto to not one, not two, but three different Pac-Man games. Oh, and something called Dark Souls 2.
Above anything else, I’m concerned about Dark Souls 2. Not because the series’ director Hidetaka Miyazaki has left direct control of the game in the hands of others or the rumors that the game will feature easier options to entice players intimidated by its harsh, but well deserved, reputation. No, what bothers me is that it’s Dark Souls…2.
Sequels have a sketchy history in this industry, and rarely can a game as demanding and original as Dark Souls survive a second go-around without it becoming a blemish on the franchise’s history. The splendor tends to become diluted and many sequels fall prey to “more of the same, but with better graphics” syndrome, almost like knockoffs of the original. (Side note—I’m ignoring Dark Souls’ connection to Demon’s Souls as a spiritual successor since the two are only related by basic mechanics and design philosophy. It’s a tenuous link at best.) The demo I played through did little to alleviate this fear.
A handful sections in the demo played like a direct reaction to or revisiting of specific segments in the first game. Early on, a short run through a basement left me sitting in the dark unless I sacrificed my shield had to carry a torch, bringing up memories of traversing the pitch black Tomb of the Giants in DS1. Later on, spell-slinging enemies tried to snipe me while I was occupied with melee foes, exactly as they did two years ago in the now infamous Sen’s Fortress. While the situations make sense within the context of the game, after all enemies want to avoid death as much as the player, they’re still not exactly new.
They do, however, let From Software show off bits of their new game engine. Though subtle, the new engine allows more fluctuation in the lighting and a more dynamic style, including flashier attacks and fluid enemy movements. Everything on display looks fantastic and holds tight to the gritty medieval designs of the series.
On the other end of the spectrum, the biggest differences I noticed felt less like an advancement of the gameplay and more like someone else’s attempt at it.
For example, you move faster than before, but swing your sword or raise your shield much slower. Similarly, your stamina refreshes after a longer delay. Upon starting the demo, I ran over to a pair of zombie soldiers, let loose a few slashes, mistimed blocking all of their counterattacks, and died. My second attempt was more successful, but everything continued to feel…off. It felt like I had ordered a Coke-a-Cola at a restaurant and was served a Pepsi instead. For some, unnoticeable, but for devoted fans, a world of difference.
There are many possible explanations, of course. Maybe the weapons my character was using, a longsword, medium shield, and massive greatsword, were just on the slow side. Maybe a stat like dexterity affects attack speed and mine was simply low (I couldn’t view my inventory or stats). Maybe these animation windows are still being tweaked and the demo won’t reflect the final product. A handful of relatively small differences between this new game and the one we all know and love/hate may not seem like much, but they add up to a drastically different feel in a game with such tight, punishing gameplay.
All that being said, nothing on display put me off from the game, it was just different and different doesn’t necessarily mean bad. As I said earlier, I’m concerned that Dark Souls 2 won’t surpass the high bar set by its predecessor. But I would love to be surprised.
One final note—I took the opportunity to ask about co-op options and what expansions to the online system we could expect to see. Though representatives refused to directly answer my questions about matchmaking and finding specific friends to play with, they assured me that the development team had discussed the role of co-op and fans who love to adventure together. Is it too much to ask for an easier way to find specific allies or the inclusion of voice chat?
Probably, but with more resources dedicated towards online play and the unrevealed elements of how covenants will play out in the sequel, there’s still hope yet.
Dark Souls 2 is scheduled for a March 2014 release on PS3, Xbox 360, and PC.