Playing Demon's Souls spiritual sequel Dark Souls at E3 2011 left me with just as many questions as answers. How, exactly, does the beacon fire system work? What does it mean to be "hollowed"? And why won't Namco Bandai answer those questions when asked about this punishing and complex role-playing game?
I'll tell you what I do know. The E3 2011 demos - one was networked enabled, the other a solitary experience - were set in the Undead Church. Logically, it is populated with undead minions, from the withered husks of low-ranking soldiers to hulking, skull-faced commanders.
Giant red dragons, heavily armoured warthogs and necromancers wielding gnarled tridents also await you in this Dark Souls level.
The E3 2011 demo also featured a half-dozen pre-built character classes, like the Sun Knight, Witch, Pyromancer and Black Knight. These may be some of the approximately 10 classes the game will ultimately ship with, Namco Bandai reps said, or they may not be.
I played as a Knight in my first attempt. I walked toward a smouldering campfire, which I lighted when prompted. And in doing so, I noticed that the flame icon in the upper left corner of the screen, next to my health and stamina meters, was a wimpy one. When I'd seen Dark Souls a couple months ago, that flame was larger. I would ask Namco about this later.
I turned left as I entered the Undead Church to say hi to a red dragon and his undead friends. He responded with a lungful of fire, charring my Knight. "You have been hollowed," the game informed me, not "You died." I respawned at the campfire, charting a new path, killing a few undead, but feeling lethargic as this heavily armoured, over-encumbered character. I saw that armoured warthog and attempted to fight it. Its armour was thick, covering every inch of his body, save for a small window at his tail. Surely they wouldn't ask me to stab an armoured warthog in the buttocks to kill it, would they?
Defeating that warthog isn't too difficult, I learned. All one needs is a "lure", a skull-shaped disposable item that attracts the attention of enemies in Dark Souls. Think of it as the game's equivalent of Demon's Souls soul remains. Toss that lure into a nearby flaming corpse and the warthog will walk toward it, setting itself alight and burning to death.
Other things I learned playing Dark Souls and watching others play: revisiting a campfire I'd stoked and made into a checkpoint would respawn enemies I'd defeated, even if I hadn't died; magic and health items are disposable and seemingly in short supply; health restoring grasses appear to have been replaced (or complemented with) the Esflask, a flask that players can refill and strengthen at bonfires; there's a difference between how one dies when playing online or offline - you'll either die or "be hollowed", though Namco reps wouldn't explain the difference.
I learned that dodge-rolling was not as effective as it was in Demon's Souls, that the impact of being a slower, more encumbered character seemed to have a great effect on movement and combat.
I played as the Witch, learning that she had a new Magic Shield spell and an old Soul Arrow spell. I also saw the Sun Knight played. He was equipped with Lightning Bolt, a neat-looking charge up spell that lets the player throw a pointed bolt of energy. I did not play as one of the two levelled-up powerful characters and I did not defeat the demo level at E3.
But I did learn that Dark Souls will have "World Events", something shown to players who did defeat the demo and its scary gargoyle bosses. Upon defeating that axe-wielding duo, players can ring a nearby church tower bell, something other players online will see and hear.
And while I did not have the chance to play as an invading soul, it appears that two players can now invade another's world, making the invasion experience even crueler on those who play online.
One other nugget I couldn't extract from Namco was the experience importers of the Japanese version - releasing a month earlier than in North America - would have. I was simply asked to wait and see.
Dark Souls will come to the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 this October. I'll see you there.