The follow-up to Demon's Souls is hard as hell and it doesn't care about your feelings.
The game that a dedicated few once begged Atlus to bring over to the States has since become a main inspiration for recent releases, including The Witcher 2 and The Dark Crusade. Now developer From Software have created a sequel with a larger audience in mind, but that doesn't necessarily translate into an easier game. A more accessible game? Sure.
The first thing you'll notice about Dark Souls are the controls that have been slightly tweaked. The original had sluggish controls that could be mastered once the timing is memorized, but combat feels much more intuitive in Dark Souls. Movement, strong attacks, rolls and parrying all feel more responsive. Good thing too, because this sequel's combat encounters are harder than anything in the previous game.
After picking your character (more on that later), the demo places you at the entrance of a castle. Two zombie-like enemies stand lifeless, waiting for you to attack and collect their souls. Just around the corner, however, is a giant dragon that will kill you in one hit. A leveled, skilled player could perhaps beat it, but it's meant mainly as a reminder of the game you are playing. It's a game where death is always around the corner and it can come from the smallest mistakes.
Graphically, the game looks identical to Demon's Souls but the scale of the world is much larger. Everything in the player's sight can now be explored, from distant towers to caverns. There is no confirmation whether the hub world of the original will return, but the new addition of bonfires will help players survive a long journey. Bonfires are essentially check points that heal you and replenish your potions. However, you are limited in the number of bonfires you can ignite unless you sacrifice souls (xp) you've collected. You'll find these checkpoints throughout areas, but the game still retains its challenge. Replenishing at a bonfire not only requires extensive backtracking, but it also respawns all of the enemies you just defeated.
In the E3 demo, Namco - the series' new publisher - showed off the new Pyromancer class. With a focus on fire-based magic, the Pyromancer is skilled at taking down larger enemies from a distance. The Pyromancer also has the ability to summon more enemies into other players' games, showing up as red versions of demons in their games. This makes the Pyromancer griefers' class of choice. From Software are still balancing the game, figuring out ways to inconvenience the caster as well.
Dark Souls might be an incremental sequel, but it's a welcome one, nonetheless. It's a quick reminder of how much From Software got right the first time out, but it's also an example of how to change and improve a sequel beyond graphical flourishes.
Both Xbox 360 and PS3 owners can look forward to dying and dying again when the game is released October 4.