How to actually enjoy Dark Souls: a gameplay primer

It's the toughest game on Xbox 360, but it doesn't have to be a nightmare

For the past three months, we've been telling you that Dark Souls is the hardest game ever.

We've told you it's "the kind of game that glues a pound coin to the floor, laughs when you try to pick it up, then stabs you in the neck with a large rusty spear." We've told you it's "a game so hard it could walk face-first into a speeding bus and still have enough teeth left to bite the driver's arm off."

Let that purple bar fill up, and you'll be poisoned.

But one thing we perhaps haven't told you, or at least not in enough detail, is why on earth you'd bother. You're not a masochist. You've got better things to do than crumple your nose against a vertical difficulty curve.

Matt's review should clear the waters, and here's my attempt at pre-traumatic therapy for those buying the game on Friday. The short version: Dark Souls is as demanding as you've read, but the punishments it doles out are rarely arbitrary or unfair. For all the blood-drenched publicity the game's "you will die" mantra has attracted, the idea is generally to test, not humiliate the player. Providing you're prepared to take your time, giving each challenge the same care and consideration, the emotional rewards are stupendous.

Lesson number one: learn to live with continual death. From Software's misbegotten netherworld is awash with creatures that can murder you in seconds, at any point in your playthrough, however intimidating your attributes or devastating the weapons in your grasp. That sounds cheap, but the pay-off is a vaporous dreadfulness even Silent Hill can't rival, a gnawing sense that the landscape is out to get you.

Some games thrill through unscientific overkill, slow-mo launching a plane at your face, lacing the campaign corridor with volcanoes, blind-siding you with bosses. Dark Souls has overkill aplenty - check out those dragons - but simply turning a corner or opening a door is a heart-in-mouth affair, as you ponder what nefarious trap or ambush awaits. Community hints (the trustworthy ones, anyway) via From Software's fabulous asynchronous networking systems cushion the blow a little; if you see a blood stain or a desperate warning scribbled in fiery ink across the floor, now might be a good time to look behind you.

The Gaping Dragon. Don't let it kiss you.

Lesson number two: define progress as much by what you learn, as what you earn. Areas are built around bonfire checkpoints, mystic facilities where you can restock your health potions and level up by spending souls accumulated from the slain. There's a price to pay for their usage, however: all the common enemies you've nobbled respawn in the process. The upshot is that it's impossible to win through attrition, as you would in a conventional action game. Nor can you simply rank up till garden variety beasties no longer present a problem - or at least, not if you value your recreation hours, as rank-ups aren't dramatic and each one costs more souls than the last.

Victory is a matter of patience, of grasping what you're up against, of experience with a small 'e', and this is integral to the game's hard-won satisfactions. When you make significant advances, reaching the next bonfire or defeating a boss, it's not because you've got lucky or piled enough awesome-points into your awesome-gauge, but because you've cracked a little more of the Dark Souls code. You've understood the game, and put that understanding to good use.

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