Amidst a sea of unplayable, hands-off demos, I was pleased to get some hands-on time with From Software's Dark Souls at E3 2011. It's a game that demands to be played, its sombre atmosphere standing in stark contrast to the tightly-scripted, shock-and-awe action sequences that dominate the E3 show floor.
The game's spiritual predecessor, Demon's Souls, is one of my favorite games of this console generation, and possibly of all time. It's a dark, oppressive adventure, a game in which every step you take and every swing of your sword could be your last. Death meant something in Demon's Souls, because falling to the enemy meant losing everything you've earned.
Dark Souls is no different. Although it's not related to Demon's Souls in plot, it doesn't stray far from the first game's formula. You wield right- and left-handed weapons or shields with their respective triggers on the controller. You use the D-pad to equip weapons and special items. And with those few abilities, you creep through an ominously quiet world, watching out for attacks from soul-deprived foes. A few hits is all it takes to bring you down, so if you're smart, you'll creep slowly around each corner, shield raised, ready to retreat when the action gets too hairy.
The big change in Dark Souls is the elimination of the Nexus, which acted as a hub world in the previous game. Now, the entire world is one continuous space, and the player uses bonfires, spread throughout the world, to restore health and level up. That may sound like a concession to dial down the game's difficulty, but visiting a bonfire respawns all the enemies you've killed, so don't get any ideas about running back to recover after a big battle.
Dark Souls also adds some new features to online play. As with the first game, you don't play directly alongside other players, but you're able to invade their parallel worlds for help or harm. In Dark Souls, I played as a Pyromancer, who has the new ability create enemies in the other players' worlds to carry out his bidding. This backfired later, when two players simultaneously entered my world to seek revenge. I managed to take down one of them before succumbing to the other. Another new type of character is more benevolent, able to heal players in other worlds if they're nearby. (You can tell by the presence of ghost-like frames in your area.)
In both games, dying results in the loss of all your accrued souls, which act as both the game's currency and experience points. Dark Souls puts even more on the line. Each time you die, your avatar becomes a little less human, his appearance becoming ghastlier. I didn't see this in action, but I'm told that it replaces the "Soul Form" of the last game, which rendered players weaker but harder to detect after dying but use a gradual progression.
There's still a lot more that's unknown about Dark Souls, including the weapons you'll be able to use, the characters you'll meet and the game's plot. But a brief demo at E3 was enough to convey one key point: despite the difference in name, this game still feels like Demon's Souls. If you're a glutton for punishment, that's a very good thing.