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Having recently gotten the opportunity not only some watch a live demo of Dark Souls II, but also play it, I thought I'd relay some of the changes and improvements From Software has made with their sequel. Shortly after the game's announcement, Tomohiro Shibuya said he they were trying to make the game more "accessible" to players. This had many players, myself included, a little worried that the game was going to be casualised. At this showing, the folks from From Software made it their duty to differentiate "accessible" from "easy".
Dark Souls had a tendency to be confusing a times, and at once specific instance, it more or less lied to the player. From Software wants to craft an experience that is both fair and unforgiving, and they don't believe leaving players in the dark and misleading them is the way to achieve that. The example the Bandai Namco representative gave was how some players might pick an intelligence build to cast more powerful pyromancies, even though those two things have nothing to do with one another. He insisted that skills and classes would be more well-explained for veterans and newcomers alike. In his words, if players are going to stop playing, it should be because they're getting their ass kicked, not because they can't figure out why they're getting their ass kicked.
In addition, warping from previously discovered bonfires is now available right from the start. The demo I played was fairly linear, though there was one shortcut to discover. The developer assured us that exploration would be rewarded, and that hard core Dark Souls vets would still find plenty of incentive to explore the environment.
Good news for those of you who like to fight dual-handed: fighting with two weapons has been vastly improved. By pressing the "two-handed" button, players with a weapon in each hand will enter a combat stance that lets them pull of a flurry of quick combos in rapid succession. Backstabbing and parrying have been somewhat nerfed, as it's no longer free damage; it's now an attack, and the riposte and backstab strikes I did felt a lot more visceral and involved as a result. Shields can also be wielded with two hands, if you so desire. In fact, they've seen to put a lot of effort into giving players a variety of play styles to try, having been inspired by the antics of PvP players.
All of this is running on a new engine (which, as of now, remains unnamed) that has replaced the PhyreEngine, which also ran Demon's Souls and Disgaea 4. This new engine allows for better lighting and graphics, which looked fantastic in 1080p. One thing that I really loved was how the HUD would fold into itself and eventually fade away when it wasn't relevant. For a game with a large heads up display, this is a great improvement. One noticeable difference in the physics is how barrels have become less static. When the player bumps up against barrels, they wobble slightly, which completely blew my mind. The Xbox One may have dogs, but Dark Souls II has wobbling barrels. Get hyped.
There are some other major changes to the gameplay as well. As the title suggests, there are no night lights in Dark Souls II. Whereas some dark areas in the previous title could be more easily navigated with the Skull Lantern, this game features torches, which can be obtained at designated braziers. Finding them isn't the hard part, however. It's holding onto them that is the problem. Torches take up your left hand, and once you put it away, they are extinguished. This forces the player to either fight in the dark, fight without a shield, or get crafty. Personally, I found it best to lure the enemies into the light, but that won't always work. Expect to be thrust into uncomfortable positions.
Players can also find new health items called "lifestones". These are a bit quicker to use and easier to find, but they heal you over time, much like the healing items from Demon's Souls. I found these in abundance, and had over well over a dozen (which healed most of my health) in just a couple of small areas. Depending on how enemy drops are balanced, this could make long-term survival between battles and bonfires less of a concern. However, I did notice that the Estus Flask animation seems a bit slower, which gives the game plenty of time to show off its improved AI. I can attest from experience that enemies will rush you mid-animation, when you are at your most vulnerable. That's rough, but that's what I'd do. What they're striving for here is to have the player deal with enemies the same way they would human opponents in PvP. These guys won't be pulling any punches, and neither should you.
Of course, it's those little touches that make Dark Souls feel unique, and this Souls sequel really amps it up a notch. One small detail is that the room before the boss lights up with candles depending on the amount of players killed, further driving hope that hopelessness. The actual boss fight, the "Mirror Knight" was everything I'd expect from a boss in the Souls series. He's hard hitting, but you deal just enough damage so that you never feel as though victory is entirely out-of-reach.
The key here is the same as always: be patient and aware of your surroundings. His most useful attack is his ability to spawn a phantom to aid him in battle. In online play, said phantom can be an invading player, who actually spawns during his mirror attack, which is kind of badass. (as a side note, I really appreciate how logging off or losing connection no longer boots you to the main menu.) Of course, you could always opt-out by playing offline, if you want to be a casual.
Dark Souls II will ship sometime in March of 2014 for PS3, Xbox 360, and PC.
Praise the sun!