After ten years of writing about games professionally and three decades playing them just for fun, I don't get intimidated easily. But all that changed with Dark Souls. Having not played Demon's Soul, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. All I knew is that Demon's Souls had a reputation for being excruciatingly difficult and massive in both scope and ambition. I was scared. As I started to face my fears, I realized that Dark Souls was exactly the type of game that has been missing from the Xbox 360 library.
Going into Dark Souls the player is given almost no information. The eight page instruction manual offers almost no support and the in-game tutorial is practically non-existent. You can go in one of three directions, each more horrifying than the last. If it's not the walking undead, then it is ghosts you can't hit or skeletons you can't kill. With nobody there to help you and nothing pointing the way to the next objective, things seem hopeless.
But fear not, because learning the rules of this new world is part of what makes Dark Souls so compelling. Instead of playing by the conventions of modern adventure games, From Software's newest game rewrites the rules and forces players to learn from trial, error and lots and lots of dying. This is a game about discovery. Not just exploring the unbelievably immersive world, but discovering how to simply survive in this brutal world.
Dark Souls plays out like a grown-up version of The Legend of Zelda. You won't find any turn-based combat here; instead this is a straight-up action game with light role-playing elements. The four shoulder buttons are split between weapon attacks and defensive moves. Players will have a choice between hundreds of weapons, including traditional long swords, crossbows, hammers, battle axes and so on. There is also a deep magic system, though in true Dark Souls fashion it doesn't even begin to explain how to cast the spells.
What you'll quickly discover is that in the Dark Souls universe nearly every enemy is a big threat, no matter how small they appear. Whether by themselves or in large groups, the enemies put up a good fight. Knowing which weapon to use and how to properly defend yourself is a must, especially if you want to stand a chance against the game's many impressive bosses. It doesn't take long to die in Dark Souls.
As foreign as things seem at the start, there are a few rules you'll be forced to learn the hard way. Like most role-playing games, every time you defeat an enemy you are given a certain amount of souls (the game's version of money/experience points). You use these souls to level up your character and buy items/weapons. But here's the thing, when you die you will drop all of those souls and start back over at the nearest bonfire (the game's version of a checkpoint). The good news is that players can make their way back to where they died and retrieve your dropped souls. But there's a catch: All of the enemies will respawn and if you die along the way those dropped souls are gone for good.
When you're not stressing out about your collection of souls, you'll be busy exploring the game's gigantic landscape. The levels themselves are more closed off than other open-world role-playing games (such as The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion), but that doesn't mean that it linear. Every one of the game's stages (which include forests, lava-filled caverns, zombie-filled towns, a ghost castle and dozens of other fantasy-related locales) has plenty of diverging paths. Best of all, the way these stages interconnect with the rest of the game makes traversing the large world a breeze.
It's hard to grasp how much content there is in Dark Souls. I put in more than 80 hours before writing this review and still have a number of areas left to explore. With so many paths and treasures to find, I can see my first play through being well over 150 hours. And that doesn't even take into account the different character types and play styles I can dabble with in a new save.
At times it may feel like you're struggling by yourself in this large, brutally tough world. But in Dark Souls you're never alone. Ghost-like versions of other players roam the land, giving you a glimpse of how other people are playing. What's more, the other players can leave brief notes for everybody else, warning of impending danger or pointing the way to hidden treasure. But beware, not every note is on the up and up. You shouldn't jump off a cliff just because somebody told you to.
Outside of leaving notes, players can interact with other fans in two more compelling ways. The first allows our hero to summon help. By making a white notation, players allow a stranger to come in and help with a tough battle. This is especially useful when dealing with the game's many large boss battles. But don't get too excited, because your helper can only stick around for a short amount of time.
The other type of player interaction is a lot more sinister. By using a special item you will be able to invade somebody else's game, essentially turning it into a one-on-one fight to the death. Here you'll trade hits until somebody dies, giving up all of their souls and humanity. This adds an unexpected element to the game, forcing players to always be prepared for a fight. There is very little time for rest and relaxation in the land of Dark Souls.
Even though I found myself dying a lot, I was always compelled to keep playing. Although some of the deaths were heartbreaking, I always felt like I learned a little more each time. Because the game plays it fair (rarely stooping to cheap deaths) I rarely came away frustrated. If I died it was usually my own fault, which only hardened my resolve.
Part of what kept me going was the promise of large boss battles. In this case, Dark Souls most certainly delivers. The game is packed full of gigantic creatures for you to kill. Many of these baddies tower above you, intimidating anybody that dares get close. You'll fight off giant dragons, gargoyles, lizards and even a wolf with a giant sword in his mouth. Every one of these battles is breathtaking; with visuals so good they're deadly. You have a lot of ways of handling each one of these events, though usually there's an easy way to hit the beast's weakness. Sometimes it's as simple as rushing him from behind, while in another situation you will want to lure the mountain-sized villain to a giant hole in the ground.
These battles are often difficult, but that's what makes beating them so satisfying. What seems impossible at first becomes very doable with a little practice. That's really the message of the entire game. Dark Souls will beat you down at every turn, but that's just going to make you stronger. It's going to drop you into the most challenging world imaginable and not teach you a you how to do even the most basic functions. It's going to seem impossible at first, but with a little work you can take control of this world and use it as your playground. Finally climbing the steep learning curve is one of the greatest feelings I've had in years.
As much as I loved spending time in Dark Souls, the game is marred by a number of small problems. The biggest issue involves the frame rate, which can be spotty at times. Climbing up and down ladders can often cause the frame rate to drop down to the single digits. I also noticed this happen in the middle of fights, which can be a real nuisance late in the game.
The game also does a terrible job of warning players not to use party chat or go offline. I learned the hard way that joining an Xbox Live party will, without warning, end my game and shoot me to the title screen. The same thing happens when your internet gets disconnected. Thankfully you start out right where you left off, so you normally won't lose any progress. Still, it would have been nice to get some sort of warning before exiting the game in the most jarring way possible.
Dark Souls doesn't require a deep narrative to players invested in this world. Instead of gives you a steep challenge and dares you to overcome the difficulty. This will prove too much for some gamers. But those who take the journey will be rewarded with one of the deepest, most impressive adventure games released in years. Dark Souls is a real treat that will have you talking long after you've finished the adventure.