Dark Souls II unlocked at midnight and I haven’t stopped playing since then. The hour between 4 and 5 am was distressing, as I found myself caught in a bleary-eyed Groundhog Day loop of blood-seeking and blood-letting. That central rhythm, of loss and learning as each death becomes a lesson for the next life, is intact and as compelling as ever in the first terrible and glorious hours of this third Souls title. Here are my early impressions and a couple of niggling doubts.
I’m relieved. Keep in mind that I’ve been deliberately avoiding any details or critical response to the game during its early access stint on consoles, but it’s been impossible to completely bypass the general sense of satisfaction. The systems work. The ‘accessibility’ is not equivalent to an erosion of the series’ ability to punish overconfidence and mistimed rolls or strikes. It can be difficult to cut through the exhilaration of exploring new content built around the superb systems that the previous games had already perfected, but the delight of these initial impressions is shot through with a slight suspicion as to the strength of Drangleic as a world.
If you haven’t played Dark Souls, read my thoughts or any of the other fine words written about it. I won’t spend too much time discussing what it is that makes the series such a brilliant tangent from the usual dungeons and doldrums here. Suffice to say, the series is like a fantasy RPG from an alternate timeline, where concepts such as loot, combat, death and dungeons have evolved in ways that are recognisable but weirdly misshapen. It also feels like the endpoint of that timeline, a distillation of ideas and designs that have been circulating for decades.
It’s one of the best and most thought-provoking games I’ve ever played.
A tough act to follow, although it should be remembered that Dark Souls had several acts to follow itself, not only in Demon’s Souls but in From Software’s King’s Field series. Despite its peculiarity and deviance from fantastical norms, it is not a game that sprang fully-formed into the world. Dark Souls II is from good stock and I’m already confident that it’s worthy of its lineage. However, peeling back the shock and joy of the new, a few niggling doubts are already making themselves known.
Again, I want to emphasise that these are early impressions based on the game’s first areas. I’ll have a full Wot I Think as soon as possible and all of the doubts may dissipate like the ashes of an untended bonfire.
The world itself is the biggest potential problem. It’s still a bizarre and awfully beautiful place but the connectivity of Dark Souls’ Lordran is lacking. Rather than being lost in the midst of a crazed junction, with no signposts, no clear racing line and no warnings, Dark Souls II begins with a trek. Drangleic, at least in its opening areas, isn’t confused* in the way that Lordran is.
One of the disconcerting pleasures of Dark Souls lay in finding routes between areas that had seemed distant and disparate, and realising that most places turned back on themselves. Lordran is a heap of ruins, architecture and anomalies piled high, leaving the player to dig deeper while always tending toward the same tracks. As a (mostly) continuous map, with few transporting breaks, it is one of the most ingenious pieces of level design ever constructed. Drangleic allows for quick travel between bonfires and the tiny hub village at the starting line makes the route from one location to the next seem less labyrinthine and more linear.
In that sense, perhaps its structure has something in common with Demon’s Souls. While distinct areas aren’t quite as crudely separated as the worlds that led off from the first game's central hub, I don’t feel as lost in Drangleic as I did in Lordran, and the immediate sense of claustrophobia and panic isn’t as apparent. That said, I was in grave danger of waking everyone in the building I live in (ten stories tall) at various points last night as unnatural creatures lunged at me and the dark set in all around. There’s nothing in gaming quite like these repeated attempts to pass an apparently simple set of obstacles and enemies, only to die again and again and again and again. It’s desperate, exasperating and, eventually, a source of elation.
The core of the game is so finely tuned that it ticks like a metronome. Bonfires are placed cunningly and just far enough apart to create a superb tension and sense of anguish. The combination of even the simplest enemy attacks is quickly comprehensible but animated and timed precisely so as to take advantage of any overconfidence or lack of care. Even in these early stages, I’m using skills and thought processes that I’d all-but forgotten, like an athlete returning to the track after a long injury lay-off.
Technically, as has been mentioned many times already, it’s not quite the looker the early footage led us to believe it might be. The framerate hasn’t dipped below 60fps so far and it's as smooth as Old Fitzgerald bourbon but venturing into dark places with a torch in hand isn’t as dramatic as I’d hoped. Lighting is fairly flat, though I’m not sure I would have noticed if I hadn’t been convinced to expect better.
Durante is already working his magic but I’m currently playing the launch version as it was released. The mostly fascinating art design interests me far more than the resolution of every piece of stonework and bark, but a few areas have struck me as a little bland in a way that I don’t remember being the case during Dark Souls. I’m already approaching stranger and more fantastical places though, and I stop to admire the view far more than I do in almost any other game. However muddy some textures might be on close examination, Dark Souls still does distance better than the rest.
From have included a decent set of graphical settings this time around, with features including shadows, textures and water effects configurable as 'low', 'medium' or 'high' among other tweaks. Properly integrated mouse and keyboard controls are the other supposed improvement over the port of the previous game but I found them horrible to use in the five minutes I spent testing them. I'd never choose to play the game without a joypad, just as I'd never choose to play Quake with one, but for those who don't have a suitable controller, I'm not convinced the experience of playing will be a pleasant one.
If ever a game was worth a peripheral, Dark Souls is that game. The motion of the mouse simply doesn't feel like a natural fit for the weight of this particular brand of third-person combat. It suits something solid and rooted to the hand rather than the gliding surface-play of a mouse.
Whatever the complaints might be, now or when all’s said and done, I don’t want to stop playing until I can’t fend off sleep for another second. And then I’ll dream about the things that I’ve done wrong and ways to improve. That's not a joke or an exaggeration - the repetition and otherwordliness causes these games to infest weird corners of my brain and makes them its own. I think that's one of the reasons they attract such reverence. Dark Souls II is, as the series has ever been, a hypnotic combination of demanding skills and enchanting nightmares. Feels like coming home.
*trace the word back to its Latin origins for the full sense (ACADEMIC NERD ALERT)