In 2009, From Software introduced gamers to a whole new world of pain with the PlayStation 3 exclusive Demon's Souls, a game that challenged the growing player handholding trend in favor of gripping that hand firmly and slicing it off at the wrist.
It was a painful experience, but it was a good kind of pain. The sort of pain that lets you know you're alive. A game where accomplishments are real accomplishments. A game where you could hand the controller to your teenage nephew and laugh as he died again and again.
Now From Software returns to dole out more punishment with Dark Souls, this time letting Xbox 360 players take their licks as well. The developer promise an even more difficult experience this time around, and the assembled video game reviewers prove themselves masochists of the highest order.
Let's get one thing straight: Dark Souls hates you. It hates who you are and what you stand for. It hates your friends, it hates your spouse, it hates your family, it hates your pets, it hates every single little thing about you right down to the fact that you even exist. It's not your fault - you didn't upset it, you didn't insult it's mother or it's religion... the only thing you really 'did' was want to play it, and for that it hates you so much it will do it's very best to kill you. Often.
Some frustration in Dark Souls arises from how this generation's games have conditioned us. Gamers are used to handholding tutorials that walk you through every aspect of a game's mechanics. Dark Souls doesn't waste time explaining things. You encounter the first boss within 10 minutes of starting the game. He's huge. He wields a giant club that can take away half of your health bar or more in a single swing – and this isn't one of those battles you're supposed to lose. After a quick detour, you're fully expected to defeat this monster as one of your first acts in this deadly world.
So yes, Dark Souls is hostile and cruel - but it's not heartless or soulless. Far from it. Designer Hidetaka Miyazaki and his team will test the limits of your patience and concentration, but the reward they offer in return is rare indeed: the gradual discovery and mastery of a world of vast scope and immaculate fine craftsmanship, a world saturated with secrets, magic and awe. If you have the stomach for it - and can look past the game's initial, somewhat misleading disregard for you - Dark Souls offers dozens upon dozens of hours of hair-raising adventuring. It's founded on superlative sword combat and an intricate world design that owes more to the hand-drawn maps of early Metroid and Zelda than the random dungeon crawls of Rogue and Diablo.
Dark Souls starves you of information, thereby stoking your hunger to explore and untangle its opaque narrative and mechanics. Random notes about items and weapons flash up on the post-death loading screen, which you will parse with the fervency of a Talmud scholar. The game's unique online features, however – players can leave pre-programmed hints and warnings on the ground, which populate other players' worlds – undermine the dopamine rush of hard-fought epiphany. Many will relish the company of these ghosts. If Dark Souls has difficulty tiers, there are just two: Insane (online with hint graffiti) and Teeth Gnashingly Impenetrable (offline).
As you can tell, Dark Souls is complex, sometimes extraordinarily so. Everything you do has consequences, but sometimes, those consequences are a mystery. And that's part of the joy. You never know what is around the bend or what fate might befall you if you don't take care as you make your way through this extraordinarily challenging game. At one point, I had bizarre froglike creatures breathe a cursing mist all over me, causing me to become cursed. Becoming cursed means losing half of your health bar, and lifting the curse involved sprinting through the murky New Londo ruins, avoiding ghosts while seeking the special healer who could lift the curse. After idling for too long in a demon's abode, a bulbous growth sprouted on my head, and I could no longer equip a helmet. Now I have a giant tumor growing on my neck instead of a head and no access to the defensive benefits of the black-hemmed hood I love so much!
It is a game that brazenly proves game design fashions are just that; transient, fleeting trends that, in attempting to lay down a set of rules only throw down a new challenge for how things might be done. No video game released this Christmas runs contrary to prevailing fashion as hard or fast as Dark Souls. And no video game is quite so exciting or exhilarating.
The game seems to be shining in its darkness, no?