Preview events offer only brief glimpses at very big games. Who knows how any given game will pan out in its final form? The most we can say is This Could Be Good.
Approaching the Dark Souls II demo station in a Namco Bandai meeting room, I noticed a bottle of hand sanitizer next to the row of monitors. Sure, Purell should be available at all demo stations for obvious reasons, but it was especially appropriate here. Without that germ-killing goo, every person leaving that demo would inherit some sort of horrible sweat-transmitted disease. Those PlayStation controllers were straight-up damp. The 15 minutes of the game I played, up until the point where I died rolling off a cliff—I was trying to kick an undead knight to his doom, I swear!—were enough to bathe my controller in a new layer of sweat.
The peerless tension of Dark Souls—a game known for its willingness to obliterate players—is alive and well in the sequel, and the sadists at FromSoftware have added plenty of nasty new tricks to keep us would-be warriors sweating. Enemies now have a diverse repertoire of behaviors that go beyond simply walking up and kicking the shit of you. Some play dead, waiting until you’re well past them and engaged in combat with some of their compatriots—then they sneak up and kick the shit out of you. Others are built specifically to counter the most popular tactics of Dark Souls veterans. The marquee monster of the segment I played was the “Turtle Knight,” a brute with a giant club and a heavily armored back. Try to run behind him to deliver a devastating backstab, and Mr. Turtle Knight will fall backward, crushing you under his metal shell.
Even the exploration in Dark Souls II requires players to adopt new strategies. In one demo that I saw, the player tricked a bomb-throwing baddy into taking down a weak wall, exposing the life-affirming bonfire behind it. Bonfires, returning from the original, serve as a sort of checkpoint where players save their games and refill their healing flasks. In a rare example of mercy, the developers have also added a true teleportation system. Explorers can instantly travel between any of the bonfires they’ve discovered across the game world, alleviating much of the tedious—and perilous—travel required by the original, in which only a fraction of bonfires offered warping.
But the instant travel and a new healing system (which augments the beloved Estus Flasks of the original rather than replacing them) were the only niceties on display. The Namco representatives flaunted the fact that no one, a day and a half into E3, had yet to beat the boss that closed the hands-on demo. It was an impressive fight, set in a ruined coliseum during a thunderstorm. Players challenged a lumbering set of armor whose shield doubles as a portal through which ghostly warriors—and, I was told, other players looking to kill you—are summoned.
The sequel retains the same gothic art-inspired style as before, but the visual details, especially the complexity of the lighting, are improved. It’s more than just a shiny new look. The lighting amplifies Dark Souls II’s sense of gloom and solitude. It makes areas that are blanketed in darkness even more terrifying, as the light from your torch pours over the walls and illuminates corpses waiting to come alive and do you in. And do you in they will if you’re not careful. Just ask the sweaty-palmed folks (un)lucky enough to have played the game.