Warning – minor lore and major gameplay spoilers ahead!
As the antithesis of a morning person it takes something rather special to get me up at the crack of dawn on a Sunday morning.
Three hours hands on with Dark Souls II DEFINITELY falls into the “rather special” category.
As an avid fan of the series I’d eagerly signed up for the Closed Beta Test at the start of this month but, like most, missed out on it. I also failed to gain entry to the first Network Test a week later so tried to satiate my craving for DSII by watching as many of the countless videos of people taking on the Beta as possible.
Unsurprisingly, all this did was fuel my desire to play the game. So when I discovered that a second Network Test was taking place exclusively for Playstation Plus members I bought a one-year subscription as quickly as you can say Umbasa!
Due to the nature of my work, I’m rarely up before 9am during the week. At the weekend you’re lucky if you see me before midday as I’m usually sleeping off a horrible hangover or having a lie in after a late-night gaming session. Get up before 7am on one of my days off? Fat chance! But Souls games are worth that kind of sacrifice, so armed with a large cup of coffee and wearing the DSII t-shirt I won by defeating the Mirror Knight at Eurogamer, that’s just what I did.
With all the excitement of a kid at Christmas I tried logging in on the stroke of 7am. I received an error message so tried again. And again. Still no joy. I turned to Twitter for answers. Numerous tweeters expressing their despondency and desperation at not being able to gain access. Despite feeling reassured that the problem wasn’t solely affecting me I was still pretty pissed, thinking I’d got my hopes up for nothing.
But after about 10 minutes of determinedly pressing X, I was in! At this point I should note that my fellow Soul-diers in North and South America weren’t so lucky. Technical issues meant they weren’t able to log in to the servers at all, leaving thousands of crestfallen warriors on the other side of the pond. This piece will not dwell on that issue, disappointing as it is, though hopefully it will serve to whet their appetites for the rescheduled test this coming weekend.
After rushing through the options menus I was faced by my first dilemma – the character selection screen. All six confirmed classes (Soldier, Warrior, Sorcerer, Temple Knight, Dual Swordsman and Hunter) were available to choose from. I liked how the Dual Swordsman handled in videos I‘d seen so ended up breaking with traditional and selecting him over my usual go-to character, the Sorcerer.
NECESSARY PREPARATIONS AND INITIAL IMPRESSIONS
Spawning at a bonfire in an area known as Huntsman’s Copse, I immediate noticed an NPC stood nearby – a very strange looking female merchant by the name of Melentia. I must confess that I was so eager to get stuck into the gameplay that I didn’t pay too much attention to her dialogue but she did reveal the name of the land we inhabited, Drangleic. How Drangleic connects to the rest of the Dark Souls universe remains to be seen.
I took a brief look at her wares and she had a pretty sweet selection. There were a few weapons on offer, including swords, a spear and a bow, three shields and an armour set. Also available were a sacred bell (a type of catalyst) for miracles and hexes, a staff for spells, two spells, a miracle and a small selection of herbs. Green Blossom makes a return from Dark Souls and increases stamina regeneration, while the Twilight and Amber Herbs restore a certain number of spell uses.
I decided against buying anything but noticed I had 5000 souls to spend – what a lovely touch from From Software: a healthy soul boost to set us on our way. I headed straight back to the bonfire and spread my points out relatively evenly between Vigor (the new stat for HP), Strength and Dexterity (to boost my damage output) and Agility (another new stat which determines the speed of actions such as rolling, setting your shield and drinking Estus).
There were a number of summon signs surrounding the bonfire but every attempt to welcome another player into my world failed. Later in the test a message appeared apologising for the issues that were preventing multiplayer. Considering how integral co-op and PvP are to the Souls experience, it was a real shame that I didn’t get to see the multiplayer mechanics in action. It’s also a little worrying that similar issues could plague multiplayer on launch. However, that’s still over four months away so I’m cautiously optimistic these teething problems will be ironed out by March.
Before setting off solo I took a quick look at my item screen. The layout was clean(weapons are divided into categories) and this time around you’re given a little more flexibility as to how many items you can map to various buttons. You can equip up to three weapons to each hand, though you are not permitted to dual wield shields. Up to 10 items can be slotted to the square button, though I found having more than about four made it time consuming to cycle through them all. You also have the option of hiding the HUD, which many players will be thankful for.
LET THERE BE LIGHT!
Once ready I ventured forth, following the first linear path and coming up against my first enemy. It was a run of the mill undead and was dispatched with ease by alternating sword swings with the left and right triggers. Interestingly, each hit in the chain dealt slightly less damage than the previous one. Damage output could potentially be linked to how much stamina you have remaining, though this is just speculation on my part. Another early observation was that my character moved more speedily than I’d been used to in Dark Souls. The rate of character movement was closer to that of the series’ first game, Demon’s Souls.
The corridor in which I’d fought the undead was extremely dark, so erring on the side of caution I returned to the bonfire to light my torch. Little did I know quite how important the torch was to be in later areas of the Beta. As I progressed onwards I reached a large stone building. Once again, there was very little natural light (are you noticing a pattern?) I was attacked head on, while also being targeted by an unseen archer. Smashing wooden planks blocking the building’s windows let light pour in to increase visibility; an environmental element I found very impressive as well as useful! Fighting my way out of the building I emerged on a narrow ledge and read a soul sign notifying me there was “Treasure Ahead”. Sure enough there was, but only once I’d narrowly avoided being hit off the ledge by a roguish ambusher. That treasure turned out to be the Ring of War, which boosted my physical defence.
Backtracking slightly I located a ladder heading downwards and clambered down it to reach a second bonfire. To find two bonfires in such close proximity seemed a little lenient but with the time constraints of the Beta in place I wasn’t complaining. So far, so good. I’d not tried to get too clever with parries or backstabs, instead sticking to my tried and tested Souls method of avoid and counter. It had served me well, and even while holding my torch I was able to kill most enemies with around five hits. One perfectly reasonable, if slightly frustrating, mechanic sees the torch go out if you switch to dual wielding or a shield. This forces you to choose between improved vision or improved fighting ability. I generally favoured the former as you could two-hand your right hand weapon (thus increasing damage output) without the torch going out. When I did dual wield I’m pleased to report that the swords swung smoothly in tandem with a nice variety of vertical and horizontal slashes.
I’d already built up a small collection of lifegems – DSII’s slow-burning healing items – and was surprised by how regularly they were dropping. It seems unlikely they will be handed out quite so freely in the full game but for the purposes of the Beta, the balance seemed just right.
Levelling up a couple more times at the bonfire I continued forwards, moving towards a stone bridge. Two standard undeads fell victim to my first backstabs and I must say that I love the new style of their animations. The hit box may be a lot smaller but when you do land one it’s extremely satisfying and leaves the enemy wide open to follow up hits when on the ground.
SICK-LED TO DEATH
Here things began to get a bit tasty. As I crossed the bridge I could hear an ominous noise emanating from somewhere in front of me. From out of the shadows approached a hulking mass of evil wielding two huge sickles. I thought that its size would enable me to get in an easy backstab but that proved far from the case. Maybe due to the early hour or, more likely, due to wanting to see as much of the Beta as possible, I was playing pretty carelessly. I attacked gung-ho and had my arse handed to me on a plate in spectacular fashion! Death in DSII sees your health bar reduced by five percent. Repeated deaths can see you fall as low as 50% max HP, with Human Effigies the only way of restoring yourself to your human form and full potential. As your deaths mount up you can actually see your character’s face taking on more undead characteristics. This level of graphical fidelity is one area that DSII has really stepped up a notch from its predecessors.
The next time I went over the bridge I played things patiently and waited for Mr Sickle to swing at me, got in a couple of quick hits, and then rolled backwards out of range again. His death brought with it 1125 souls and a choice of which direction to head in. I moved towards the nearest shiny item I could see, quickly attracting the attention of a number of rogues that inhabited the gloomy woodland landscape. Enemies like to hunt in packs in DSII in a way they rarely did in the game’s predecessors. From Soft are happy to swarm you with numerous foes, some attacking from range, others chasing you down. It sometimes becomes a case of swing with wild abandon and hope to take them out, retreat to relative safety and heal or die. While I took my time to learn the lie of the land it was often the latter!
I spent the next 45 minutes or so exploring the lower levels of the copse, scavenging all the items I could, while dying with embarrassing regularity. It wasn’t that the game is harder than Demon’s or Dark Souls, more that I was over-confident and recklessly traversing uncharted terrain. In between the varied and often hilarious (who hasn’t LOL’d after rolling backwards over a cliff while evading) deaths, I picked up a lot of new gear. This included Rogue Armour, Black Armour, the Knight’s Greatsword, a Light Crossbow, a Royal Dirk and series staple, the glorious Zweihander. The armour sets were a little underwhelming, though admittedly the physics effects which cause the capes to flap as you move are pretty neat. These effects also cause the grass to sway in the wind though this didn’t really add much to the experience in my opinion. Taking the Zwei for a spin I noticed that its upward slash actually launches smaller enemies up into the air…awesome!
These smaller enemies were nicely varied, with bandits and rogues wielding clubs, daggers and bows. The character models were impressively detailed and these mobs gave up 245 souls on death, while also occasionally dropping armour set items. Dotted around the Copse’s landscape were abandoned huts filled with goodies. One had to be dropped into from above to claim three items, while one housed a lever. Strolling up to the lever nonchalantly proved a bad idea as I was ambushed by two bandits. One seemingly got me with a backstab but I managed to escape the animation without taking too much damage. However, I ran directly into a sickle-wielder, who crushed me with two hefty blows. Once pulled, the aforementioned lever dropped down a large mechanical bridge close by, opening up another large section of the map where one of the area’s bosses resided.
IF AT FIRST YOU DON’T SUCCEED…
But rather than progress that way, I returned to near the second bonfire and started heading uphill. At the top of the hill I encountered a new enemy, a heavy-hitting foe with a weapon reminiscent of the Titanite Catch Pole in Dark Souls. He was actually dealt with pretty comfortably but not too much further down the path he inhabited I found myself staring at a skyline blighted by four red phantoms on elevated pillars. My first trip down this path ended badly, with all four dropping down to engage me at once. Suffice to say, I ended the fight soulless.
Returning a second time, I proceeded with great caution, picking them off one by one. I was pleased to see one cracking a whip – perhaps whip builds will be slightly more viable this time around (I always found the whips in DS severely underpowered). Taking them on one-on-one turned the section into a cakewalk and I reached a rickety bridge without fuss.
Below me I could spy a shiny on a detached pillar and knew that it had to be of value due to its hard-to-reach location. I tried to jump off the edge of the platform onto the pillar. What I didn’t realise was that jumping had been automatically assigned to pressing in L3, rather than Dark Souls’ double tap of circle. I rolled pathetically off the edge straight to my death – epic fail! I ran straight back to the spot and this time made it over to the pillar but dropped down too far onto it, leaving me unable to reach the shiny… exactly the kind of frustration us Soul fiends are all-too familiar with!
I ran and jumped over to the only route available and began descending into a pitch black cavern. Fortunately my torch was still lit so I could see a bit of what was around me. Like The Great Hollow in Dark Souls, you could use mushrooms growing out the walls to stagger your descent into the section below. Down there was the first (and only?) chest of the Beta. Naively, I opened it. It was trapped and I got engulfed in a cloud of noxious gas, while three undeads closed in on me. I managed to grab the contents of the chest before succumbing to the poison/undead combination. The contents turned out to be a set of Faraam armour – the best defensive set (stat wise) that I found during my three hours playtime. On the subject of trapped chests it’s worth mentioning that by pumping stat points into Agility you will be able to more efficiently disarm traps.
Third time lucky and I nailed the jump to the item on the pillar – four Human Effigies. Despite not restoring any health when they revive you to be human, these will be some of the game’s most important currency.
Back in the Fararrm chest room I attempted a first plunging attack on one of the undead below but it didn’t work. Whether this move has been removed from the game entirely or will be added in at a later date is something I’m sure a lot of players will be keen to find out. During my battle with the undeads I foolishly rolled with my torch out, leaving me in darkness. Though I managed to make it out of the room via a discoloured hidden door I perished in the next pitch black room, where I didn’t realise I needed to simply walk into a cage elevator in front of me and fell down a dark void to my death. A typically mischievous deathtrap room!
EXECUTING THE EXECUTIONER
Deciding to venture over the large dilapidated bridge this time I reached an area coined “Undead Purgatory” and a fog gate being guarded by a red phantom with an enormous shield and ultra greatsword. My Golden Wing Shield was able to absorb 100% of the damage his heavy attacks and I managed to slip in behind him and vanquish him with a couple of backstabs and two-handed slashes.
I moved through the fog gate and onto my first “boss” of the Beta, the Executioner’s Chariot. I say boss in inverted commas as it lacked the grandeur or tension of series-defining battles such as the Flamelurker or Four Kings. Maybe I was simply expecting too much – it was a Beta after all. Bearing that in mind, you should take the fact that I was slightly disappointed by the cutscene introducing the boss with a pinch of salt. The game is running on the same system as its predecessor so one shouldn’t expect huge graphical advancements. But I certainly hope scenes such as this one will be polished to look a lot crisper ahead of the game’s release.
The Executioner’s Chariot itself was an interesting idea for a boss but, once you worked out the strategy, was pretty easily handled. The fight takes place in circular Coliseum-like structure, with the Chariot riding round and round and skeletons popping up around the arena. Getting hit by the Chariot meant instant death so you had to make use of smash niches in the walls. Basically, things panned out like this: wait for the Chariot to pass you, run like hell to a niche in the wall, wait there with shield up fending off skeletons until the Chariot passes again and repeat the process. The final niche contains an undead mage who must be destroyed to prevent the skeletons respawning when killed. Once he’d been dealt with I remained in the final niche until all the skeletons had been crushed under the wheels of the Chariot. I then raced to an adjacent lever and pulled it to drop a large gate. The Executioner went crashing into it to leave me with just his nightmarish steed to contend with – a straight up one-on-one battle with hero and demon going toe-to-toe.
The nasty nag hit pretty hard with charge and stomp attacks and also had a projectile, although that was easily avoided. On my first attempt I got caught under the horse’s hooves and was stamped to death. Second time around I kept my distance and used the aforementioned niches to shield myself before running in and slicing away two-handed. Using this technique I was able to achieve a swift victory, and was rewarded with 4480 souls. That pretty pitiful number suggests that the Executioner‘s Chariot is little more than a sub-boss akin to the Taurus and Capra Demons of Dark Souls. The real reward came on the floor of the arena… a Dragonrider’s Halberd. This weapon possessed my favourite backstab animation of the Beta, which involved skewering and lifting your unfortunate victim up into the air. I found the halberd a little cumbersome to use but I did notice something interesting while wielding it – distance from an enemy seemed to effect how much damage was dealt. If I attacked from the halberd’s length away and only clipped an enemy, I would hurt them far less than if I got up close and personal and hit them flush. This adds a more realistic feel to combat but will take a little getting used to.
Up a flight of stairs in Undead Purgatory was the solace of another bonfire and the Beta’s second NPC, Titchy Gren – a short, hooded figure who grants entry to the Brotherhood of Blood covenant. This covenant is an invading covenant similar to the Darkwraiths of Dark Souls. Unlike Darkwraiths, members of the BoB will be time limited when they invade and will only have 75% health on arrival in a host’s game.
ONE DOWN, ONE TO GO
With one boss under my belt I set about trying to locate the Beta’s other big showdown – the Skeleton Lord. This led me into a couple of dingy caverns full of skeletons where I had two priorities: 1) light any pyres I found to illuminate the area and 2) take out the necromancer keeping the skeletons alive. Once these two things had been done I could explore at my leisure and take out the skeles when I chanced upon them. While doing just that I located a key, which opened a gate to a handy bonfire, a set of Dragonknight armour and the powerful Dragonslayer’s Greataxe, which became my weapon of choice.
I then headed through an underpass and came out onto in a valley, which needed to be traversed via treacherous walkways. This area was heavily populated by bandits and one particularly brutal section featured two red phantom sickle wielders patrolling along a tiny path, making it nigh on impossible to get past them without combat. I managed to do so with a lucky roll and later discovered you could bypass them by taking an alternate, higher route, and jumping across a narrow gap. At the end of the heavily guarded walkway stood a fog gate behind an immovable rock and a flowing waterfall, with a path winding underneath it to the boss fog. Given the choice to face the boss or explore another cave, I took the latter, opening up a shortcut back towards the bonfire for my troubles, while also picking up the Replenishment (regeneration) sorcery.
Onwards, ever onwards – it was time to take on the Skeleton Lord! I can’t stress how much I HATED the bonewheel skeletons in the first Dark Souls so I was dreading this fight. Scythe-wielding large skeletons, bonewheels and normal skeleton mobs all at once… WTF? My first try was pitiful. I let myself get surrounded and was dead having managed to take out just one scythe skeleton and one bonewheel. But, as was the case with a lot of the Beta, things seemed a great deal easier once I’d formulated a game plan. Coating my axe in Aromatic Ooze (think Sticky White Stuff) I took down the first skeleton to spawn in three hits and proceeded to pick off my enemies one by one while using the bone piles as cover when I needed to heal. During this battle the nature of the new lock on system was at its most evident. You can now turn and run away while remaining locked on and you can also strike out to the sides while locked onto an enemy directly in front of you. This helped me to do some damage to enemies around me in a 360 degree radius even if they weren’t my primary target.
By running from bone pile to bone pile and gradually whittling down the skeletons’ numbers I was able to stay above half health the whole fight and maintain enough distance between me and the mobs to avoid being swarmed. Another victory achieved and another 4880 souls in the bank. With that victory, my three hours were coming to a close so I roamed around; taking on any enemies that still remained, happy in the knowledge that I’d seen the bulk of what was on offer in the Beta.
In vain hope I tried to use a cracked red eye orb… just as I hit square I was logged out of the server, my time in Drangleic was up… for now.
NETWORK TEST: A PASS OR FAIL?
The fact that I’ve dedicated so many words to the Network Test says all you really need to know – I loved it.
It felt exactly like the Souls we know and love – the atmosphere, the moments that leave you cursing, the swell of satisfaction when you conquer a tricky section or boss, intriguing lore, varied armour sets and weaponry, intense combat. The best bits of the past two Souls games, wrapped up and tweaked to improve the experience.
The relative ease with which one could make it through the Beta’s content is undoubtedly a concern to seasoned Souls players but I‘m not sure they need worry too much. I expect the abundance of healing items will be addressed by From prior to release and I’m confident that a myriad bosses in the vein of the Mirror Knight (a great deal harder than the two Beta bosses) will ramp up the level of challenge significantly.
What is more of a concern is that the multiplayer didn‘t work. As we saw recently with Grand Theft Auto Online, even huge companies with bankrolls of billions of dollars can fail to deliver what they promise at launch. Whether From can get multiplayer right by March is a big question mark looming over the game. I’d still buy Dark Souls II even if there was no co-op or PvP – and would no doubt love every minute of it – but the success of its online component will really define whether it is able to stand up to the next-gen titles it will be competing with in 2014.
I expect further details of the game to become pretty scarce once the rescheduled Network Test in North and South America has taken place so let’s hope it runs smoothly and leaves From in a position to bring us the best product possible in March.
Dark Souls II is scheduled for release on March 11, 2014 in North America and March 14 in Europe on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.
You can preorder Dark Souls II here.
You can read more about Dark Souls II here.