“I played Dark Souls II,” I said to a friend of mine one night at E3 over drinks. He leaned in. His eyes suddenly got wide and he got a little quiet.
“How was it?” He asked.
“It was Dark Souls.” I said.
Immediately a wave of relief rushed over his face, and my friend said to himself, “Oh thank god.” He’s a Dark Souls fan, you see. I’m a Dark Souls fan. Later, another friend of joined us. “He played Dark Souls II -- tell him what you told me.” I did, and the exact same conversation repeated itself, with the same cathartic wave of relief that Dark Souls II was a Dark Souls game, thank god.
People that like Dark Souls are weird like that.
It's a kind of unspoken Stockholm syndrome, one borne out of immense, self-inflicted abuse over many, many hours. If you’ve beaten Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls you know in your gut the vast gulf of difference between the statements, “This is trying to be like Dark Souls,” “This is like Dark Souls,” and “This is Dark Souls.” They are fundamentally different statements.
I played Dark Souls II in a Namco Bandai press-only meeting room with a handful of other people. It was a small demo -- an E3 build that included two portions of the game (the castle interior shown off in the IGN gameplay reveal and the Mirror Knight boss shown in the E3 trailer). Yes, some of the mechanics of the game have changed -- dual-wielding is a priority, multiplayer supports up to four people and class customisation has been revamped. But to me, what I got out of this tiny, back room demo wasn’t the sense of what changed or had been added, but rather the sense of what was familiar.
Statues come alive to ruthlessly murder you, exactly like you expect them to. Corridors are cramped and claustrophobic, just like they should be. The Mirror Knight boss battle was a monstrous fusion of the Iron Golem and the Old Monk -- A lumbering gargantuan whose shield reflects magic and summons a player to come to his aid (for the sake of the demo, the enemy was AI-controlled). The game is ruthless and everything felt like it was in the right place.
Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls were ultimately games about movement -- brutally unforgiving meditations on anticipating how objects and characters interacted with one another. Yes they were hard, but that difficulty was tempered by a kind of cryptic fairness and reliability. When you lost, you were not disappointed with the game, you were disappointed with yourself because you should have known by then to block, dodge or parry. When you died, it was on your own terms, and that’s such a rare sensation in this medium. Without that feeling of reliable movement, Dark Souls simply is not Dark Souls.
Whether or not Dark Souls II lives up to its predecessors obviously has yet to be decided. I cannot say that From Software won’t piss the entire franchise down their leg or that the game won’t be horribly uneven and broken. That’s simply not something you can glean from an awkward demo booked when you’re trying to bust your arse at E3. But what I can say and what I think is ultimately the most important statement, is this:
This is Dark Souls. This is Dark Souls. Thank God, this is Dark Souls.