First time I saw Dark Souls was at Eurogamer. It was a rushed encounter. I barely managed to pick up a gamepad and die a couple of times before I had to move on. I was amazed by what I experienced in those few minutes: the fear, the intensity, the seriousness. I felt like a little kid again, exploring the unfamiliar locations, testing the boundaries, proving my ability.
It started with a demo level called the Undead Parish. There I was, dressed in a set of what looked like second-hand heavy armour. It takes three minutes to figure out the controls, or at least so I thought. The character can perform two types of attacks, block, counter and dodge. No jumping or crouching, and why would you jump in an RPG anyway?
There were written marks all around the stone walls. I decided to ignore these. Who needs tutorials! Confident in my ability to button-mash my way out of most serious situation, I went west from the starting location. I made my way around a corner and onto a bridge. At the end of the bridge, I saw a dragon. Exactly five seconds after this my character met with a wall of fire. Needless to say, my short life was over. “West is not an option, then,” I thought to myself.
Next time, I look around. Smash boxes, find grenades. Read the tutorials. Go north. A skeleton jumps me in a narrow hallway. Takes a quarter of my health off. Another quickly approaches head on. I have no chance.
On the third attempt I smash the jumping skeleton’s face and set his buddy on fire. Further down, the corridor opens into a courtyard, complete with two more undead and what looks like a rhino covered in metal feathers. The beast starts charging at me, mowing his allies down. I roll right, run through the columns and up some stairs. The rhino doesn’t follow. And just when I think I am safe, several arrows fly my way.
This is Dark Souls gameplay in a nutshell. Exploration of really hostile environment. Blind dashes and leaps of faith. Dying a lot. The combat requires both split-second decision making and long-term tactical thinking. If lucky, even a regular critter can put you in the ground. You will often find yourself avoiding combat whatsoever, to save time, effort and health.
Creature design is fantastic. The game is full of never-before-seen monsters like the aforementioned feathery rhino. Each of them employs different tactics, and a new monster encounter will likely result in your quick death. Locations are handmade and beautiful, if a little bit low resolution. Unlike it’s predecessor Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls is an open world, where you may go where you please. And because it’s so hard, beating every new challenge is extremely rewarding.
This game is not for everyone. A casual gamer won’t be able to get very far, or get much enjoyment. But if you like overcoming incredible odds, Dark Souls is there to deliver the experience.
Dark Souls was released on XBox 360 and Play Station 3 in North America today, and will come to Europe on October 7, 2011.