Dark Souls II Hands-on Preview - Welcome to Drangleic
Written Monday, February 03, 2014 By John Robertson
Welcome to Drangleic, our new paradise of personal torment and creative suffering. A land of startling visual beauty, juxtaposed with shocking physical and psychological brutality. Here you'll find the confrontational and the betrayer, the aggressive and the devious. Some look like the otherworldly beasts they are, others like titans of a bygone era, others still like would-be friends.
Trust none. Be on your guard always.
If you're an adventurer that has already trodden flat the paths of Boletaria and Lordran, you'll likely be prepared for exactly the kind of self-reliance one needs to progress in a world like this. Otherwise, be prepared to forget what you know and relearn the rules. Familiarity seems to have numbed the sense of desperation and isolation, but the relative lack of direction and purpose still makes you feel vulnerable and alone.
In Drangleic, no one can hear you scream. No one you could describe as a friend, at least.
In Dark Souls' Lordran you had no explicit purpose, here in Drangleic you have some: find the cure to prevent the otherwise inescapable fate of becoming hollow. Being given a vague directive within the first five minutes of exploring Dark Souls II's new world comes as a shock to the system... keep moving and don't die is all the advice we generally expect from this series. Perhaps we do have a friend here after all, if only in the form of a charitable game designer and writer.
Misdirection once again proves just how powerful a weapon she can be, however. Stepping out into Drangleic proper and it's abundantly clear that our 'goal' is little more than a morsel to whet the appetite for exploring the ungodly environment we've been drawn in to.
Following a short conversation with red-hooded witches inside a decrepit wooden hut (a conversation which triggers the arrival of the character customisation screen) the expanse and options of Drangleic are presented before you. We're tackling them as a knight - once a knight, always a knight.
Oddly, it's some time before the first enemy encounter. Exiting the witches' hut and meandering along rocky paths affords a view of a hulking, brawn-over-brain type reptilian cyclops, but it seems foolhardy to tackle it now in our current fresh-faced and stat-minimal form. We'll leave the showing off for an encounter less showy.
Past the rocks and caves is a beach. Again, no enemies. In their place is burning sunlight, a sentinel-like lighthouse and scarred cliffs that hint at the past ferocity of what is now a calm and unassuming sea. This is Majula, one of Dark Souls II's 'hub' areas and likely to become the equivalent of Dark Souls' Firelink Shrine - a place of relative calm and safety from which to reflect on your progress, catch your breath and spend those hard earned souls.
A number of options are open to you from here, different paths sending you to places of various difficulties and rewards. In an example of an out-of-game/out-of-body experience, the spectre of a vigilant Namco Bandai representative shuffles up behind us to whisper in our that we should take the left path down the small hill and through the gate. The other paths, the spectre's voice continues, are too difficult for us now. We'll die, it says.
Begrudgingly, fearful of the spectre's power, we decide to take the patronising tone to heart. Left side it is.
Down the hill, past the gate and... Welcome to the Jungle. The Forest of Fallen Giants, as this area of gentle streams, fallen trees and mossy green paths is known, provides the first real test of combat ability. Starter-level enemies roam the area, with melee combatants at ground level and archers higher up on hills and decaying ramparts. With shield up and sword drawn you can dispatch of most of these aggressors by enticing them to follow you back along a narrow path, from where you can safely dispatch of them individually and away from the archers' attentions.
Further through the forest, and across the ramparts that eventually turn into towers and a fort, things get more varied and challenging. It's here that you can decide to stay above ground and continue to explore the land of sun and foliage, or you can take the fight underground to the dimly-lit, man-made caverns of crudely cut stone.
Above ground awaits a giant knight, hauling a radiant silver shield that renders a full-frontal attack wholly pointless. You'll be wasting your time, your patience and, probably, your life by doing so. Circling around the lumbering giant is the only real option when playing as a knight at this point in the game, but even that is tough thanks to the presence of other, smaller enemies intent on biting at your heels like obedient dogs trying to impress their master.
Down in the dungeon the problem is slightly different, although no less difficult. Individual enemies are not as challenging as our giant knight friend, but there are traps to catch you and ledges to fall from. This forces you into a different kind of combat, one in which you're moving more delicately in a bid to not only outmanoeuvre your opponent, but to do so in a way that puts them at risk of environmental death rather than you.
If you do happen to put a step wrong and plunge to your doom you pay for it not just by being transported back to your most recent bonfire (Souls' newcomers read: checkpoint), but by having a percentage of your health chopped off.
Consecutive deaths can see your health drop to as low as 50 percent of its normal level, while players with a high 'Sin' rating (achieved by invading and killing other human players online) can see that number can plummet way down to 10 percent.
Careful play, then, is more vital than it has ever been and will likely result in less of a reliance on trial-and-error for particularly difficult sections further into Drangleic. Health restoring items, also, are sure to become treasures of great significance - especially during those moments in which you're faced with a seemingly all-conquering boss battle at only 50 percent health (or less).
Only a little over a month to wait before Dark Souls II is upon us, then. If these opening two hours are anything to go by, a general feeling of twisted familiarity is likely to become the overriding sensation. In this case, given the quality of the series thus far, any sort of familiarity can only be a good thing.
Oh yeah... I also died a lot. Go figure.
Dark Souls II is out in March 2014 for Xbox 360 and PS3.