I heard about Dark Souls when it came out because it was said to be incredibly difficult. I made a mental note of trying it out one day and then forgot about it. A few weeks ago, two good friends mentioned it to me again with high praises, so I decided to give it a shot. I dusted off my Playstation 3 (I’m pretty much exclusively a PC gamer), grabbed the game ($35 on Amazon, quite a bargain) and launched it with an open mind.

Nothing could have prepared me for what happened next.

Be prepared to die. And die again. And again. And again.

While the game starts with the standard tutorial on how to use the controller to move your character about and how to fight, I wasn’t exactly ready to face a boss five minutes into the tutorial and immediately die. Then try again, and die. And die, again and again. Ever time I fight it, I chip at his health a bit more but I realize that my sword hilt is barely damaging it at all, and at this pace, it would take me a very, very long time to kill it, assuming I manage to stay alive for that long.

I don’t want to spoil the game so I’ll just say that there is a way out, obviously, and once you figure it out, you realize that the game wasn’t being “stupidly” hard, it was just being “hard but fair”. It was giving you a small taste of what lies ahead. And that looked not just deliciously refreshing but quite enticing as well. You will die a lot in Dark Souls, but most of the time, it will be your fault and you will learn from it. And the next time you try, you’ll get a bit further.

Having said that, limiting the description of this game to this simple observation doesn’t come even remotely close to doing it justice.

Much, much deeper than it looks.

First of all, Dark Souls has the best combat system I have ever seen in more than thirty years of gaming. It’s not even close. Not only do you need to learn to hit, but also to dodge, to parry, to roll, to position yourself correctly, to backstab and to riposte. You also need to learn your opponent. Each of them (trash and boss) have cues that tell you what the next attack is going to be, and each of these attacks can be mitigated or completely avoided if you know what to do.

A bonfire, your best friend in the game.

Next, you have the enemy population. I’ve been constantly impressed with the level of attention that the developers have put in making the game challenging but manageable. There is only one level of difficulty on Dark Souls (with a small caveat, see below), so you don’t get to choose how hard or how numerous the enemies are. But they are planted along your way in very, very calculated ways that will make you want to be extremely mindful when you progress through new areas. This is not the game where you rush in a pack of enemies and mash your controller buttons until you are surrounded with carcasses. As a matter of fact, dealing with more than one enemy at a time will very often result in a quick death.

The leveling is also quite innovative. As opposed to most RPG/MMORPG’s, you are in complete control of how your character progresses. When you kill enemies, you earn “souls” which you can then use either to level, buy things or upgrade your existing gear. There is never a better path on what to do with all these souls, and the game is so well tuned that you can put all your souls into equipment upgrades and complete it at level 1.

When you die, all your souls drop on the ground and you need to run back there to retrieve them. However, if you die on your way to retrieve them, these souls are lost. This is a very simple mechanism (halfway between World of Warcraft and Everquest, which was very punishing) but one that creates a very palpable and constant tension. You don’t care too much about dying when you’re walking around with a small number of souls, but as you progress, that number grows and very soon, you start wondering if pressing ahead is not too risky and if you shouldn’t turn around, go back to a check point (bonfire) and spend these souls, which you can’t bank. Obviously, the fact that in new areas, the mobs are strategically positioned to kill you if you’re not careful makes for some very tense moments (“do not die, do not die!”). It’s not very often that playing a game raises my heart rate and hand clamminess, but Dark Souls definitely has this effect on me on a regular basis.

Who’s the boss?

The bosses are probably the least innovative aspect of Dark Souls. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nowhere near “Deus Ex Human Revolution bosses” bad: the Dark Souls bosses are still fairly challenging to the point where initial encounters usually result in a oneshot death within thirty seconds, but so far, I haven’t seen incredibly innovative mechanics. The bosses are still a lot of fun to figure out and I strongly recommend not reading any strategy beforehand, because killing bosses after figuring them out all by yourself alwas makes for an amazing feeling of elation. I do think the value of Dark Souls is more that the attention to combat details applies to all the mobs and not just the bosses.

The Hydra, one of the many, many bosses you will encounter.

Here is another innovative aspect of Dark Souls: when you reach a bonfire, all the enemies respawn (except bosses and a few special enemies). I was quite baffled when I discovered this, but I’m now realizing how important this aspect is to the Dark Souls atmosphere and philosophy. I won’t dig too deep in the details, but this aspect opens up the possibility of farming, which gives you an always available option to improve your character in case you think it’s not strong enough for the area you’re trying to explore.

Tools of the trade

Do you enjoy gearing up and tuning your weapons and armor? Dark Souls has plenty to offer in that area as well, with a mindbogglingly number of items to find and a lot of varied ways to enchant them the way you want them. Like many things, there is not a single true path there and it’s much more important to use and tune a weapon that fits your play style than picking up the one with the highest numbers.

Dark Souls is also very open in terms of character evolution. When the game starts, you get to choose the class that you want, but this class is not much more than a set of stats that are precalculated for you. When comes the time to level, you are free to put these souls into whatever stat you feel like, and if you started with a Knight but decided that you wanted it to cast a decent number of spells or wield daggers and move around very fast, just allocate the points in the correct categories (Faith and Dexterity) and you’ll create the character that represents your style of play. This flexibility of character build is what is prompting players to restart the game many times over and experiment with various builds. However, many choose to continue on with the same character, which is another intriguing aspect of Dark Souls.

Here is how it works.

Beyond the first play through

I haven’t completed the game yet, so I’m only repeating what I’ve read, but once you beat the final boss, you can reset the entire game and start from scratch. The new game (referred to as “NG+”: New Game Plus) features tougher enemies and bosses, and obviously, better rewards in gear and souls. Quite a few people seem to enjoy this aspect of the game as well since I’ve seen many say that they were on their third, fifth or tenth (NG+10!) play through.

Two is a crowd

One final noteworthy and innovative aspect of Dark Souls is multiplayer. First of all, you can play the entire game offline without any problems, but you will miss out on some very neat features of the game. If you choose to play while signed in, a few interesting multiplayer options open up.

On top of the traditional duels against human opponents, you can invade someone else’s game or be invaded. These invasions can be either co-operative or hostile.

For co-op play, you can leave a mark letting everyone know that you are willing to be summoned. If a player chooses to summon you, you will materialize in their world and, most likely, help them out with a boss that they’re having trouble with. Being summoned this way gives you a chance to observe that boss more carefully so you are more prepared to kill it on your own. Alternatively, you can ask for help, which can come either in the form of another player or from certain NPC’s, which are made available throughout the game for specific bosses.

Invasions can also be hostile, but you need to explicitly make yourself available to them in order for PvP to occur (like flagging yourself at WoW). In Dark Souls, you do that by “regaining” humanity. By default, you are not human (the game calls this state “hollow”). Regaining humanity will net you added rewards but it will also make you available for PvP, which means that other players can then invade you. When this happens, the current area becomes sealed and the PvP phase will only end when one of the two players dies (or the phantom withdraws). I’m not much of a PvP person myself, but I have to say that receiving the suddent notice that “Player xxx has invaded!” on your screen is always a bit stressful, and you start getting paranoid trying to locate that person before they find you.

In red, a phantom that has invaded your world.

A couple more interesting aspects of the online play: 1) players can leave messages for everyone else to see (“Chest ahead”, “Be wary of left”, etc…) and 2) you can see where and how other online players died by touching their bloodstain. In theory, this is supposed to give you an idea of the kind of trap or trash pull that lies ahead, but in practice, I can’t say I’ve found much value in bloodstains.

To the top with you!

I have played more than one hundred hours so far. I’m probably about 2/3rd through the game, and I’m still loving every minute of it. In more than thirty years of video games, I can only think of two games that I ever played more than one hundred hours: World of Warcraft and Civilization. Dark Souls has definitely earned the title “One of the best games I have ever played” with its mix of innovative features, amazing tuning, clever mechanics and engrossing world. Both WoW and Civilization have given me incredible amounts of satisfaction and fun, but Dark Souls goes beyond this by making me stressed, tense and incredibly elated when I finally overcome a difficult part.

It’s currently available on Playstation 3 and XBox 360, but a PC version is in the works and scheduled to ship this summer.