E3 2011: Dark Souls Hands-on — Yes, I Died A Lot

The first thing you notice about Dark Souls is the character models. Freed from Demon’s Souls’ spectral muddiness (which, to be fair, was a gameplay mechanic), the heavily-armored adventurers in From Software’s ambitious sequel are resplendent in shining, lobstered steel and sturdy leather. The environments, while retaining the original’s delectably depressing dreariness, have also undergone an overhaul. Leafy forests teemed outside the demo level’s castle walls, and a Namco representative promised that you can visit nearly every visible location in the game — who knows what unspeakable evil lurks in yonder woods?

Though Demon’s Souls gave the player free reign to tackle the game’s five different worlds in any order, Dark Souls unfetters you even further, turning characters loose in a gigantic open world that rewards those who are courageous enough to explore it. Though it was difficult to glean much about the game’s story or quest structure (or even whether there is

Archstones, valuable waypoints unlocked by killing bosses, have been replaced this time around by Bonfires, which seem to be scattered more liberally throughout the gameworld. Stopping at a Bonfire will heal you and replenish your flask of healing draughts (an intriguing change from Demon’s Souls’ grass-based system). When you die, you appear to respawn at the Bonfire you visited most recently. Given how much you will die (hint: a lot), it sounds like each Bonfire will come in very handy.

Death in the E3 show floor demo came in many forms. There were the usual flailing undead, seeded at the beginning of the level just to give you a false sense of confidence. These quickly gave way to a variety of skeletal Vikings. Their attacks were different, depending on their armament, but they were similarly deadly in the end. Also present were a number of more powerful enemies: a pissed-off demon rhinoceros, a fire-breathing dragonlike beast the game referred to as a “Wyvern,” and a grotesque, flying adversary called the “Bell Tower Gargoyle,” possessed of a big halberd, a bigger health bar, and a really, really bad attitude.

There were a number of different classes available to try. Most fulfilled familiar Soldier and Caster archetypes, but two stood out. From Software’s unique, griefer-friendly take on multiplayer is back in Dark Souls, and the Pyromancer and Black Knight are well poised to take advantage. The former has a special ability that enables him to infect other players’ worlds, increasing the difficulty of the monsters they will encounter. The latter is a PVP specialist, appearing in Black Phantom form in other gameworlds to hunt and kill the players that populate them.

Though some features are new, the game picks up and plays just like its predecessor. The genius of the stamina-based combat system is still at the heart of everything, and the swords on offer swung in ponderous, weighty arcs. The oppressive atmosphere also returns, buttressed by the game’s distinctive art style, which marries psychologically acute Eastern sensibilities to the reinterpretation of Western fantasy tropes.

Dark Souls can be numbered among a handful of games at E3 2011 that are highly-anticipated follow-ups to surprise smash hits. This means that their developers have gone from having very little to lose to having almost everything to lose. Despite the high expectations, however, From Software seems impervious to failure. They’re in the enviable position of being applauded for being totally uncompromising, and this pugnacity is apparent everywhere in Dark Souls. As long as they keep the brutal difficulty, masterful level design, and uncanny ambience intact, their fans will love them for it, even if they’re cursing the loading screen after dying for the umpteenth time.

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1 Comment on E3 2011: Dark Souls Hands-on — Yes, I Died A Lot


On June 8, 2011 at 8:45 am