The people showcasing From Software's role-playing game Dark Souls -- which you've likely heard is something of a challenge -- were prone to frequent deaths during a brand-new demonstration of the game. At least its prison break was a breeze and we learned a few new things about the Demon's Souls spiritual sequel.
Namco Bandai's hands-off Gamescom demo started in a jail cell, one of many in "The Duke's Archives," a towering library that players might see about halfway through the experience that is Dark Souls. Namco folk controlled an ornate fighter who appeared to be either a Knight or Warrior class at some point. In his left hand he held a kite shield, in his right one of two massive swords, with one of those blades a gnarled, still molten mass of metal.
The Chameleon spell -- the magic that lets a player transform into a vase, for example, to disguise himself -- and a healing item, Divine Blessing, rounded out his visible inventory. (It seems players won't be limited just to healing spells and a refillable flask to make themselves feel better.)
The cell in which the unlucky warrior found himself in was fortified with iron bars overgrown with thick crystal deposits. The warrior's cellmates were emaciated, crystal-skinned ghouls, lowly depraved ones who posed little threat. Outside, a snake soldier -- the same breed of monster seen in Sen's Castle during our first eyes-on with Dark Souls -- stood guard (fast asleep).
He was an easy kill. One backstab with this buffed-up character was required to put him down. Conveniently, the snoozing snake soldier dropped the key to the jail cell that trapped our Dark Souls warrior. His all-too-easy escape alerted the other snake-headed guards who in turn sounded an ancient alarm. What looked like a gothic phonograph emitted a high pitched whine, summoning a new breed of creature. A swarm of beasts with snake-like bodies and heads made of bright blue tentacles filled the archives, hunting for the warrior, slithering up its spiral staircase.
I wish I had pictures of those demons octo-snake things to share. They are a wonderfully creepy addition to the Dark Souls bestiary.
The warrior's goal was, naturally, to silence the droning alarm. Rather than fight a dozen giant monsters, he climbed ladders to avoid the octo-snake crowds. They can't work a ladder with those slippery tentacles, it seems, nor can they enter jail cells due to their height. But the snake soldiers are perfectly capable of navigating a ladder -- and of kicking the poor warrior off a ladder. He plummeted to his death more than once. Unfortunate for him, but helpful for me as a reporter and Demon's Souls fan.
See, in Dark Souls, loading screens (at least in the Gamescom demo) are more informative. Gone are the character portraits players would see dozens or hundreds of times in Demon's Souls. Instead, Dark Souls shows and describes the items and armour that players will collect throughout the game.
During loading screens, I saw the Divine Ember item, which is "required for weapon ascension". (So, weapon upgrades, then?) Another, Repair Powder, was an item used to fix broken equipment. (An Ed's Grindstone replacement, Demon's Souls players.) That powder "eliminates the need for a Repairbox," the game told us. Those loading screens also described named armour pieces like the Black Knight Helm, a special crown and other equippable items.
One more thing I learned about Dark Souls when its makers died: There's an on-screen indicator, a small meter, that appears when a player experiences "Blood Loss" from deep cuts or when that player is on the verge of being poisoned, in this case from a snake soldier's blade.
I also relived some of Dark Souls' technical quirks watching Namco people play the game again and again. While the overall frame rate appears to have improved, looking smoother than the E3 2011 demo build, there are sill some serious hitches present. The game crawled during a particular ladder-climbing section, something I hope will be addressed before launch, but an inconsistency I learned to deal with in Demon's Souls.
Despite that technical complaint, the Duke's Archives section of Dark Souls is creepily atmospheric, beautifully rendered and colourfully distinct from other sections of the game. All things snake in From Software's game are terribly intimidating. I look forward to planning my own jailbreak when Dark Souls comes to the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in just a few months.