E3 2011: Dark Souls Hands-On Preview

By Darryl Kaye on June 14, 2011, 3:31PM EDT

Demon's Souls is, without a doubt, one of the biggest surprise of this generation so far. It proved that a game can still be a success even with next to no marketing campaign and it proved that there is still a place in the market for hardcore, punishing games. Seeing this potential, Namco Bandai, the publisher of Demon's Souls in Europe, stepped in to sanction a second title, Dark Souls. Even though FromSoftware, the developer, claims it isn't a sequel, but more of a spiritual successor, it's hard to think of it any other way, as it shares many elements with its predecessor, including its punishing difficulty.

Upon firing up the E3 demo in the Namco Bandai booth, one thing was apparent almost instantly. The graphics have been given a huge overhaul "“ it's like night and day. Before, the graphics were good, but they lacked any real sheen. Now, everything is much more glossy, much more visceral. It might seem like a minor thing, but the animations have also been reworked and it makes the experience much more entertaining.

The demo offered the chance to play as numerous classes, two of which were new. Soldier, Knight, Witch and Pyromancer were joined by Solitaire of Astors and Black Knight. All for trying new things, Black Knight is where the action was clearly at. He wielded a rather hefty shield, while either using a great sword or spear. It also became apparent that herbs have been replaced. Now, to replenish health, you must consume Est.

The system of Est has been introduced to stop hoarders. Now, you can only carry a limited supply of Est, whereas in Demon's Souls, you could store up herbs like there was no tomorrow. The developers hope this move will encourage more cautious styles of play, stopping players from relying too heavily on curative items as they explore the perils the world presents. To counter this, you will be able replenish Est at the various bonfires scattered throughout the world "“ you will no longer have to rely on random drops from enemies.

Even though playtime was quite limited, especially for a game of Dark Souls' scope, it was clear that exploration is a key part of the experience. From the start of the demo level, there were numerous paths to take, and neither of my fellow editors, who also got to play the game, went about things the same way I did. There will, of course, be a more linear path through the world, but how you get there will vary significantly.

An interesting development though, is that there is no more Soul Form. When you die, and you will die, you still lose all of your souls (which can be regained), but in the previous game, dying made you go into Soul Form. In this form, you had less health, but did slightly more damage. However, when you die now, everything stays the same. It was nice to die have no real repercussions, but this was one of the things which made Demon's Souls unique "“ trying to stay alive as long as you could.

The game's online mode, something else which made Demon's Souls so unique, also returns. Other players will be able to leave messages and, more importantly, you can still become a Phantom and invade other players' worlds. However, at this time it's still unclear what rewards there will be from performing this action.

The developers will also be expanding the roster of enemies you will face. In the demo, we saw the generic little wretch, but there were also upgrades on some other enemies. Despite it being short, there were dragons, huge warthogs and enemies that don't just stand there to be smacked in the face. They flank, they chase and they drink potions. The level design has also been improved significantly, making tactics even more important this time around.

When Dark Souls arrives later in the year, it looks like we'll be in for one hell of a ride. The developers have stated that they expect the game to be even longer this time around and with new classes, a simplified upgrade system, plenty of new enemies and very polished graphics, this could be one of the experiences of the year.

What's even better is that Xbox 360 gamers can now enjoy this game too, as it's no longer a PS3 exclusive. It's coming out on PS3 and Xbox 360 on the 4th of October in North America and the 7th of October in Europe.

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