There’s No Preparing for This
Gamers who play Dark Souls commit themselves to a treacherous path. This path not only damages the health bar, but it also damages the composure and sanity of the player. Finishing this path initiates gamers into a club, a club that harbors an intense passion for all things Dark Souls . It’s this club that concerns From Software. The company faces a daunting challenge with Dark Souls II that consists of creating a new and fresh game without alienating the fanbase. Thankfully, the beta test confirms that From Software, like members of the Dark Souls club, is up for a good challenge.
To start the beta, players were dropped into the middle of an oppressive area called Hunstman’s Corpse. This level reassured testers that there are no plans to make Dark Souls II easier than its predecessor. It utilized all of the original game’s most evil design choices. While playing, I ran into resurrecting skeletons, magic-wielding necromancers attacking across chasms, black phantoms, multi-enemy bosses, fights in impenetrable darkness, and those bastard skeleton wheels. The torments From Software sent after me might have been familiar, but the way I engaged them was definitely not.
The change in combat lends to the fights a startling fluidity. No longer can players use the clunky rhythm of enemies to time the perfect strike. The dual-wielding undead in the beta attacked with speed and relentlessness. Many times I found myself waiting for the perfect moment to strike, only to be out-drawn by an opponent. If the beta remains a true indicator of the actual game, it will take much more than just patience, a strong shield, and plenty of Estus Flask recharges to conquer an area in Dark Souls II .
And the trusty Estus Flask receives a few adjustments as well, some helpful, some not. Players can now take a few steps during the drinking animation. This change, although small, helped me to avoid many death-dealing blows during my time in Hunstman’s Corpse. However, this helpful add-on doesn’t come without sacrifice. The drinking animation itself takes a lot longer to complete. These changes create a tense and anxious survival mini-game every time you go to restore your health, a mini-game Souls veterans will appreciate.
Many more adjustments have been made to the way health works. The ubiquitous health-restoring items constitute the most obvious change. These items, called Life Gems, restore health over a period of time. Another change to the health bar ties into the core gameplay and will alter the way returning players approach the world. Every time you die in Dark Souls II , you lose a large percentage of your health bar. And this death penalty stacks, meaning that if you die subsequent times, you can find yourself in a tough area with only a fraction of a health bar to see you through.
Restoring the health bar requires restoring humanity. Obtaining humanity takes the use of an item called Human Effigy, and in another spin on a classic riff, reclaiming human form no longer restores life–perhaps to balance out the inclusion of a variety of other health-restoring items. However, despite not replenishing health, the Human Effigy item will be essential to the Dark Souls II experience to keep the health bar at a workable level.
The change in the way health and humanity works likely comes as a response to the faulty Dark Souls system. In the previous game, a player could perpetually stay in undead form with little penalty. This allows people to remove themselves from an invasive multiplayer system, a system that alters the approach to the game significantly. By forcing players to restore humanity, From Software ensures that everyone who plays Dark Souls II when signed into a network actively participates in multiplayer.
And the multiplayer received some tweaks as well. The most significant change to the multiplayer I noticed was the inclusion of item usage. The responsibility of health management now rests on the shoulders of each individual phantom. Estus Flasks and other life-giving items can now be used by white phantoms. This blessing of an adjustment is actually a curse in disguise; items used while a phantom do not reappear when players corporealize. In the original game, helping someone to defeat a boss while a phantom restores Estus Flask charges; unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to test that design in the beta.
Something I did get a chance to test was one of the two boss fights. The Skeleton King fight consisted of battling three separate Skeleton Lords. These Lords assaulted me simultaneously, using a combination of ranged and melee attacks. When one Skeleton Lord dropped, a gathering of skeletons spawned, forcing me to constantly juggle the onslaught of minor enemies while avoiding the heavy-hitting blows. In true Dark Souls fashion, the end of the fight included a sadistic design choice by From Software. As soon as the last Skeleton Lord fell, a squad of Skeleton Wheels charged, their spinning wheels fueled by the promise of destroying my hard-earned victory.
No victory in the beta came easy, even for a Dark Souls club member such as myself. The developers at From Software know their fans, and in the beta, they demonstrated the steps they’re taking to challenge even the most die-hard of them. The changes to the battle mechanics, the re-introduction of easy-to-find healing items, and the emphasis on forcing players into PVP show a lot of promise. The result of that promise may be far from clear, but just like when playing a Souls game, I have a feeling something big is right around the corner.