Dark Souls is Demon's Souls "2" in any sense of the number.
After sitting down with a few members of the dev team, executive producer Kei Hirono explained that Dark Souls was a spiritual sequel to Namco Bandai's cult sleeper hit in terms of mechanics and tone... but that it will "double everything." The number of enemies will double. The amount of weapons, armour and items will be multiplied by a factor of two. And, most importantly, so will the difficulty. Hirono freely admits - nay, boasts - that players will die twice as often in Dark Souls as they did in its, but that death is no longer the obstacle to progression it once was.
This is made possible by the new Bonfire checkpoint system that allows players to respawn without penalty after they die. As well as being dotted around the world, a small number of these checkpoints can be collected and tactically deployed before tough battles; removing the need for the laborious backtracking of the original. Searching for extra bonfires will significantly enhance the need for exploration and straying from the beaten track. There's also no Soul Form this time around - which is likely to be a divisive move that will split the fanbase down the middle.
Checking in with these bonfires also replenishes the player's supply of Est; a limited healing item that removes the old-school stockpiling of herbs. Hirono explained that this should force players to adopt a more cautious and tactical style of play rather than continually hoarding gear.
Demon's Souls online functionality has been substantially beefed up with the addition of 'pledges.' Each player chooses a God to worship, and can communicate and cooperate with members of their chosen religion. Users of different beliefs, however, are more likely to lie to or sabotage their rivals. Players can hop into your game as well as leave messages, and it'll be interesting to see how this plays out.
The E3 demo contained an expanded lineup of characters. The familiar Soldier, Knight, Witch and Pyromancer are now accompanied by the Solitaire Of Astors (a Paladin by any other name) and the intimidating Black Knight, who's equipped with a horrifyingly efficient greatsword and spear.
It's difficult (and irresponsible) to make a value judgement about Dark Soul's gameplay at this stage, but after enjoying the fluid, graceful stylings of Dragon's Dogma earlier that day, the swordplay was decidedly cumbersome in comparison. In fact, the combat system feels in need of a fair few tweaks over the next few months. Attacks and parries don't feel as immediate and responsive as they should, and the lumbering movement speed and mechanics are clunky to the extreme. Special attacks are also surprisingly bland and delivered with little in the way of flourish or fanfare. Oh, and aggravating knockdown attacks are rife. Fans will doubtlessly argue that this is a deliberate design decision implemented to add retro charm and an extra layer of difficulty to the experience - and they'd be right - but Dark Souls can't hide behind the impenetrable shield of being a beloved cult classic this time around. Players currently have to fight the combat system as well as the enemies, and From Software will arguably need to punch things up a notch over the coming months to attract the new player base they so desperately crave.
Dark Souls has greatly increased the variety of enemies over Demon's Souls. Cowering wretches and massive wyrms will assault you from every angle, and the smaller foes can even consume potions and retreat to avoid your clumsy vengeance. A menacing armoured boar provided a menacing mini-boss battle, but rather than boxing players into a tight arena, you're free to roam throughout the entire level and use alternate routes to gather extra resources, flank or even bypass the fight altogether. Exploration is a much more important part of the experience and the levels are much larger in order to accommodate for a more thoughtful style of play.
Graphically, Dark Souls is looking very impressive indeed. It's leaps ahead of Demon's Souls, with smoother animations and a higher fidelity across the board. The dull art style leaves little scope for graphical showboating, though, and we reckon that the finished article will deliver a more eyecatching experience as well as the trademark grimy filth.
Dark Souls is scheduled for release on October 7th for PS3 and Xbox 360. As Hirono quipped: "Look forward to this game... and everyone prepare to die!"