Dark Souls 2: a lesson in painfully balanced gameplay

Tuesday, 10 September 2013 08:02 GMT By Dave Cook

Dark Souls 2 finds itself in a precarious position. Change the format too much and alienate fans, don’t change enough and become stale. VG247’s Dave Cook quizzes Namco’s Takeshi Miyazoe about the conundrum.

Dark Souls 2

Developed by From Software, Dark Souls 2 is coming to PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 in March 2014.

Dark Souls 2 beta sign-ups are now active on PS3. Find out how to register here.

You can check out footage of the game’s Mirror Knight boss here. It looks savage.

Details of the game’s pyromancy class, guard break and more can be found here.

If you read this site often you’ll know I’m nuts about Dark Souls. I blog about it often. Like, a lot. I even got an Ornstein and Smough tattoo after completing it, but even I’ve become curious as to just how From Software is going to advance its perfect storm of mechanics and design philosophies in a way that appeases die-hard fans. I don’t envy the studio right now.

Of course, there was the power-keg of criticism that erupted as soon as co-directors Tomohiro Shibuya and Yui Tanimura said Dark Souls 2 was more “understandable” than its predecessors. The fact is these guys aren’t stupid, and there’s no way this game will coddle players explicitly throughout the experience. To do that would be to scrap the superb blend of challenge, risk and gratification that forms the series’ heart.

I recently had a chat with Namco Bandai’s Takeshi Miyazoe about this very issue and I wanted to first touch upon the notion of ambiguity in the series. After all, each ‘Souls’ title has left world lore and the motivation of their cast largely to the player’s imagination, whereas other games seek to spell out the fine details in plain sight. All we know at this point of Dark Souls 2 is that the main player is cursed, so sets off into the world in search of a cure.

“I think one of the methodologies that we used for story-telling was appreciated by fans, that indirect way of story-telling,” Miyazoe began. “That will continue with Dark Souls 2. What happened to the character is what’s going to be revealed throughout the game itself, but the player will first find himself in this world with this curse of the dark ring. His journey will be to find a cure to that curse.”

So it’s still largely ambiguous then, but I suspect that fans of the series wouldn’t have it any other way. This quest to uncover the truth of the player’s curse will be fraught with death because mortality is – and always will be – at the forefront of this series. While the process of learning through dying and advancing incrementally through the open world will remain, the rules of that space and its many mechanics will be delivered more clearly to the player.

Explaining Namco’s reaction to initial concerns over the game’s clearer mechanics, Miyazoe said with a laugh, “Apologies for using the word ‘accessible’ again, but it’s not that the game is going to be any easier, but it will be the process of streamlining a lot of the ‘fat’ that hinders people from enjoying the true Dark Souls experience. So that’s what we meant by accessible. It won’t be easier.

“Our reaction that was; our thinking behind how we designed the game itself hasn’t changed, just how we falsely communicated it. But I hope we can continue to communicate to players that the game won’t be easier at all, and it’ll be as challenging or even more. We wanted to make sure we deliver the full, pure Dark Souls elements more directly to players.

“It’s hard to quantify how much harder it is. The challenges are still there, but just enough for me to be able to play the game, over come the barriers and difficulties in the game, and still have that sense of achievement when the difficulties are conquered. We are still balancing the game to a point where it’s conquerable but not to easy and not too difficult. We’re still doing a lot of trial and error, but I don’t think any players will be upset by how we’ve balanced the game. I think we will be able to meet the expectations of fans – both hardcore and new.”

After checking out forums and sites in my quest to beat the original Dark Souls it became clear to me that completing the quest is often worn like a badge of honour. Doing it once isn’t enough for some players however, and to those players Miyazoe happily confirmed that From Software is trying to revisit the way New Game+ works in Dark Souls 2. The feature is also a question of balancing, but seasoned players can rest assured that it’s currently in the works.

The world of Dark Souls 2 itself will require a greater degree of balancing than ever before, considering the play of light and dark, as well as new traps just waiting to slaughter careless adventurers rushing into areas blindly. We’ve already seen a rather terrifying rope bridge being torn out from under players by dragons, and pitch black areas that can only be illuminated by swapping out your shield for a torch. The dilemma of sacrificing your primary means of defence for visibility is both fiendish and inspired in equal measure.

The new Dual Swordsman class – seen above – is a key example of how this engrossing brand of risk-reward has been pushed even further to the fore in Dark Souls 2. While the class is both nimble and capable of dishing out a steady stream of large damage, getting the most out of its flurry of dual weapon attacks demands that players do away with their shield. It’s a risky strategy, but one veteran fans will surely relish.

Speaking of risk and strategy, I simply had to ask Miyazoe if Dark Souls 2 will include another savage boss battle like Ornstein and Smough, and to what extent players will have to grind in order to pass them. Of course, given the game’s expanded open world structure, it’s likely that such a bottleneck won’t exist this time around, but as a fan of the ruthless duo I really wanted to learn more.

“You won’t have to start from one venue, go through to the end, beat the boss and then start from a new venue. There will be be areas where you can meet the boss halfway. if you’re good enough or paying enough attention you might be able to defeat them early.”

“As much as the dev team is still balancing the game, I think there will be key moments in the game – not just challenges by story or difficulty – but there will be key enemies and bosses in the game that will challenge the players enough. There will be areas where we’re revisiting some of the boss battles as well, where you’ll be able to encounter boss battles part-way through the stage.

“You won’t have to start from one venue, go through to the end, beat the boss and then start from a new venue. There will be be areas where you can meet the boss halfway. if you’re good enough or paying enough attention you might be able to defeat them early. We’re trying to create a more interactive gameplay flow so that we sort of break a little bit in terms of the traditional ‘start point, boss and then new start point’ mechanic. I think that’s one of the challenges we’re trying to overcome through game design.”

In closing I wanted to quiz Miyazoe on the possibility of Dark Souls 2 on next-gen formats. There are – naturally – a lot of questions around the game’s March 2014 release and its proximity to both PS4 and Xbox One. I suggested that the game could eventually come to both formats as either a port or digital download of the current-gen build.

He replied, “At this point no. We haven’t discussed … or we haven’t made any decisions about next-gen. I think right now we want to concentrate on providing the game strictly on current-gen consoles as well as PC. We feel that with PS3 and Xbox 360 there’s a lot of potential we weren’t able to cover for the first Dark Souls, so we want to really capitalise on every aspect of current-gen consoles and get the game to players as soon as possible.”

Finally, on the shaky PC build of Dark Souls: Prepare to Die edition, he added, “It was a great learning experience for both us as publishers and From Software as the developers. As you know, the PC version last time was more of a port from console to PC. For Dark Souls 2 we are keeping PC in mind right from the beginning, so the release of the PC version will be a ‘PC Dark Souls 2′, rather than a port of the console builds.”

Are you looking forward to getting your teeth sunk right into Dark Souls 2? Let us know below.

Dark Souls 2 is out March 2014 on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.