Dark Souls II – Hungry for Pain

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BASICS Dark Souls II

Piercing the heart of Dark Souls II — an inside view of the development of one of the most anticipated sequels of the year.

BASICS
Dark Souls II

Developer: From Software
Publisher: Namco Bandai Games
Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, PC
Street: March 31, 2014

Dark Souls II is coming both too soon and not soon enough. It’s been almost two years since the original was released, an indomitable vortex of game design that still feels like it hasn’t been tamed, as if one more run through its ruins might resolve things — one last parry, one last backstab, one more roll out of danger. The battle is never won, the problem never solved, only temporary moments of order are possible, and the game slides back again into its state of disorder at each bonfire. Dark Souls II is like a new tidal wave of disorder gathering on the horizon, with new problems to solve, new battles to obsess over and a dark new cell to lock one’s self into.

With Dark Souls II, development company From Software wants to make the obsessive character balancing and experimentation more sensual, something players can understand through contrasts in visuals and animation rather than poring over menu screens. “We want players to more clearly  understand the results of certain actions that they take,” says Yui Tanimura, the game’s director, during a demo in New York. “It’s not going to be spelled out in words, but we’re hoping that players will be able to sense what needs to be understood about how to play the game.”

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One of the most apparent changes in the 15-minute demo is a subtle change of scale. The camera has been moved a few degrees closer to the character, adding a slight sense of close-up intimacy to his movements and apparel. The environments seem to complement this new perspective — narrow corridors opening onto mid-size chambers, filled with detail and darkness but none so big and open as, say, Darkroot Basin or Blighttown’s giant swamp, which quickly gave way to tedium and long stretches of backtracking.

“We want to remove the fat from the game,” Tanimura says, claiming that while Dark Souls II will be roughly the same size as the first, its levels will be more tightly focused and feature less filler, with an emphasis on vertical scaling where players can see areas both above and below them. “One major thing we want to try and focus on is the contrast between light and dark,” Tanimura says. “In this game what we’re really trying to emphasize is even if you’re in a light room there will be dark corners, there will be that contrast between shadows and light, darkness and light.”

The studio is also working to break up the familiar level structure. Dark Souls II will free its bosses from the big room at the end of an area and have them harass players throughout. In one example, players creep through a curving basement corridor in a torture chamber when a big, spiked chariot carrying the area’s boss appears, triggering a chase sequence. Encounters like these will offer an early glimpse at bosses’ abilities and especially clever or experienced players will be able to kill them before reaching the end of the level.

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From Software is also taking up the challenge of building on the game’s famed sense of difficulty for long-time fans while also trying to find ways to keep new players from feeling discouraged by its complexity. “We’re not going to create an elaborate tutorial; we’re not going to spell it out for everybody,” Tanimura says. “But what we feel is important is for the player to understand based on their actions, if you attack someone or are attacked by someone, you’ll feel how effective that attack was and what the next steps in becoming better at the game will be.”

In one area, a remote castle overlooking the sea, players will encounter a new enemy, a large brute with the armored equivalent of a turtle shell on his back. Dark Souls veterans will be familiar with the ease of chaining backstabs against some of the game’s toughest enemies like Darkwraiths and Black Knights, but this new enemy type has a counterattack for anyone trying to circle behind, falling over and using his shell-like armor as a battering ram. The visual language of the enemy armor design, meanwhile, is clear enough to telegraph to new players they should stay in front. “It’s obviously very easy to kill players,” Tanimura says. “You can make enemies undefeatable, there are so many easy ways to kill players. But we feel that it’s important that when players face death, or are about to face death, they are able to understand and anticipate death coming around the corner — it’s not just something that pops out of a wall and kills them. We feel giving players the reason behind why certain results occurred is important for getting them to try again — enabling them to think and strategize in terms of what they can do to overcome this next time.”

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While Tanimura is remaining secretive about the game’s story and locale, the demo seems packed with suggestive references. One of the areas is reached by crossing a long bridge that leads toward a cliff-top castle that looks very similar to the Painted World of Ariamis, where human-dragon halfbreed Priscilla was banished. Another area looks suspiciously similar to The Duke’s Archives, which Tanimura says was used as a place to experiment on dragons, something that immediately reminds us of Seeth the Scaleless, one of the Lord Soul-bearing bosses of the original who betrayed his fellow dragons in order to make himself immortal.

Even at first glance, it’s already clear there is much to obsess over in Dark Souls II. It’s impossible to predict just how the game’s combat and weapon systems will match the complexity of the original. There are now three weapon/shield slots per hand instead of two, suggesting a different approach to the always important equipment burden that could have a big impact. The departure of series creator Hidetaka Miyazaki may ultimately yield many significant changes not apparent in the demo. But it’s apparent that Dark Souls II will make players struggle, suffer and come back for more.

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