The team at From Software seems to have found its next hit franchise with the Souls series. Demon's Souls, a game published by Sony in Japan but passed on everywhere else, was a cult hit among PS3 fans who kept the game active on sales and playtime charts long after most titles have been put to rest. The spiritual sequel, Dark Souls, only expanded the fan base when it went multiplatform, even after receiving a less-than-optimal PC port several months after the initial console releases. Based on what we saw of Dark Souls II at E3 2013, it's safe to say that the team hasn't lost a step.
The game has received a few changes that help the player. Dual-wielding, for example, is in and works pretty well compared to the other weapons at your disposal. All of the bonfires now allow you to fast-travel to other bonfire spots, removing the guesswork of whether you'll stumble upon a bonfire with warping capabilities. The character creation system has been changed to work in the player's favor. Instead of immediately picking a class to adventure with, you'll answer questions to help dole out your stats so the game assigns the correct class to you. You can try to make class hybrids if you'd like, but the new system does a good job of making the title fit well with classic RPG models.
There have also been some changes highlighted in favor of the enemies. Your basic foes no longer rush you but start attacking you like a human player would, such as anticipating your moves and dodging when necessary. They'll only rush you when they have strength in numbers. The parrying system has been toned down to prevent exploits, so it doesn't always mean a guaranteed block and hit for you. Enemies try to play dead and ambush you when given the opportunity, making the fights focus on cunning as well as the traditional maneuvers.
Despite these changes on both sides, fans will be relieved to know that the game still plays like Dark Souls. The enemies are still brutal, and the title still (heavily) punishes players who try to button-mash their way through. The only real help you'll get comes from the specters of other players. The environments always work against you, with narrow dark hallways preventing any form of retreat. New enemies, like the turtle knight, seem protected on all sides. The mirror knight is a giant who can send other players after you during the fight. At its heart, Dark Souls II is still a masochistic game, and fans wouldn't have it any other way.
As expected, the look of the game has improved. As is the trend for most of the games in the show, the lighting and particle effects have been the major improvement points, with a realistic shadow system in place wherever there is a light source. The shadowing is more pronounced in completely dark areas when you're carrying a torch, as the movement is smooth and convincing as the torch is bounced around the stage. Embers are constantly being emitted from lamps and torches, and the rain for the mirror knight fight was impressive. While the game looks great on both the PS3 demo stations at the event, it was the PC that saw marked improvements. A far cry from the subpar port of the previous game, the PC iteration had all of the effects turned up to the maximum and ran at 1080p with 60 frames per second. There's no denying that the development team has really redeemed itself when it comes to PC ports.
Dark Souls II is planned to hit both of the current-generation consoles and the PC in March of 2014. Look for more coverage of the game as we approach that date.
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