In the same way you wouldn't mince into an underground fight club with a cheery grin and a skipping rope, it's vital you know what you're getting yourself into before you even consider buying a game like Namco and From Software's Dark Souls. PlayStation prequel Demon's Souls had a reputation for being punishingly difficult - here, things are even tougher.
The formula hasn't changed too much from the original game, you work your way through the deadly unknown to take down powerful demons. Enemies are brutal, traps are everywhere, and your repeated death is inevitable. This time around though, it's not just about striving to kill huge bosses: smaller unique foes might not get the billing of their demon counterparts, but pack an equally nasty punch.
Progress can now be check-pointed to a degree at bonfires, which also replenish your health vials. Don't cosy up to the latter at every opportunity though, as doing so also restores all the minion-level enemies in the vicinity. Thankfully, boss monsters stay dead once you've killed them - one of the game's very few merciful touches.
Where Demon's Souls aimed to test your patience, Dark Souls often seems intent on crushing your spirit entirely, gleefully grinding you down with a series of improbably terrifying foes until you simply want to give up. It's a genuinely brutal game, but if you're able to rustle up the willpower required to face it, the payoff is truly spectacular: an adrenaline rush strong enough to make you feel like you're capable of punching down mountains.
After finally defeating an evil pair of fire-breathing gargoyles, we found our hands were shaking. The full game clocks in at around 80-100 hours, but with something as intense as this you'll barely need to scrape the surface to get your money's worth. Stepping away from the clean-cut level hub seen in the previous game, Dark Souls' world is entirely open - giving the game's sprawling journey through castles, swamps, and underground lairs an immense sense of scale.
Populated throughout with a hugely memorable cast of evil things to kill and avoid, it's a testament to the game's design that a world this large doesn't even need a pop-up map. Survival requires a sharp mind, and you quickly find yourself memorising every detail of the game's landscape and creatures to an almost obsessive degree.
Just because things are bleak, it doesn't mean you have to fight alone. Online co-op and a system that allows players to leave messages for each other adds a sense of detached assistance that makes everything feel a bit less daunting. It's not entirely impossible to play through the game without help from your peers on Xbox Live, but you're definitely looking at a much tougher challenge if you're facing it without the help of other well-meaning strangers.
For a game that's sometimes frighteningly unfair, it's shocking just how compelling Dark Souls is. While the first game was merely ruthless, its successor feels like full-on psychological warfare - we've played difficult games before, but this is the first we've seen that actively seems to be conspiring against you. If that's not a challenge you're comfortable with facing, stay the hell away. For everyone else, this might just be the game of the year.
Depressingly evil but utterly addictive - an unmissable RPG
- More exciting than anything, ever
- Terrifically fearsome enemy design
- You'll be talking about it for months
- Too brutal for most newcomers
- Getting cursed by frog-things is awful