Welcome to Dark Souls II: You're Already Dead

Dark Souls II prepares to inherit the flaming mantle of death from its punishing predecessor without a hint of remorse.

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When From Software announced Dark Souls II, it dared to utter the most damning words possible--streamlined, accessibility, mainstream--causing those invested in scouring the treacherous underbelly of gaming's unforgiving realm to rankle like an abused dog. Trying to draw in a wide audience has caused many developers to remove difficulty from their offerings, subsequently squashing the feeling of conquest that comes from rising above seemingly insurmountable challenges. So the thought that Dark Souls II would travel down that same sanitized path burned with the ferocity of a drake's flaming breath. Would Dark Souls II stoop to the level of so many of its casualized peers, or would it stay true to its own stubborn beliefs?

In an unassuming conference room in New York City, director Yui Tanimura answered the question that has been swirling around Dark Souls II ever since it was announced late last year. There would be no easy mode. After allaying our fears with those simple words, the feeling of unavoidable doom lifted like a passing fog. The game is built upon the satisfaction of completing difficult challenges, he explained, so undermining the joy that encompasses a well-fought victory would cause Dark Souls II to topple from the delicate precipice it's built on.

The importance of those words cannot be overstated. The Souls games are a relic from a time when games demanded serious investment to complete. An era where nothing is handed to you; where the scars of failure chronicle the difficult path you traveled before reaching the summit. The threat that Dark Souls II would wrap a protective arm around anyone who wished to inhabit its crumbling castles and murky swamps, ensuring that even those with only a passing interest could explore the eerie confines was too much to bear. Dark Souls II should offer an inhospitable respite for those who fear being made soft by the failure-free experience offered by so many other games. And it's an incredible feeling when the director of Dark Souls II recognizes the place this franchise holds, and doesn't taint its unrepentant appeal.

The Souls games are a relic from a time when games demanded serious investment to complete.

So what did From Software mean when it said that Dark Souls II would be more accessible than its hard-hearted predecessors? Tanimura talked about removing the "tedious" aspects so you can focus on what makes Souls so eminently engaging. For instance, it wasn't until halfway through Dark Souls that you unlocked the ability to warp between bonfires. In the sequel, you will be able to perform this vanishing feat from the beginning. This ties in to the less-restrictive level design as well. Dark Souls II will once again take place in an open world in which each section is ostensibly a level in itself. However, the order in which you progress is more flexible than before. With more choices, you can forge your own path through the decimated world, so having warp points should limit needless backtracking.

It will be interesting to see how more freedom affects progression. In Dark Souls, although you could often choose which section to attempt, the game made it clear when you chose one beyond your means. If you entered the graveyard instead of climbing the mountain path at the outset, for example, you would meet a quick end from a deadly gang of skeletons. Without so much as uttering a word, Dark Souls nudged you in the right direction, burning a memory of failure in your mind so you would revisit the most dangerous parts when you became stronger. However, with more areas open at once, it's unclear how Dark Souls II will maintain its razor-sharp edge throughout. In games such as The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, enemies level up alongside you, so they always offer the same relative challenge. Will Dark Souls II have to concoct a similar system? Or will From Software find another way to keep the difficulty high no matter which path you take?

The only other "tedious" aspect that Tanimura was willing to talk about pertained to weapon upgrades. This process will be made more straightforward in Dark Souls II. He didn't go into detail on what changes would be implemented, but he did say that grinding would be reduced. This may mean that you no longer have to procure rare items to infuse your weapons with more power. Although such a shift would keep you progressing, it might not be the clear gain that Tanimura envisions. Repeatedly slaying groups of enemies to gain precious shards provided a vacation from the unnerving tension that is such a frequent aspect of Dark Souls. You could cut enemies to shreds without your heart beating through you chest, which let you exist in this dreary world without the accompanying dread. If Dark Souls II lessens the perks of demon slaughter, it could make an already terrifying adventure even tougher to bear.

Dark Souls nudged you in the right direction, burning a memory of failure in your mind so you would revisit the most dangerous parts when you became stronger.

It doesn't appear as if Tanimura has any sympathy for hesitant players. From the 20 or so minutes of action From Software showed, Dark Souls II may be even more difficult than its infamous predecessor. What's interesting is how the difficulty will be implemented. In Dark Souls, combat served as the backbone for every encounter. Ready your shield, steady your sword, and patiently march through the punishing lands, always on the lookout for enemies waiting to attack. Such is the case with Dark Souls II as well; however, there are puzzle aspects too. In one scene, wyverns flood the skies as you attempt to cross a feeble rope bridge. As you're halfway across, high above a canyon, a wyvern lands on the bridge, snapping the ropes holding it, and you, aloft. You fall to your death. Clearly, there is a way to cross the bridge, but you need to exercise your brain rather than your brawn to accomplish that.

In another area, a silver chariot barrels toward you. Though you see it coming from a distance, its speed is incredible, and even rolling out of the way doesn't clear you from its rampaging path. Once again, the person playing the demo died. However, this encounter, too, can be overcome with quick thinking, though the developers didn't reveal how to stay alive. Puzzle solving looks like it will be a bigger element of Dark Souls II than its predecessor, which should mix the difficulty up in interesting ways. That runaway chariot had one other important element as well: it's a boss fight. Bosses no longer stay at the end of levels, waiting for you to end their lives. They set out to hunt you, and fight you, when you least expect it, forcing you to stay alert lest you die from an unexpected strike.

Elsewhere, this is the same Dark Souls that you remember. The story unfolds in vague whispers and hints, forcing you to piece together the expansive history that ties this broken world together. Silent areas stretch on endlessly, racking your nerves as you wait for an enemy to leap from the shadows, ending the terrifying wait. One enemy tempts you to walk behind it, and when you face its barrel-plated backside, it crushes you with a backward splash. Another one hides behind a locked door. Lodge an arrow in its peering eyes, and it will break down the door, and the wall, to come after you. A knight waits on a narrow bridge, slinging axes your way. With a well-timed swing of your sword, you can repel his attacks. But if you miss, your life ends in a flash. This is the Dark Souls you remember, where death lurks around every corner, but you continually push forward to prove your worth.

Many times, when a sequel debuts, it bears such a striking resemblance to its predecessor that it's difficult to get excited. Dark Souls II is able to avoid this trap because of its very nature. There is nothing like Dark Souls out there now, no game dredged so clearly from the ashes of gaming's cold and forgotten past. That Dark Souls II is more of the same is a good thing because what it is, what it represents, is the antithesis of what modern game design has become. It is a cruel, unforgiving beast that relishes in doling out hellacious punishment. It's the furthest thing possible from mainstream. Its obstinate nature burns at its core, forcing novices and experts alike to move slowly through environs with steely determination. It is the great equalizer. This is the Dark Souls you remember, where death lurks around every corner, but you already knew that. You're already dead.

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