Demon’s Souls was the sole reason I picked up a PS3 and Dark Souls rekindled love of my video games. Dark Souls II is in line to be my most anticipated game for 2014. Oddly enough, I have seen only one trailer for the game; starving myself of the vast majority of Dark Souls II spoilers, this beta test was my first experience with the game. The beta test was a large public test, although it was only three hours long I knew I would make the most of it.
Upon pressing new game the first thing I was greeted with was the character select screen, although this was different from the character creation of the past games. The player was prompted to choose a class already preset; this might be limited only to the beta test to get more players into the actual game in a timely manner rather than what we can expect at release?
I started with a dual swordsman, as it is a new feature to the Soul series. At the start of the demo, the player is met with the familiar warmth of a bonfire, and the developers were even kind enough to have a shopkeeper within close range. The hag merchant actually resembles the old lady shopkeeper in demon souls, and the one in Dark Souls II even has a dilapidated wooden hut similar to the one the shopkeeper in Valley of Defilement world two has.
Upon talking to the merchant she reveals her name, and in typical dark souls lore the game world is revealed. Although I quickly moved on, I do wish I would have talked to her more. Many Dark Souls players seemingly miss the intricacies of the lore and dialogue by understating the importance of merchant conversations.
After reaching the first building, I thought the game might be a bit too dark; this concern of mine was quickly dissolved when an enemy charged at me, swinging his sword, and broke the wooden planks blocking the windows, thus illuminating the room. Of course, I was so surprised by this I actually turned to look at the windows and was quickly greeted by an arrow in my back and killed.
One thing I noticed straight away was the fluidity of the character models; from rolling to swinging a sword, it all looked beautiful with fast responses. Also, the new dedicated jump button worked flawlessly. Having two swords was something I actually looked forward to, but after dying a few times due to my inability to correctly dodge and time attacks I swapped over to sword and shield.
New areas brought on new enemies and challenges. Most enemies had a unique set of moves, and seemed to even have their own set personality of how aggressive they would act. The basic undead are sluggish and attack with little effort, but then there are some such as the assassins which will charge relentlessly.
Soon I made it to the first boss, the Executioner’s Chariot, after defeating five black phantoms. I promptly prepared for the boss fight, made a quick run to the right, and fell right off a cliff. After recovering from my brief laugh at myself I loaded back in, and ran back. The boss was actually rather interesting; the first part of the “fight” was more of a puzzle of how to bypass getting run over by the chariot by fitting into notches on the side of the wall. A lever was at the end of hall, which lowered a gate that the chariot then crashed into. This destroyed the chariot and the fight actually begun; to my surprise the boss was the two headed horse instead of the rider. This part of the fight was rather easy, the horse would blindly charge, allowing the player to roll to the side and get a few attacks in. After repeating this a few times I was given the warmth of the “Victory Achieved” screen.
A bonfire soon came after the boss, which Tiny Grim, a small hooded NPC, was overseeing. Not knowing where to go next, I decided to kill him after talking to him. This resulted in a tombstone appearing and I was prompted to offer souls, after doing so Tiny Grim then stood on top of the tombstone as a ghost; unfortunately I could not figure out what this further led to.
I turned back around and remembered that there was another bridge I could cross, and found my way within five minutes to the next boss, the Skeleton Lord. This boss was unique in the sense that it didn’t feel like a boss, instead three enemies that had an ability unique to themselves: upon death they would transform into multiple, smaller enemies. One of the enemies they turned into was the infamous skeleton pinwheel from the first Dark Souls. Although this idea for a boss is not a concept new to video games in the least bit, it has surprisingly never been used in the Soul series before.
Soon after I beat the Skeleton Lord, I explored and realized that was the extent of the areas in the beta test. After only an hour and a half I had exhausted the reach of the beta. I then decided to test out different weapons and shields to find a few differences from the original Dark Souls. The first thing I noticed was the new combo system, although many weapons had them in the previous title, they felt like they were an added thought and certainly not as natural as the ones in the new beta test. Some of the combos even added the ability to change the direction of attack, certainly a benefit as most greatswords leave the wielder venerable to being attacked after a heavy swing.
Within an hour or so of testing various weapons a server-wide message came on: they were increasing the difficulty of the entire server, drastically. This was a relief to me, as I felt the game was a bit too easy. I heard rumors of the development team making Dark Souls II easier than the other games in the Souls series, and the beta seemingly confirmed those fears, but I was glad to see them trying to establish a base difficulty in the beta.
When the difficulty increase kicked it, it hit hard. I ran into a group of enemies, which as any Souls player knows is a bad idea, and I took three or four hits and died. This was actually more of a relief to me than a discomfort. I have always felt that deaths in Souls games are meant to teach the player a lesson: he or she did something wrong, and correcting the fault will allow the player to proceed. After just a few minutes of endlessly dying, I decided my time with the test was coming to an end and my experience was complete with it.
Overall, I think the test shows that this could be the strongest showing in the Souls series. It has everything that made the other games great, while coming to the table with enough improvements and tweaks to make it stand out. Unfortunately I had absolutely no invasions or PvP attempts, so I cannot comment on any differences from the past titles. The full game is scheduled for release March 11, 2014 for North America and the 14th for Europe on Xbox 360, PS3, and PC. If the difficulty lays between the two presented in the beta I think most players will be happy, but as long as the development team gives us a challenge and a reason to keep picking up the controller death after death, I will.