While more "traditional" JRPGs still appear to be holding strong, there can be no denying that recent efforts towards a darker, more Western feel has provided success stories. Dragon's Dogma has utilised the aethetic well, but arguably the true king at present is From Software's Souls series. Demon's Souls and Dark Souls were both beloved for their uncompromising attitude, unique approach to multiplayer, and hostile settings. Rather than find another appropriate D-word for the title, From Software have simply gone with Dark Souls II for the next edition in the series, and while there are changes of note, fans of the series can safely keep the faith that the series distinctive flavour will remain strong.
"Fans of the series can safely keep the faith that the series distinctive flavour will remain strong."
A Beta test allowed a select few participants to garner some early impressions on the game, and the overall feel is stated to be a touch slower than Dark Souls, going hand-in-hand with alterations to the parrying system. Attack animations for both players and enemies appear to take longer, giving players further considerations in their parry timing, which was already a difficult task. This may mean that feedback during combat isn't as immediate as before, but perhaps more importantly, this should also filter through for a considerably fairer online experience, relying more on player's abilities and timing than straight-out reaction speed and reducing the odds of any latency-caused grief. The camera lock also appears to have been toned down, no longer automatically turning players to face their foe and requiring players use a bit more skill in their positioning to keep them from coming to serious harm.
Life gems are a new addition, offering a second method of healing to the Estus flask. Random drops from enemies, these gems regenerate some of the player's health, letting players save a bit more of their limited Estus Flask contents. There may be some worried about these apparent concessions diluting the trademark difficulty, but experienced players shouldn't have much cause to worry as the new things aren't all beneficial for players. For exmaple, now when players are resurrected at the previous bonfire (with all enemies respawned), the 'hallowing' status also includes a drop in maximum health that lasts until players can make use of a Human Effigy.
Those players who are more ranged and magically inclined should find Dark Souls II caters towards them more than the past two games. Archers can now draw an arrow in their bow and retain full mobility even as the bow remains ready to fire, while levelling up now allows players to spend points in certain types of magic as well as the usual attributes. All the changes should help to make certain build options more appealling to players, and hopefully result in a richer range of builds across the game's community. The unique Souls approach to multiplayer seems to be completely intact, letting players assist in or invade other's worlds; managing to keep everyone connected yet still maintaining the lonesomeness of the setting. It seems that many of the game's changes have been made with the online aspect in mind, and that the multiplayer aspect will be further encouraged on players this time out.
Story-wise, the game appears to be heading closer towards the themes and involvement style of Demon's Souls. It is concentrated on the main character suffering from an agonising curse, and attempting to find a cure. There is stated to be a indirect connection between the story in Dark Souls II and its predecessor, along with the inclusion of concepts around time, but outside of this there are few details so far. Players can likely expect the story to take on a similar role to the rest of the series, setting a great atmosphere but mostly helping to augment the tough gameplay rather that being at the forefront.
Despite sticking to the 360/PS3 generation, the game is set to take another step up visually from Dark Souls, utlising an improved graphics engine. Animations and textures look crisp, and these should be complemented by more excellent level design. The earlier entries saw some very memorable locations and truly unique enemies, and it's very likely that Dark Souls II will continue the trend in creating another harrowing setting, said to be twice the size of that from the previous game. Videos available certainly indicate very good usage of darkness, terrain, and architecture to keep players nervous about what waits around the next corner.
Those who failed to get into the previous Souls games may find it easy to initially dismiss Dark Souls II as more of the same. However, those fans of the series should find a fresh experience that still requires all the patience and forethought that made progress in the previous games such a rewarding experience. Even experts should still need to spend some time getting to grips with things and find themselves on the end of plenty crushing defeats, and they wouldn't have it any other way. Dark Souls II is due out for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in North America on March 11, 2014, and in Europe a few days later on March 14, 2014. A PC release will come at a later date.