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Dark Souls Hands-On

Playing Dark Souls is a bit like being in a bad relationship; you simultaneous love and hate it. This game is tough, it’s unforgiving and it relishes in kicking your ass at every opportunity. During our demo I lost count at the number of times I died, not only during new moments but also during moments that I’d attempted multiple times.
According to Namco-Bandai, none of the journalists that have got their hands on this particular demo have completed it yet. I got nowhere close to doing so. Then again, seeing as I’ve yet to play Demon’s Souls, that’s probably not all that surprising.

Dark Souls, in much the same way as its predecessor (or so I’ve heard), requires patience, tactics, practice, patience and patience. You’re going to die. You’re going to be at a loss for how to progress. You’re going to be throwing the control pad at the wall/TV/younger sibling. However, perseverance rewards you with an immense sense of satisfaction that (even over the course of our short demo) wholly and drastically eclipses what is on offer from the vast majority of what is on offer in today’s videogame landscape.
The demo takes place over the Undead Parish and Undead Church areas of the game’s world, just how far into the experience these areas are is information we were not made privy to. Environments are beautifully detailed in a dark, gothic, deadly kind of way. Courtyards and buildings are connected by a labyrinth of narrow stairwells, bridges and passageways that make battles against the most straightforward of foes challenging and soaked in tension. ‘Straightforward’ is probably not a good description, no battle is easy.
All enemies can lay waste to you with only a few clean blows so intelligent use of attacks, blocks and dodges are essential. To make things even more difficult, a stamina bar depletes when blocking, attacking and dodging so it’s not possible to either turtle up or constantly attack as zero stamina renders your abilities useless.

The danger posed by adversaries forces you into a rhythm of slow movement and constant vigilance. Rather than run through the world at full pelt you find yourself tip-toeing along corridors, panning the camera to peak around blind corners and turning the sound up in a bid to detect footsteps or whistling arrows as early as possible. It’s a pace that’s almost entirely absent from pretty much every other 3rd-person game out there and at times makes Dark Souls feel like an impossibly difficult survival horror game with a heavy injection of RPG elements.
As has been previously revealed, checkpoints (known as ‘Bonfires’) are dotted around the world to make things slightly less frustrating when you die. Those in the demo were neither predictably or regularly placed, one pair separated by just a couple of enemies while another located beyond sporadic clusters of soldiers, spearmen, archers and a tough as nails 12-foot tall knight wielding a mace and an impenetrable Roman style rectangular shield.
Killing an enemy rewards you with their souls, the tougher the enemy the more souls you gain. If you die you lose all of those souls and return to the most recently activated Bonfire. By returning to the scene of your death and collecting the green mist that hovers in place over your corpse those souls are regained and any health/stamina that has been lost on the way back is replenished. Die before you reach the scene of your death and the souls are lost forever.

It’s a tough system that, once again, rewards patience and intelligence; try to run back to your body as quickly as you can and you’ll only end up dead and cursing yourself for trying to take a shortcut. In Dark Souls, it seems, there are no shortcuts. Shortcuts only lead to retries and frustration.
You’re given five health potions each time you start at a Bonfire, but these cannot be relied upon to get you out of tough situations. Each potion restores the equivalent of roughly two hits from a standard enemy and your foes most certainly do not stand around and wait while you drink them. It’s better to treat them as a fall back option rather than a get out a jail free card.
The demo had all of the final game’s class types available; Soldier, Knight, Witch, Pyromancer, Black Knight and Solaire of Astora. We played as the Black Knight, a class that can switch between a spear/lance and a sword (by flicking right on the d-pad) and carries a large shield on his left arm. The Black Knight is easily the most intimidating of the six characters visually, his horned gothic helmet and stiff edged armour making Sauron look like a pussy.

Each character has their own story thread which sees them explore areas of the world not accessible to the other five. It’ll be interesting to see just how much each character’s journey differs from the next and whether or not it’s worth playing as the different classes for anything other than to mix up your abilities and test out different combat approaches.
Perhaps the biggest compliment I can give to Dark Souls at this point is that it’s made me want to dust off my copy of Demon’s Souls, a copy which has been sitting on the shelve and teasing me for my lack of courage in not daring to put disc into console.
I will be making it my mission to play Demon Soul’s before Dark Souls launches this October. Whether I complete it or not is another matter entirely…

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