NEW YORK — The original "Dark Souls" carved out a niche for itself as an ultra-difficult alternative to more mainstream role-playing games. Based on its latest demo, "Dark Souls II" looks to expand on what made the first game so enticing, without sacrificing its hallmark tough-but-fair attitude.
Tom's Guide had a chance to go hands-on with "Dark Souls II" at the Namco-Bandai Games Showcase this week. The demo took the protagonist through a daunting castle, where death lurked in every hallway.
The Warrior was a solid choice of protagonist for the demo — skilled with a sword and shield, but unable to wield magic or bows effectively. Interestingly, players will select their preferences and parameters for a starting character rather than choose a predetermined class. This may help newcomers ease into the open-ended, punishing gameplay without robbing series veterans of the customization potential they crave.
The demo began in an isolated corner of Fort Resistance, a derelict fortress where a nearby ladder led down into the narrow walkway suspended over a pit of lava. There was little time to admire the brown stone walls or the crumbling gray pillars, however, before the undead soldiers attacked.
The best single word to sum up the "Souls" series (which began with "Demon's Souls" in 2009 and continued with "Dark Souls" in 2011) is "difficult," but "precise" is a close second. You'll generally fight one or two enemies at a time, instead of endless hordes, but each one will be a fight for your life.
The first undead soldier was a simple swordsman. This character helped show off a fundamental game feature: Both you and your enemies are very strong. By striking at the right moments, it was possible to stagger the soldier and dispatch him in four or five hits, without taking a single blow in return.
However, each blow expends stamina, which only recharges in between strikes. As in the previous games, if you block an enemy blow with your shield raised, your stamina bar will take a hit — which is better than not blocking, as that decreases your health. Just as you can dispatch most enemies in only a few hits, the opposite also holds true. [See also: The 10 Best Zombie Games of All Time]
In the next room, a sunlit stone veranda, the undead soldier wielded a lance instead of a sword. Because of his reach, it was a more judicious plan to roll around his thrusts and spring up behind to attack than to meet him head-on.
When Namco expressed its interest in giving "Dark Souls II" more traditional mainstream elements, fans were concerned that these might dilute the series' inscrutable, hardcore experience. Thankfully, the only real major changes are visual. An overhauled graphics engine, complete with motion-captured actors, gives the game silky-smooth animations and none of the frame-rate problems that plagued the original.
After dashing down two dangerous corridors — one with an enormous turtle demon wielding a devastating club, another with a spell-flinging witch flanked by living statues — the Warrior confronted the Mirror Knight, a giant living statue that could summon underlings and empower its sword with lightning.
In the final version of the game, the Mirror Knight will summon other players instead of just AI enemies, giving the battle a flavor of unpredictability. The statue hardly needed the help, though; the Warrior went down easily enough, prompting the series' famous "You Died" screen.
At first blush, "Dark Souls II" is not much different from its predecessors, but it's not a formula that really needs changing. New haunting vistas, outlandish weapons and grotesque enemies are more than enough reasons to explore the game's strange world and minimalist story.
"Dark Souls II" will release in 2014 for the PS3, Xbox 360 and PC, with a probable $60 price tag.