Review in Progress: Dark Souls

We invade the bleak world of Dark Souls in advance of our full review.

The soul harbors many mysteries.

It's appropriate, then, that Dark Souls harbors a multitude of them as well. I've been playing the follow-up/non-sequel to Demon's Souls for over a week now, and I have uncovered some of this game's secrets, but many horrors and delights still await. Demon's Souls sunk its claws into me, poisoning me with its glory. That game coursed through my veins so that I was living it--feeling it--whether I was at work or at play. How impressive that Dark Souls' invasion of my being is even more complete than I thought possible. I breathe this world; it fills my lungs until I am high on the dread and fear it instills in me. This might be the most terrifying game you'll ever play.

A full review comes next week, but for now, I wanted to give you a taste of this action role-playing game's delicious stench. Explaining how a stench can be delicious is difficult, but if you played Demon's Souls, you might understand what I mean. The world has weight. The thick atmosphere burdens you. In the depths of Darkroot Forest, you walk cautiously, wondering when the foliage might turn homicidal. In the dreary burg of Blighttown, you can almost smell the swamp gas as you trudge through the marsh, fending off fire-breathing monsters on your way to the ghastly spider-lady who awaits at the end of your journey.

And through it all, you can expect to die. Often. Death is woven into the experience, though the particulars have changed. In Demon's Souls, death took you to the hub zone known as The Nexus. But Dark Souls is an actual world, rather than separate levels connected by a hub. After the tutorial, you begin the game proper at Firelink Shrine. You then set out to explore, making your way through the game's interconnected regions. Within them, you find bonfires, where you can rest, level up, replenish your supply of health flasks, resupply the number of spells you can cast, and perform a number of other tasks. (Though you do have to purchase the ability to do certain things, such as upgrade your equipment.) When you rest at a bonfire, you set it as your spawn point upon death. The caveat? Every time you rest--just like when you die--most creatures you defeated respawn, and you have to battle your way through them again.

And what a world this is; I am 80 hours in and still pushing ahead. Slowly. It's a treat to defeat a boss and encounter a new area, as well as the new creatures within it. Dark Souls is much, much larger and even more atmospheric than Demon's Souls. You explore a fortress filled with deadly traps and long-necked lizardmen; a valley infested with lightning-spewing drakes; a castle guarded by towering dark knights; and other incredible-looking regions. The creatures that murder you repeatedly are some of the most fabulous ever devised. You've seen rats before--but Dark Souls' rats? The glowing gashes infecting their skin make them more grotesque than garden-variety rats. Shambling undead, flame-spewing bugs, and giant trolls that roll boulders at you are just some of the standard enemies. But the bosses are something special. After many grueling attempts, I have triumphed over a humongous demon coated with flames; a gigantic wolf wielding a sword in its mouth; and a creature called a gaping dragon. I'll let you imagine what such a monstrosity might look like. Or better yet, allow me to show you:

Oh yes. It gapes, all right.

Some mechanics have been changed, and others have been added. For instance, you earn a rare currency called humanity and use it to regain your human nature. Possessing humanity has its advantages, perhaps the handiest of which is the ability to "kindle" at a bonfire. Doing so increases the number of healing flasks you earn at a particular bonfire when resting. The covenant system is a brand new mechanic in which you align yourself with a particular faction. The reasons to join a faction are numerous. For example, I am currently in the Forest Hunter covenant, which allows me to traverse through certain areas without being attacked. There are multiplayer benefits as well, though at this early stage, those benefits aren't immediately obvious. (In some cases, you can have a beneficial effect in another player's world; in others, you gain access to unique spells.) I haven't yet experienced how covenants affect your interactions with other players, but betraying your covenant might have dire consequences.

As for standard multiplayer interactions, well, you still see ghosts of other players and encounter bloodstains that show you the final seconds of another player's life. You still may write messages to other players, as well as view and rate other messages. And you can still summon/be summoned to the worlds of other players--or invade them. Invasions have returned as well, but some parameters have changed. For instance, a key non-player character was killed in my game, and I was given the chance to invade the world of the phantom that assassinated her.

As you can tell, Dark Souls is complex, sometimes extraordinarily so. Everything you do has consequences, but sometimes, those consequences are a mystery. And that's part of the joy. You never know what is around the bend or what fate might befall you if you don't take care as you make your way through this extraordinarily challenging game. At one point, I had bizarre froglike creatures breathe a cursing mist all over me, causing me to become cursed. Becoming cursed means losing half of your health bar, and lifting the curse involved sprinting through the murky New Londo ruins, avoiding ghosts while seeking the special healer who could lift the curse. After idling for too long in a demon's abode, a bulbous growth sprouted on my head, and I could no longer equip a helmet. Now I have a giant tumor growing on my neck instead of a head and no access to the defensive benefits of the black-hemmed hood I love so much!

And yes, Dark Souls is exceedingly difficult, but it's almost always fair. Like Demon's Souls, it has its quirks. The lock-on system hasn't changed, so if you don't manage it properly, you might whip the camera around rather than target an enemy or lose your lock if a boss jumps too far away from you. And the frame rate can get a little rough from time to time, especially in Blighttown and Darkfalls Basin. But it rarely interferes with the combat, which is still ultraprecise. When you die--as you so often will--it is because you didn't manage combat properly. I could go on and on about Dark Souls and the unique pleasures within it. What game could make me shout, sweat, and gnash my teeth--and yet make me want to spend every waking hour playing it? What RPG could so forcefully break the rules we've come to expect from most games, yet never feel cheap or unfair? For now, I will simply say this: It's good. You'll find out just how good soon enough.

Written By

GameSpot senior editor Kevin VanOrd has a cat named Ollie who refuses to play Rock Band because he always gets stuck pla

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