When Demon's Souls stormed into stores, it made people pay attention, primarily by punching them in the face over and over again until they figured out how to make it stop. Demon's Souls was an unforgiving drill instructor determined to wring genuine bad-ass-ery from the player rather than just tossing him an impressive interactive cut scene, and enough people appreciated having their skills respected that a sequel was bound to come along sooner or later. Dark Souls isn't technically Demon's Souls 2, thanks to a change in publisher, but it's bigger, meaner, and more impressive in all the ways a sequel should be.
Dark Souls is bigger, meaner, and more impressive in all the ways a sequel should be.
It's also experienced a few growing pains that manifest at game's start. After choosing a character class, designing a look, and selecting a starting perk, you wake up in a cell in an asylum for the hollowed-out husks of the formerly living. After a brief tutorial, taught by the notes left in glowing orange lines on the ground, you bust out and are plunked into a central area with multiple paths leading from it. The knight sitting near the bonfire has some helpful advice about which direction to go, but you can ignore it and get slaughtered by ghosts in one direction or skeletons in another if you'd like. Aside from a few locked doors, Dark Souls isn't going to prevent you from getting in way over your head.
The starting problem, though, is the game's manual. There is a ton of gameplay information that's hidden, and not the kind that's supposed to be. The giant crow in the starting area? Exploration will show what she's for, and that's perfectly fair. It's a puzzling mystery that gives a wonderful moment of "A-ha!" when finally solved. Humanity and how it relates to the bonfires, though, is a core gameplay concept, and the only place to get information on it is in one of the random loading-screen infographics. You shouldn't have to consult the Wiki to get an overview of a player stat.
Still, once a bit of external research is done, it's time to get down to the business of being ground into a fine paste. Enemies are smart, tough, and will cheerfully swarm anyone careless enough to give them the chance. Even in the starting Asylum you'll be seeing a few deaths before clearing the boss. While death just means reincorporating at the last bonfire you rested at, all the souls you gathered from defeated enemies are left in a glowing green pile at the spot you died. Die again before picking them up, and they dissipate into nothingness.
Souls are the currency of the game, used for everything from buying new equipment and spells to repairing weapons and armor, and even leveling up. Dying and dropping a pile of several thousand souls can lead to some very tense times, especially when there are a few giant enemies requiring careful handling between you and your stranded loot. Additionally, there's no bank to deposit souls into, making them a "use it or lose it" resource. The only thing hoarding souls will earn is heartbreak when the worst inevitably happens.
And it will happen lots, oh yes! Enemies come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from small pesky bugs to towering behemoths that shake the ground with their thundering footsteps. Undead soldiers wielding a variety of weaponry, giant hulking armored foes, skeletons, animals, walking plants, and a huge number of varied bosses all require different combat and defensive tactics to take down. A standard swordsman is pretty easy: just block and counterattack, but the same enemy type with a spear requires a much more careful approach due to its shield usage. Blocking a hit briefly lowers an enemy's defense as it recovers balance from the sword bouncing off your shield, but a parry, performed by swiping the shield at the same time the enemy attacks, leaves it wide open to a powerful counterattack. Heavier shields replace the parry with a shield bash, but their stronger defense goes a long way to make up for it, while lighter shields can't block 100% of all damage but have a much better window of opportunity for parrying. Strategies can also be adapted on the fly, thanks to the weapon and shield hands having two slots to equip items to.
It takes advance planning to get the weapon load-out right, because Dark Souls doesn't pause while you sort your inventory, but with the sheer volume of magic, shields, weapons, and miracles, there's always another tactic to try. Maybe even one that doesn't involve waking up back at the bonfire again, planning your next foray to recover lost souls and explore a few more feet into the unknown.
Despite the incredible difficulty, Dark Souls rarely gets to the point where it seems more trouble than it's worth. "Oh my god what the hell am I supposed to do against that!?" turns into "I have an idea", which eventually warps into a viable strategy, over and over again. There are times when success only grants a little extra distance, but the feeling of learning, and being rewarded by the experience, is strong enough that death feels like another chance instead of aggravating failure. There are a few bosses where this doesn't hold true, like the amazingly obnoxious Capra Demon fight, but these bits are few and far between. Progress is earned by the skills you learn, and it's hard to stop playing when you know that next time you can do better.
That sense of progress is what makes Dark Souls such a rewarding game to play. The incredible range of environments, enemies, hidden events, and other goodies all contribute, of course, but the main attraction is the feeling you get when the boss that used to take you down in two hits finally lies defeated. The level was huge, but exploration found a ton of hidden goodies and even some shortcuts to trim it down to size, and the creatures that populate it changed from deadly threats to nicely challenging encounters. It's possible that progress was helped by a new weapon and a level or two, but most likely you just got better. There are plenty of stats to upgrade and weapons to modify into more powerful versions, but that only goes so far. Dark Souls is a game that constantly teaches you the necessary skills to win, and the reward for learning is always a new challenge. You can't go wrong with a deal like that.