A lonely knight stands on a hilltop overlooking a desolate castle with an ancient, crumbling viaduct leading over the moat.
He is seen praying to his god before he vanquishes his enemies. One by one he smites them, striking them down with sword and bow - until one hunchbacked giant punches him through a pillar as if he were a toy, and crushes him with his hammer. End.
Believe it or not, this isn’t The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug. This is Dark Souls 2, the upcoming sequel to one of this console generation’s most celebrated sleeper hits, a brutal fantasy adventure game from developer From Software and published by Namco-Bandai that pits you against the terrifying denizens of a tormented planescape singlehanded.
It’s also possibly the only game that can advertise itself by showing your protagonist being obliterated over and over and over in trailers. And it’s certainly the only game that can prompt a fan backlash at the mere rumor of an Easy mode being added, something that caused an outcry online late last year.
That’s all it was though: rumor. There was never an “intent to lower the difficulty or to consider an Easy mode,” the game’s director, Yui Tanimura, tells Red Bull, even if adding one would help shift more units after the first’s critical acclaim. Doing so would be against the spirit of the series, and the studio. From Software’s classic mech series for PlayStation, Armored Core (which Tanimura also worked on), was no less challenging. To make Dark Souls 2 forgiving would be against the very ethos of the company.
“For the high sense of achievement, we feel that a high level of challenge is required, and we hope that players can dive into the role of the character to overcome the hurdles in the game and enjoy the experience we have prepared,” he tells us.
Make no mistake, Dark Souls is hard. Not just tricky. Maddening. You’ll die futile, violent deaths again and again, then again some more. You can’t even pause the game. If you need to dive into the menu to change your equipment, you’ll need to find a safe place to do it - and safe is a very relative term in the world of Dark Souls.
The monstrous ogres and demons you face can kill you instantly with one wrong footstep. That’s the dark beauty of the game though: you figure out where you took the wrong step, and try something else, even if you die again immediately. To make matters worse, other gamers playing at the same time can burst into your game, either to hinder or help you.
Slowly but surely though, you figure it out. Dark Souls treads the knife edge of the challenging and the utterly impossible, leaving players stuck in a perpetual loop of weeping, hitting retry and bawling some more.
And it’s back.
Dark Souls 2, headed to Xbox 360, Sony PS3 and PC this spring, is not a direct sequel - or if it is, Tanimura doesn’t want to say where the stories crossover - but the setting is instantly familiar.
Your player has been cursed, and is on a quest to seek salvation from his agony, which appears to be of the Eternal kind, the kind that requires you inflicting it on others to be rid of. Lots of others. Lots of other gigantic beasts.
None of them want to hang around to chat much either: as the twisted evil step brother of the swashbuckling Elder Scrolls series, there are no lords and ladies to lead the storyline along in Dark Souls, no guards with terrible anecdotes about arrows to lighten the mood. Nobody will stop to regale you with yarns or burden you with sidequests: everybody just wants to slay you. Any storyline is inferred from the items you find, left to your imagination to flesh out - or should that be flay?
What we do know: this is not the decaying kingdom of Lordran of the first game. It’s still the high fantasy realm of Warhammer or The Lord Of The Rings however - if the entire story was set in the mines of Moria, took 80 hours to finish, and the balrog was the least of any intrepid explorer’s worries.
Dark Souls 2 may not pick up directly where the original left off, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t face the curse of the difficult second album nonetheless. Choosing what to add and what to keep was difficult because of the loyal fanbase, Tanimura says.
“One of the biggest challenges when directing Dark Souls 2 was determining what elements to keep and maintain from Dark Souls, and what elements to change and enhance for a new game play experience.”
New enemies are must, of course, and the first public beta test that took place last month also revealed one of the game’s first bosses, the Mirror Knight, a hulking ten foot statue equipped with granite sword and a reflective shield, as well as the ominous sounding Skeleton King.
Surprisingly - and perhaps a little disturbingly - Tanimura says that day to day life provides much of the source material for the wildly fantastical game. “A lot of inspiration for events and enemies in the game come from elements of everyday life,” he reveals. Presumably not the gaping dragons with fangs for stomachs, or the giant demon butterfly sorceresses though. You’d hope.
“All of our team members pay attention to things that we come across for hints to new ideas and innovative elements. We also take references from books, movies, games and everything that we enjoy utilizing on a daily basis.”
Tanimura also cites one of From Software’s older games, the obscure 1994 PlayStation fantasy RPG King’s Field, as an inspiration for the series. It may look like Minecraft today, but you can see the evidence: from the obsession with loot to the giant murderous snails, in retrospect the game is proto-Dark Souls all over.
“Dark Souls was a relatively complete game on its own, and it was a challenge to keep the important elements for the same but stronger Dark Souls experience and also add new elements to keep the players entertained and constantly surprised,” he continues.
Those new features include new classes to play as - four in total, the warrior, sorcerer, the temple guard (a mix of the former) and the whirring dual swordsman. Regardless of who you play as though, you’re in for a challenge. Even through a humble gamepad, you can feel the weight behind each swing you take, the time you’re left vulnerable while casting a spell. Timing is vital, as is learning from your mistakes when a backstab exposes you to instant obliteration.
“When we first design out the game all the way to testing the actual gameplay, the decisions of tuning constantly take place. One pillar of our decision making is whether the player will feel as if the results were a result of the player’s choices and actions,” Tanimura says. “We feel that the fun and enjoyment comes from the results coming from the player’s efforts, decisions, successes and failures.”
Perhaps the most important introduction in Dark Souls 2 however is the more in-depth implementation of covenants. These are factions you can join, with various results when played online - blue covenant members can warp to each others’ aid, while red Heirs to the Sun can invade the games of others just to inflict misery and sacrifice the blood of those unlucky souls.
“We want players to take on a deeper role within the Dark Souls 2 world, and make deep decisions on what kind of effect each player applies to the entire world balance. Some players may decide to take on an evil role, or play the role of a hero. These decisions and the enhanced covenant features will hopefully create a living experience in the world.”
Tanimura is not new to the studio, but this is his first time in the hot seat for the series: he and co-director Tomohiro Shibuya replace Hidetaka Miyazaki, who steered both Dark Souls and its spiritual predecessor Demon’s Souls. Surprisingly however considering the hardcore audience, Tanimura didn’t see much point in marking his stamp on the franchise by switching to next-gen. Some would see it as a pity - Dark Souls could look mesmerising on an Xbox One. Tanimura’s happy working with what he’s got, however.
“There have never been any discussions for the Xbox One or PS4 consoles,” he admits bluntly. “We felt that there was still more potential on the PS3 and Xbox 360 consoles to fulfil the core elements of Dark Souls 2, and our aim was to deliver the game to fans as fast as possible.”
And to as many fans as possible: all the magic is in the multiplayer, after all. This isn’t quite Call of Duty: there are no team deathmatches, but the various factions on offer in Dark Souls 2 will prove every bit as divisive. Depending on which way you pledge your allegiance, you’ll be able to invade other games, even wait by the end of a stage to act as an unexpected level boss - or join the Way Of The Blue, and teleport to other games to aid fellow sentinels.
The prospect of some high level bully wading into your game might not sound all that tempting, but you can still play the game in offline mode. Tanimura says it’s best experienced online, exposed - and to that end From Software will be keeping the servers running for long after launch.
“We intend on keeping the server alive as long as possible so that all players who play the game will be able to continue playing, and also come back to the game at any time. The game will still be available in offline mode, but we would like players to play online for the full experience.”
You see, here’s the thing. Dark Souls isn’t about frustrating players. It’s actually about bringing them together. That might sound counter-intuitive when you can barge into another player’s game and murder them for fun - but you don’t have to. As Tanimura points out, there’s lots of scope for humanity and camaraderie in breaching others’ games:
“Having to battle through this devastating, dark, cold world alone, depending on a player’s own judgement and determination, but also sensing the existence of other players facing the similar difficult, lonely times is the core essence of the Dark Souls universe, and Dark Souls 2 strives to streamline all of the elements to more clearly deliver the purity of the Dark Souls experience,” he says.
Besides, should you actually finish the game, you’ll have proved yourself in a way you never could with a free-to-play iPhone game where you can simply buy your way to success. Those other players are there to spur you on, even if it’s with a mace to the face, and Tanimura believes all gamers will be able to complete Dark Souls 2, with a bit of patience.
“The ability to conquer does not come from the player’s reflexes or how well they are able to use their controllers. Players will need to learn from their mistakes, pay close attention to the surroundings, and constantly be aware of what happens in the world around them.”
“The soul of the game is to provide a high sense of accomplishment when overcoming the challenges of the game. As long as players are able to learn from their experiences, strategize and think of methods to conquer the challenges, and also receive help from other players in the world, we hope that all players will be able to conquer the game,” he says.
That’s why it has to be so evil hard. That’s why people keep coming back for more. If Tanimura can strike that balance perfectly once more, we’ll gladly smash a few DualShocks all over again. Bring it.
Dark Souls 2 releases on 11 March 2014