What is it about punishment?
Why do we so readily submit ourselves to the torturous wretches this industry dreams up? Why do we take on impossibilities as if they were surmountable challenges? There's a healthy balance to games like From Software's Dark Souls. You risk your time, your energy, your sanity all for that sweet, brief taste of victory.
That's the motivating factor in Demon's Souls and spiritual successor Dark Souls is no different. In its cold, unwelcoming world, players will find horrific, looming enemies equipped with weapons that dwarf the player in size. These bosses and the myriad of enemies leading up to them in each dungeon will absolutely punish you with every ounce of their being.
Let's be clear: Dark Souls is not for the gamer who prefers to enjoy every second of their time on the couch. It doesn't matter if you're competitive type or a completionist. Dark Souls will belittle you and use force to teach you a lesson. I've tried my best to play every second with a large dose of good humor on my side. You will be frustrated, you will be defeated, but more importantly, you will be rewarded.
Imagine a month of eating nothing but brussels sprouts. At the end of this month, you get a tablespoon of vanilla ice cream. I couldn't possibly sum up the Dark Souls experience better.
Veterans of Demon's Souls will realize that Dark Souls blazes a slightly different path by providing players with a fully open world. There's a semblance of a hub, but wanderers can travel to any corner of the map at any given time, though they really shouldn't. Dark Souls will punish you for wandering out of bounds, even if you don't know what you did wrong.
In the game's campaign, you'll consistently repeat a steady rhythm of life, death, and rebirth (and more death). As you progress inches and battle enemies throughout the dungeons, you'll be killed. Players are revived at bonfires which act as save points. You can upgrade your abilities, your weapons, redeem souls, or offer up humanity to stoke the flames of your bonfire, which will make surrounding enemies easier for a set amount of time for everyone playing Dark Souls. Once you set back out from your bonfire, the same enemies you had previously killed will have respawned, forcing you to grind to where you previously perished.
This is easily the best improvement to the "Souls" formula. Respawning every enemy creates an invisible buffer between the player and their next objective. That buffer pre-grinds the player for his or her next soul-crushing challenge. I personally hate grinding in JRPGs. Of all the contrite, boring, monotonous modes of play in gaming, grinding is the worst.
But Dark Souls doesn't let you feel like you're grinding because it's done naturally. Bonfires also make replenishing health a risk-reward system. The reward is health. Plain and simple. The risk... well... all those enemies come right back to life.
Combat has its own satisfying turn. Dark Souls goes for a decidedly Western appeal with core combat action. Light swipes will put the lowerlevel opponents off balance while strong attacks will deal most of the damage. Players can also parry attacks so long as they have the enemy animations memorized. Some weapons require two hands, some staffs cast spells, and everything comes with a bevy of stats to measure up against other items in your inventory.
The Xbox 360 version of the game had some horrible slow-down, but graphically Dark Souls is a treat to take in. Textures are rich and deep while enemies are varied and brilliantly designed to evoke fantasy archetypes. The bosses themselves are a joy to behold. Thankfully, you'll see plenty of them for all the times they kill you.
Getting invaded and invading other players' games is still the most enjoyable method of interaction in online gaming today. Hunting down another human player with rewards on the line is exhilarating and it's always nice to turn the tables and be the tormentor once in a while.
Dark Souls also allows for three players to play cooperatively in one player's world. Successfully overcoming an area boss will reward players with humanity while dying during co-op will set you back to the undead. It's nice to share the dread with some friends and interacting with other players will lend miles to Dark Souls' replayability.
This is a game of inches, not yards. If you want a roller coaster on rails, I suggest you go elsewhere. If you want a game that explains everything upfront and gives you a clear path, I suggest you go elsewhere. If you want a challenging, briefly terrifying, often maddening game with plenty to explore, experiment with, and beat your head against, this is your game.
With the finer points of Demon's Souls intact, including the note system and the whispers of other players throughout the world, I can't recommend Dark Souls highly enough. If you're a true gamer and one with plenty of time and patience on your hands, there's a lot to love here. Minor issues like the sluggish animation system or the brain-boiling frustration you might feel will be washed away when your taste buds have the sweet vanilla cream of victory.
God, I hate brussels sprouts.