There's no mistaking it. Dark Souls is as much a Demon's Souls sequel as we're ever going to get, at least any time soon. It's the more beautiful Demon's Souls. It's the game more willing to run wild with its unique brand of twisted dark medieval fantasy.
It may have been touted as a more difficult Demon's Souls, with more relentless enemies, crueler environments and more trademark brutally. But Dark Souls feels like a more refined, better produced, more mature Demon's Souls—not just a sequel with the difficulty knob cranked to 11—a game I just had my first real-time gameplay demo of earlier this week.
To say that I was excited for Dark Souls may be an understatement. I lobbied (unsuccessfully) in 2009 for Demon's Souls to be Kotaku's Game of the Year. I have since sunk hundreds of hours into that PlayStation 3 game, seeing its every bit of content, nabbing the game's platinum trophy. I came to love it harshness, its brooding atmosphere, its punishments for carelessness and its rewards for thoughtful play. So, yes, I'm very interested in Dark Souls.
Based on my initial hands-off impressions of Dark Souls, this is a game designed with players like me in mind, players who are comfortable with its many deaths . Having sufficiently conquered Demon's Souls, I need a new challenge. And it looks like I'm going to get one.
My demo, played on a PlayStation 3, focused on a single area, one trap-laden castle, the stony, gloomy medieval fare that Demon's Souls was known for.
As we approached what Namco Bandai reps referred to as "The Trapped Castle"—the game called it "Sen's Castle"—we looked behind our knight briefly. At his back was the bridge that lead to Sen's Castle, beyond that the forested open area that is said to lend Dark Souls a less structured world than its predecessor. Gone is the hub world of Demon's Souls' Nexus, partially replaced by campsites known as Beacon Fires. These fires are the safe zones where players can heal and share their experiences with other players.
A player's visit to Sen's Castle may occur at different occasions for different players, Namco reps said. The same was partially true of Demon's Souls, but Dark Souls appears to be less restrictive in where its players can go and when they can go there.
Looking toward the humble castle entrance, I was immediately struck at how vibrant this game was. The screen was bordered with soft greens from the nearby trees. The walls of Sen's Castle glowed softly gold. The knight, outfitted with a rusty iron helmet, indigo robes underneath leather armor, dozens of medallions hanging from his neck, a dagger sheath at his left breast, he looked more colorful, more uniquely interesting than the medieval fantasy warriors of Demon's Souls.
Still, this is grim, dark fantasy stuff, evident as we entered Sen's.
If one considers the environmental nature of some of Demon's Souls worlds, with Stonefang Tunnel a world of fire and magma, the Vally of Defilement home to plague and poison, Sen's Castle should be thought of as a long sequence of death traps. Darts fly from its walls from all directions. Elevator shafts are capped with spikes, making damn sure you better get off on the right floor or suffer the consequences.
The castle is guarded by snake warriors. They're humanoid from the neck down, with long serpentine necks that stretch their height to eight or nine feel tall. Those snake-men attack with sword and shield, moving quickly and relentlessly.
Dark Souls sometimes throws in a cobra guard variant, a four-armed soldier with a wide hooded neck, a curved sword in each hand and the power to spray poisonous venom clouds. Lovely.
While fighting those snake guards, it was clear the combat in Dark Souls is near identical to that of its inspiration. As in Demon's Souls, players can strike one-handed, with light or heavy attacks. They can switch to a two-handed mode, putting away one's shield, for braver battles. Parry, riposte, critical strikes, blocks and rolling dodges—they're all here, all seemingly unchanged in their effectiveness. Demon's Souls players should feel at home in this game's hand-to-hand fights.
Venturing further into Sen's more traps revealed themselves. On a narrow bridge, a series of giant pendulum scythes swung back and forth, threatening to knock the player into a dark pit below (I got to see the contents of that pit a bit later). Further complicating the approach was a snake guard one floor above, spitting at the player as he slowly creeped through—then sprinted through!—the scythes. At the end of that bridge, another vicious obstacle awaited, a never-ending series of rolling boulders, the kind that would make Indiana Jones run in fear for his life, but which Dark Souls players must routinely face while running up and down winding staircases in Sen's Castle.
The sound of those traps, a constant din of rolling boulders and mechanized torture devices clattering in the distance, will be a fearsome reminder to players of the dangers of Sen's.
The traps don't stop there. At the entrance to the castle, the knight opened up a treasure chest, revealing a bounty of souls within. But his next attempt to open a chest resulted in a horrifying discovery. The chest opened, revealing a pair of spindly arms, rows of bloody fangs and a flopping, bloody tongue, pulling the player inside for a chew. It was a grislier version of a Mimic from Dragon Quest, a beast disguised as booty. The player antagonized it, swinging at it with his hefty large sword. That really pissed off the treasure chest mimic, which then stood upright, now twice the height of the player. It kicked and scratched and roared, stronger than its thin frame implied. Eventually, it went down, reduced to a pile of souls.
In Sen's, we saw one more thing that inhabited the trapped castle. At the bottom of the aforementioned black pit, where stagnant water has collected, was a huge bronze guardian—this monstrosity. Its head was sheared off, as was one of its legs. It lumbered toward the knight, massive bronze staff in hand, a slow moving juggernaut that was just creepy (and mad) as hell.
Now, there was no real climax in my hands-off demo. It didn't end in one of FromSoftware's boss fights against some huge demon or towering knight. Instead, we paused a moment to take a look at the game's interface, inventory and equipment. The knight I was shown, a "special kind of knight," is just one of the game's starting classes. The only other mentioned was a witch. The equipment our knight wore included the previously mentioned armor, a large class sword, otherwise nondescript, and a pointed shield. That large sword had at least one secret ability—it could cast spells.
We saw a few more traditional spells equipped in the knight's inventory, like a lightning bolt attack and the defensive "iron body" magic. But it appears that some weapons will have the ability to behave magically, with this one casting a fireball spell and an area of effect attack that emitted a crimson burst.
As back up, the knight had at least two more weapons—a large, gnarled hammer that reminded me of Garl Vinland's Bramd and a thorny bluish sword that looked as heavy as a Meat Cleaver or Dragon Bone Smasher from Demon's Souls. Flipping through the redesigned and far more attractive inventory screen, it looked like the standard equipment was here. Gauntlets, helmets, rings, leggings, inventory to hold grasses and other consumables were all seen. Yes, you'll be chomping on grasses and downing spice in Dark Souls, just like its forebear.
One new aspect of Dark Souls will be the option to upgrade one's armor with materials, an option previously limited to weapons and shields in Demon's Souls.
Delving into the game's inventory screen also offered a quick glimpse at stats. It appears that the confusing runes that indicated a player's strength, dexterity, faith, luck and more have been replaced by more easily understood icons.
Added to the list of character attributes is a new Humanity stat, which has some effect on a player's human nature. In Dark Souls, you're already dead, with your appearance fluctuating from human to more corpse-like, with that Humanity characteristic having some unexplained impact. Namco Bandai reps said that players can "give some of their humanity" at Beacon Fires, a mechanic we don't yet understand, but hope to when the game is shown in online form at E3 2011.
Speaking of the game's online modes, it will feature similar online mechanics introduced in Demon's Souls, with players able to visit and invade each other's worlds, leave them messages, either helpful or malicious. For the Xbox 360 version, which is not guaranteed online connectivity unless players are Xbox Live Gold subscribers, offline players will not see that side of Dark Souls.
Based on comments from Namco Bandai reps, the online cooperative and competitive modes in Dark Souls don't appear to be changing drastically. Players will still be able to meet up with other players, mostly strangers, online to work together. But they'll still be working independently in a sense, relying on their own skills, spells and equipment.
Dark Souls comes to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 this October in North America and Europe. While we wait, new screens of Dark Souls, including some from Sen's Castle, await you in the gallery.