E3 2011: Dark Souls hands-on preview – bleak, brutal, melancholy, and a must-play

We stood there, staring at the vacant spot in front of the HDTV, palms sweating. The screen flashed “Dark Souls – Press Start” – almost taunting us – assuring us that picking up the controller would promise nothing but abuse on a legally actionable level. We smirked and listened as the exhibitor next to the machine went through his schtick about the game being a spiritual successor to the much-lauded Demon’s Souls. Not being a sequel, the game features a new story that the developers are still being tight-lipped about. Anticipation eventually got the better of us and we cut him off, asking to take a shot at the demo. The fellow grinned and tossed us a control. We’d heard enough of the marketing blurb and were ready to take this beast for a spin.

Thumbing the start button, the screen presented us with six different portraits representing pre-made classes for the demo (the game will have many more). Our choices were the jack-of-all-trades Soldier, the heavily armored Knight, the flame-throwing pyromancer, the magical witch and two uber-level classes. Exhibitor-guy suggested we go with one of the latter classes to help curb the difficulty somewhat. We laughed and went with the low-level Knight. Yeah, we’re dumb like that.

Immediately, the game transported us and our chosen avatar to The Undead Parish – a cursed chapel ground teeming with undead horrors and other scum. Surveying the surroundings, the first thing we notice is just how colorful everything is when compared to the previous game. Dark green vines and moss twist upwards along the stone walls. Dark iron gates stand covered with orange rust. Strands of grass poke up through the ruined cobblestone streets. But though more varied, the change in the color palette doesn’t detract from the oppressive atmosphere, and Dark Souls still manages to capture that crushing feeling of loneliness that Demon’s Souls was so well known for. This city definitely hasn’t seen any human visitors in quite some time.

Taking a few additional moments, we find that the control scheme is identical to that of Demon’s Souls (attacks and parries on the shoulder buttons). Moving our knight around, we find the heavy feeling that accompanies armored classes has remained as well – more so, even. Our knight doesn’t simply move slower than a lightly armored mage – he lumbers. Subtle character movements portray a man completely encumbered by his heavy gear and our dash offers up little more than a brisk jog.

Venturing beyond the starting area, we move through an alleyway and upa short flight of stone stairs to confront our first opponents – two undead swordsmen standing guard before a stone archway. As we trade blows with the two rotting sentries, we notice something – certain blows thrown by the two guards simply glance off our armor as opposed to interrupting our attack entirely. It would seem that the developers of Dark Soul’s have seen fit to grant a few benefits to wearing a full suit of plate-mail armor instead of just decreasing the damage taken and slowing the character down to a crawl. We also noticed some familiar elements during the battle – the ghostly apparitions of other players in the game world. We watched as these phantoms circled through the environment, diving and attacking at their own assailants in their own games. The ground was littered with blood stains that we could touch to see the final moments of players who didn’t fare so well against the two zombies. Soul signs – messages from other players – also peppered the environment, providing helpful clues to those who would read them.

We move through the archway after dispatching the guards. Next, we find ourselves in an antechamber with a flight of stairs leading up to another alleyway directly ahead and an old stone bridge spanning to another area of the parish to our left…which also happens to be guarded by a mammoth-sized dragon and four undead pikemen. “Nice try, Dark Souls,” we laugh and immediately speed our knight’s happy ass into the alleyway. Any Demon’s Souls veteran will tell you that a dragon is not something one should mess with unless you have a death wish.

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