I'll be honest; I really didn't expect the venerable From Software to strike twice with their Souls franchise, especially as their previous game in the 'spiritual' series, Demon's Souls, only reached European shores in 2010, the memories of which are still vivid in my mind. Now, the spotlight is fixed firmly on the even more psychotically masochistic Dark Souls. I said I wasn't expecting great things a second year in a row, but I am pleasantly surprised to admit that I was mistaken.
In a nutshell, Dark Souls is everything Demon's Souls was, only more twisted, more intricate and - incredibly - more challenging. I remember my first fifteen or so hours with Dark Souls well. Those first fifteen hours (longer than the single-player of most modern games, yet merely a drop in the ocean where Dark Souls is concerned) are indelibly imprinted on my memory for one simple reason: They were a complete nightmare. Never has a game had such a ferociously steep learning curve as this beast. Even Demon's Souls, which itself was gruelling to get to grips with, seems like a cruel dummy-run in comparison. Oh yes, I died. I died lots. My slightest mistake was ruthlessly punished time and time again. There was more than one occasion when I seriously considered wiping the slate clean and starting afresh with a different character class. But I persevered. Like trying to break down a brick wall with one's bare hands to get to a reward waiting on the other side, I came up against the same walls in Dark Souls, trying again and again to smash through, gritting my teeth against the pain for the sake of the immense satisfaction and self-gratification I knew awaited me if I could just kill this one boss! It was at times like these, as I miserably witnessed my guileless hollow getting ripped to shreds by some bizarre monstrosity, that I marvelled at how intriguingly isolated Dark Souls is in its approach. What other game out there deliberately makes the going tough for the player, and yet still manages to be an enjoyable and fascinating experience? Where the player wants to persevere for the sake of the game itself (and not some banal and arbitrary number that pops up on the screen, though Dark Souls has those too), to see what's around the corner, knowing that the next unknown encounter will possibly be even more insurmountable than the skirmish that they just spent the last two hours overcoming. Off the top of my head, Demon's Souls is the only other game that presents itself. Surprise, surprise...
But Dark Souls never gets any easier - you simply get a lot better. After that first fifteen or so hours of mental and dextrous torture, the wall broke, the veil was lifted, and all was suddenly laid clear before me. I was now killing off enemies with comparable ease - I knew exactly when to dodge and when to lunge for that critical strike. I marvelled at how enemies that had once instilled dread had now become little more than minor nuisances. I understood the ins and the outs of weapon reinforcement and ascension. I grew to know which NPC gave which rare or unique item under which circumstances. No longer was I instant fodder for invading players, but rather I found that I was able to hold my own against most phantoms (even if the majority of them are sorcery-spamming cowards). I even invaded one or two worlds of my own, but quickly abandoned that practice when I realised how pathetically humbling it could be. And of course, great fun was had whilst engaged in spots of jolly co-operation! In short, that precious event which every ardent RPG fan craves had at last occurred: Dark Souls had opened up.
Looking back on it all now, I realise with a smile that the irony of it all is the fact that those fifteen hours which broke my heart are actually my most fondly remembered ones. There are other memorable moments of course - stumbling onto the staggering infinitum that was Ash Lake will probably rank highly in my most memorable gaming moments, and my first confrontation with the great grey wolf Sif shan't soon be forgotten. But at the heart of it all remains those first fifteen hours. Like life for a young child, everything from that beginning is remembered with a sort of vivid haziness. At that time, the rest of the game was just a vague and distant expanse that meant little to me, struggling as I was through the narrow confines of the Undead Burg and Parish. Names like Anor Londo and Lost Izalith were akin to the names of some far off country to a toddler, while they totter about the narrow confines of their home and street, desperately trying to comprehend just what exactly is going on.
Now if, while reading this, you have abhorred rather than relished the opportunity of accepting a challenge like the one I have described, then don't even bother trying Dark Souls, let alone purchasing it. It's a game that demands everything of the player before it will ever begin giving anything back. However, if you are willing to surrender yourself to this stone-faced RPG, then prepare to become engrossed in such a way that you never knew was possible for a video game.
Oh, and prepare to die a lot too. Did I mention that?