Price: £39.99
Format: Xbox 360 (tested), PS3
Developer: From Software
Publisher: Namco Bandai

Dark Souls, how I hate you and love all at once, like a secret but embarrassing obsession that it might be better for all if I desisted from but oh, what sweet satisfaction when I’m caught in its throngs.

Dark Souls is the kind of game which gets in your head; when I’m not playing it I’m going over its scenarios in my subconscious: “Maybe I should try to take on that gigantic black knight with my halberd, keep it at arm’s length? Maybe I should draw my short sword and get in close, or else keep it at bay and pepper it with crossbow bolts?” Maybe, maybe, maybe.

For those not in the know, and that might well include many of you Xbox-only owning types, Dark Souls is the follow up – though not sequel to – the equally fiendish PS3 exclusive Demon’s Souls by From Software. The same company who released the PSX and PS2 first-person RPG franchise King’s Field which, for those of you who recall it, shows the thought process of the studio; Demon’s Souls and now Dark Souls an evolution of the same theme.

Unabashedly difficult, the first thing to know about Dark Soul’s is that you’re going to die… a lot. It’s unavoidable, I’m hours into the game and have died more than I’d care to admit, that my player character is a ‘hollowed’ mess of rotting, sagging flesh only serves to illustrate my shame further – your character becoming ever more decrepit with every death you see.

Dark Soul’s places you within its gaming world with little fan fare, there’s no trumpets, no quip remarks, just a hostile world which owes you nothing.  The ‘tutorial’ section – for want of a more apt description – at least immediately introduces you to the game’s fundamental golden rules which go something like this:

  1. Don’t get discouraged when you die
  2. If something’s bigger than you it’s probably best to run for it where possible
  3. Always bring a shield
  4. Did I mention you should get used to dying a lot?

Within the first few hours of playing I whooped with delight when the first boss finally succumbed to my longsword, found myself shouting “Run away!” à la Monty Python and the Holy Grail on too many occasions for it even to be funny anymore, and came close to putting the pad down, turning the console off and chucking my toys out of pram; only for the game to work its black magic on me and call me back with its siren song of promise.

Like a marathon runner, your progress is made one step at a time; trial and error very much the name of the game. If anyone remembers it, Dark Souls evokes memories of the classic kids TV show Knightmare. “Side-step left, side-step right… oh shit, a giant ball has just crushed our intrepid explorer, oh well, next…” Seriously, if you don’t know Knightmare check it out, it’ll change your life:

The game takes place in the world of the undead, indeed you will find yourself taking the part of an undead; albeit one with free choice, as opposed to the ‘hollowed’ undead who will fight against you. Your first goal is simple, ring two bells and see what happens. Unfortunately one bell is at the top of a heavily fortified church, the other in the cursed depths. Where you go first is up to you, though you’ll soon work out which is the most logical choice given the types of enemies and fact that you simply won’t be able to progress about those which lurk in one of the choices. Not that life will be much easier at the ‘correct’ choice.

Combat consists of waiting for an opening in your aggressors’ defences and timing a swipe of your own weapon to coincide. It’s brutal, bloody and tough work, particularly as larger enemies will knock you back effortlessly and put you on the back foot. The only thing to do is grind through weaker enemies in order to level up. You will at least be granted an Estus Flask, drinking from which restores health. Here’s the kicker though, replenishing you flask at a campsite will cause all hostiles (excepting bosses ) to respawn – bummer.

Half the time you don’t even drink from your Estus Flask, your fate sealed before you able to use it from the sword thrusts of the pursuing hordes. Killing them however will release their souls, the currency of the undead world used to buy equipment from merchants and information from the NPCs scattered throughout the land. Thing is, die and you souls will be lost, affixed to the spot you were killed. Getting back to that spot allows you to recover them, fall on the way however and they’re gone forever.

With so much against you, you might wonder what kind of masochist would possibly want to play the game? Well, the thing is, even the most infinitesimal accomplishment is greeted by the kind of satisfaction usually reserved for completing a game or else getting revenge on someone in Gears 3 multiplayer. The game doesn’t shy from rewarding you either, bosses usually coughing up helpful goodies when finally despatched for example.

Then there’s the genius multiplayer in which not only can follow Xbox Live and PSN users leave tips on the ground to assist their fellows, but can even call friends into their game to assist against those gargantuan foes. Watch out though, for just when things are looking up, turns out hostile players can force their way into your game too in order to rob you of humanity – that all important quality which allowed you to invite players into your game in the first place. Sounds complex, even to me, but believe me, it works.

Dark Souls is just one of those games that defies you to describe it, a true gamer’s game and completely unapologetic about it. For those willing to suffer the ignominy of continued death the rewards are an adventure unlike anything you’ve played ; with the obvious exception of Demon’s Souls. It won’t play fair,, it will do it’s damndest to  put you off and it certainly won’t appeal to all; despite all that hoever I’m rushing this review through just to get back to it. “Run away!”