Tuesday, November 12, 2013
Dark Souls 2 Beta Impressions
After two rounds of the North American online beta test for Dark Souls 2, a number of details (some factual, others suggestive) have revealed themselves to players. Many of the established changes in the game (progressive health bar reductions, invasions whether one is human or hollow, dual-wielding) have been discussed extensively by others (cf. the Dark Souls 2 thread on Reddit). In this post, I want to focus on some more speculative insights I've gleaned from the beta experience.
One thing that stands out to me in the beta is that From seems to have rethought the mechanics of PvP. A new (or revisited, depending on how you see it--more in a second) emphasis on stunning/breaking your opponents guard seems to be in effect. Using a longsword, I found that a successful hit with that weapon would momentarily stun the target, providing an opening to land several more hits. The same thing would happen to my character when an opponent successfully landed a hit from his weapon.
Some people are (pejoratively) referring to this dynamic as the return of "stun-locking" from Demon's Souls, in which players were able to hold an opponent captive with repeated strikes from which the only escape was a glitch called "toggle-escape." I, however, really liked the new mechanic and thought it really sharpened the relative advantages of wielding larger or smaller weapons. Each battle felt more like a deadly dance, waiting for the right time to land a blow. Because a successful strike prevents the target from immediately retaliating, greater significance is given to precise and calculated timing, and the new, slowed-down pace of attacks in the beta heightens this. It's also not a cheap and easy victory for whoever gets the first lucky strike. A revised stamina meter (which depletes quite rapidly) prevents you from getting more than a few hits on your opponent before you run out of steam. In other words, no indefinite "stun-locking" here is possible.
Another development I noticed in my playthroughs concerns boss design. Many players are complaining that the bosses in the beta were too easy. While I agree that they weren't the most challenging bosses every thrown in the player's path in the Souls series, I think this complaint misses what is most significant about these bosses. If the bosses in the beta weren't Ornstein and Smough part 2, they both set themselves apart from the bosses of Dark Souls by involving the player in unique gameplay mechanics that were largely absent from that game (but were more evident in Demon's Souls).
Whereas many of the Dark Souls bosses seemed to be cut from the same cloth (and by this I mean they all involved essentially the same gameplay mechanic of timed dodging and striking. See my post on Demon's Souls vs. Dark Souls for more), the bosses in the beta were each uniquely designed and pressed for unique responses from the player. In the case of of the skeleton lord, it was important for the player to utilize his/her environment to both provide cover from attacks as well as space and break-up the assault of the enemy horde. In the fight against the charioteer boss environment and enemy design once again meshed, but this time to create a different experience. The circular corridor with alcoves led to a more patient style of play involving observing and waiting. The pauses in movement caused by the passing of the charioteer brilliantly created a moment in which players were inspired to leave clues for others. Eventually, you found the "trick" to stop the charioteer, after which a tense battle between you and an undead stallion commenced.
Now, I'm not saying these are the best bosses battles ever conceived in a Souls game. My point is that they point to a new emphasis on making the boss battles unique encounters that stand out from regular play. Personally, I like this direction and am excited to see more.
The last thing I would like to discuss is the matter of difficulty modes. In the last hour of the beta test on Nov. 10, a bulletin was streamed at the top of the screen stating the beta was now entering "high difficulty mode." Some have wondered, anxiously, if this is some indication that Dark Souls 2 will feature optional difficulty settings. We were assured by the game's developers that Dark Souls 2 would feature no easy mode. But they never said it wouldn't have a hard mode!
In my opinion, I don't think the higher difficulty "mode" indicates a difficulty setting will be present in the next Dark Souls game. First, the exact message streamed was this:
The "High Difficulty Mode" will be performed from now. This is to test the difficulty balance. This test will be used for the difficulty setting verification later. Thank you for your cooperation.
Notice that the term High Difficulty Mode is in scare quotes. The function of scare quotes is the distance the author from the usual meaning of a word or phrase. It's like saying, "I don't really mean this." Second, incorporating a high difficulty setting (rather than an easy mode) might not go against what From has promised if we take that promise in the utmost literal way, but doing so would be so blatantly manipulative and abusive that I don't think From would go there.
Then again, the square quotes argument depends upon whoever sent the message knowing its correct usage. More and more native English speakers seem to lack an understanding of it and I've seen them misused on many occasions as markers of emphasis (as if they were italics), and to quite hilarious effects. For example, I once drove by a billboard for a restaurant that advertised its "good coffee." Whoever did it, clearly thought they were highlighting the term. But technically they were communicating that they didn't actually think their coffee was good (or that it was a euphemism for something else). Judging by the bulletin's odd grammar ("will be performed from now"), it's hard to put too much faith in the meaning of the scare quotes.