Have you ever played a game whereby being constantly killed equates to valuable fighting experience? No, then obviously you haven’t played Dark Souls and quite frankly neither had I until I experienced the complex brutality of Dark Souls II.
Seeing as I never played the first Dark Souls game I cannot compare the two, but from what I played of From Software’s sequel I can easily say that the game is enjoyable to play, that is if you are prepared to die.
Starting off at the beginning I was allowed to choose a character class and customise it, I opted for the Swordsman class and left it at default settings, partly because I pressed the wrong button and partly because I wanted to dive into the action, it was the reason why I was there after all. Either way, with my character chosen and a rather lengthy cut-scene over, I was thrown into the bowls of a rather spacious woodland area and despite the game following a rather ‘direct’ path to an unknown objective there is exploration to be had.
It seems the game allows for players to explore anywhere within a restricted area, with the only restriction being locked doors, epic boss battles and objective markers – a fact I learned quite quickly. I assume players are supposed to follow the direct path to the witches hut, which in turn progresses the story forward, however I decided to explore the starting area and I found a hidden path that led towards a monster. Not wanting to die I proceeded to the witches hut in order to progress to the next segment of the game, a tutorial.
What is interesting about the tutorial is that it can be skipped entirely; it requires players to travel down mysterious paths and interact with the mist. At first i was completely oblivious to them until one of the mist covered doorways caught my eye, the end result was that I died because I didn’t know how to jump over a gap – so back to the checkpoint I went, which in Dark Souls II are the bonfires that are hidden away, so don’t forget to light them when you encounter it.
The tutorial is worth playing through, there isn’t any boring text to read it’s just gameplay and it gradually guides you into the flow of the game – what’s even better is that the tutorial locations can be replayed multiple times, so if you forget how to perform a move travel back and do it again, not that you’d need to as the controls are relatively simple. Played as a third person action game the commands are simple, the analog stick moves the character whereas the R1 and L1 buttons are for attacking (or defending), but this all depends what items you’ve got equipped. This same principle applies to items, if a lifegem is in your hand you can use it by pressing the square button and it will replenish your health, slowly. There are various items within the game, each with their own unique abilities, but for my playthrough I stuck with the lifegem, mainly because it is an item worth holding in your hand for desperate situations.
With the tutorial out of the way I found myself in a small village at a cliff edge, there are characters to interact with, houses to explore and annoying little pigs that take forever to kill (if distirubed). Interaction and exploration is key to success in Dark Souls II, well that’s something I found anyway, as interacting with the characters awarded new items, mission objectives and abilities but the most interesting object of this village was the spire at the cliff edge as this lists how many deaths have befallen you. For me this was currently at one but I expected this would change in due course.
All of these events are a prelude of things to come and after some exploration I found myself making my way to a forest styled area which connected to a castle and this is where the Dark Souls brutality I’ve heard so much about comes into play. Attacking and defeating opponents is simple enough, but you have to be tactical with your moves and equipment. Attacking enemies uses the Stamina bar, if the bar is depleted then you cannot attack for several seconds – in my case I would attack twice and then move back waiting for the opponent to strike so that I could dodge, once their attack had finished I resumed mine. This isn’t the only tactical side of the game, because if you have an item equipped that you can’t wield effectively then you will not be able to deal damage to your opponent. It sounds complicated but it’s relatively simple, if an X appears on the item then do not equip it, otherwise you’ll get nowhere.
You can upgrade your character, a feature which I never used during my playthrough, and this is done by selling souls collected to the woman in the little village. Upon selling souls she will award you with a “level-up” point that can be used to level up your character. You can easily collect souls by finding them on the ground, usually hidden away, or by defeating opponents – however if you die all of the souls you acquired will be lost. Souls are basically the currency in the game, but with everything highly priced and enemies awarding small amounts it can be extremely difficult to get anywhere with them.
Progressing through the game I finally reached the castle, at this point I have no clear indication of what I’m supposed to be doing or where I’m supposed to be going, but I don’t care because I am having fun exploring the area. The castle has multiple routes to explore and various enemies to interact, with some that will kill you in a single blow while others will chain attacks together so that you can’t escape. It’s here where I continuously met my fate to death, but everytime I died I learned something new about the area and the enemies attacking patterns, so I kept going back for more until I had succeeded – that is until I discovered the boss.
You know you are up against a boss when they have their own cut-scene before the fight and when the fight begins a Health Bar that makes yours look like a peanut, even so with my unlevelled swordsman I managed to take out three quarters of the health bar before dying and that was mostly due to the warrior I had summoned before the fight began. I’m not entirely sure how I unlocked him, whether it was due to talking to Pate in the Castle or a man in the Village, but I managed to unlock an ability that allowed me to summon warriors to combat wherever writing is carved into the floor. It’s a useful mechanic during boss fights as I used the summoned warrior to distract the boss while I strategically attacked him, however due to running out of recovery items I ended up dying and reverting back to the last bonfire I lit.
This, for me, was as far as I could go – as while I had the determination to progress forward my limited power and items meant that each attempt resulted in death and the more times you die the shorter your Health Bar becomes, that is unless you use the Human item which regenerates your health bar. With no items left and only a sword by my side I went back to exploring the castle grounds, which led me to finding a large amount of enemies and a trap that killed everyone in its sight.
What did I learn from my experience with Dark Souls II? It’s an action-adventure game with strategic elements and a vast world to explore, but more importantly it’s where death is the beginning and not the end. As the games subtitle suggests – be prepared to die – as from my experience you’ll be doing it a lot.
Dark Souls II will be available on the Xbox 360 and PS3 from the 14th March 2014.