Dark Souls Hands-On Preview -- ...Because Demon's Souls Wasn't Hard EnoughBy Sinan Kubba - Posted Aug 24, 2011
When the guy who’s been tasked with playing Dark Souls for a Gamescom 2011 press presentation screws up and gets himself killed, in most cases that’s going to rile the always watching producers. When it happens with a game like Dark Souls, however, it just makes publisher producer Kei Hirono snicker. Just as they did with Demon’s Souls, the developers at From Software and the publishers at Namco Bandai take cruel pleasure in seeing even their own suffer at the hands of the brutally difficult Dark Souls.
“The difficulty level of Dark Souls is actually higher than Demon’s Souls,” Hirono grins to an almost disbelieving crowd, “but when I say that the difficulty is higher it doesn’t mean that the enemies are just simply stronger, but that you need to use more strategy and tactics.”
This is the key to understanding the difficulty of the Japanese RPGs Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls; it’s not that it’s impossible. Even though hours of soul-collecting progress can be lost in a single fatal moment, for the most part the games are fair with it, and even when they’re not you can learn to predict when they won’t be. If you so wish, you can neglect the safety net of banking the souls that you have, but don’t come crying to From Software when you do; they gave you ample warning.
The level that Namco debuted at Gamescom 2011, called The Duke’s Archives, hammers home the point that progression through Dark Souls is not simply about being strong enough to kill all ahead of you. After all, the player character has been buffed up with some regal gold armor, a long purple cloak, and an absolute whopper of a sword for the purposes of the demo, and he still dies three times during it.
The demo begins with the player character, who I’ll call the King, being trapped in a prison cell that is beginning to freeze over. There doesn’t appear to be a way out as all the exits are locked, but there is a snake-like guard near one of the exits. The King still has his whopper sword, though, and a quick backstab through the iron gates takes care of the guard who happens to have been holding onto a key for the door - Bingo. As the King opens the cell door, however, the trouble is only just beginning.
As he steps out he sees that the prison is just a small part of a huge 15 story tall library, with its lofty walls made up of bookcases full of dusty old books. Below and opposite the King, one of those snake creatures has wrapped its long slimy neck around a lever. As he pulls the lever back it sets a series of large gears into motion, and this opens a big prison gate right at the bottom of the room.
Slithering out of the gate is something even more disturbing than the snake guards, namely a small army of odd octopi hybrids with squid-like blue tentacles sitting on top of thick reptilian bodies, and they don’t look friendly. As the King watches the octopus-things slither their way up the spiral staircase circling the library, two more of the snake creatures sprint right by him. “That means that the monsters that were just unleashed, the octopus-looking monsters, must be much stronger than the snake-looking monsters if the snake-looking monsters are trying to escape,” Hirono points out.
The King picks up on this too, quickly following the snake monsters up the staircase until they climb up a ladder towards the safety of a giant exit door. Unfortunately the snake monsters aren’t looking for company. As the King gets close on the ladder to the snake things above him, they start kick to kick at the poor guy. Not only does this take down his health bar, but one kick too many sends the King plummeting to the platform below where the octopi-monsters have been patiently waiting.
The King barely gets up before one of the octopi-monsters wraps its thick blue tentacles around his torso and squeezes the very soul out of him. "YOU DIED" comes on the screen, and Hirono laughs. “Learning from your deaths is the major concept of the game,” he wryly chuckles.
The idea here is to discover the best strategy, and in this case, the best way is to run away. The King can try getting ahead of the snake creatures and climbing up the ladder first, but the giant exit door at the top is locked anyway and getting back down involves a series of wooden planks and a few too many tall drops. Running down the stairs to try and further explore the area is another option, but dodging those octopi baddies requires a fair bit of skill.
A bit of further exploration of the prison cell, however, reveals a hole the King can drop through to a cell on a lower level, and in it the corpse of a prisoner holding a key for a nearby door. This is useful as for some reason the octopi guards don’t really care about the King while he’s in the cell, maybe because that’s where he’s meant to be, so it allows him to time a safer run to avoid the guards while making his way towards the platform with the lever those snake creatures pulled on earlier.
After dispatching with the snake guards on the platform with a series of well times shield blocks followed by some devastating sword attacks, the King pulls the lever back to its original position, and this sends the octopi monsters back within their own prison cell. Also rather handily there’s a nearby chest holding the key to the large exit door above - good times.
If this all sounds a lot like Demon’s Souls to the noble few out there versed in that game, then that’s because it is a lot like Demon’s Souls and there’s no getting around that. Though Dark Souls is considered a successor and not a sequel, with no continuation in the story from the one game to the other, the differences between the two will be subtle. For example, rather than there being five separate worlds to explore, Dark Souls will feature one seamless world that will be three to four times bigger than all the content in Demon’s Souls, translating into double expected playtime. Also, players won’t have to restart levels they die in right from the beginning, but rather from selected re-spawn checkpoints called Beacon Fires. Not that these aren’t miles apart from each other, mind.
Maybe most crucially, players won’t go into the health-reducing soul form when they die. They’ll still lose all their souls, souls being the currency of the game, but like with Demon’s Souls these can be regained if you find the spot you died in before you die again. However, the lack of the soul form punishment places less emphasis on staying alive as long as possible in Dark Souls, and maybe that underlines From Software’s emphasis on players embracing and accepting death in their new game.
So the King finally escapes the library prison, only second later to open a chest that suddenly spawns a pair of arms from inside its mouth which grab our regal hero into its waiting chasm. As the chest noshes on the former king, Hirono exclaims, “We hope you enjoy the game. Prepare to die!” Quite.