September 28, 2011, 9:00

Hands On: Dark Souls

By Dave Irwin, Sub-Editor

Demons Souls gained a rather notorious reputation for being one of the most difficult games of the past few years due to relentless level design, but it also managed to charm us by using the most innovative use of online based functionality ever devised in a RPG. The spiritual sequel Dark Souls will not only introduce Xbox 360 owners to the carnage, but will promise to add more mayhem for an even more difficult experience. I like a challenge, so I went to the booth at this year’s Eurogamer Expo with the words of a thousand men on my tongue and picked up the controller. When I emerged though, it was the game which had the last laugh.

Hands On: Dark Souls

Visually, although the game has its roots ingrained into the PlayStation 3, the Xbox 360 version doesn’t look or play worse in any way, so the dedication to make this multiplatform seems to have paid off. The style is very dark in tone with more grit than the average Western RPG. Character models have been given an upgrade to look less like a hillbilly peasant in all classes, and enemies look more imposing this time around. When venturing above the catacombs, I saw various large areas where larger enemies come crashing through scenery or maybe just loom in the distance. The effect is to make the entire experience feel a lot more foreboding a prospect. This game screams “you will die” more than any other game on the show floor with an appropriate style to suit that ethos of pain and death.

The action started in the middle of a dungeon with a short tutorial of the controls, which feel very similar to those found in Demons Souls. Attacking and defending are allocated to the shoulder buttons while the d-pad and face buttons allow you to switch weapons and use items. There was an ‘option’ to invade another player’s game, however this wasn’t enabled for this build. Unfortunately this kind of interaction is the crux of the experience and not showcasing in any way how it works puts the demo at a huge disadvantage. Combat felt a little sluggish if you have the wrong weapon equipped, though you could wield a larger weapon with two hands with the touch of a button.

“”Prepare to die” is a more than fitting tagline for this game and the prospect of death upon death hasn’t been this appealing in a long time.”

The first victim to succumb to my new-found combat knowledge was either a zombie or a prisoner – it was a little hard to tell in all honesty. Going through the catacombs and emerging outside, there were many messages on the ground to forewarn me of the dangers ahead. At one point it told me to get away; this was odd as I was in an empty room. Confused I took a step forward, only for a hulking giant of a monster to come crashing through the walls and proceeded to swat me like a fly with his mace. Being woefully unequipped to fight, I fled as quickly as I could, but not before he whacked a pillar to send part of a building crashing down around me.

When I emerged from the chaos and to the safety of a nearby hallway, I was given a shield for the first time. This was essential thanks in no small part to a guy firing arrows at me. Chasing after him with my shield for protecting my face, I proceeded to violently stab him for his insulting tactical choice. It was round the next corner when I discovered the equipment for my sorcerer class that allowed me to cast spells. Precision is certainly imperative when wielding spells as there is no targeting system, but the damage dealt was significant enough to keep it equipped along with a shield for defence. Going up some stairs though I was a little cocky and paid the price dearly. A boulder ran over me causing me to fall off the stairs sideways and then the culprit finished me off. I had died, though I was expecting to die sooner.

Hands On: Dark Souls

Reviving close by, I ran towards the boulder-pushing assailant and dispatched him, recovering my corpse in the process. The way it works essentially is that when you die, you get a chance to find your former self to get that life back. If I had died and not recovered my corpse beforehand, I would have been “hallowed” and the game would be over. This certainly made me watch my back a little more as I only had one shot to redeem my prior misfortune. Nearby, the boulder had made a new pathway which led to a dying soldier. This was the first friendly face I saw, but he gave me the revelation that everyone was undead, including me. Perhaps hinting at a story element within the game, but it certainly took me aback to find I was playing as a dead guy this entire time. After giving me some gear, he told me to leave before he turned hostile. This was the point where my original slot came to a close and I half expected to die constantly.

Another playthrough showed me a later stage of the game which had a rather imposing dragon and the biggest boar I’ve ever seen. This area was a proper bloodbath as round every corner was something wanting to kill me. I played as a black knight who got gutted by a boar tusks repeatedly while two skeleton knights skewered him with spears – pleasant it was not. Difficulty spiked up significantly in this segment and while it wasn’t unplayable it certainly had obstacles I had no time to get past.

“Prepare to die” is a more than fitting tagline for this game and the prospect of death upon death hasn’t been this appealing in a long time. Improvements have been made to the game to give it better flow and I was really impressed with my first hands-on experience with the spiritual sequel to Demons Souls.

Dark Souls will be released on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 on October 7. Bring on the carnage!