Considering how brutal Dark Souls is—a brutality that keeps many gamers at arm's length–it'd be easy to think that its sequel would try to be more inviting for new players. My fears of a kinder, gentler game plagued my wait in line for the Dark Souls 2 E3 demo, even as I watched players ahead of me get crushed by the low-level undead warriors that populate the first halls.
The E3 demo offers four classes to play as: a traditional knight, a sorcerer, a Temple Knight that looked like the Dark Souls version of a paladin, and a dual-wielding fighter. I decide to play as this last class, though I just as often switched to either a large greatsword or a sword and buckler combination. The dual-wielder seemed more dexterous than the other options. Which is helpful as I try to dodge and weave past the demo's new enemies.
With little explanation, I'm dropped in the ruins of some medieval structure. After a couple of taunting in-game messages from the developer, I drop down a ladder and face a slumped body on the ground that rises and attacks as I approach. This low level enemy, and his friends when they show up, highlight both the new game engine for Dark Souls 2 and the slight changes in visual style.
While not a generational leap in visual quality, DS2 's new engine does look better. Textures look clearer, and more details have been added to character models. The two-handed fighter, for example, has small patches of cloth alongside the leather armor pieces. These visual upgrades extend to the enemies— Dark Souls was filled with rotting skeletons and zombies, but the initial enemies in the sequel look more human, but clearly dead. Their heads loll back at an unnatural angle as they lurch forward and swing their ancient weaponry. It's frankly more unsettling than most of the enemies from the first game.
The new engine also gives the game a slightly speedier feel. That's not to say that Dark Souls 2 comes anywhere near feeling like an action-platformer, but the responsiveness of the controls is definitely a touch higher. It also feels like the demo is running at a higher frame rate than the original Dark Souls —a welcome sign for anyone who tried to play the PC port without mods.
Another undead guard joins the battle. Two-on-one. I should be able to handle this—the low level baddies of the original game are easy in groups of three—but their attacks are unfamiliar, their timing faster than I expect. One hits, then the other, and with a groan I die.
I turn to the demo assistant with a smile, as if to say, “I'm just getting warmed up.”
Then I die again. I time a roll between the aggressors poorly and can't heal in time.
To ease my shame as the game reloads, I ask the demo assistant some questions. What will some of the new covenants (in-game factions that affect multiplayer goals) be? “The developer hasn't told us,” he says. Okay, well, how about some of the different types of magic? “The developer hasn't told us.” Stony silence falls between us.
I discover after loading back in that there will be more ways to heal yourself after a nasty fight. Alongside the estus flasks from the first game, the Dark Souls 2 demo included lifestones, which slowly replenish health when used instead of instantly healing you. There were other items to pick up in the demo, including amber and twilight herbs, but their use isn't readily apparent. I also am not able to open up an inventory or look at character stats—these options aren't available in the demo.
As I carefully trudge ahead, I also discover how Dark Souls 2 will use darkness as a mechanic. Ahead of me is a stairwell in pitch black darkness. After a few moments of looking around, the demo rep starts to point out a torch when I decide to just run down the stairs, narrowly missing the monster clearly waiting to ambush me. According to the rep, the bottom of the stairway also includes explosive barrels. I'm glad I didn't bring the torch after all.
After another death caused by the sudden appearance of two warriors and an armored turtle, all of which appeared as phantoms, I manage to make enough progress to encounter the demo's boss and the new engine's weather effects. Rain pours on a ruined rooftop as I encounter the Mirror Knight, a hulking brute in chrome armor with a massive mirror shield. He fires lightning from his sword at me that I barely dodge, and then slams his shield down while going into a kneel position. Assuming this is my chance, I move forward to attack but notice the reflection in his shield: a second knight emerging from the shield to aid the boss and slaughter me. I last only a few moments more.
Calmly, quietly, I place the controller down in front of the demo station, thank the Namco rep and leave. I have fewer answers than one would hope for from a demo, but one answer is completely clear: I will be challenged by Dark Souls 2 when it comes to the PC in March 2014. None of the difficulty has gone away, despite the engine improvements.
I am not ready, but I can't wait.