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Survival of the Fittest – Dark Souls II Hands-On Preview

Dark Souls II

The toughest game known to this generation has risen again to punish your foolish mistakes with brutal deaths a thousand times over. I’m of course referring to the sequel to the critically acclaimed Dark Souls, the aptly titled Dark Souls II. Fears swirled among fans that this would be a watered down, easier experience designed to welcome new players to the blissfully painful Souls universe – they were very much mistaken. Whilst franchise newbies will last a little longer than when they had to face the Asylum Monster off the bat, Dark Souls II is still as infuriatingly difficult as its predecessor.

Dark Souls II

After surviving a classic cinematic that brings you up to speed with the whole Souls business in breathtaking fidelity you begin your quest for the sanctity of life. Each twist and turn from the get go is littered with poor decisions, grotesque foes and, you guessed it, death. You’ll probably roll your eyes at every fatality-related quip from here on out, but trust me, it’s a reality you’ll face countless times. Dark Souls II wastes no time throwing you into the thick of it, as you’d expect and desire from such a title, the special flair comes from several subtle alterations. One of which is the life bar which I noticed now decreases every time you perish until you’re nothing but a weak fool, falling to the giants at a flick of their wrists. This furthers the punishment of dying but also expertly tweaks gameplay. Constantly dying to push further isn’t going to help you – tactics and forethought are far more imperative now.

Alongside the difficulty increasing alterations there are also a collection of positive additions to actually give you a helping hand. Human Effigies are little doodas that restore that lost health bar after a particularly poor performance. Estus flasks are present, but predominantly outplayed by Lifegems which slowly restore your health but perish after use. User interface (UI) has had its complexity reduced, much to my relief. Hastily switching weapons and equipping new tools/items is much more efficient with less text reading and menu searching. Perhaps best of all, however, is fast travel. Yep, wipe those tears of joy from your eyes; you can now seamlessly flit between discovered bonfires helping to reduce monotony and rage with one stone.

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Enemies have also undergone a revamping. They’re now equipped with noticeably better AI, their movements are far less predictable leading to even more acutely sinister combat situations. Where patient memorizing of an enemy’s moveset rewarded you with victory in Dark Souls, the more clever zombies of the second iteration will throw a curveball move and grace you with the infamous “You’re Dead” screen in next to no time. As aforementioned, tactics and patience are your greatest asset in progression – couple that with a strict two-sword-swipe approach and you might even survive for a few minutes.

They also look more of the part now. Enemies range from your standard undead to some wacky and wonderful creations like a fire-breathing gecko creature and a Diablo-esque knight that glides about the map after flying in on a giant eagle. Whilst dying is still a major chore, especially for those not too adept or familiar with everything, at least watching who or what’s just impaled you is some sort of consolation prize.

Although built with a slightly more powerful engine, the graphics seem rather familiar. There were most certainly moments of excellent lighting and ambiance, but the whole visual journey appeared to have improved very little from its last journey. Colours often creep into the vivid oranges and blues, especially in the hub village that’s bathed in a warm sunset glow, but the onslaught of browns and greys is relentless and can still monopolise the environments.

Dark Souls II

Combat overall has changed very little – the core experience of Dark Souls has remained almost unchanged. The most notable difference however, is the inclusion of dual-wielding. Exceptionally brave (or dumb) players have the option to switch out a shield for another sword, allowing for simultaneous attacking, theoretically dealing with the foe far quicker.

The class line-up has had a nip and tuck too. The previous selection of ten has been reduced to eight completely new classes that are more focused on specific play styles.  Newcomers may be better suited to jack-of-all trade classes such as the Explorer whilst veterans that know the Souls ropes could probably forgo defense and pick the Swordsman class. It’s this freedom of choice that’s where developers From Software have preserved the experience whilst smoothly breaking in fresh meat.

Long story short, this is very much Dark Souls. In fact, this is a much better Dark Souls. Although set in the same universe, this is a very new (and prettier) endeavor with a wonderfully familiar feel as From Software have done a glorious job of preserving what fans held dearly about the first game. They’ve fine tuned it to be even more rage-inducing but also opened up entryways for timid new fans to jump into what’s quite honestly one of the best and most humbling RPG’s out there.

Dark Souls II

Dark Souls II releases March 11th in North America and March 14th in Europe on both Xbox 360 and PS3 with PC following ‘shortly’. Preview session supplied by publishers, Bandai Namco.

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