Dark Souls preview gives us clammy hands

We usually like to relax while gaming, but Demon’s Souls did something to us that made the experience unique – it intimidated us and filled us with anxiety, and yet somehow that was a good thing. We can’t explain it, but the game managed to bring out our inner masochist. It’s important to understand that we’re not normally patient with games that are frustrating. That’s why Demon’s Souls was special – it could turn a regular gamer into an ultra-hardcore one, bringing out the digital hero in the normally faint of heart. Just watching someone else play Dark Souls brought all of those feelings back, and we somehow felt nostalgia for that perpetual sense of anxiety – how twisted (read: awesome) is that?

Above: Nope, not intimidating at all

It’s hard to tell if Dark Souls, which is not a direct sequel but rather a spiritual successor, will be even more difficult than Demon’s Souls. We don’t know because for this preview the hero was decked out in badass gear and tons of health. Even so, everything about the world we saw oozed with intimidation factor. The demo started outside a castle, on the ramparts, with a peaceful and beautiful sky drifting overhead. The wind whirled past with a lonely tune, and anyone who hasn’t played Demon’s Souls would think nothing ominous was afoot. Having played Demon’s Souls, this simple scene was for us pregnant with dread. Dark Souls did not disappoint.

The hero walked in through the open doorway into a small stone room with a flight of stairs directly opposite the entrance. The instant a foot trod on the room’s floor, a series of arrows came shooting out of a hole in the stairs. That’s how evil the traps are in the “castle of traps” (the mere name of which will cause any Demon’s Souls veteran to shudder). You know you’re in a world of hurt when the freakin’ stairs are going to shoot at you. Of course, that little miserable surprise was quickly forgotten: at the top of said stairs stood a ten-foot tall snake man who promptly leaped down and began swinging away with his massive sword. With a normal character not buffed for a preview demo, we’ll bet the snake man will kill you in a couple swipes of his sword.

Despite being horrendously evil in its intentions toward the player, Dark Souls tries to keep things fair – a keen-eyed player would be able to see the hole in the stairs for that first arrow trap. Later, the hero came to a junction with another corridor, but the ground looked different. In fact, it gave a clue to what might happen: whereas the floor was nice flat brick everywhere else, in the upcoming corridor the floor had been worn into a long, curved groove. Awesomely, we were able to guess based purely on that detail what the next trap would be: a giant Indiana Jones rolling boulder. But of course this was Dark Souls, so just one boulder wouldn’t cut it. The hero had to time his sprint down the corridor to narrowly avoid the next oncoming boulder. Eventually he found his way to a giant room full of rotating gears where boulders would drop from above, land on a huge stone pedestal, and then a massive wooden piston would shove the boulder off down its deadly path. The cool twist was that the player could rotate the mechanism, changing where the boulders go, not only opening up safe passages but even blasting a hole in a wall to expose a secret area.

Above: Sorry buddy, we don’t know what you’re doing with that sword, but isn’t going to help

In most games, arrows and boulders would be mundane hazards. But this is Dark Souls. Death has the same massive penalty that it had in Demon’s Souls: you lose all of your Souls (the game’s money) and to get them back you must work your way back to the bloodstain that marks your death. Normally we’re against huge punishments in games, but in the Souls games, it’s one of the main draws. The tension becomes immense when every corner of the game could have severe repercussions, and on top of that when you overcome the odds it feels like a level of accomplishment few (if any) games can match.

Still, if all Dark Souls had to appeal was its difficulty that would be a weak reason to play. Ask anyone who’s played Demon’s Souls and they’ll tell you about the sense of melancholy and loneliness, a desolate world that has a unique tone – just running around in these games feels different from anything else we’ve played, and Dark Souls looks to maintain that tone. Yet there’s another draw – the bizarre monsters. Dark Souls follows Demon’s Souls in lulling you into believing its monsters will be mundane – snake men aren’t exactly imaginative, right? But go a bit further in and expectations become completely turned over. We watched the hero enter a small room with a treasure chest in it. This chest looked exactly like one that had been opened earlier.

Above: We’re pretty sure that’s some giant ogre-thing throwing boulders at you

When the hero knelt down to open the chest, the chest came to life. But it wasn’t some boring, animated treasure chest. Freaky, lanky arms shot out of the chest’s sides and bloody fangs appeared from the chest’s opening, along with a grotesque, five-foot long tongue. We watched in horror as the chest gnawed on our hero’s upper body before spitting him out. The chest then instantly reverted to a normal, harmless-looking state. The hero, feeling indignant, thwacked the chest, but there was no response. That is, until we realized he’d just made the creature angry. Suddenly, creepy long legs telescoped from the bottom of the chest and the disturbing monstrosity became a vaguely humanoid and horrifically mobile threat. Even more gross was the revealed reality of its anatomy – it became clear that the giant tongue was really the thing’s head, and it was sort of “wearing” the treasure chest around its neck.

For more wonderful surprises, we had to look no further than back at the beginning of the castle. In the first run-through, the hero went across a stone bridge that was a gauntlet of swinging scythes. During a second run-through, the hero instead allowed himself to get knocked off the bridge where he fell to a large chamber below. Hey, cool, a secret area with some nice items and OH GOD WHAT THE F-

Above: Well, hello there. This weird statue has only one leg and crawls at you, which is creepy, but also seemingly unthreatening. Just wait until it leaps fifty feet through the air

Yeah, Dark Souls is so nonchalant about its badassery that it just casually throws an insane BOSS at you if you happen to fall off a bridge into a secret area. Still wondering why we’re excited about this game?

May 11, 2011

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