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‘Dark Souls II’ preview: You will die in several new, and very pretty ways

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Check out our review of Dark Souls II.

Remarkable thing about From Software: The studio is a Japanese developer that has managed to stay independent and successful throughout the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 generation, while also making games that are quiet, patient, and profoundly difficult. Demon’s Souls and its successor Dark Souls were unlikely success stories in the age of regenerating health bars and corridor level design, games that literally bludgeoned players – with traps, giant swords, dragon tails, and more – until they adapted and improvised their way through dungeons to persevere.

“The player should anticipate death coming around every corner”

Dark Souls II is an equally unlikely sequel, arriving for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC right as most developers are making the jump to the next generation. There was also some concern after the game was announced at the Spike Video Game Awards in 2012, when From Software and Namco claimed that this game was built to make the sadistic series more accessible. During a talk with Dark Souls II director Yui Tanemura at a Namco event in New York City this month, those fears can be set aside.

Dark Souls II is still brutal, but From Software is just trying to figure out new ways to make a game’s meanness part of the appeal.

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“The player should anticipate death coming around every corner,” he tells me. That at least has stayed the same in Dark Souls II. While Namco and From didn’t let us play the game yet, they showed an attractive PC build of the game, and repeatedly died in the process. At one point, Tanemura was trying to demonstrate how a giant axe wielding monster could be defeated by knocking the axes back at him. That didn’t happen. Instead, Tanemura got hit in the face with the axe and was  killed in a single swipe. After reloading and going back, he fell off the giant statue the monster was protecting and died again.

“We want the player to enjoy the process of dying”

We were treated to a melange of deaths. Your hero’s walking across an enormous bridge heading towards a castle? Well there are about fifty dragons flying around it and they’ll knock you right off. Walking through that creepy old lab? The skeleton of a dragon on display isn’t quite as dead as it looks.

It’s a beautiful game. The Souls games have always been meaningfully drab, but by leading development on PCs, From Software is clearly trying to give the game a facelift. The moody lighting in a hallway where a beast is hidden behind a locked, shaking door, nails the balance between silence and darkness with a sudden blast of color and noise that Tanemura says his team is emphasizing.

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“We want the player to enjoy the process of dying,” says Tanemura when I ask him how From can is trying to reassess how the Souls games are balanced. With series mastermind Hidetaka Miyazaki stepping away from this sequel, Tanemura explains that his goal is to not make the game easier, but to change expectations about simple structures.

One of the ways Dark Souls II shakes things up is by changing how its enemies behave. One level shown shows the Silver Chariot, a boss that doesn’t wait at the end of a long level or segment of the landscape but is constantly roaming the halls of an opulent fortress. Tanemura also draws attention to the game’s vertically arranged environments, tiered castles and labs where you have to consider what’s above and below you. When I ask if the game will offer the player knew ways to explore these places, say by flying or riding a mount rather than sneaking around on foot, Tanemura responds that he can’t talk about that yet.

Without diving into the full game, it’s impossible to say whether or not the changes Tanemura describes alter the flow of the game and provide something new, or if this is just a regular old sequel. It’s prettier, with plenty of new items, traps, and nasty things to unexpectedly bump you off in the dark, but it’s wholly unclear if the game will be as surprising and fresh as its predecessors. 2014 feels like a long time to wait to enjoy dying so much.