A few technical missteps cannot impair the satisfaction given to those who brave Dark Souls' overbearing dourness.
Dark Souls is the spiritual successor to Demon's Souls, the eye-opening Playstation 3-exclusive with revolutionary online integration that straddles the line between risk and reward like nothing seen before. It's a game where caution is everything because even the lowest common denominators can end up besting you.
This is still true for Dark Souls. From the word 'go' you're given as much information as you're given quarter: none. You're told how to light a bonfire, but not what the effects of Humanity are. You're taught how to perform a plunging attack but not how to jump. You'll know how to raise your shield but not how to raise your bow. How to gain Poise, how to perform Miracles, how to enchant your equipment or how to start co-op play are questions that the game doesn't answer. This is a school of hard knocks: they teach you how to fight and then kick you out.
That sobriety sets in quickly too: you're ill-equipped for your very first boss encounter, the lack of direction will get you to unwittingly enter areas or provoke creatures while being hopelessly underpowered and invisible tripwires trigger a presumed-dead dragon to resurrect right in front of you or a wyvern to come out of nowhere and set fire to a bridge you're crossing. The subtitle isn't there for show, it's a warning that death will find you through devilish trial and human error.
As per customs, you start off by making a character. There's one race to pick (human) and even less options for facial hair but the lack thereof is somewhat sweetened by a Hormones-slider that allows you to make yourself an effeminate brute or a tomboy. Yes, really. Classes come tenfold with varying starting levels and stat allotment, some more focussed on swords, others on sorcery. If you're a real glutton for punishment, you can pick a barebones class called a Deprived who starts off with nothing but a loincloth for armor and a club as a weapon. You can't make a custom class but in the end, your class doesn't influence that much as you can still grow into any character you want with the right stat investments.
Then you take off on a harsh and unforgiving journey through the equally harsh and unforgiving kingdom of Lordran. It takes a while for the story to unravel and even then much of it is delivered inexplicitly, but you'll eventually learn through a giant talking serpent with a human face and tendril moustache that you're chosen to succeed Lord Gwyn, one of the four deities that ushered in the Age of Fire that eventually led to the dawn of mankind. Your vocation is to banish the Undead affliction that's spreading through the kingdom by rekindling the fading fires.
Or something like that anyway. There's no quest log to read up on your odyssey and characters that contradict each other leave much of it up to your own interpretation. Not that it matters, all that typical Tolkienesque hoodoo of fire and shadow is quickly forgotten in favour of a more important mission: staying alive.
Although life is a vague concept in the world of Dark Souls. You start off undead already, and technically you can't die since death simply sends you back to the last bonfire you rested at. These bonfires are your only places of solace, acting as your maintenance stations. Interacting with them saves your game, refills your health flask, allows you to attune your magic or repair and upgrade equipment after buying the respective toolboxes. More importantly, they are the only places where you can level up by investing souls, the currency of the kingdom. You get them from killing enemies and consuming essences but since it's the only coinage in Lordran, you'll have to be considerate when spending it on stats, spells or equipment.
But Dark Souls wouldn't be Dark Souls if there wasn't a catch: resting or resurrecting at a bonfire resets the world. Bosses stay dead but the common mobs that occupy most of the keeps and crags respawn. In short: when you die, save your game or level up, you'll have to go through the onslaught of zealots and zombies anew. This is especially problematic because death means losing those hard-earned, valuable souls you were carrying. If you can make it back to the spot where you died, you can loot your own puddle of blood and recover them but if you die during your corpse run, your original essence is replaced and those souls are gone forever. As you level up, the price of each point gets higher, meaning that you will have to save up more and more souls to afford them, making a follow-up death a real gut punch. The further you get from your last bonfire, the more stressful the prospect of death becomes, and the more cathartic the sight of a new bonfire is.
Combat is the beating heart of Dark Souls. Hubris, impatience and button mashing are roads to ruin as the game has implements of strategy and management. Your status screen is chockfull of numbers and abbreviations that factor into your precision and power, but not everything is as transparent as it should be. Seeing a D-rating in physical attacks for the weapon you're handling is meaningless if you're not told how to better that rating, investing in strength doesn't necessarily make your attacks stronger and while beefing up your endurance increases your maximum equipment load, it won't make you faster in heavy armour until you reach a certain threshold.
Every combat-oriented action with the exception of magic is governed by your stamina. Taking a hit on your shield, rolling out of harm's way, missing an attack, sprinting, thrusting and hacking all deplete your stamina bar, at which point you will stall and stagger, a sure-shot way for the enemy to pummel you senseless. It regenerates rather quickly inside and outside of combat but that split second that you're without stamina is all it takes for the enemy to finish you off. Heavy armour slows the regeneration and you can wield any weapon, even if you don't meet the required stats, but each swing will bite a chunk out of your stamina.
Most of the weapons can be held single-handedly or with both hands, changing the move set and damage output for your light and heavy attacks accordingly. They can also be modified with embers and scales, enchanting them with one of the many alignments such as occult, fire, lightning, chaos or dragon. As you can expect, the bigger enemies have an affinity for and a weakness towards one of these alignments, and you can crack heads more effectively by entering the fray with properly enchanted gear.
Even without modified equipment, you can still bring a world of pain unto your enemies if you dabble in the riskier techniques: sneaking up on an enemy for a backstab or parrying an enemy's attack grant severe damage bonuses, but giving them even a sliver of a chance to breach your defences is like playing Russian roulette with a half-loaded cylinder. If your timing is slightly off, it can go south real quick.
But it's not just your own miscalculations and button fumbles that will get you killed. A spastic camera, stretching fight animations and invisible barriers can get you to stumble off the world, and the twitchy controls aren't necessarily a good fit for the platforming sections across flying buttresses, invisible paths and support beams, especially while being shot at with arrows that knock you back. There's also a lock-on that isn't particularly effective since it just dictates the direction you attack in: an enemy that's hovering a foot above you won't get hit by your attack animation, you just stab the air beneath it. Not all weapons have a vertical slash and not all locations lend themselves to jumping attacks, making certain fights border on cheapness. Other design choices add to the stress: the game doesn't pause when you delve into the clunky inventory and health potions take their sweet time to refill your vitality bar.
The many, many boss fights are more acts of attrition than tests of skill. You'll learn their attack patterns early on, leaving a slow grind of chipping away at their massive life bars. It can take a good hundred hits to fell them while one of their attacks can eat a third of your vitality, if they don't kill you instantly. It's understandable - you are, after all, a simple being taking up arms against huge monstrosities - but it makes their threat more embedded in cheapness than it ought to be. You can return the tacky favour by running straight under their legs where they can barely hit you, then spend a good seven minutes whacking at their shins.
That doesn't diminish the satisfaction when you beat them though. At one point I was fighting a giant magma-spewing spiderlady, both of us down to our last breath and no more health potions to turn the tide in my favour. The boss came charging towards me head-first so I decided to go all in as well, storming at her with my finger on the right trigger to do one last powerful rush attack and just before this nightmarish fiend would lock me in her jaws, I floored that trigger. My halberd pierced her head just a fraction of a second before her fangs would pierce me, causing her to fall and disintegrate while I stood there, cheering victoriously with my heart still pounding. Knuckles barely get any whiter than this.
If a boss does prove too big of a challenge, you can summon other players (or npc's, for that matter) into your world to help you out, but you'll need to jump through a lot of hoops to do so. You'll need to have Humanity so that you can Reverse Hollowing at a bonfire, essentially turning you human instead of undead. Then you need to actively seek out the summon signs left by other players, usually around the bonfires or the fog walls that indicate a boss battle. Then, when you found a sign, cross your fingers that the player can get into your game.
You'll often find that trying to play co-op just gets you the error "player could not be summoned" and since the process is completely randomized (not to mention heavily influenced by your own level) you can rule out playing with a friend unless you set up a meticulous meeting. If you want to be summoned into someone else's game, you can leave your own sign after meeting an npc that can easily be missed. Helping the host will earn you a wad of souls as well as Humanity, and since you lose nothing upon death, it's a very inviting prospect.
However, turning human doesn't just allow friendly player interactivity, you'll also open the floodgates to blood-hungry players ready to invade your world, at which point the bonfires are walled off and any quit option is greyed out until one of you dies. Invasions only work in the "dungeon" areas, and since you can only invade or be invaded by someone roughly the same level you are, you can only find competition in a select few places. This is remedied somewhat in the PC-version, that introduced a PVP-area.
Even if you don't want to meddle with other gamers, Dark Souls online integration does some neat indirect multiplayer tricks. You'll see other players running around as phantoms, and the ground is littered with their bloodstains (mementos that reveal how they died) and messages that can either trick you into traps or treat you to hidden treasure. Some areas further reinforce their presence: your very first objective is to climb a bell tower and ring the bell and you can hear the bell toll in your world when another player completes this task, and the doorway of an end-game boss is littered with the crystallized corpses of other players.
It's hard to put a time stamp on this adventure since so much of it depends on how much of the optional content you do or how many worlds you invade, but I guess you can consider your first run to be somewhere around thirty hours. It ends rather abruptly and when the credits are done rolling you're taking straight into a new game plus without even facing another menu or epilogue, but since there are so many secrets you won't have seen on your first playthrough, you won't mind another trip to the world of Lordran.
It's a very impressive world at that, seamless and uninterrupted with a breathtaking scale and verticality. There are moments were you gaze off into the distance, spotting bridges and staircases you ran across hours ago, and a good placement of shortcuts downplays any needless travelling. There isn't any load or pause in between areas except for a few elevator rides but the streaming world comes with a severe technical limp: the frame rate can drop to the single digits. The first couple of hours are very doable but once you get to the depths of Blighttown or the New Londo Ruins, the frame rate is brought to its knees.
In fact, much of the game's optimisation is, well, crap. The very first screen asks you to press the Start-button and the options mention joysticks that, as far as I can tell, don't come standard on keyboards and mice. What I'm saying is that the game is ported from the consoles wholesale. Your machine is capable of much better processing at a much higher resolutions than the game allows, and the controls are barely functional out of the box. Thankfully the mod community has already been tinkering away, fixing many of the problems via unofficial patches. Shameful, but considering the PC-version exists solely because of an internet petition, I guess beggars can't be choosers.
Razor-sharp textures won't do much to liven the sullen kingdom anyway. Despite the dark fantasy gauds, much of the art direction in Dark Souls is a stark and authoritive page torn from the darkest of Middle Ages. You can go from a throne room draped in a perpetual sunset to a cave so dark that you literally cannot see three feet ahead of you in a matter of minutes. Though there are a few noteworthy expeditions to an ice cavern, a flooded city and a lake that is presumed to be the cradle of the world, most of the locations are dressed in fire and stone. An assortment of impressive armour sets and weapons await discovery, but it's the monster design that will stick with you longest; maws, claws, bones and blobs adorn the many enemies, some of which stretch out higher than your screen can capture.
The music is very subdued, usually only playing during the boss battles. This gives a bigger focus on sound effects which works well to keep you on your toes. The various thuds and clangs get plenty of realistic reverb in the dank dungeons, and what little voice acting there is usually comes across as deliberately delirious to reinforce the idea that you're exploring a place capable of corrupting even the strongest of minds.
Dark Souls is a ten thousand-piece puzzle thrown open before you. The lack of guidance, safety net and helping hand deliver a challenge and a freedom you're no longer given in this day and age. It's a game that's half-played browsing Youtube videos and wiki guides to know what your items do and where to go next, and even then trying to find some method in this madness is a daunting, sometimes frustrating task. However, once you understand the ins and outs of Dark Souls, those intricacies that the game never bothered to explain, it becomes a very satisfying and unique gaming experience. Tread lightly, and perhaps Dark Souls won't hate you that much.