Dark Souls Is Only Kind To Be Cruel

For a guy who can't seem to survive two minutes in the foreboding, swords-and-dungeons world of Dark Souls, I must seem unnecessarily worried about how difficult the game will be.

Demon's Souls, Dark Souls' predecessor, was as much known for its brutal level design and lack of save points as it was its unique approach to cooperative and competitive play. It was a game that created genuine fear in players not through plot devices and monster design, but by the threat of stripping a player of everything they accomplished between levels if they died.

But in Dark Souls players can find safety as they wind their way through dungeons, working their way from one behemoth to the next, simply by camping out at a bonfire.
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"Don't you worry you've made the game too easy," I ask Namco senior brand manager Brian Hong as my character dies for perhaps the fifth time?

Hong isn't worried at all, nor is developer From Software, he tells me, because the bonfires were simply a way for the developers to make the game harder.

"The best way to explain bonfires is that the developers wanted to make the game harder," Hong said. "Which they did, but they were also very concerned with game balance. With the increased difficulty of play it is much harder, but harder to the point of not being fun."

So essentially the bonfires, which can replenish health and refill life-giving flasks, are a way for the developers to make a hard game even more difficult without creating something that only the most devoted of fans would want to play.

It's worth noting too that unlike Demon's Souls, Dark Souls is not a linear game that leads players along a narrow channel of adventure through a series of dungeons. Instead Dark Souls is conceived as an open world that allows gamers to explore, and die, at their own leisure. So in a way, the bonfires serve the same purpose that the breaks between levels served in the previous game.

"That makes this the hardest game. Harder than Demon's Souls."

And the bonfire isn't always a player's friend.

"If you're one of those players who get to the checkpoint and then fight ahead for 45 minutes to clear a level and then decide to go back to a bonfire to replenish your health and flasks everything will respawn," Namco brand manager Brandon Zien said.

And when those creatures repopulate the dungeon you just made safe, they will come back tougher, angrier.

The bonfires are also pretty spread out. Zien tells me they are "strategically placed throughout an area."

"Just when a game is kicking your ass you can find a bonfire," he said. "It balances the frustration, because they've toned up the difficulty in other areas: The bosses, the hit points, the spawning of mobs.

"That makes this the hardest game. Harder than Demon's Souls."

From Software's decision to not just include save points, but to give them some teeth reminds me of some of the clever design decisions the team made when creating Demon's Souls.

When you died in that game you were sent back to the beginning of a level, but if you paid attention as you fought your way through a level you may have opened back doors and short cuts. These new paths inevitably made getting back to where you died a much quicker journey. It was a clever way of getting around save points, something I'll miss if it doesn't find its way into this game.

Hong declined to tell me if this sort of shifting level design was going to appear in Dark Souls, but said that From Software wants to "maintain all of the good parts that people remember" from the previous game.

"That feature you're talking about was a pretty important first for them," he said.

There's a lot that Namco and From Software are keeping to themselves about Dark Souls. That's not just because they want to dribble out new details of the game going into its fall launch, it's also because they're trying desperately to recapture everything about Demon's Souls launch and its surprising success.

Players will be able to temporarily become inanimate statues and then break free of this form to attack another player in their game.

A big part of the game's success, both Hong and Zien say, was that it was such a surprise to everyone who played it. The game sort of appeared out of nowhere with very little interest leading into its launch. It went on to sell nearly a million copies, they said.

Because of that relative obscurity, the game was able to deliver not only a bit of tough, throw-back gaming, but also a lot of design surprises.

That's why the developer and publisher are still hesitant to talk about Dark Souls' story, some of the new mechanics, like the character's ebbing humanity and how it can be fed into a bonfire to strengthen it.

We don't even know all of the game's characters yet. So far the developer has said there will be a soldier, knight, witch and pyromancer. They also discuss a black knight and the Solaire of Astora.

While much of the Demon's Souls experience was single player it had some interesting ways to interact with other players online beyond online cooperative play. You could, for instance, leave messages scrawled on dungeon walls and floors for others playing the game. These messages, shared automatically across the Playstation Network, would warn away from or sometimes trick players into ambushes and falling deaths.

This ability returns in Dark Souls, which will now be coming to the PS3 and Xbox 360. Players will also still be able to "invade" another player's world, taking on the form of a Dark Knight to stalk and try to kill another player online.

In Dark Souls there will be other ways to harass online players. The pyromancer, for instance, will be able to summon a gravelord to another players game. The gravelord's appearance in the other game brings with it a slew of new haranguing monsters. The only way to stop the flood of new enemies is to destroy the gravelord. While the pyromancer can summon this creature, he or she can't decide in who's game they appear or directly control them.

When a player decides to invade another world as a playable character, there are also new and interesting ways to scare and attack the other player.

"We're trying to put in as many surprises as possible," Hong said.

So players will sometimes be able to hide in coffins and ambush other players when they walk by. They will also be able to temporarily become inanimate statues, blending in with the statues that already dot the game's landscape, and then break free of this form to attack another player.

Namco wasn't able to show me any of the online aspects of Dark Souls in action, but the promise of endlessly helping and harassing other players in creative new ways sounds as inviting as the game's challenging level design.

I think I dread Dark Souls release nearly as much as I anticipate it.

Dark Souls Is Only Kind To Be Cruel

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Dark Souls Is Only Kind To Be Cruel

Return to the story.

Dark Souls Is Only Kind To Be Cruel

Return to the story.

Dark Souls Is Only Kind To Be Cruel

Return to the story.

Dark Souls Is Only Kind To Be Cruel

Return to the story.

Dark Souls Is Only Kind To Be Cruel

Return to the story.

Dark Souls Is Only Kind To Be Cruel

Return to the story.

Dark Souls Is Only Kind To Be Cruel

Return to the story.

Dark Souls Is Only Kind To Be Cruel

Return to the story.

Dark Souls Is Only Kind To Be Cruel

Return to the story.

Dark Souls Is Only Kind To Be Cruel

Return to the story.

Dark Souls Is Only Kind To Be Cruel

Return to the story.

Dark Souls Is Only Kind To Be Cruel

Return to the story.

Dark Souls Is Only Kind To Be Cruel

Return to the story.