Our latest look at Dark Souls in action takes us to Sen's Fortress: a gloomy, medieval-style fort on a colossal scale. One step past the portcullis, the knight hero is struck with arrows from a trap on a far wall. Two steps in, and a huge snake-headed warrior, with intimidating reach and speed, looms into view to skewer the knight with a huge curved sword. And just around the corner is a narrow walkway obstructed by swinging blade pendulums, with a spellcasting snakehead posted on the far side, poised to blast the beleaguered knight into the as-good-as-bottomless pit below.
So there's no dialling down the difficulty in this "spiritual successor" to the critically lauded (and hard as nails) fantasy action RPG Demon's Souls. Far from easing off of players with a less gruelling follow-up, the development team, still headed by Hidetaka Miyazaki, is ready to punish them more than ever. Accessibility is not the team's watchword. "This game is going to be even more difficult," says producer Kei Hirono cheerfully, watching his colleague creep the knight protagonist cautiously deeper into the fortress.
There's no surer sign of a tricky game than when a demonstrator, having played through a demo countless times, still inches slowly and warily through the level. Slowly, that is, until walking into a new chain of traps and baddies, where enemies, arrows, pitfalls, pendulums, and rolling boulders overlap in deadly, unremitting sequence. "There's nowhere to rest," says Hirono-san, as the knight flees from a boulder like an armoured Indiana Jones, just nipping out of its downhill path as a pursuing snakey foe gets crushed. (Some baddies are dispatched with sword and shield, and others with a fireball spell, but they are thankfully also susceptible to the traps spread so generously throughout the stronghold.)
In another nail-biting sequence, the knight hero goes to open a treasure chest--these confer goodies and appear throughout the level--only to have it sprout teeth and a grotesque tongue and set about chomping him in half. As he dashes for a fast-moving elevator platform to escape, the thing grows immensely long legs and arms and gives chase; it's an absurd, nightmarish moment, and the presumable relief of escape breaks the demonstrator's concentration enough to have him stand on the elevator a moment too long. There are long, cruel spikes at the top of the elevator shaft, waiting to drain his health bar, and they do just that; Hirono-san points out the bloodstains covering the platform floor--a sign of similar failures on previous trips through the level.
Ascending the fortress, the knight reaches a vast chamber filled with turning cogs and a mechanism firing boulders like a pinball machine plunger: the source of the endless boulders bowling around the fortress. Turning a control wheel in the centre of the room redirects the mechanism, sending the rolling rocks off elsewhere and opening up new pathways for exploration. As in Demon's Souls, exploring the large, dangerous environments is key.
Near the very top of the fort and back out in the open, the knight contends with an ogre pelting him with firebombs as he climbs the final steps, dodging the bombardment one moment and fending off a regenerating skull knight the next. There's barely time to appreciate the view: an epic panorama of the fortress complex below and, on the other side, a huge castle atop a nearby cliff. ("You can go everywhere you see," says Hirono-san.)
Finally, the knight comes face-to-foot with a greyish giant of a boss: an "iron golem," whose terrifyingly fast sweeping axe dashes expectations of a giant enemy with a slow, heavy attack. The knight, whose gear and abilities are maxed out for the purposes of the demo, makes a valiant attempt but is smacked down in moments, sent flying all the way from the top of the fortress back to where he started (and from where he may begin again, with teeth gritted).
The boss, says the producer, is maybe "one you can't beat alone," hinting at cooperative play beyond that of Demon's Souls' online network features, in which you could leave messages in others' gameworlds. The message-sharing online system, at least, will return in Dark Souls, though Hirono-san had nothing more to say on real co-op play just yet. We'll be waiting impatiently for more on the game at the 2011 Electronic Entertainment Expo.