There's an unspoken rule that says whenever you sit down to write about Dark Souls, you need to start with a paragraph banging on about how hard the game is. Today, I'm not going to do that. Today, I want to talk about a man who's not wearing any clothes.
His name is the Deprived class, and apart from a skimpy (and filthy) loin cloth, he's as naked as the day he was born. He's one of the game's 10 starting classes, and he looks a bit pitiful. My initial concern was that he'd have to take on the assorted nasties by lapdancing them to death, but happily he comes equipped with a club and shield. That said, the shield is little more than a few wooden planks, clumsily nailed together; As defensive measures go, it's only slightly better than crying on the floor in the hope that the monsters will slip in your tears and put out their hip.
Still, the Deprived class is there to pick if you want him - and his very presence typifies From Software's gleeful celebration of masochism. It's worth pointing out that the Deprived has a more consistent set of starting stats, compared to his peers: he starts at a higher level, and all his attributes are set to a thoroughly respectable 11. If you can find some clothes and better equipment, he won't seem so deprived any more.
If spiritual predecessor Demon's Souls is anything to go by, the starting classes are only here to dictate your play style during the first chapters of the game - although that could still amount to several hours play. There's a decent selection of choice on offer, from the axe-wielding bandit to the pious-looking Priest, who wears a pork-pie hat. For Demon's Souls veterans, however, the real news is that Luck is no longer a core stat: the frequency of item drops is now determined via a dedicated skill, though I've yet to determine what affects it.
Another important addition as far as character creation goes is the inclusion of Gifts. Now at the start of your journey you'll get the option of taking a present, ranging from the unsubtle-but-useful Black Firebombs (comes in a party pack of 10) to a ring that very slowly regenerates your health. Another option is the Old Witch's Ring, which has no apparent effect, but which almost certainly does something interesting at some point down the line. You can also take a Master Key, a unique item that opens all minor locks in the game. It seems like an obvious choice, but designer Hidetaka Miyazaki has warned that it might not be a good thing to pick for your first playthrough. In short: it'll probably lead to grief, one way or the other.
Whoever you decide to be, your adventure will start the same way: with you dead, largely lacking in possessions, and locked up in a cell. Happily, the first of these problems isn't as serious as you'd expect. As explained in our last preview, death is more of an inconvenience than anything else. In your undead form you look fairly grim, and the effect is particularly apparent if you're playing as the naked Deprived; he's got some kind of weird plant thing growing over the spot where his (presumably unbeating) heart should be.
For all its fabled difficulty, the opening level of Dark Souls eases you in, shepherding you around a ruined asylum and presenting you with hapless zombies to use for combat practice. It's a fairly gentle introduction, at least until the game drops its first boss on you - a massive dragon-like demon with a comically huge belly. Even this guy doesn’t pose too much of a problem, providing that you respect the game's strict demand for careful timing and cautious play.
Don't expect to get an easy time for long, however. After disposing of the demon you'll soon find yourself among lonely ruins at the base of a mountain, preparing to climb up to the Undead Parish at the top. Our last preview described some of the horrors you'll face towards the end of this journey, but before you even reach the later areas of the parish, you'll have to pick your way past countless skeletal warriors. On their own, these Calista Flockhart lookalikes pose little threat, but the odds are stacked against you when facing several at once. Some of the blighters like to throw firebombs in your face, and when one of these connects it takes a massive chunk off your lifebar. And let's not forget that if you die - or even if you just save at a checkpoint - all of your foes are immediately resurrected.
It is a hard game, but most of the time your deaths seem to stem from undue haste, or a lack of care on your own part. And beyond the harsh level of challenge, Dark Souls is notable for its distinct atmosphere. In the preview code at least, you're on your own (online play is disabled in the demo), and everything is out to get you. While the presentation isn't as uniformly glossy as many recent releases, the game world is meticulous in its architecture. This is a land that has long since fallen on hard times, bewitching and crestfallen in equal measure.
It's a cold, cold experience. But then again, that's what you get for not wearing any clothes.
[I]Dark Souls is due for release on Xbox 360 and PS3 on October 7.]/I]