Dark Souls is a genre-defining experience on so many levels.
Very few games are as vague and mysterious as Dark Souls, since the only form of story and exposition you get are from the maniacal NPC's who offer brief hints about your overall objective, and yet these interactions are few and far between. But Dark Souls' world tells a story of its own; decrepit fortresses and run-down alleys emit a sense of despair that eventually becomes frightening. Gargoyles, fearsome shrubs and warriors with elongated lizard heads attack you without remorse and will do everything in their power to hunt down should you ever try to flee. Dark Souls is a rarity since it's one of the few games that don't require some sort of narrative to tug you along, but instead allows you to forge your own story within the twisted fantasy realm of Lordran. Games that lack a proper story are usually faulted, but in Dark Souls, this peculiar omission is what will motivate you to push onward, which makes the exploration that much more scarier and gripping.
And what a world it is – Dark Souls' structure is the perfect blend between open-world and linearity. You have a central hub that connects the many regions that lie before you, but there is no map screen or any quest objectives, so your only desire to explore is derived from your curiosity. The way that certain regions are linked and connected is simply brilliant. You might open an ominous looking door and to your relief find that it leads back to the last bonfire you rested at, which acts as a checkpoint where you can level up, repair equipment, attune magic and more, but these bonfires are carefully placed around the world so you'll never feel entirely safe while exploring. Also, whenever you rest at one of these bonfires, you refill your health flasks but also revive all the enemies, save for the bosses, in that area; Tough right?
The regions you explore are huge, diverse and dripping with atmosphere and are large enough to allow for off-branching paths, but rarely so big that you're confused as to where to go. You'll traverse a crumbling bridge with a dragon standing on the other side waiting to leap out at you, explore dilapidated castles where gargoyles stand ready to attack and navigate treacherous forests where trees can come to life and attack you at any time. Dark Souls manages to craft a wholly original universe and its bleak nature and frightening atmosphere make it an unforgettable game that, once it has you in its grasp, refuses to let go. The only down-side is that since there are no loading screens interrupting your travels, the frame-rate has trouble keeping up in certain areas and can get really sporadic. It's only a minor distraction, but it can occasionally ruin your suspension of disbelief.
While the baulk of the game has you killing enemies, those same enemies also tend to kill you; A lot. Dark Souls is just as difficult as its critically acclaimed predecessor ( Demon's Souls) and is anything but afraid you to punish you time and time again. If you let your guard down when you shouldn't, the game will use this opportunity to strike you down, or at least eat up a good chunk of your health bar. Thankfully, Dark Souls' combat is superb – every blow feels weighty and every backstab, riposte and successful dodge feels like a victory in it of itself. The game harkens back to old-school dungeon crawlers, meaning that the combat is always real-time and physics-based. There is no pausing the action or taking turns in attacking; it's a straight-up third-person action game were every attack and blocking maneuver is handled by the player. The game uses an effective lock-on system, and minor path-finding issues notwithstanding, foes put a really tough fight and if you're outnumbered, you're likely to die.
In Dark Souls, death has a lot of consequences. For example: in the game you collect souls off of enemies which are required to buy, forge, repair and enhance equipment as well as increasing your stats and leveling up. When you die, your souls transform into a bloodstain and the only way to collect them is to go back and retrieve them, but should you die on your way back you lose those souls for good. It's taxing and unforgiving, but in return the game says "get used to it", because the challenge is always fair and you can only blame your deaths on yourself. There are a few instances where the game eschews the difference between challenge and cheapness, either through some absolutely relentless encounters or boss fights that with the inappropriate gear equipped are downright impossible. I had actually had to refer to a ton of outside sources and guides in need of assistance at certain points, but that wasn't exactly a chore.
In fact, Dark Souls centers heavily on cooperation. For starters, you can use a list of pre-selected words to create messages for other players, so if you know that the enemy ahead is weak to fire damage you can create a message saying "Try pyromancy" and if a player rates your message as helpful, you'll gain an additional health flask. You can also summon other players to your world and up to three of you can together tackle tough areas and bosses. You also see transparent ghosts of other players roaming around in their world, and you can also trigger the bloodstains left behind by fallen players and see how they died, so that you yourself can avoid the same horrific fate.
But if you'd rather be someone's assailant as oppose to someone's ally, you can invade another player's game and steal his souls and humanity (a rare item that has a number of uses). Being invaded is scary and intense, since you not only have computer-controlled mobs after you, but also a bloodthirsty player waiting to make your life even more miserable. On the other end of the spectrum, invading someone else's game is equally as tense and exciting, especially if that player is lucky enough to have a friend or two backing him up. All in all, Dark Souls' online features are simply incredible and lead to moments you won't soon forget. Many of these interactions are governed by the Covenant system, which allows you to join different factions – something that holds both risks and rewards.
And yet that is what cements Dark Souls as being brilliant. It's incredibly deep and rewarding and offers up a world so cohesive and memorable that it will impale your dreams and seep into your mind. It's a gorgeous, phenomenally sounding game that nails all the fundamentals of a great role-playing game, and with so many distinct classes to choose from, victories to revel in and defeats to weep over, Dark Souls invites replay, in spite of its 40-50 hour length.
It takes a good game to fully entertain you, but it takes a remarkable achievement to suck you in and leave you breathless. Dark Souls just so happens to fall into the latter category, so even though it's not everybody, this bleak and disturbing game will reward you on an unprecedented level. If you think you're up for it, then Dark Souls is the kind of undertaking that you will not forget.