"This is the third time I've been able to beat him," says the Namco rep after defeating a boss at the tail end of a 15-minute E3 demonstration of the forthcoming action-RPG epic Dark Souls 2.
"Uh huh," I think as the presentation concludes. He didn't look that hard. "There were plenty of times you could've hit him," I think, suspecting the demo rep of holding back to make the fight look more intense than it is.
Then I play the same demo. And holy-mother-of-god is it punishing.
The dubious motherf***** in question is called the Mirror Knight. A shiny crystal golem with an oversized electricity conducting sword, we duel atop a crumbled castle ruin in the midst of a rain storm.
The Mirror Knight's signature move consists of him taking a defensive position while a shadowy figure comes into view in his colossal mirror shield. The reflective surface cracks as the dark shape reveals itself as a black knight, which steps through the shield into reality. As far as bosses summoning underlings go, the Mirror Knight's cohorts know how to make an entrance that would make Shigeru Miyamoto green with envy.
One time the Mirror Knight slaughters me by shooting multiple bolts of lightning, another time he pierces me on his blade while I'm recovering from a heavy attack, and another time he charges at me while I'm healing.
My gear isn't the problem. I've got five healing flasks and a handful of "life gems," a new item that refills my health slowly over time. I never run out of healing items.
The reason I'm struggling so much isn't just because the Mirror Knight hits hard and often, but because he's smarter than the average boss. Namco is quick to point out that the limited enemy AI in the previous Souls titles has been spruced up significantly. Enemies now react to your behaviour by doing such things as charging you while you're healing, or kicking your legs out from under you and initiating a backstab if you try to run away at close range.
Welcome to Dark Souls 2.
Namco is adamant that this highly anticipated sequel will be just as hard as its predecessors. Possibly harder. It will still be fair, though, with a host of new additions.
The biggest of these is the ability to properly dual-wield weapons. Previously, you could equip a weapon in your left hand, but you could only waive it around like a feather duster. Now you're entirely ambidextrous and can pull off powerful attacks in your left hand as well. There's even a third fighting stance specific to this mode. In addition to wielding a weapon in two hands or assigning each one to an arm, you can now select a stance where your individual attacks utilise both hands. There's even an option to dual-wield a shield for extra defense, and new attacks have been added that are triggered by striking while running. The Souls series combat was never lacking in depth, but the expanded moveset and enemy attack patterns seems deeper and more Monster-Hunter-esque than ever.
I've yet to see a situation where I'd want to dual-wield, but nevertheless I appreciate the option. You can also hold a torch in your left hand and your weapon in the right, much like using the skull lantern in Dark Soul's Tomb of Giants. When I asked if you'd be able to hold a torch in one hand and a shield in the other, the Namco rep didn't know and the demo doesn't allow one to go into their inventory. Oh well.
Elsewhere, Dark Souls 2 feels very similar to its predecessor, though one minor thing I noticed is that the lock-on is less reliable this time around. If you hit the attack button while backing away from a targeted enemy, you may well end up swinging in the exact opposite direction you intended as it will register your left stick input, regardless of your lock-on. It's unclear if this is a bug, a consequence of the new physics-based engine, or a conscious decision on the developer's part, but the end result is that you need to be more deliberate in your strikes. I would likely need several hours with the game before I could determine whether I like this relatively minute change. It definitely takes some getting used to, but overcoming these punishing quirks is what the series is all about.
You may have heard some quotes by the Dark Souls 2 director Tomohiro Shibuya about the game being "more straightforward and more understandable," which raised a lot of suspicion from the series' die-hard fanbase, but the move towards accessibility is extremely minor. This time around, you'll be able to use any bonfire to warp to any other previously discovered bonfire from the get-go. This doesn't necessarily make the game easier, just less time-consuming.
Another way Dark Souls 2 will be more user-friendly is that it will allow you to choose your stats first, then funnel you into whichever class is more suited to your playstyle, rather than make you choose the class straight away.
Other notable additions are subtle, but effective. Enemies can play dead this time around, so you have to make sure they're not just snoozing when you walk by the Lordranian equivalent of a boxcar hobo.
Visually, Dark Souls 2 hosts more shaders and pushes more polygons, or something, but to be honest, I could hardly tell as I liked the art direction so much in the first Dark Souls that I turned a blind eye to its graphical rough edges. What I did notice is that Dark Souls 2 captures the same misty, gloomy ancient European atmosphere as its predecessor, though from the footage we've seen there seems to be slightly too much of a focus on brick catacombs and stone castles. Hopefully the full game will contain as many colourful, varied setpieces as Dark Souls.
One neat environmental touch is a chamber littered with more candles than Nick Andopolis' basement. The more people die in that section, the more candles light up. Much like the ringing bells in Dark Souls, this is an effective way of integrating others' experiences into your own without the need to stop and activate "bloodstain" holographics replays (though you can also do that).
Ultimately, Dark Souls 2 invokes the same feeling of nervous exploration as its predecessors and the new enemy AI and increased movesets could very well give the already robust epic extra legs. Most importantly, Dark Souls 2 feels like Dark Souls, but distinguishes itself just enough that it will give veterans a whole new set of weapons to master, demons to overcome, and secrets to discover. With the next generation of consoles stealing the limelight this Boxing Day season, Dark Souls 2 looks like a firm reminder that there's still more treasure to uncover without spending hundreds on a new system.
Praise the sun!