Ok, I admit that the very first impression of the game is rather poor. The graphics are washy, the intro story is confusing: you are an undead, waking up in a prison cell, somewhere where the undead are used to be locked away. But there seems to be at least some nice guy which drops down the prison cell key. Ok, never mind that the key is somewhere _inside_ a dead corpse lifted by the “nice guy” and tossed down right next to you. Hey, you are free! Unarmed but: let’s run! And so the adventure begins. The very first 3-4 zombies are easy, but right after 10 seconds you are confronted with the first boss and it is this moment you encounter the “Dark Souls” moment: Wait! What?? WTF!!! You are crushed, trampled, yes: even slaughtered, without chances to merely scratch your foe. This is Dark Souls. Welcome.
Very soon you discover that this game is a very well elaborated man-to-man-battle-simulator-RPG. When you play Dark Souls and hear from some clickfest like Diablo III, you can’t help but smile gently: “Kids…”. Dark Souls is hard. It adopts to your fighting style and there is a plethora to choose: heavy slow tank, fast dexterity swordsman, bowman, magic wiedling socerer,… You can’t be all, so focus on your choice or mix on your own risk. And every enemy can kill you. YES, even if you are a level 100 super tank: a baby zombie *can* kill you if you do not defend. Every enemy bears some fighting patterns you study to locate weak spots in order to merciless exploit them. You learn to hold you shield and swing your weapon just at the right time, keep distance, detect when the enemy makes a wrong choice and overwhelm them with fireballs or magic missiles. At every level up you can increase an attribute and this will influence the game, slowly but steady.
Right at this entry level at the first boss battle the audience parts. One group will leave the game: it is too hard, too much frustration, no easy kills or easy wins. The other group will stay: “Not with me!”, “I’ll kill you, bitch!”, “There must be a way!”. And there is *always* a way. Even when the first encounters with the boss are disastrous, the game is never unfair. Well, it balances very, very, very close on the cliff of unfairness but it manages every time to be on the “fair” side. Because there is something to this game other games do not achieve: even in the darkest moments there is hope that if you try something different you’ll succeed. It is not explicit; the game induces this feeling, this inkling. It is as if a voice whispers from the off in the background: “Oh, a pity! You were soo close! Next time, you should try to hide behind one of the pillars to better avoid the fireballs! Or … have you seen this hole at the left side? This could be a path to some place you might have some advantages…”. So you try and try and try…
… and this causes you to gain an incredible satisfaction when you finally found the way, the hint, the technique to bring a once feared super-human boss to its knees. The moment “VICTORY!” blends in on the screen you sometimes have to drop your controller, because your hands are trembling and you got to have a break to cool down all the adrenalin in your body… WoW, I can’t remember any game which caused such intense feelings.
The game features tons of weapons, armor, rings, items, etc. All with unique powers, advantages and drawbacks. Weapons and armor can also be improved in various ways. A dagger feels as a dagger and a two-handed-sword feels as two-handed-sword. And it is this list of items which tells the story of Dark Souls. The item descriptions are the main way to guide you into this world. So it is much reading. Yes, there are some NPCs, but way too seldom.
And, of course, the game lets you do what you want to. There is no guide, no hint, no “question mark” on your map (there ain’t even a map!). All is done by reading the item descriptions, exchanging some words with the few NPCs and exploring the world. If something is yet too hard: turn back and try elsewhere.
The levels are great and well designed (also some are a bit close to the edge of unfairness: Tomb of the Giants, anyone?).
The setting and the game lore are mysterious and fascinating if you are into dark fantasy. Though not easy to come by: it is all buried under many, many item descriptions of rings, wands, swords, axes, robes, plates, bows, etc.
However, I also found some points to criticize: what weapon do I empower with which boss soul? Crafting system is nice, but the smiths in the world do not tell you much. I ended up having several unused boss souls, because I didn’t know which common, prime weapon I have to bring to +5 in order to make some unique boss weapon. Such boss weapons do bear definite enhancements which make some battles way easier. But which? How? What? The game doesn’t really tell you. Well, ok, I could bring up every basic weapon to +5 in order see. But this is a bit stupid grinding, isn’t it?
… and there is plenty room for more hints and tips. It would even add to the world feeling, if there is not so much “silence”. Be more narrative. Just a bit. Please. The world *is* cool. Why hide it?
For the records: I killed every boss in the game including the (very!) much tougher DLC ones but the Princess in Anor Londo. All of them. Alone. Ok, for some I added the NPC Knight Solitare, but no real online player. Very nice online game concept by the way: you can jump into other games to either aid the host or attack him. Communication is done solely by gestures. I ended up as a heavy melee tank fighter at level 107 with my Elite Knight Armor set at about +9 to +10. My favorite sword is the Lightning Claymore +5. I didn’t care for any covenant. It seems that everyone experiences different difficulties due to their unique fighting styles. For some bosses I needed more than 20 runs (Knight Atorias, Black Dragon Kalamet, …) others were relatively easy (Centipede Deamon (first encounter: kill), Gwyn Lord of Cinder (6 runs), …) and the Bed of Chaos didn’t bothered me much (~ 5 tries). So when talking about Dark Souls bosses: YMMV.