Dark Souls is the spiritual successor to Demon's Souls, the critically-acclaimed role-playing action title from King's Field developer From Software. While Demon's Souls had a brutal difficulty setting and harsh penalties for death, it was commended for being challenging, fair and imaginative in its trap design, making it one of the surprise releases of the last few years. Dark Souls is looking to continue these aspects with vigour, and we check out what new surprises it has in store.
Out of all the games we were shown at a recent Namco Bandai press event, Dark Souls was by far the most entertaining. You'd think skidding cars and exploding fighter jets in the latest Ridge Racer and Ace Combat entries would top a bulky knight slowly making his way through a dungeon, but you'd be wrong; Dark Souls is one of the most surprising and devilishly-designed games we've witnessed since, well, its spiritual successor Demon's Souls.
Danger round every corner
Like From Software's smash role-playing title that was finally released in Europe last year, Dark Souls shares that same all-important factor of death looming around every corner. While most games have this trait, dying sends you straight back to the dungeon's beginning and resetting its trials and enemies as if you never set foot in the place. If you get back to where you left off, the souls you lost at the point of death can be reclaimed, otherwise they're lost forever. It's a game about trying and trying again until you succeed, and although the demonstrator had obviously played through this dungeon perhaps a dozen times as part of preparing for the event, there was still a tense atmosphere when watching, punctuated by the occasional gasp and nervous laugh from the crowd with every near miss of a swinging axe or totter across a thin, high bridge.
The area on display was a familar-feeling fantasy dungeon setting, with thin corridors with high ceilings, surrounded by a lush green landscape beyond the dank stone walls. While some of its perils, such as the aforementioned swinging axes, were apparent, many others were less so. Waiting on a lift for too long would see it continue ascending and into a spiked ceiling, while tapping on hidden pressure pads would unleash arrows from a nearby wall, a time-old trick that could be easily dispelled with a shield block, until the game turns it on its head by firing them from the sides or behind. Elsewhere, anthropomorphic lizards with shields and swords would make use of the many blind corners to jump out and gain the first advantage.
While the character was highly leveled for the purposes of the press playthrough, where casual swings of a sword would easily topple foes, combat appeared very similar to Demon's Souls, opting for spatial awareness and timing over special moves and relying on raw role-playing statistics to decide the victor. This was best demonstrated with a hidden enemy located inside a chest, that sprouted limbs and an almost comedic floppy tongue, and almost killed the warrior in a matter of blows despite his high-powered equipment, proving that the best armour can still have little outcome on your survival chances.
The castle's most prominent feature were giant boulders that rolled down some of its tight, sloping corridors. Many of Dark Souls's foils have certain clues to their presence, although sound wasn't one of them, so you'd have to wait a few moments to ensure the path was clear before risking getting crushed. Boulders have more of a purpose that, though; at the top of the tower lies a machine that spits out them out, where a simple pulley can divert them to other parts of the dungeon, piling them up in a column to create new routes. While Dark Souls follows many cues from Demon's Souls, this was just a taste of the non-linear direction dungeons will take, and should give you another thing to look out for besides the constant threat of death.
In time, our hero reached daylight at the top of the tower to witness several giants sorting boulders on the roof. One nearby giant took the advantage and threw bombs towards the player, and while you could zig-zag your way into cover and head straight onwards toward the boss, it was wise to dispatch him as not to make the oncoming battle even more difficult (such careful preparation was also one of Demon's Souls many considerations). Once dispatched, the demonstrator squared up to the end dungeon boss, a far taller, more fearsome beast clad in armour, that quickly picked up our tiny hero and flung him off the tower, killing him instantly. And yes, despite all that progress and hard work, the traps, the hiding enemies and our bomb-slinging giant friend would be reset, but the benefit is that this time you'd be a little bit wiser about the trials ahead, and surviving that little bit longer next time would be its own reward.
If the many simularities with Demon's Souls wasn't enough, its unique and cleverly-integrated online feature set also makes its way across with very few changes. While this is a single-player experience, players can leave messages in the environment for others to discover, such as warnings for impending traps or even little lies to make their job harder – as well as replay ghosts that show how other people failed at a particular point. There are, however, a few changes coming to Dark Souls; for one, it's coming to Xbox 360 as well as PlayStation 3, that there'll be a greater emphasis on character customisation, and best of all, it's teased to be even harder than Demon's Souls. As evidenced by the alarmingly quick death at the hands of the towering knight in our demo, we're not entirely surprised, and rather strangely, it makes us all the more excited to find out why.
Dark Souls will be available from October 4 in North America and October 7 in Europe on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.