It's entirely likely that this generation's biggest sleeper hit (at least in terms of critical success) will end up being Demon's Souls. Originally published by Sony in Japan, the game languished - in entirely localized fashion - for a good nine months before finally getting picked up by Atlus and published properly here in the West. By that time, local critics were already discovering what hardcore importers had found out months before: it's good to die.
In an era where ample checkpoints and regenerating health are the norm, developer From Software reached into their considerably lengthy back catalog and sought to update their classic first-person dungeon crawler King's Field with a far more modern twist - at least visually. From a gameplay perspective, not a whole lot had changed; you couldn't pause the game, death could happen in an instant for those who weren't prepared and staid in their advancement, and when you died, you lost everything save for basic equipment.
This included the game's universal currency for both experience and store purchases, and the only way to get that cash back was to make your way all the way through the level you'd ploddingly explored with all the enemies restored. It was, in no uncertain terms, a gamer's game, the sort of stuff that flung those of us old enough to play through those classic controller-throwingly hard games as a rite of passage right back to our youth.
So why the history lesson? As was made abundantly clear at Namco's now-annual Ignite event here in San Francisco, From Software knows precisely what it’s doing with the King's Field reboot, and the Demon's Souls spiritual successor (now formally dubbed Dark Souls) reaches even deeper into that classic franchise vault to create something altogether alluring. Oh, and deadly. Really deadly - as in, "die so many times you start to laugh at how ridiculous it's become" deadly.
But lest you think Dark Souls is a direct continuation of Demon's Souls, know they are linked in name and visual splendor only; the world itself and characters from last year's death-dealing epic have no reflection here, instead culling the sort of grandeur and invitation to exploration of those old King's Field games.
It's fine if you've never played the series, honestly. The games were ponderous, borderline tedious affairs that moved at the pace a sloth would call sluggish. But they had an abundance of atmosphere, and as From Software prepared to show off the game for the first time to the public, we quickly realized that sense of atmosphere would become as much a character as the one currently trudging around the post-tutorial area where all adventures begin.
For the sake of the demo, this knight was given a rather unfair advantage: his weapons and armor were the stuff of hours of progress down the line for a normal player - something that was echoed across a variety of different locales and weapon/armor configurations pre-chosen for the demo. Given the game's promise of insane levels of difficulty, however, this was fairly understandable; a demo simply couldn't take place if one were to end up dying as often as most players likely will, especially given that Dark Souls seems to place far more emphasis on multiple types of incoming attacks. The dark fantasy equivalent of Molotov cocktails would arc earthward even as multiple melee attackers would charge in, and instantly we got the sense that the same measured pace of Demon's Souls would be absolutely paramount here.
Even as the demo started to hit its stride, showcasing the reality of From Software's "if you can see it, you can go there with enough time and patience" approach. This was echoed across the new item system, showcasing weapon drops as little orangish-yellow glowing spheres that would show up even at huge ranges. Such was the case with a massive dragon that was thankfully sawing logs rather than belching fire at everything that moved, but the challenge then became sneaking past it while juggling the aforementioned multiple enemies. One could certainly rouse the beast if one were, well, stupid, but instead the knight ducked into a conveniently-located tunnel entrance next to the dragon's tail.