First things first. I played a lot of Dark Souls when it came out, but I'd still not call myself a dedicated fan. For every wondrous sight the game showed you there were hours of hard grind, of wearily hacking your way to and fro through the same patch of enemies to grind or recover your lost souls. I love that people love the game; true challenge is a rarity in modern mainstream gaming, and From Software's obvious respect for their fanbase is a wonderful thing, but I could never embrace it with the same fervour some of my friends did. To me Dark Souls was like a Great White Shark; I could admire its single-minded focus and ruthless intensity, but I was reluctant to nestle down on the sofa and play with it.
With that in mind, I was still looking forward to seeing what From Software had come up with for Dark Souls 2. With their previous game so beloved by fans for its precise mechanics, what could they alter and improve without alienating their passionate audience?
Fantasy rule number thirty-six: old women in cowls always know more than they let on
The demo version I got my hands on let me play roughly the first hour of the game. Starting off, I make my way studiously from the tutorial zone, checking every misty corner for an onrushing assailant. I'm playing a cleric class. They can heal themselves with holy magic, and they carry a mace. I come up against two undead soldiers and realise that innate healing ability pales in comparison to not getting hit in the first place. One mistimed swing later and I'm wearing my opponent's battleaxe as a hat.
Life two. Mistime an evasive roll and fall twenty metres to land in front of a bemused fire lizard. Takeaway delivered straight to your door.
This time I switch to the knight class, hunker behind my heavy shield and finally manage to survive longer than five minutes. It's been a while since I last played Dark Souls, and the sequel is in no mood to accommodate my lapsed (and not particularly fearsome even in my heyday) skills. Eventually I manage to get the flow of combat about right, and I'm ducking and diving past flailing sword strokes and carving my way through the enemy like a seasoned warrior. Then I get over-ambitious, attempt to swig an Estus flask, and a hulking brute brains me with his heavy flail. Back to the starting bonfire I go.
Despite some concerns from franchise die-hards over reduced difficulty, one thing is clear – this is still your daddy's Dark Souls. Combat is punishing but conquerable, carelessness is punished swiftly.
I didn't have to fight this guy. Thank god
That's not to say there aren't changes, and depending on your level of fanaticism for the original you might find them hard to stomach. Big changes first. There's now a fast travel system that allows you to skip between visited bonfire hubs from the off. Personally, I'm all for this. I understand that it diminishes atmosphere and immersion. I don't care. That first section of Dark Souls, grinding out levels and trudging to and fro from bonfire to bonfire very nearly killed me. I'm very much in favour of reducing such back-and-forth busywork. It's unclear whether you can turn fast travel off if you prefer the old school approach, but it seems unlikely.
A couple of new items to mention. The Name-Engraved Ring allows you to choose a god to worship, which will operate much like the slightly nebulous Covenants did in the previous game. Players who worship the same god will find their chance of being summoned into each other's game improved. Adding a more reliable co-op mode is an idea that makes sense to me, although if you're going to allow players to group up I 'd say go the whole hog, rather than nebulously improving their chances. In other multiplayer news, you can now be invaded while hollow. No more reducing your humanity to avoid nasty intrusions into your world, now you've always got to keep a wary eye out. That said the developers clarified that if you avoid hassling other players the chance of you being invaded will be greatly reduced, so there is some comfort.
The Soul Vessel is another new trinket that changes things up. By taking it to a special area in the game, you can redistribute your character stats and even your class. I'm less sold on this one, to be honest. The choices made during character creation and levelling feel like they should have permanency. I'm worried that the Soul Vessel will encourage players to game the system by changing class to suit particular areas, which would slightly spoil the challenge of the game. That said, I'm sure that From Software won't make altering your character that easy. There's no concrete information on how the item works, but I wouldn't be surprised to see it cost a prohibitive amount of souls, or make you pay for the benefit in some other horrible way.
Combat itself feels much the same as ever, although there are small tweaks. Backstabs, a key source of extra damage in the first game, are now slightly easier to land, and come with their own custom animations depending on the weapon you're wielding. There are new healing orbs that restore much less health than your trusty Estus flask, but are far quicker to use in combat. These, I imagine, are going to be a key item for players to master. In the middle of a pitched battle, do you grab a quick breather by using a life orb, or risk the greater efficiency but lengthier animation of your flask? Aside from these small changes (and yes, a 'small change' is relative in a game played on such a knife's edge) I don't imagine it will take too long for players to get used to hack and slashing all over again.
This is actually pretty close to how I look after a few hours with Dark Souls
I came away from Dark Souls 2 with the definite sense that this is a refinement rather than a radical change in direction. Which is absolutely fine of course, but if you remained unswayed by the original I doubt you'll be convinced anew, even with the grudging steps toward accessibility. The beginning of the game, aside from the new setting, feels very similar. Enemies are the same mix of vulnerable but offensively dangerous footsoldiers and the occasional elite, with the same tricks to avoid. This roster will almost certainly change as you travel to more exotic locations, but certainly for the first hour or so there's a feeling of deja vu in both level design and enemy placement as you inch your way through the opening areas, despite the slightly glossier and more colourful visuals. Will that matter to hardcore fans pining for another 100 hours or so of content? Probably not, but I'd wager that even for them the sense of wonder and excitement will be diminished a second time around.
That said, it would be incredibly unfair to judge the game after only an hour. I didn't make it to the first major boss, because I'm incompetent, but I saw someone else square off against him; a towering spindle-limbed giant with a gaping chasm for a face and broken swords protruding from his back. As he stomped towards the unfortunate player, I felt a shiver of the old thrill- no-one does boss encounters like From Software. Perhaps my slight reticence is due to the fact that this is not and never was a series that comes across naturally in short sessions. Come the game's March 11 release date, I'm sure there will be countless secrets to discover and beautifully designed monsters to slay, and hopefully some more varied environments to explore. My time with Dark Souls 2 might not have made me a true believer, but it left me in no doubt that if you loved the first game, you've got plenty to look forward to.
Most Anticipated Feature: Coming up against some more of those boss encounters, which never fail to make an impression. Usually on the side of my head. With an axe.