One of the more heartwarming sights I saw whilst visiting the Eurogamer Expo recently in London was scores of people all queuing up to have untold digital punishment upon them and eventually die in horrible ways. Occasionally one of the more fortunate souls would claw their way through the dirt and mire to achieve victory. These were either the exceptionally lucky, gifted, blessed, whatever you want to call them. These people faced the Mirror Knight in Dark Souls II, and survived.
And that’s what makes The ‘Souls’ series so unique. You don’t ‘win’ against the enemy. You may vanquish them but afterwards you are usually left with a feeling of extreme luck. You scraped through that battle, only-just managed to dodge that killing blow. ‘Only-just’ managed to chug that Estus Flask when far enough away. It’s these things that make Dark Souls a unique experience, and it’s these things that make Dark Souls II feel like you never left the universe.
As I sat down, I wasn’t told anything about the demo. An unspoken code is known throughout all of the players and staff here. Nobody asks “Why is it so difficult?” or “Why did I die so easily?”. These are understood by Dark Souls veterans and respected by new players alike.
Four characters appear before you, the Warrior, Sorcerer, Temple Knight and Dual Swordsman. There is no background to your character as the story of the Souls series is always left very open to player interpretation and thusly you know next to nothing about where you are or why you are there. Choosing the Warrior, my mission was to work through the dungeon, reach the Mirror Knight at the end and defeat him. A far, far more complex task than it sounds.
Working through the first few areas, everything feels familiar. The graphics and framerate are notably enhanced with no more juddering through populated rooms – everything runs buttery smooth. Moving through the demo I am reminded that unequiping my shield is a very foolish mistake in new areas. Working my way over a fire pit and dispatching three skeletal warriors was reminiscent of playing both Demon and Dark Souls and Dark Souls II reminds me of the better aspects of both games.
Making my way into a truly dark stairwell I was forced to abandon my shield for a torch. Down a stairwell and into a more open area I find three more skeletal warriors and a hulking ogre like creature. It is in this moment I am reminded of how relentless the Souls universe can be. Easily keeping up with my dodges, the hulking horror fades my screen to black more than once with that dreaded ‘You Died’ screen. Determined, I pick my character back up and continue to retry. Half skill but mostly luck allows me to survive the next encounter. The beast falls, exploding into a shower of viscera: unforgiving.
Unforgiving is more than a word in Dark Souls II. It is the very fabric of how the game was designed. After a number of retries I find myself making my way through a more open area. A number of paths branch off before me and like every Dark Souls player, I know each of them lead to one death or another so I simply pick a direction and advance.
After making my way through a number of smaller encounters I find another hulking monster brandishing a large hammer. Like the previous foe it seems to be able to keep up with my dodges and rolls. It is here that I’m introduced to Dark Souls II’s destructible environments as the monster bashes through the wall I dodged behind to drink an Estus Flask. I die.
My playthrough continued on like this for some time, more than I’m happy to admitting and eventually I concede. I’d been beaten by the Mirror Knight a number of times and simply getting there was a trial. Oddly I was left feeling like I’ve let the game down. I must try harder, survive more, time my dodges better. All of these things go through my head as I realise that each and every other player (save for a lucky two whilst I am there) is being dealt the same fate.
It’s easy to say that players of the ‘Souls games enjoy the punishment but I honestly don’t think that’s the reason we come back to this playground of torment. We enjoyed Demon Souls and Dark Souls because the games are different, brutal, relentless and unforgiving. Each enemy demands your respect and attention otherwise you end up on the receiving end of the Mirror Knights lunging attack – and trust me, that’s the last place you want to be.
Dark Souls II is scheduled for release March 14th, 2014 for PS, PS3 and Xbox 360.