Be prepared to die - repeatedly. From Software has created a strange kind of hell in Dark Souls. Building on the rock-hard foundations that they laid with the amazingly successful Demon's Souls the practiced Japanese developer has created another impressive curiosity for RPG gamers to sink their teeth into.
Dark Souls is hell. As with Demon's Souls you play a character trapped between life and death, battling to bring peace and safety to the land. This time round the player is cast as an undead adventurer with a soul fighting to free all those stricken with the same fate of an eternal descent into the madness of a hollowed existence.
This is not a game that players play for the story though. Dark Souls, like Demon's Souls before it is a game that becomes a compulsion of inches. Progress is slow as this is undoubtedly one of the hardest games ever created. The one thing that sets this apart though is that it is every bit as compelling as it is challenging.
Pain is really inevitable as you work your way through Dark Souls and no matter how many speed runs of it are posted on YouTube. You will be filled with a sense of incredulity as to how much time they've actually put into the game before being able to complete it in such a short time.
Playing through Dark Souls is a labour of love - a somewhat masochistic kind of love but love nevertheless. Every kill, every soul and every level is earned with your own blood and occasionally tears as you wonder how you'll get past the next colossal boss monster looming over your head ready to literally crush you with one sweep of his weapon.
From Software has been kinder to players to begin with. Were Demon's Souls was a relentless search for the carefully concealed merchants and even the rare corpse that delivers up healing potions Dark Souls takes a slightly different approach. You are equipped with a magical Estus Flask at the beginning of the game which replenishes itself when you rest at a bonfire (the everyday adventurer action that serves as a save point). Outside of the dungeon areas you are gifted with ten uses of the flask after a rest but this drops to five within the dungeons. You also have to make sure that you make good use of the bonfires because they are few and far between. Without a doubt there will be something huge and nasty to fight before you chance upon another one of these safe havens.
Dying actually proves oddly functional in collection the souls that function as the game's currency. If you can manage to fight your way back to the last place you died you will be able to collect all the souls you earned by touching your bloodstain, meaning you can earn a decent amount of souls if you are careful and determined.
Dark Souls adopts the same easy-to-learn-hard-to-master control system that served Demon's Souls so well. Attacking is controlled by the right trigger and shoulder buttons with the shoulder providing the light attack and the trigger the heavy attack. The left trigger engages a parry move with the shield and the left shoulder engages the ever-useful block. Leaning how to balance these controls is an ongoing battle and is necessary for you to achieve any success in Dark Souls beyond being the person that has died the most. Successful timing of a parry leaves your opponent open to a single killing blow if you follow it immediately with a light attack.
Further useful controls are the target-lock engaged by depressing the right thumbstick and dodge which is the B button. Cycling equipped weapons can be done pushing right on the D-pad and left manages the equipped shields. Down is for selecting which consumables to use when you press the X button and these can range from the healing powers of the Estus Flask to firebombs and other magical sundries. The A button is the standard use function and the Y button can be used to switch between two-handed and one-handed attack mode when you've got a melee weapon equipped.
Dark Souls has also evolved the online interactions that you can have with other players. Now you can jump in and out of each others' games either assisting friends dispatch a particularly gargantuan monster and even harassing other players and making life more difficult for them. There is still the facility to leave messages for other players again either warning them or giving them misleading information. These all enhance the game's very divisive nature and help to put your gaming skills to the test.
There are many people who will play Dark Souls and not complete it. It is intensely hard and this will put more casual players off. However it is hard by design and as a result, instead of making you lock away your copy vowing never to touch it again, the difficulty goads you into trying again throwing your character again and again into the relentless onslaught of hollowed undead that stand between you and the next bonfire or secret magic item. Dark Souls is undoubtedly a rare jewel in the video gaming world providing a sense of achievement that almost all games lack these days. You may never complete Dark Souls but you'll feel like a better person for giving it your best shot.