E3 2011: 10 Thoughts on… Dark Souls (Sony Playstation 3, Microsoft Xbox 360)

When From Software and Namco Bandai announced a multi-platform sequel to their surprise hit Demon’s Souls, and that it would be coming stateside, I was pretty ecstatic. While I didn’t get to spend nearly as much time with the game as I wanted to, I could easily be counted as a fan of the game, largely because I didn’t think the game was so challenging as to be oppressive, and I liked what the game had to offer. While the mechanics weren’t perfect, the atmosphere certainly was, and the experience was essentially what I, as an older gamer who remembered the days of dungeon crawling RPG’s so horrid that you’d curse yourself for even thinking of playing them, was looking for in a modern action RPG. So when it was announced that Dark Souls would be on the floor at E3 for play, well, I knew then and there that I needed to spend some time with it, and having now done this thing, I can safely say that it was time well spent.

1.) The demo features six character classes, which the demonstrator helpfully explained were broken down to four assisting classes and two griefing classes. The four assisting classes are largely similar to their Demon’s Souls counterparts, breaking down to a couple melee and casting classes, and the Dark Knight is the standard “break into a game and ruin everything” class, but the new class, Pyromancer, was the new and interesting addition to the lot. As it was explained to me, while a Dark Knight can basically just break into a game and ruin someone directly, a Pyromancer instead can summon more monsters into a player’s game world to ruin their time unless said player breaks into the Pyromancer’s world and ruins them. The idea of griefing indirectly is terrible in theory, of course, but since that’s a part of the Dark Souls experience, honestly, it comes across as pretty hilarious in practice. I’m not much of a griefer, mind you, so I just went with the templar looking class for testing purposes, but it’s amusing and it’s nice to know it’s there.

2.) The game world retains the same visual aesthetic as its predecessor; the environments are bleak and miserable, the enemies are often dark looking and somewhat terrifying, and the environments and atmosphere lend a lot to the proceedings. The game essentially seems to be using the same visual engine, so for those who were hoping for some kind of massive upgrade you’ll likely not find that here. However, the game does still look pretty good, all in all, and the visuals are at least still technically proficient.

3.) So before I began, the demonstrator asked me if I had played Demon’s Souls, and when I informed him I had, he noted that the only piece of advice he had for me, then, was “Don’t fight the dragon”. I found out what he meant about a minute later, as after awakening in a room full of tutorial instructions, I walked out into a room with a bridge exiting it, and on said bridge was… a large, pissed off dragon. For experimentation purposes I walked out onto the bridge, and OH BOY did he make me regret that, so I simply proceeded onward in the correct direction. So, yes, you can expect a similar experience to Demon’s Souls from the word go.

4.) For those who are wondering, the game does retain many of the mechanics of its predecessor. You can find and read helpful notes left by others on the ground, and see white spirits indicating the failures of others along the path, as with Demon’s Souls, so you can hopefully learn from this information. The sticks control movement and looking, the left triggers block and parry/use spells, the right triggers hit enemies, you can dive around to avoid attacks and you still have a health and stamina bar to regulate the damage you can take and the actions you can perform. There’s no major overhaul here, mechanically, but what’s here still works just fine.

5.) Now, I did get the opportunity to watch a few other people play while I waited, so I was aware in advance of a section coming up where a large, armored boar was waiting in an enclosed area, surrounded by various smaller enemies, so I actually managed to approach the battle tactically and take out the three melee fighters and two archers before the battle began. This was actually a pretty neat setpiece battle, as the smart thing to do is lure the fighters into the hall, wreck them, then run up a nearby stairwell, wreck the archers and fighter up there, then head downstairs and face the boar, but many of the other players just ran right in and got ruined. You kind of come to expect these sorts of battles in the game after a while, but at first, the game doesn’t really make it apparent that yes, there will be tactically important actions you’ll need to take to make life easier, so the learning curve is about the same as it ever was, so fans should have fun, at least.

6.) One new thing I noticed was that there appear to be several people puttering around the game world who appear to be emaciated and borderline insane, though how this plays into the game and storyline wasn’t made apparent in the demo. Later, a few of them assaulted me, which I wasn’t prepared for, but taking them on wasn’t a big problem or anything.

7.) There are now campfires you’ll find along the way through the game world as well, and you can stoke them and rest by them to create a checkpoint and rest up a bit. Testing this in play didn’t affect much, but this appears to affect what looks to be some sort of flame icon on the screen, which may be a similar mechanic to being human or spiritual in the first game. In other words, sacrificing humanity may keep the fire going longer, but may also decrease your abilities and performance, making for an interesting trade-off. How far into the game world this affects things isn’t clear at the moment, but it looks like it’ll be an interesting mechanic, however it works out.

8.) I eventually came upon a church in the game world which housed a particularly large armored knight who quite obviously had no interest in being friends, and after a pitched battle, complete with him summoning magical bolts against me and hitting like a train the entire time, I did him in. I was feeling pretty confident, actually, and I can safely say that if you’ve played Demon’s Souls a lot, your skills in that game will translate over to Dark Souls fine.

9.) And then, about a minute later, I got ruined by a giant bishop and his skeleton posse. Dammit. The presenter helpfully informed me that I’d almost reached the end of the demo, and while I really wanted to go back and finish it up, more people were waiting to play, so I erred on the side of allowing more players to check the game out and left… until next time.

10.) Dark Souls looks like it’s going to be a game that makes its changes in the sorts of ways that aren’t immediately obvious to players, changing around odd mechanics and elements instead of making massive changes to the experience, and while this is something I had figured from the years I’ve spent with the Armored Core series, I can say in this case that this isn’t a bad thing. The core mechanics work well enough and refining the extra elements until they’re where they need to be is a fine use of development time at this stage of the game. While the formula isn’t going to carry the series forever, Dark Souls still feels fresh and interesting in its present state, and while it’s not dramatically different and it’s not likely to please players who found the original too hard, it’s a good effort and fans will likely love it when it comes out.

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