E3 2011: Dark Souls Preview Hands-On

On the E3 2011 show floor, Dark Souls reminded us that an exhausting journey begins with a single, tentative step.

You want hard? They'll give you hard. Demon's Souls earned GameSpot's 2009 Game of the Year title for many reasons, not the least of which is that it provided a steep and fair challenge without resorting to cheapness. Every swing landed where you expected it to; the game presented you with a tough but consistent set of rules, and then never broke them. Dark Souls is a sequel to Demon's Souls in all but name, so the phrase "spiritual successor" is absolutely apt in this case. On the E3 2011 show floor, we stood in a surprisingly long line before getting our grubby mitts on this upcoming action role-playing game. And Dark Souls didn't disappoint, delivering a small and focused dose of nail-biting action that reminded us of what made Demon's Souls so special a few years back.

We know that Dark Souls will focus more on open exploration than did its predecessor, though the demo didn't let us see exactly how that new structure would function. Rather, the part we explored was within an area called Undead Parish. As you might expect, Dark Souls has a dark medieval vibe, and the world is populated by dastardly knights, screaming wyverns, and other nasties that fit well with the world's ominous undertones. Before beginning, we were faced with a number of class choices: soldier, knight, witch, Solaire of Astora, and black knight. We were told that these were not the only available classes, however. Choosing the ultra-armored Solaire, we entered the world, marveling at the decrepit walls covered with ivy, before dispatching a few hapless demons undulating nearby.

This being Dark Souls, however, the demo did not continue to be a cakewalk. The controls work exactly as Demon's Souls did: you block and attack with shoulder buttons and switch between equipment and items with the D pad. Even innocuous demons might provide a challenge. They shield themselves and lunge forward to attack, so we had to be on our toes every moment, though we still managed to die. And as before, when you die, you drop all the souls you have collected thus far. (Souls are the game currency.) To recover them, you must return to your bloodstain, and so we did, good as new. Fortunately, the online communication features that made Demon's Souls so special are returning. You will be able to activate the bloodstains of other players to see a ghostly image act out the last few seconds of their lives, and you see the transparent images of other players as they make their way through the same places. And you can also leave notes for others and read theirs. One such note gave us this helpful hint: "Can't wait for the full version!"

There are more baddies than just those lanky demons, however. One new enemy was a large beast we'll call a rhino-boar, which barreled toward us, taking off a good chunk of health if it made contact. We quickly got used to the creature's pattern and slashed it in the backside whenever we could get in proper position. One enemy that didn't go down so easily--or at all, for that matter--was a nearby wyvern. This section was reminiscent of the famous world-1 bridge, above which a fire-breathing dragon would soar and bathe the world in its flaming breath. Dark Souls' wyvern did not take to the skies, though it did use its evil halitosis to burn us to a crisp. The trick here was sprinting to safe spots at the right times and letting the dragon kill the nearby enemies for us so that we could reap their souls.

The class we played also let us conjure lightning bolts and thrust them into the demons lurking in the murky shadows, which was great fun, though like in all of Dark Soul's combat, the timing was important. We're pleased to report that like Demon's Souls, Dark Souls is tough but fair. It provided a challenge, but we felt like the tools to succeed were always under our fingertips. And if you can't do it alone, why not bring another lost soul, or make an enemy? Dark Souls lets you join others in cooperative play, as well as invade other players' worlds. We saw such an invasion in action, and like in Demon's Souls, invading players glow a deep-red hue.

If you loved Demon's Souls, Dark Souls looks to have more of what you crave: precise action, great atmosphere, and a rough challenge. Mark the date: October 4, 2011. That's when both PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 owners will get ensnared in the unforgiving and intriguing world of Dark Souls.

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