Preview: Dark Souls II Beta

The wilted expanse of Huntsman's Copse reveals nothing…but the obvious. Something horrendous is surely frolicking amongst the trees, beyond the eclipsing darkness that surrounds me. I cross an illuminated stone bridge with my shield raised. A fat and disfigured humanoid waddles toward me with weighted swiftness, driving his massive hooked blades into the ground. I get a couple slices in and dash a third of his health away. A botched parry of his next strike costs me just about all of my stamina, but I roll away from a certain deathblow with my remaining sliver.

I manage to kill the creep before he can drive me off one of the many cliffs in the area, and make it across that bridge. I diverge off the path and nab a set of armor in the trees. Two more rotund maniacs are on my trail before I know it, with a few undead bodyguards to boot. Foolishly, I wasn't prepared for the possibility that just one portly undead assailant would be the end of the ordeal. I'm ground into the soil of Huntsman's Copse and appear again at the starting bonfire. It won't be the last time.

It's the sort of spooky and harsh landscape fans might expect from Dark Souls II, progeny to one of the most enthralling and hard-won RPGs ever made. Currently in beta and set to release in March of next year, Atlus held a two hour network test for the game this past Saturday.

Within that time, I was again matriculated into Dark Souls'  brand of unrelenting attention to detail. Given the time constraint, the beta test was limited to the Huntsman's Copse area. Confronted with a spread of five different classes, I chose the straightforward Warrior who sported a trusty sword-and-shield gear set to start. That proved a mostly wise choice as I made my way through the tight mountain paths and cave systems later in the area. It was nice to have mobility against the devious rogue foes who can block your exits and prod your flanks quite efficiently. That enemy awareness is a big improvement over the original. There weren't a lot of stationery enemies leering at me, waiting for me to cross their aggro line; they patrolled the area, using line of sight to spot and track me. It lead to some unsavoury ends, and in Dark Souls II every death takes a chip off of your maximum potential life. Rough!

It's tough going as I reclaim my skills from the first game. The core tenets of deliberate movements and meticulous planning are still very much in effect, and so Dark Souls II seems mostly focused on polishing that tremendously unique framework from the original. Player messages and bloodstains still permeate the ground, giving you some additional aides in your struggle. Players can still summon others to help out, or themselves be summoned (I was called upon to save a player from another's invasion, and after a quick connection, we made short work of the jackal).

Combat timings are a little different now, more weighted and requiring a little more foresight from you. Judging and pulling off a perfectly timed knockout blow was immensely satisfying, as always. Consumable healing gems give you a less potent healing option you can use while still moving around (though swigging Estus is still a major pastime). Their utility lead to all sorts of desperate last stands that kept me in the game and away from the bonfire. There's a tighter, more symbiotic feel between the controls and onscreen action that From Software ought to be proud of.

Strong visuals help sell the cold, brutal world of the game better than before. The original Dark Souls had some amazing art direction and mood, though it always felt as though its world was resting precariously atop a less-than-sturdy technical foundation. Even in its beta form, Dark Souls II makes some major leaps forward visually that are instantly recognizable. Textures have more fidelity, world geometry seems more organic, and the frame rate was pretty well solid throughout. Tall grass and lengthy garments flap convincingly in the wind. Foliage peppers the earth. And the animations do a much better job of linking together without feeling completely canned. More than ever, the gravity between your character's movements at the world around them feels firm, believable. The beta looked great running on a PS3, though I couldn't help but wonder how a high-end PC could chew the scenery.

Despite any static to the contrary, Dark Souls II is certainly no easier than the original. Deaths were bountiful, even in the presumably early, level 20 to 30 area on offer. A group of phantom blade monsters who pincer you on a precarious path was my lengthiest roadblock during the test. After using a new Human Effigy item to restore my health bar to its full glory, I managed to eke my way past those jerks and onto the area boss, a skeletal horde complete with sorcerers. Sadly, I'd used up too many resources on my way there; once the dreadful bone wheels made their presence known, I was a goner.

With time running short, I attempted to quickly plough the area again with a new class. This time I chose the burlier Temple Knight, and along with the Zweihander I found in my travels, it was a satisfying process to use what I'd learned to make my return swath a little easier on me. Unfortunately, the test concluded before I could get back to the boss and get even.

It was 2am EST when the test wrapped up, and as I turned over in bed to get some sleep, my mind was awash with potential strategies and gear loadouts. I wondered if I had upgraded my stats wisely, if I needed more stamina to press on efficiently. In other words, I was absorbed in a way much like the original Dark Souls managed to do, and I couldn't wait to dig into more. How well the big picture meshes together is something we'll all find out March 2014, when the game releases for PS3, PC and 360.