Putting the ROLE back into role-playing games
It is easy to write about why Dark Souls is technically excellent -- its art and presentation creates highly atmospheric medieval dungeons; its gameplay mechanics, combat system and controls are solid; it expands upon the same interesting online concepts that its predecessor introduced, such as leaving messages for other players, invading their worlds to duel, or teaming up for its unique brand of co-op. It is also easy to criticise some of its low points, like no tutorial system, little explanation to ease you into the game, nearly zero character development, or a story worth caring about.
However, analysing each of these elements and breaking down why they are great, or why they are bad, and then tallying up a score at the end would be overlooking the true beauty of Dark Souls.
As a role-playing game, it creates a sense of legitimate 'role playing' like very few other RPGs do. Its flaws practically seem self-imposed - yes, it does have no character development, or a proper story, but that ceases to be a problem when it is *you* who are going to try to get that ultra powerful weapon this evening, so that *you* can beat a level you have been stuck on for 6 hours, and then tell *your* friends about it the next day. If this was other role-playing games, 'you' would merely puppet the actions of a pre-written character who is already part of some highly scripted plot. With Dark Souls, developer FROM Software simply sets the stage then walks away, allowing the player to create who they truly want to be and spin their own meta-storyline within the world. To draw a parallel with real life, playing Dark Souls feels like when you were are a child, dressing up in a cape with a wooden sword and pretending you were on an adventure -- the school yard may look the same every time and have pre-set boundaries, yet you are still able to imagine a unique tale as powerful as any Zelda.
Aside from the impeccable role-playing experience, another magical aspect of Dark Souls is that it fosters this marvelous sense of community like no other game does. The new Covenant system presents you with 9 different factions, each acting like a sort of clan which you can join. Each covenant is built into the game world, and has a specific set of requirements and rewards to go along with it. What is so beautiful about it is the sense of belonging that you get from it - you, and other players who have joined this clan, form a sort of brotherhood that is striving towards a common goal. For example, one covenant encourages players to duel each other for dragon scales, a form of currency which can ultimately be used to become a dragonoid. Another covenant are Forest hunters, which allows members to invade any non-covenant players who trespass on their turf. It is a simple yet deep aspect of the game which bolsters its already incredibly interconnected nature.
The final brilliant aspect of Dark Souls is the way in which it uses archaic game design to its advantage. In todays age of dumbed down gaming, in which we are constantly informed of such helpful nuggets as: "when being shot at, try to avoid bullets", Dark Souls having no tutorials, a paltry excuse for a playing manual, and very little explanation of anything forces the player to actively seek out more info on the various wikis, forums, or by gathering around the water cooler to share tactics with friends. It's this reluctance to give anything away which combines with the already strong social aspect to create a powerful force of discussion.
In another retro move, Dark Souls creates near endless replay value in the same way the classics like Super Mario Bros did. Through its harsh difficulty - yet always with a tiny glint of possibility - the player forces themselves to keep replaying the levels over and over again until they are finally conquered. But even when the player has beaten the entire game, it still manages to prey on the inner completionist, launching you directly into New Game+ so that you may achieve its other numerous goals, such as maxing out character level, getting all spells, all weapons, all trophies etc. - perhaps even going so far as to finish it again just for the additional challenge that consecutive playthroughs add.
It's a tricky task of summing up why exactly the Souls games have become the phenomenon that they have. Hopefully this has provided some insight as to what it feels like to be truly hooked on the game. It's a sign of something special when I have transcended grading it not on the game itself, but on the experience it provides.