It is likely that many of us who only own an Xbox 360 missed out playing last year's PS3 exclusive Demon's Souls, a brutally challenging yet critically acclaimed action RPG that sprang to the pole position on many a gamer's best of 2010 list. Thankfully this October sees Microsoft's console (and well as the PS3) blessed with the release of its spiritual successor, the similarly sinisterly named Dark Souls. Developed by From Software, the guys behind the first game, Dark Souls promises to be bigger, better, and if you can believe it, harder.
Although not a direct sequel, Dark Souls does inhabit the same dark fantasy environment as its predecessor. From early clips we can see the same crumbling castles, gloomy glades and forsaken tunnels that filled Demon's Souls with such a palpable feel of dread, but a greater variety of locations as well. Mountains and forests for example, absent from the first game, are present to be explored and are integral to From Software's goal to make each of the game's areas flow seamlessly from one to the other. Whereas Demon's Souls' levels were self contained worlds accessed from a central hub, now players will be able to walk through valleys, over hills, and into castles without encountering a single loading screen. That is until they die of course.
And death, yet again, will be the name of the game. With director Hidetaka Miyazaki quoted as saying Dark Souls will be "more difficult" than Demon's Souls, the question is raised as to how well such a challenge will go down with Xbox gamers. Whilst clearly not aimed at the casual market, Demon's Souls hardcore lineage split PS3 gamers in two, with many dismissing the game outright as just too difficult. However those who persevered were rewarded with one of the most satisfying gaming experiences around and it is likely that the same thing will occur here. It's a daunting prospect, but considering most of the team working on the game also worked on Demon's Souls, the punishment/reward ratio will be probably be equally well balanced.
Combat in Dark Souls seems relatively unchanged, based upon a core mechanic of slashing and parrying with weapon and shield, monitoring stamina and ensuring you are defended at all times. Including over a hundred different weapons, many of which can be dual-wielded, means a greater degree of choice to how players can fight this time round. And judging from early screens this seems all the more important as each environment demands its own combat techniques (there's no point slashing a sword in a close tunnel). Of course there are plenty of new magic spells to be learnt as well, composing of the usual mix of offense and defense, including a new ability to transform your character into an innocuous looking inanimate object, just the thing for hiding from invading players looking to hunt your character.
One of the things that made Demon's Souls so revolutionary was its unique online system where players could move between their game and other's in order to provide help. Ranging from scrawled messages on floors warning players of dangers ahead, up to actually moving into somebody else's game to help them defeat a troublesome big boss, this created a great sense of 'we're all in it together' and that the game's steep difficulty was ultimately conquerable by teamwork. Thankfully, a similar system is in place in Dark Souls, which should lead to some compelling online sessions.
With a greater emphasis on exploration and with an even more challenging combat system it looks like Dark Souls is shaping up to be one of the most exciting, not to mention hardest, games of 2011. Hopefully it'll find a dedicated and good sized audience when it arrives in October, and that its uncompromising difficulty doesn't alienate the western audiences, otherwise we've got no chance of completing it. Eek!