Dark Souls finally shown live

As the demo progressed, felling a rat in the tunnels, then re-emerging into a labyrinthine series of walkways, the idea that these levels were taking full advantage of not just breadth, but height was made quite obvious. A far-off (and high-up) bridge was the goal, but the path was hardly a simple corridor: multiple diversionary routes leading to entire unexplored areas cropped up a few times, and there was the overwhelming sense that this was a world rife with the possibility of exploration.

It's something the dev team (composed of the same fine folks who made Demon's Souls, naturally) wasn't shy about, but actually seeing just how many twists and turns a level contained made it obvious that this was no longer a game where a hub led out to piecemeal sets of individual levels. Instead, the world was simply... there, beckoning foolish adventurers to explore with no real sense of where one should go or what may be lying ahead save for a far-off landmark to serve as a tempting point of reference.

It's something many western action-driven RPGs have done for years now, but instead of lush fields or wide swathes of undulating terrain, Dark Souls looks to have a decided height advantage. Take, for example, the instance toward the end of the lengthy (and varied) demo where a trap-riddled dungeon knocked the mysterious person playing the demo for us off a high platform with massive swinging blades. Rather than dying, the fall merely opened up a new area to explore. Sure, a player could make their way back eventually, but it hammered home the idea that falling into what seemed like a blind chasm wasn't an instant game over, but a transition to an entirely new area that may have been previously passed over.

This extends to the way combat has been revamped too, however. Consider the showpiece fight against an absolutely massive brute that leapt down onto a choked walkway while archers flung arrows at the player. After climbing a ladder to take care of the ranged attackers, the promise of over a hundred different kinds of weapons (all with their own animations and attack styles, mind) made itself that much more appealing. Though the brute easily leapt up onto the rampart to continue the fight (we’re talking an ogre-sized beast jumping up about a hundred feet – truly spectacular and surprising), he would pause below for a few seconds - easily enough time for the player to jump down and puncture his less-armored top with a downward thrust. It was a kind of contextual, environment-based attack we weren't expecting, and made for a deliciously brutal strike, a fount of inky blood spurting from the beast. Bear in mind this was an attack pulled off with a specific weapon, but if there are more environment-specific attacks, the old Demon's Souls-style parry/roll/strike system of combat may well look pedestrian by comparison.

The demo veered off course slightly, with From Software instead opting to expose just how varied the environments and equipment could be, first dipping into a pea soup-thick misty forest devoid of enemies, then a frankly hellish realm of lava lakes and ornate multi-tiered pagoda-style buildings in the distance. In both instances, the gear the player was using varied wildly from the more traditional armor and swords seen in the first part of the demo. The forest gave rise to the Onion Knight, a kind of wide-brimmed, lumbering-but-well-armored brawler that had something of an... issue rolling around. The fiery realm instead had the player decked out in what could only be described as a far svelter look: a kind of onyx-and-red suit of armor that looked vaguely samurai-ish - and a massive, curved blade to go with it.

As the demo headed back into more familiar territory, both visually and equipment-wise, we were treated to a brief look at the aforementioned trap-heavy temple, filled with enemies with snake heads. It was here that some of the magic was introduced; first a simple fireball, and then something quite interesting: a spell that would turn the player's body to metal, reducing damage, beefing up attacks, but turning the normal roll move into a kind of half-pitched lean. Sorry, metal's apparently just not very agile.

The demo closed out in a way that was infinitely more telling (not to mention rich with what-if possibilities). A quick spell was fired off that turned the player into... a tall vase. As it skimmed a few staircases and rounded a few more corners, the actual intent became clear when the player stopped to rest next to a handful of other, multi-sized clay jars: you can disguise yourself as the environment. Given that Dark Souls still shares its persistent online component and the act of jumping into someone else's game is still there (in fact, about the only part of Demon's Souls that didn't make it into the spiritual successor was the masochistic Light/Dark World Tendency that would actually make the game harder the more you died in an area), the idea of simply waiting, disguised as furniture, for some poor schmuck to go running by before ganking his hard-earned spoils had us giddy.

It's hard not to be hyperbolic when talking about the potential of Dark Souls. If Demon's Souls was a surprise hit, its spiritual successor has all the makings of a bona-fide hit, and with Namco Bandai's support in publishing the game this year worldwide, we're hopeful that an even bigger audience on both the PS3 and 360 will finally see what all the fuss was about last time.

Feb 4, 2011