"Sparse" is a fine word."The broadest of strokes" is a fine phrase. Both equally describe what we see and are told come our inaugural eyes-on with Dark Souls II.
It begins with a single trailer teased at the end of this year's Namco Bandai Global Gamers Day event last week. It's little more than a minute long, more snapshot slide given the brevity of the clips: a darkened corridor, a bonfire, a quick death. All in game, powered by a new graphics engine, but looking remarkably similar to what's went before. It entices, with elaboration expected at a dedicated presentation and follow up interview later on at the event. We're comforted that there's more to come.
That doesn't prove to be the case. The presentation retreads the trailer, but this time in the form a live demo. A From Software staff member hides behind a laptop more tank than PC (the team later promise to do a better job of the PC version this time) while newly promoted director of the franchise Yui Tanimura gives an equally live commentary from a seat adjacent.
He quietly reads through a pre-prepared document as his translator peppers us with the english version. The two core concepts of the sequel are reiterated again and again: the sense of achievement in overcoming adversity and a loose connection with players worldwide. As we watch the armour-clad character quickly falls to and attack by something in the gloom of a darkened corridor, it's clear that the developer has no interest in pulling punches now the series has attained a wider audience.
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The original Dark Souls, and its predecessor Demon Souls, both built themselves on a couple of half-truths. Armoured warriors kitted out with massive weapons would obviously move slowly due to the weight of they bore, and each new monster they encountered would have every chance to disembowel their prey before the warrior had time to both devise a strategy and start swinging their weapon of choice in response. In a world that was fantasy in its design, the core gameplay was brutally realistic.
Any other series, at any other time before, would have ultimately become a cult classic, destined for small sales and much love by a small but passionate fan base. Dark Souls however, be it arriving at a time when gaming had frustratingly become as much about hand-holding as difficulties had taken a swan dive into the sea of casual, or just that - you'd hope - a great game gets recognised as great on release, it became a hit.
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Perhaps it keyed into that wanderer spirit that video games so vividly gave us: to explore new worlds and enjoy new experiences unseen before. And those who delved into the deeps of Dark Souls thrived on the heightened threat of every enemy encounter.
So we're back here. Though where "here" is isn't clear. We know we're taking the role of a character who's seeking the cure for a curse that's afflicted him. After a run through of the demo, we're shown a few new snippets, and the annoying sparsity of before is somewhat curbed as our enthusiasm is regained. Mainly due to the creatures we see.
We briefly spot a huge hulking beast peering through the top of a doorway before it smashes through and charges. There's a turtle-like creature that slams onto its back if you've rolled behind it. Fire lizards. Everything is bigger than your warrior self and everything looks like its been spawned to intimate and ultimately kill you.
The team also wants to break the standard escalation towards an end boss, and so is planning of introducing these key enemies much earlier in the dungeons, offering wily adventurers a chance to tackle the big threats sooner. An example is cued up as a blue-flamed chariot charges out of the darkness, downing other creatures and aiming directly for the player. This scene, we're told, takes place halfway through one area, and on the back rides that location's boss. As expected, the Game Over screen flashes up soon after.
Tanimura also wants to dig into those moments between battles, heighten the fear of what's to come before springing something unexpectedly. It's the old horror trick of jumping into multiple rooms with weapon raised, but with no answering attack, oppressive silence doing as much damage on your nerves as a horde of charging nasties.
It's a chance to admire the surroundings, however dank and oppressive they may be. A mouth key - inserted into a tortured marble face carving in a nearby wall, sees torches spurt to life along the high ceilings above, the line disappearing into the far distance. It's as much a indicator of direction as a continued toying with the emotions: fire represents solace in Dark Souls, and it also reminds you how far away you are from the outside world.
So we walk through a massive hall, a location that's seen past experimentation on dragons. We walk through the rib cage of one such titanic patient, the dragon's carcass spread awkwardly across the room. As we walk past the skull, the bones shudder, and suddenly the jaws lash out. This time, a rolling dodge narrowly avoids death. The skeleton goes silent once more. The on-screen warrior readies for a follow up attack that never comes.
Tanimura explains how he wants players to react more to environmental dangers - we assume single use traps will feature prominently here. Figuring a way through will require some thought as well as quick reactions. One of the closing segments sees the team walk across a wooden bridge between the mainland and a castle. Large avians swoop in the skies above, and one lands midway along the walkway as we cross. There's a brief beat, then it quickly pulls the bridge to shreds, plunging us to our death. This bridge looks to be the only entrance to the remote castle in the distance.
There is a solution, we're told. But what it is, we'll have to discover for ourselves. When the presentation moves into Q&As shortly after, the room's silent. You can see the assembled watchers lost in their own minds, trying to work the puzzle out.
If a solution comes, hopefully it can be shared. That "loose" connection with other players isn't elaborated on, even with post-presentation questioning. It's hard to gauge exactly why so little is being said at this stage.
While a number of factors may be in play - it's still very early in development, the next-gen situation may have complicated matters, jet-lag sapping everybody's energy - it frustrates not seeing more, not hearing more other than elements that are already familiar, expected, and the odd glimmer of new inclusions. The game's touted during the initial presentation as "killing with substance". We've yet to see much of either.