Dark Souls Is Only Kind To Be Cruel

For a guy who can't seem to survive two minutes in the foreboding, swords-and-dungeons world of Dark Souls, I must seem unnecessarily worried about how difficult the game will be.

Demon's Souls, Dark Souls' predecessor, was as much known for its brutal level design and lack of save points as it was its unique approach to cooperative and competitive play. It was a game that created genuine fear in players not through plot devices and monster design, but by the threat of stripping a player of everything they accomplished between levels if they died.

But in Dark Souls players can find safety as they wind their way through dungeons, working their way from one behemoth to the next, simply by camping out at a bonfire.

"Don't you worry you've made the game too easy," I ask Namco senior brand manager Brian Hong as my character dies for perhaps the fifth time?

Hong isn't worried at all, nor is developer From Software, he tells me, because the bonfires were simply a way for the developers to make the game harder.

"The best way to explain bonfires is that the developers wanted to make the game harder," Hong said. "Which they did, but they were also very concerned with game balance. With the increased difficulty of play it is much harder, but harder to the point of not being fun."

So essentially the bonfires, which can replenish health and refill life-giving flasks, are a way for the developers to make a hard game even more difficult without creating something that only the most devoted of fans would want to play.

It's worth noting too that unlike Demon's Souls, Dark Souls is not a linear game that leads players along a narrow channel of adventure through a series of dungeons. Instead Dark Souls is conceived as an open world that allows gamers to explore, and die, at their own leisure. So in a way, the bonfires serve the same purpose that the breaks between levels served in the previous game.

"That makes this the hardest game. Harder than Demon's Souls."

And the bonfire isn't always a player's friend.

"If you're one of those players who get to the checkpoint and then fight ahead for 45 minutes to clear a level and then decide to go back to a bonfire to replenish your health and flasks everything will respawn," Namco brand manager Brandon Zien said.

And when those creatures repopulate the dungeon you just made safe, they will come back tougher, angrier.

The bonfires are also pretty spread out. Zien tells me they are "strategically placed throughout an area."

"Just when a game is kicking your arse you can find a bonfire," he said. "It balances the frustration, because they've toned up the difficulty in other areas: The bosses, the hit points, the spawning of mobs.

"That makes this the hardest game. Harder then Demon's Souls."

From Software's decision to not just include save points, but to give them some teeth reminds me of some of the clever design decisions the team made when creating Demon's Souls.

When you died in that game you were sent back to the beginning of a level, but if you paid attention as you fought your way through a level you may have opened back doors and short cuts. These new paths inevitably made getting back to where you died a much quicker journey. It was a clever way of getting around save points, something I'll miss if it doesn't find its way into this game.

Hong declined to tell me if this sort of shifting level design was going to appear in Dark Souls, but said that From Software wants to "maintain all of the good parts that people remember" from the previous game.

"That feature you're talking about was a pretty important first for them," he said.

There's a lot that Namco and From Software are keeping to themselves about Dark Souls. That's not just because they want to dribble out new details of the game going into its fall launch, it's also because they're trying desperately to recapture everything about Demon's Souls launch and its surprising success.

Players will be able to temporarily become inanimate statues and then break free of this form to attack another player in their game.

A big part of the game's success, both Hong and Zien say, was that it was such a surprise to everyone who played it. The game sort of appeared out of nowhere with very little interest leading into its launch. It went on to sell nearly a million copies, they said.

Because of that relative obscurity, the game was able to deliver not only a bit of tough, throw-back gaming, but also a lot of design surprises.

That's why the developer and publisher are still hesitant to talk about Dark Souls' story, some of the new mechanics, like the character's ebbing humanity and how it can be fed into a bonfire to strengthen it.

We don't even know all of the game's characters yet. So far the developer has said there will be a soldier, knight, witch and pyromancer. They also discuss a black knight and the Solaire of Astora.

While much of the Demon's Souls experience was single player it had some interesting ways to interact with other players online beyond online cooperative play. You could, for instance, leave messages scrawled on dungeon walls and floors for others playing the game. These messages, shared automatically across the Playstation Network, would warn away from or sometimes trick players into ambushes and falling deaths.

This ability returns in Dark Souls, which will now be coming to the PS3 and Xbox 360. Players will also still be able to "invade" another player's world, taking on the form of a Dark Knight to stalk and try to kill another player online.

In Dark Souls there will be other ways to harass online players. The pyromancer, for instance, will be able to summon a gravelord to another players game. The gravelord's appearance in the other game brings with it a slew of new haranguing monsters. The only way to stop the flood of new enemies is to destroy the gravelord. While the pyromancer can summon this creature, he or she can't decide in who's game they appear or directly control them.

When a player decides to invade another world as a playable character, there are also new and interesting ways to scare and attack the other player.

"We're trying to put in as many surprises as possible," Hong said.

So players will sometimes be able to hide in coffins and ambush other players when they walk by. They will also be able to temporarily become inanimate statues, blending in with the statues that already dot the game's landscape, and then break free of this form to attack another player.

Namco wasn't able to show me any of the online aspects of Dark Souls in action, but the promise of endlessly helping and harassing other players in creative new ways sounds as inviting as the game's challenging level design.

I think I dread Dark Souls release nearly as much as I anticipate it.


    I liked Demon's Souls at first, but the decision to make the game actively punish every mistake started to bug me. You can achieve the best of all worlds by oh perhaps a difficulty level you choose? I finished 2 worlds, and was half way through a third before I took a hiatus. It's a game that lends itself to replays, but it's hard to summon the energy because it's so exhausting to play. If there was an easier difficulty, people could play through the game to get a feel for the boss fights and then attempt it on the 'normal' setting or at least a coop lobby.

    I get that the difficulty of the game is its selling point, but it's just not for me. I like hard games, but not games that are a chore to play.

    I made it through to 1-3 on my first playthrough, and then tried all the other levels. Failed miserably.

    Luckily, on my second playthrough, I discovered a way to grind souls (the sky stingray boss area) and just continually leveled up. I still didn't beat the final boss though :(

    I never played Demon's Souls but from what I heard, some of the difficulty of the first game was due to slow controls (slow reaction by the playable character)...
    If this has any truth I hope they don't repeat that mistake

      The controls weren't unresponsive. What did make a difference was how you equipped your character. If you loaded him up with a lot of heavy armour then he'd move slow. Heavy weapons were much slower to swing than light weapons, etc. If you want to be quick and nimble you don't want to let your equipped weight get much higher than about 50% of maximum. The further over that you go, the slower you'll be. And once you get over a certain percentage (I forget how much) then you can't really evade/roll effectively.

    The developers need to be careful that they don't take the "HARD" idea too far. Demon's Souls, in my opinion, had the right balance between the sense of a achievement and difficulty. There were a few moments in the game that made me utter a few four letter words and turn off my PS3.

    If they make the game too hard, it will be too frustrating and people will shy away.

    In think Diablo 2 had the best balance you could be a powerful character but you would think twice of running into a mob under the wrong conditions.

    I loved everything about this game .. except the fact I couldn't make it past the third level.

    I don't think the game had slow controls at all the only thing I think you could be talking about there is the lag when playing online PVP. As far as PVE goes the speed of attacks depended on the weapon being used also armor weight etc.

    The person that told you it has slow controls didn't play Demon's Souls much. They were probably wearing plate but didn't build thier character right, so didn't have the appropriate strength stat to wear it effectively.

    As a proud owner of a platinum trophy in Demon's Souls I cannot wait for this game. My most anticipated game of the year.

    In no way is Demon's Souls the hardest game (i still think that is Ninja Gaiden Sigma).

    If you go into it with the action-RPG mentality you are destined to fail. if you approach it like an old-school grind RPG, you'll be better prepared. With some patience and tactics, its an easy enough game.

    After having lost my savegame (before psn offered the savegame backup system) I *FINALLY* got back to where I had been before just last night.

    Then I panicked and quit for the night because I realized that everything beyond that point would be harder and also completely unknown to me. The anticipation and anxiety that comes from standing *just* outside of a door, wondering what evil lurks beyond the frame, is so exhausting :-P

    I love it though. I can't wait for Dark Souls.

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