Dark Souls preview - look at the size of this thing!

We’ve just watched a lengthy, detailed demo of an area in Dark Souls called the Duke’s Archives, full of huge halls, winding staircases, bizarre enemies, and humongous bosses… and at the end we learn that this entire section probably won’t be encountered by players until the second or third playthrough. That’s right: Dark Souls is so enormous that it has vast sections designed to only be discovered by the most dedicated delvers, and yet these sections are as detailed and full of challenge as a core level of any other game.

We’re worried by the size of Dark Souls’ world because as any Demon’s Souls player knows, incremental forays deeper and deeper into enemy territory, cautiousness, and trial-and-error are central to the series. With Dark Souls, instead of using a hub world to venture into other areas, you’ll have one continuous world where simple camp fires will be your only respite from the slavering monstrosities lurking in the shadows. A single camp fire is your spawn point and your opportunity to get free healing as well as your connection to other players. If you choose to save your game at a fire you know you’re safe, but if you push past a fire and risk trying to reach a further one, your rewards will be greater. If you use a fire’s free healing ability, all nearby enemies respawn, so you have to think about what’s worth more to you. You can also sacrifice some of your Humanity (Dark Souls’ new attribute) to kindle a fire, which will heal other players in their own single-player games.

So there you’ll be – moving from fire to fire, judging how much help you should take from them, and always, always afraid of what deadly traps or monsters might wait around the next corner to punish you for your bad choices. As we saw in the Duke’s Archives, camp fires may be rather far apart, increasing the game’s tension. In the Archives we saw a gigantic library room with a winding staircase ascending high above the floor, naturally populated by snake-headed humanoids that can do horrific damage in a few swings of their wickedly curved swords. The player began stuck in a cage – a simple swipe through the bars killed the guard outside for an easy snatch of the key, but once exiting the cage, the player triggered an alarm. A snakeman activated a device that looked like a phonograph, creating an eerie chime sound that echoed throughout the Archives, releasing bizarre, serpentine creatures with squids for heads (think Cthulhu with no face). In a neat twist, the snakemen and squid-heads began fighting each other, but this didn’t mean the level turn into a cakewalk – oh no – it just became more chaotic.

We were told that what Dark Souls wants to do most is make Demon’s Souls players say “Whoa, I wasn’t expecting THAT.” This doesn’t mean the game isn’t similar to Demon’s Souls – it’s full of familiar gameplay, but Dark Souls will not be content to provide more of the same. It also aims to draw in new players with its continuous, exploration-focused world, using the difficulty to subtly nudge players toward the main-mission goals. So if you go randomly wandering, you might find areas just a tad too dangerous for you, so you’ll go another direction, at least until you get powerful/skillful enough to return to those initially daunting places.

Dark Souls also plans to make the unique multiplayer component of its predecessor even more compelling with the introduction of Covenants. You’ll be able to swear allegiance to a particular god, gaining special benefits and befriending other players who worship the same deity. You can only have one allegiance, so if you really want to gain another benefit you’ll have to consider estranging those previously friendly players, since you won’t be able to interact with them any longer. It sounds like Dark Souls will have a more complex approach to multiplayer where it was already built on an unusual premise.

Above: This is not the boss we saw, but holy crap

At the end of the demo we got to see a boss we can’t give away, but we’ll just say that it’s a huge, frightening beast hidden away in a secret area of the Duke’s Archives. Let that sink in: a spectacular boss inside a secret nook, inside an area of the game most players won’t see on the first playthrough. That’s the kind of multilayered, deep and vast world Dark Souls has created. Many of the devs have been playing the game for hundreds of hours and still haven’t seen everything in the game. And we thought Demon’s Souls swallowed up our free time…

Sept 5, 2011

Matthew Keast
My new approach to play all games on Hard mode straight off the bat has proven satisfying. Sure there is some frustration, but I've decided it's the lesser of two evils when weighed against the boredom of easiness that Normal difficulty has become in the era of casual gaming.