After spending 20 hours playing From Software's Dark Souls across a two day period, it's fair to say that I'm a broken man. It's not often that you feel like a game is slowly grinding your face towards the world's fiery core - and it's even less often that you find yourself vastly enjoying it.
Having dropped the hub world seen in Demon's Souls, the open-world nature of Dark Souls makes the game's sense of scale seem intangibly large. Minor moments of success are joyous, but it's hard not to feel like you're just spiralling down through a bottomless pit of genuine horrors - desperately grabbing at the sides for some sense of achievement, or perspective. In all honesty I'm not sure I'll be able to finish it - but that's not enough to dull my constant desire to keep playing.
As the game isn't out yet, there's no hint system and online co-op to help us through the pitch-black world - so myself and other reviewers like IGN's Keza McDonald have formed an email alliance called the Chain of Pain, offering tips and advice to the few struggling adventurers hoping to conquer this vast and strange beast.
The leader of the pack has clocked about 60 hours within the game - and judging by the information given to him by his US counterpart, he's only about a quarter of the way through the damn thing. Forget about randomly generated dungeons and sprawling scenic hills: from what I've seen so far, Dark Souls is going to be bigger than Skyrim. It might not be as infinitely playable, but in terms of the quantity of unique content to explore I can't see anything else that's coming out this year squaring up against something as big as this.
I spent the best part of five hours yesterday trying to remove a curse placed on me by a giant weird frog-thing. By the time I'd realised his gas-breath was harmful, my health bar had been permanently knocked down by 50% - and the only way I could fix it was to either buy a cure from a disturbing chap in black leather, or make my way through some moonlit ruins filled with ghosts in hope of finding a legendary healer. It's a brutally unfair chain of events, but even something as obviously cruel as this ends up having more narrative oomph than a metric ton of bread-and-butter RPG quests.
Unlike Bethesda's RPG beast, there doesn't appear to be much recycling in Dark Souls. Each area feels different, and enemies are rarely re-used for the sake of it. You're not just dealing with bigger knights with more health - every new foe you meet requires your utmost respect if you want to survive. If you've got the stomach to handle a game like Dark Souls, then this will be the only RPG you need to buy this Christmas. Forget about running around the hills collecting flowers to make potions - it's time to start preparing for a road trip straight to hell.