There's a moment early in Demon's Souls, immediately following the game's first major battle, in which the player must sprint from one end of a castle bridge to another. The looming Red Dragon of Boletarian Palace repeatedly strafes that cobblestone walkway with a fiery blast of breath, an attack that will easily decimate a young, inexperienced player.
Sprinting your way past the Red Dragon simply requires a basic sense of timing combined with the faith that you'll outrun the flames. There were times during my multiple interactions with that dragon when I could almost feel the flames licking at my warrior's heels, inches away from destruction.
There's an equivalent moment in Dark Souls—again after besting one of the first major demons players encounter. This time, however, they're asked to run into the flames, toward pain and suffering, not away from it. It's almost a guarantee that, this time, they'll be burned alive at the hands of Dark Souls' version of the red dragon, a demon named Hellkite, losing whatever souls they've amassed making it this far. That's by design, of course.
Consider Dark Souls somewhat kind then for letting you know what kind of game it is early: substantially more difficult and demanding than its inspiration, asking the player to risk even more for even greater rewards.
Dark Souls players (at least the ones who haven't read my advice for beginners) may learn of this game's increased difficulty earlier than that run-in with Hellkite. Near the game's opening area, a bonfire at which the kingdom of Lordran's still-human refugees gather, they'll face incredibly powerful enemies with the power to kill them instantly.
With little guidance from the game's creators, players may find themselves exploring the depths of the Catacombs or the New Londo Ruins where they'll face powerful skeletons and specters that can't be touched with normal weapons. It's an early education on the dangers of this largely unguided open world.
Later, they may curse and spit the name of developer From Software, who ask players to sometimes fight and adventure blindly, traversing precarious and invisible walkways, where death looms below, and fighting monsters they cannot see amidst a total blackness. There were moments when I cursed Dark Souls' creators, also asking out loud "Are they serious? Are they actually expecting me to do [some seemingly impossible feat]?"
The answer is always yes. They are.
Dark Souls is a sequel to Demon's Souls in all but name. Both games share nearly identical combat mechanics. Players must fight enemies patiently with sword and shield and magic and ingenuity. To rush into battle blindly with a sense of haste will almost certainly mean a quick death. Approach each fight carefully, Dark Souls asks, dodging, blocking, parrying, and countering before moving onto the next.
Defeat comes frequently, with each death and rebirth a new opportunity to learn the intricacies of hand-to-hand combat. That's what the vast majority of Dark Souls is—learning, improving, overcoming. For every ten disappointing failures, there will be an exhilarating success—and perhaps a new discovery.
Players can find and upgrade rare items—weapons, armor, shields, magic staves and artifacts. Dark Souls' arsenal and lore has expanded well beyond that of its forebear, offering a dizzying array of combinations and variations.
Dark Souls deviates from its predecessor's formulae in new and fascinating ways. Gone are the more straightforward rules of World Tendency and Character Tendency from Demon's Souls (which altered the alignment of world and player character largely based on killing demons, black phantoms or innocent NPCs). Those systems are reconsidered, if not wholly replaced, in Dark Souls with the concepts of Covenants and Humanity. These are more esoteric mechanics that govern how the player interacts with the game world and online players, rules not clearly explained by the developers in-game or in Dark Souls meager manual.
I touched on Humanity briefly in my beginners guide to Dark Souls, but like much of the opaque rules that influence how one experiences the game, it almost feels spoiler-esque to discuss it in detail. In fact, discussing any of Dark Souls' more advanced mechanics may ruin the experience of learning them for yourself.
In short, Humanity is a consumable that modifies a player's status, reversing ones undead form to human and granting the power to interact with other players online in competitive and cooperative combat. Humanity also stokes the flames of bonfires, which act as checkpoints of a sort. It has other functions that are best left undiscovered in video game reviews.
Covenants are far more engrossing, more mysterious. They're also the greatest new addition to Dark Souls, offering the greatest depth and a compelling reason to play through this experience more than once (and probably more than twice). Not quite clans, players can pledge allegiance to a Covenant giver and reap certain benefits. A Covenant run by a talking cat, for example, will grant a player safe passage through a patch of dangerous forest. The catch, however, is that the cat running that Covenant may summon the player to take part in a dangerous quest.
Some Covenants demand sacrifices, like "The Path of the Dragon," which rewards its faithful for offering collectible Dragon Scales to its god. Those scales can be acquired from enemies or, preferably, stolen from the dead corpses of other Dark Souls players who are online and in possession of a Dragon Scale.
Being a Dragon Scale hunter is just one of the many changes to the (much lauded) online multiplayer mode introduced in Demon's Souls. Like that game, Dark Souls lets players invade each other's worlds—if they're in human form, that is—either to hurt them or help them. Players can play with others cooperatively, aiding them in difficult boss fights, or competitively, sending them to the world of an anonymous victim they aim to kill and rob of souls and Humanity.
But the thrill of invading another player's world is not just limited to stealing a stranger's life and riches. Covenants play a substantial role in who you'll play with and against in Dark Souls and what rewards you'll receive for slaying another player. Invasions also carry new dangers. Your online sins will be recorded in a Book of the Guilty, which in turn means other invaders are more likely to hunt you down.
Returning from Demon's Souls are the hazy ghostlike forms of other players who are also playing Dark Souls but with whom you cannot interact. Players can scrawl pre-programmed messages, either helpful warnings or harmful disinformation (or just playful distractions), on the ground.
Those who play Dark Souls offline will have some small measure of help, though, from the phantoms of other characters. Players can enlist the help of NPC phantoms before many boss fights, making the toughest of Dark Souls battles much, much easier. Like the education at Hellkite, phantom NPCs feel like a favor from From Software.
For those that do play online, however, don't expect to meet up with friends and embark on a demon-slaying adventure. From Software, for better or worse, has made it just shy of impossible to get a group of allies together from your friends list. Do not expect to play this game cooperatively with anyone you know. There's no online chat. There's no way to explicitly invite your real-world friends. And based on my experience in the hundred hours I've played Dark Souls (the PlayStation 3 version), expect some amount of difficulty in reliably summoning any players online. I've had too many failed summons and dropped connections to count.
For all its innovation and brilliance, Dark Souls has its share of technical problems. The game's camera is just as finicky as Demon's Souls, requiring constant babysitting and thumb dexterity to survive its many narrow bridges and cliffside stairways. Targeting enemies is similarly twitchy. And the game's frame rate can dip into the single digits during some moments, particularly in the Valley of Defilement-like city of Blighttown. The aforementioned network issues can be frustrating, but based on the dozen or so times I've been invaded successfully, not every Dark Souls player is having problems with the game's online mode.
Artistically, however, Dark Souls is absolutely stunning. While Demon's Souls may have been dark and dingy throughout, mostly variations on medieval castle themes and underground mines, Dark Souls explores more beautiful territory. There's a lush forest filled with towering Crystal Golems and a slithering Hydra. A lava-filled area threatens to blind the player with its white hot magma, while impressing with its crumbling ancient architecture. Your first views of the expansive Anor Londo, a sun drenched marble city, will likely take your breath away—or just scare the shit out of you with its vast openness and deafening silence.
I hope you can appreciate it, this wonderful game, even as it consistently abuses you throughout. There are moments when it seems Dark Souls' developers just go too far, when its unforgiving world seems too cruelly designed for one to actually survive it. But there are also engrossing discoveries along the way. There are mysteries buried under layers which are buried under layers, encounters and treasures and moments that will be worth the pain and suffering and the countless hours peeling away at this huge world.
Dark Souls is likely to be the most difficult and demanding game you'll play this year, but it's also one of the best. For anyone up to the challenge, the patient gamers who will persevere after being defeated hundreds of times, they too shall be rewarded.
I've played some 80 hours worth of Dark Souls on the PlayStation 3, but I still haven't come to the end of this wonderfully bleak, beautiful and brutal game. More »
I've spent a good 40 hours or so with Demon's Souls spiritual sequel Dark Souls over the two weeks, almost all of it on the PlayStation 3. It's been hard to tear myself away from the game as I slowly inch toward progress and gains in power.
But I did manage to rip myself away from my main character... More »