It seems like every game gets a sequel or reboot eventually, but Dark Souls II never felt like a given. Yes, Dark Souls was a success, but it was already a sequel in all but name to the cult favorite Demon’s Souls, and there wasn’t obvious room for improvement on the mission statement of punishing the player as much as possible. You can easily play Dark Souls for hundreds of hours without completely exhausting it—why would you need a sequel? The only way to make Dark Souls harder is to remove vital body parts from the player, and that doesn’t seem like a deal most would be willing to make.
Of course From Software, the designers of Dark Souls, could’ve gone in the opposite direction, and try to make a sequel that toned down the difficulty in hopes of attracting a new and larger audience. Perhaps they could’ve scrapped the confrontational online features, where players can leave (often misleading) tips for each other, or “invade” other players’ games and hunt them down, in favor of more traditional or balanced multiplayer modes. But then they’d be turning their backs on the most defining features of the Souls series, and no doubt driving away a good portion of their fans. As Dark Souls II producer Takeshi Miyazoe tells Paste, “the high sense of achievement and the loose connections with other players are the core conceptual pillars to the Dark Souls franchise. With Dark Souls II, the intent was to streamline the experience and provide a more direct expression of the core essence.”
Dark Souls II exists, and it will not tone it down. It’s as stubborn in its hatred of the player as Dark Souls, but with enough alterations to subtly distinguish the two games. Part of the updates are technical: “The implementation of a new game engine allows us to play with more photo-realistic visuals for deeper immersion into the game world,” Miyazoe says, “while the dedicated game server allows for more enhanced multiplayer features along with a deeper role playing aspect to the game.” Those “enhanced multiplayer features” include a greater emphasis on the covenant system, which is basically a way for players to buddy up through the internet and either help each other out or wreak havoc upon unsuspecting strangers.
But there are slight philosophical differences, as well. Instead of always respawning whenever the player dies or rests at a bonfire, enemies disappear after being killed a certain number of times. That makes areas easier after struggling at them repeatedly, but it also removes those endlessly harvestable souls, capping the total amount of currency a player can acquire in any area. And since souls aren’t just money, but also the only way to level up a character, running out of them can drastically impact your chances of success. In the past if you permanently lost a large amount of souls you could take solace in the fact that you could reap them all again. Now there’s essentially a timer you have to worry about. It makes the game both easier and harder than Dark Souls. It fits one of Miyazoe’s self-avowed goals with the sequel, that it retain “the high sense of satisfaction resulting from overcoming high challenges… while adding creative angles for a new experience for both experienced and new Dark Souls II fans.”
Finding that perfect mix of challenge and reward is a complex science. “[Designing overly difficult levels] happens all the time and so does the opposite,” Miyazoe explains. “When developing the game, the team constantly repeats certain areas or battles using a ‘trial and error’ method when tuning the game so that the difficulty is well balanced while delivering that famous high sense of achievement when a challenge is conquered. Often times, we tune the game to be too difficult and tone it down from there, but most importantly, we make sure that we spend enough time fine tuning the game for the best experience possible.”
That experience is confined to the Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and PC, despite the new generation of consoles arriving several months ago. Dark Souls II might be one of the last major games to launch on those aging systems instead of the hot new hardware. It’s tempting to see this as another expression of From’s goals to expose the game to a larger audience without alienating its core fans—the 360 and PS3 have significantly larger pools of users than the new systems, and while millions of the most devoted players have no doubt moved on to the Playstation 4 or Xbox One, that passionate fanbase is both more likely to have the type of high-end computer needed to run this game on the PC and also more likely to hold on to their old consoles. The practical answer, though, is that it just made more sense to stick to the older hardware.
A next-generation Dark Souls II was never truly considered, Miyazoe confirms. “Our primary intentions were to fully capitalize on our experiences developing on the PS3 and Xbox 360 as well as develop our game to the full potential of these consoles. Further, we wanted to deliver the Dark Souls II experience as soon as possible to the fans that waited patiently for a sequel. We had always intended on developing on the PS3, Xbox 360 and PC.”
When talking about Dark Souls II Miyazoe repeatedly uses words like “experience” and “achievement”, reinforcing the centrality of the game’s oppressive atmosphere and difficulty. His statements echo the sensation of playing Dark Souls II, repeating the same passages over and over in search of a breakthrough. It’s that unbending vision, that single-minded focus on creating an environment hostile to its very core that makes the eventual rewards so powerful. And it’s the promise of those rewards that keeps us returning to this brutal and circuitous game. As Miyazoe explains, the goal of a Souls game is for players to “not only embrace the difficulty, but also the addictiveness and the sense of achievement when challenges are overcome.” As anybody who has pushed their “just one more” runs at a Souls boss well past a responsible quitting time can verify, From’s combo of joy and pain is a hard one to pass up.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games section and reviews games for the Boston Herald.