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Dark Souls 2 – walking the line between pleasure and pain

From Software is at it again and Stace Harman discovers that with Dark Souls 2, only through suffering can enlightenment be attained. At least, that was the excuse he gave for dying a bunch of times during a recent hands-on.


"Glory has seldom been celebrated very loudly in the Souls series; a moment of quiet satisfaction is usually all you’re afforded before you’re off to face the next challenge."

I died, of course.

Despite beginning at the beginning and coming pre-armed with extensive Souls experience, I died multiple times over the course of a couple of hours spent with Dark Souls 2. I died on a cold, grey beach at twilight and in a sunny, dappled forest at sunset. I died battling obese monstrosities sporting thick mottled hides and again when cornered by pus-filled poisonous nasties with grotesque drooping bellies.

I died a lot, then, but crucially I learned something every time I did: the effective range of a beast’s lumbering swipes or the time it takes to use a healing item, for example. As any battle-scarred veteran knows, it’s this gradual learning process that enables you to amass the knowledge and skills required to survive From Software’s sublime Souls series.

Dark Souls 2 sets its stall out early in this regard; no sooner have you progressed beyond the scattered standing stones that relay a smattering of basic controls than you are thrown toward two brutes standing between you and the way out; it’s here that you make your first choice and learn your first real lesson of Dark Souls 2.

Your initial instinct is to steel yourself for a tough fight but you don’t actually have to engage them at all and I managed to slip past one to climb into a coffin that then slid silently out to sea. It was brief respite, though, as my macabre transportation quickly returned to that same shore and those same hulking beach-dwellers, suggesting that either I lacked the necessary item to guide the coffin to its intended destination or that the travel function simply hadn’t been implemented in this build. It was then that I spied a tunnel across the beach, its entrance small enough to ensure I couldn’t be followed, but I had other ideas in mind.

Adopting a different tact, I was able to retreat far enough with my heavy-set foes following me that one ventured onto a narrow tree trunk bridge and fell clumsily to its death. The other brute, either learning from its ally's mistake or whose AI code simply didn't allow it to stray far enough from its starting point to attempt the bridge, turned back. This highlights a long standing feature of the Souls games; that mix of deliberate planning and accidental fortune as the designed response gives way to emergent behaviour, which ensures you’re forever balancing on the knife edge between human and hollow.

I chased that thing back to the beach and killed it with my dagger but not before dying half a dozen times trying. When the deed was done there was no fanfare and no epic loot drop, just me on a deserted moonlit beach, having acquired a couple of thousand souls and the valuable knowledge of how to kill a brute with little more than a butter knife. Glory has seldom been celebrated very loudly in the Souls series; a moment of quiet satisfaction is usually all you’re afforded before you’re off to face the next challenge and that’s part of what makes it so very good to be back.

Elsewhere in Dark Souls 2, things have changed as much as they've stayed the same. There’s a broader range of character classes this time around, with the peppy and lightly-built explorer class that I opted for standing alongside more traditional options such as the soldier, sorcerer and dual-wielder. Bonfires still offer that same cold glow of hope, along with refuge, upgrade and fast travel options, while the new inventory system leaves a portion of the screen visible so that you can better see your character (and, more importantly, anything that might be creeping up on her). You can now equip four rings instead of two – still an arbitrarily restricted number but then ten or twenty would be difficult to manage – and there’s a hint at a more established and comprehensive covenants system.

Summoning, too, has been refined and, somewhat controversially, offers an increased chance of being able to hook up with a friend. It’s still largely random but you have more chance of summoning someone who has chosen to believe in the same god as you and so, with some external coordination, you may find a friendly face more often than before. What’s more, if both players choose to enable voice chat they can speak to one another and while some will prefer to stick with the quaintly formal gesture system this option will hearten those who want to tackle the challenges of Dark Souls 2 together.


Of course, where there’s an option for summoning friendly phantoms there’s the danger of being invaded by more malevolent forces. Initiating invasion automatically increases your sin level this time around, which in turn makes it more likely that you yourself will be invaded by those looking for a ruckus. Being hollow no longer protects you from being invaded, but it’s that status that will make it least likely that you will be and it lags some way behind those who have earned a high sin level, those who have a friendly phantom in tow and those who are alive and in human form, rather than a hollow husk.

I didn’t maintain my human form for long during my play session. Consequently, I felt the effects becoming hollow, which entails your maximum health gauge reducing each time you die, down to around fifty percent. However, earning a high sin level – by frequently invading other players’ worlds – will facilitate an even more drastic decrease in health when hollow and there are whispers that it could go as low as ten percent, if your sin level is particularly high. No matter how good you might be at Dark Souls PvP, you’re going to have a hell of a job surviving an invasion with so little health.

"Those who seek to prey on others do so accepting that they are making their own adventure more hazardous as a result."

Many of the changes outlined here typify Dark Souls 2’s development; feedback has been gathered, lessons have been learned and tweaks have been made. Those looking for help will find it more readily available while those who seek to prey on others do so accepting that they are making their own adventure more hazardous as a result.

The designers’ increased understanding of how people experience the fruits of their labour has resulted in a more knowing Dark Souls, then. Not just in the changes to the underlying mechanics but also in explicit acknowledgement on screen when an old crone speaks knowingly of those who have come before and of how you will die many deaths and lose your souls over and over again. Similarly, we all approach Dark Souls 2 in a more knowing manner than we have its predecessors.

We know that we’re going to suffer, that we’re likely to gnash our teeth at some stage or another and that we’re going to die, a lot. Happily, the more I see of Dark Souls 2 the more I look forward to approaching it next month, knowing that I’m likely to fall hard for another of From Software’s insidious masterpieces.

Dark Souls 2 will be available on PS3 and 360 from March 11 in the US, March 14 in Australia and March 15 in Europe. A fully featured PC release will follow shortly after.

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