Once upon a time, games were not very often referred to as 'interactive experiences' - no, instead they were about challenge - and more importantly, stealing those silver coins from your pocket so you'd pump more money into the arcade machine. Difficulty came out of a necessity for profit, but it was a beautiful thing.
That translated over to consoles, and literal years of toiling away at Mega Man 2 as a kid made it all the more satisfying and memorable when I finally completed it. In this age of quick-saves, regular check pointing and overall forgiving games, that feeling of accomplishment was rare - and then there was Demon's Souls.
RPG Site's 2009 Game of the Year was incredibly difficult. It was a wonderful cacophony of difficulty, death, and design so old-school it sometimes felt backwards - but it also felt good. The spiritual successor to that game in all but copyright details, Dark Souls picks up that niche torch and runs with it, streamlining it for a wider audience without losing the challenge that made it so horrifyingly brilliant.
Fans of Demon's Souls might balk at that sentence. Streamlined how? Well, for instance, the new system of 'bonfires', which essentially act as checkpoints, mean respawning after death is a hell of a lot less frustrating.
Resting at bonfires also restores health and other attributes - but then, to balance it out makes all non-boss enemies in the area respawn. Ouch. Combat itself is also now more difficult - but also more rewarding of skill and careful strategy.
The game opens with a heavier, more detailed opening cinematic that hints at a more detailed story than the previous title. That's definitely there and Dark Souls tells its tale well, but the game is so focused on gameplay that it becomes a comforting and well-crafted background noise to the core concentration.
If anything, the story exists to foster that sense of foreboding doom the game often has, the details of the plot adding character to claustrophobic corridors and dungeons but not really vital to enjoy it. This isn't Mass Effect, and you most certainly won't be playing through Dark Souls to see the next exciting twist in the story - you'll actually be playing for the next exciting twist in the gameplay.
There's a brilliant heft to the action in Dark Souls. Using Melee weapons means taking into account things like the arc of a sword swing, or how you'll recoil if a hit is blocked.
It's all about dodging, blocking yourself and even parrying attacks back at enemies to give yourself space for an attack. It's about being diligent and calm, controlling your hands and not 'choking' in the moment, as reckless attacks will only leave you dead in a few, or in some cases even just one - enemy attack.
Magic, meanwhile, has been overhauled. I'd say overall that the power of magic has been pulled back a little since Demon's Souls, most notably in that each spell only has a finite number of times it can be cast. That count is reset by resting at a bonfire, but it might mean you only get a handful of heals in the space of an hour or more - making it harder to rely on magic to prop up your abilities than before.
Despite that, being more magic-focused is without a doubt a viable spec for your character - you'll just have to think very carefully indeed about how to use it - and in many cases you're going to find yourself, even as a magic-focused character, having to grab hold of your favourite melee weapon and close-in on a dangerous, massive beast to finish it off.
The result of these changes is a game more tightly focused around that melee combat. Physics are important, and something about the game feels strangely realistic and overwhelmingly tactical thanks to this change. The only cheap fall-back from Demon's Souls, easily accessible magic, is gone - and that makes the player have to re-evaluate how they tackle many situations.
While there's a basic class-pick at the start of the game changing your ability set is as simple as equipping or unequipping items. If you'd like to be a thief type, it's as simple as picking lighter weapons and armour, while a Warrior type will of course wield larger weapons and wear heavier, more protective armour.
Mercifully there's no encumbrance or inventory system meaning that you can carry a bunch of different weapon and armour sets to switch at any point you want. I ended up rocking around with several 'load outs' of choice that I'd switch between depending on what the enemy encounter in question was like.
When you inevitably do die, any souls - the currency of the game - you've collected by slaying enemies will disappear, only obtainable by getting back to your nasty blood-splatter on the floor where you bit it, just like in Demon's Souls. Souls are important as they're spent on levelling up and other such things - vital to progression.
The character you play is actually already undead of a sort at the outset of the game. It's all rather grim - the whole of humanity is slowly becoming undead 'hollows', and you too are one of them. The game offers you the chance to become Human again, though - and in that state you can light bonfires - essentially making more checkpoints - and lets other players enter your game to help you out.
It's a symbiotic system, as by helping you to beat bosses they too help to build up to the point where they can become human again, encouraging online play. The sense of community, even amongst players with the review build, is clear - people leave notes, share strategies, and cower around bonfires together, ghostly forms running around alongside you reminding you that you're not the only one undertaking this mammoth challenge.
These online features go a long way to push the player away from grinding out problems in old areas, though that is a perfectly viable strategy. The choice to not allow you to invite friends, only rewarding you another random player who might just be an asshole who thinks it's funny to kill you (thus entering them in the publically viewable 'Book of the Guilty') is deliberate - a reminder to players that they should treat others how they want to be treated, as when you finally do call an ally you'll pray for a good one - there's no choice on your part involved.
When I finally ventured into another players' world, I really did give it my all. I'd been through the segment of the game they were on, and I distinctly remembered struggling. The memory of my own uphill struggle spurned me on, wanting to make their experience easier - and I, too, was rewarded for my efforts. It's amazing - because we were both complete strangers.
The biggest change from Demon's Souls, though, comes in the world of Dark Souls. It's now set in a massive open-world environment, meaning no loading screens - just a massive, expansive world filled with death and danger. There's no quick-travel, there's no vehicles or horses or mythical creatures to ride - there's just you, the ghosts of other players, and the dying world itself.
More colourful and vibrant but also more hopelessly doomed than the world of Demon's Souls, Dark Souls manages to make a grim world beautiful. Occasionally, you'll find yourself stopping atop a high point and staring out across the horizon, all of which you can visit with just enough time and endurance.
After what will have been hours in dungeons, sewers and other darkened, dangerous areas to get there, there's something very poignant about moments like that, even though the game sports average graphical tech. Without the story really grabbing me, something about moments like this left me strangely attached to the world of Dark Souls.
If there's anything wrong with Dark Souls, it's not surprising that it comes with just how difficult the game sometimes gets. There's a very fine line between fun, challenging and unfair and sadistic, and sometimes Dark Souls can - unintentionally - cross that line.
A stubborn player might throw himself at a boss battle or encounter over and over again, but doing so actually is damaging - you could end up hours of grinding in the pit, indebted to the game, forced to rebuild your character back up to where you once were.
Players who aren't careful might find themselves backed into a corner, and while there is always a way out the punishing nature of the game might mean some people would prefer to stop playing entirely than take that way out.
Moments like this where the game steps over an invisible line and becomes too difficult are what keep it from a perfect score, but Dark Souls isn't really about those moments, and so it's hard to rag on the game too much for it.
For every moment of beautiful glory of victory there's quite a large number where it feels hopeless and controller-smashingly difficult - yet those victorious moments outweigh the difficult ones in my mind. I'll remember that it was hard, but more importantly I'll remember how great, clever, brilliant and heroic it made me feel when I finally triumphed.
Dark Souls is a real work of genius, and the team at FROM should be proud of themselves. There's tweaks to be made that could make the game better and fairer where negative punishments on the player for failures can stack so high they become too much, but the overall package is simply fantastic.
With all that said, it's hard to recommend Dark Souls lightly. I know a large number of people are going to buy this game and find it too much. The difficulty will be overwhelming, and for those people it will be a wasted purchase. For others - those with the willpower, the perseverance and the hardcore gamer skill-set - this will likely be the most rewarding game they've played in a long time.
Dark Souls gets the score it does because it's devilish, brave, bold and fantastic in its design. Understand that. Just know that this is not an experience for everyone. Those with the mettle are in for a hell of a ride, though.
Disclosure: Dark Souls was advertised on RPG Site via an advertising agency.