Dark Souls II - 1

The Souls series is not for the faint-hearted. Constant deaths, insane difficulty spikes, and an ever present sense of doom are just a handful of reasons behind the brand’s success among a growing niche of brave gamers. Somehow, developer From Software has managed to make its once masochistic franchise a bit of a blockbuster, and with Dark Souls II now just mere weeks away, we were fortunate enough to get some hands-on time with the release. Spoilers: it’s still hard.

What immediately struck us about the game is just how much bigger the budget for the souls-stealing sequel must be, as we were greeted by a lavish CGI cutscene giving a brief overview of the world and our role in it. It really was a shock to get some solid context, as in previous titles, the “narrative” has been quite minimalistic, with the majority of the lore being left down to the player to decipher.

It wasn’t long before we were deployed in a grassy area surrounded by a perilous drop, save for the path before us. The sky was overcast and miserable, and the sense of depression was accentuated by our character’s rotting face. Lovely. Venturing forth, we entered a second shrubby environment that appeared to be home to a group of bizarre monkey-like creatures. Foolishly swinging a fist at a nearby simian, we were rewarded handsomely as all of his chums piled on to hand us our inaugural death.

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This occurred two or three times before we finally twigged that the creatures weren’t actually looking for a fight, but rather fearfully scuttling away from us as we approached. Grinning internally that we’d finally figured out this ruse, we elected to traverse the path to our left where a large troll promptly sat on us.

It was at this point that we thought that it would probably best to press on, and, skipping gleefully past the troll, we entered a small cottage. Here we were treated to another cutscene – this time in-game – where three hags sat around making jokes at our expense, all the while dispensing useful tidbits of information. We’re not referring to the ‘press R2 to perform a heavy attack’ sort of tips, but more hints concerning our probable death(s).

After trading a few wicked barbs with the loathsome witches, it was time to create our character. The interface has certainly seen an overhaul since the last outing, with the UI substantially less “busy” and far easier to navigate. That’s not to say that you are no longer able to create a horrifying creature of the night, however, as the ‘advanced’ tab allows you to tweak the fine features of your monstrosity until your twisted heart is satisfied. A major new addition to the customisation includes the ability to apply face tattoos, so if you’re into that sort of stuff, good for you.

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Five minutes later we emerged from the house with our Game of Thrones-inspired sorceress. Blonde hair tied neatly behind her neck, the Queen of Dragons strode proudly forth, a crimson reptile tattooed upon her cheek, into a scene that was peculiarly familiar. Rounding the corner, we encountered our old friend the troll, who wasted no time pounding us into a fine powder with his club – it turns out that we’d left the cottage through the wrong door. Who says that there’s too much handholding in games these days?

Promptly leaving the hags’ homestead via the correct exit, we entered a misty pathway bordered by steep cliffs. Branching from the track was a number of tunnels, and, entering the first, it became obvious that these were home to the game’s tutorial. There have, of course, been short instructional sequences in previous titles, but here the layout allows you to bypass all of the tutorial tunnels and continue down the track should you so desire. We’ve already discussed the gameplay mechanics in some detail, so rather than sound like a stuck record, we can proudly tell you that we made it through the tunnel systems without dying once. Alright, we actually bit the dust twice.

As we rounded the final corner, we were greeted by a beautiful sight; the claustrophobic path had opened up onto an idyllic, sunny cliff top settlement. The luscious green grass wafted lazily in the breeze, and, surrounded by a few buildings in the centre of town, was a bonfire. Before exploring, we decided to sprint toward the flaming sword, kindling it and having a small rest to ensure that any subsequent deaths would bring us back to the same location.

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After a quick breather, we endeavoured to explore the area. There were a variety of inhabitants, including a merchant, a blacksmith, a couple of knights muttering nonsense to themselves, and a talking cat that said some really quite rude things to us. A lady, called the Emerald Herald, was gazing into the distance, and, as we approached her, she revealed herself to be the new method through which you level up, which was previously via bonfires.

Searching for a path that would lead us away from what appeared to be Dark Souls II’s interpretation of Demon’s Souls’ Nexus, we were brutally slaughtered by three zombie piglets no taller than a football. Pride thoroughly dented, we ventured down one of two major paths, which led us to the Forest of Fallen Giants.

Fortunately, there were no giants in sight, but a large number of hollow soldiers blocked our path. Bravely (cowardly) using ranged magic to dispose of them from afar, we advanced along a riverbank until we reached a large ladder. Climbing it, we entered a dilapidated amphitheatre-like structure complete with things that wanted to kill us. Once again, we managed to scrape by, but our magic was running low, and, as we had elected to use a physically weaker sorceress class, the only blade that we were strong enough to wield was a dagger.

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Beyond the amphitheatre lay a ruined castle with a new bonfire for us to kindle, and in one direction sat a large amount of scaffolding that ran alongside the structure. Dropping down to the bottom revealed a cave, but it was home to a giant, fireball-spitting snake, and so, after a number of deaths, we decided that we’d try our luck taking the other route. Unfortunately, this didn’t see us fare any better.

Atop the castle ramparts was a large open space that would cause even the most inexperienced of Souls players to hear alarm bells. We shouldn’t have been surprised, then, when a large eagle flew by dropping off a large knight that swiftly cleaved us in twain. We’d love to say that we beat him, and that we metaphorically handed him his buttocks on a plate, but alas, our deaths had reached double figures before we eventually gave in.

Using the castle-based bonfire, we teleported back to our favourite seaside resort to spend what was left of our souls to level up a few times, before setting off down the other main path. After traversing a subterranean sewer system for a few minutes, we emerged into a scene resembling that of Anor Londo, as seen in the original Dark Souls.

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Tall towers, grand sweeping architecture, and even the large angry golems that guard the way seemed strikingly recognisable. After kindling a nearby bonfire, we strode bravely towards the nearest enemy, who happily swept us off the walkway with one gleeful swing. By this point, we decided to sprint past the lumbering foes as our demo time was running short – and we knew that a boss was waiting up ahead.

We pushed through the fog-covered door to be greeted by the fearsome foe. A very tall and rotund humanoid, wielding a spear-like implement, launched himself towards us, so, cool as a cucumber, we rolled to one side to avoid his charge, straight down a hole to our death. The boss area in question was a small circular room surrounded by a bottomless drop, meaning that if we weren’t careful, or even if we were, we’d frequently find ourselves launching away from an attack, only to die anyway as we fell lifelessly to the ground below.

In truth, we pegged it a total of 44 times in our three hour session. If there’s anything that hardcore fans of the series may be concerned about, let us reassure you that the game is still incredibly challenging, the plot familiarly bizarre, and the voice acting insane. No changes have been made to make the title more accessible, other than an extended optional tutorial and a slightly less transparent introductory cinematic, so there’s nothing to be worried about on that front either. This is the kind of sequel that Dark Souls deserves, and it makes no apologies for it, so prepare to die (a lot) from 11th March.

Are you looking forward to the latest entry in From Software’s challenging franchise, or can you already feel the pangs of frustration eating away at your soul? Curl up and cry in the comments section below.