Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition. Unlike Oniken, here’s a game that’s actually as challenging as it’s being billed as. And there’re many reasons why.
You will die, and you will die frequently. In fact, dying and coming back to life is an important part of the plot (not that you should care about the plot). Enemies hit about three or four times as hard as you’ll be comfortable with. Even generic fantasy skeletons and giant rats will give you quite a hard time. Some bosses can one-shot you. Regular enemies take three hits to end your life, and they like to surround you. Pro tip: getting surrounded is instant death.
Attacking, blocking, running, and dodging all reduce your meager stamina meter and force you to position and time your moves very wisely, lest you get cut to bits. If you don’t master the combat system, you will get slaughtered by even the most basic of enemies. Oh, and did I mention that the block button only works if you have a strong shield and you’re facing the enemy that’s attacking you? The block button is not an instant win button like countering is in Batman: Arkham City. You must use it judiciously, and sometimes the best move is to not use it at all. You also have the option to riposte the exact moment an enemy strikes you, but this is as nearly hard as parrying in Street Fighter III, as each enemy’s timing is different and the penalties for missing are quite drastic.
It gets harder. Save points are usually rather far from bosses. Normally I would consider this irritating, but while playing Dark Souls I found myself memorizing the layout of levels and the monsters within in order to complete them more efficiently. That’s a skill that hasn’t been required in video games for a long, long time. I felt like I was playing the first Castlevania or Ninja Gaiden or some other 80s action game that required me to actually learn the game in order to progress.
I like it. I appreciate a game that doesn’t treat me like a baby. You see a strange new monster? A lesser game would pause the action and have some screeching sidekick give you far too much information about what you’re supposed to do next. Dark Souls just tells you, “You figure it out.” You’ll probably die the first couple times you meet something you haven’t seen before. This game is brutal and unfair and that’s why people like it.
Your starting items are crap. New equipment and spells are prohibitively expensive, but you need to save up for them anyway to mitigate your extremely high chances of dying. When I first got inflicted with the Curse status ailment (something I had no way of mitigating at the time), I almost threw in the towel and said “to hell with this game.” Curse kills you instantly and lowers your maximum health by half when you restart. It can only be cured with expensive and limited items or going out of your way to a healer who lives in a place full of hundreds of tough ghosts. It reminded me of getting afflicted with eggplants in Kid Icarus: an obnoxious and unfun exercise in tedium. And in earlier versions of the game, it was even worse, lowering your health by half again every time you died again.
So there are definitely some things I don’t like about Dark Souls. There’s no mini-map; no maps at all, actually. Auto-targeting is nearly worthless unless you’re using long-ranged attacks, and you can’t auto-target enemies until they get relatively close, which severely limits its usage. Many spells are just about impossible to aim, putting increased importance on melee combat. Weapons and armor can get damaged and require repair, though this fortunately isn’t as big of a problem as it is in, say, Diablo or Fire Emblem or the SaGa series.
You use the same currency (souls) to buy items, repair items, and gain levels, which makes huge amounts of grinding necessary. However, since every little enemy can be quite tough in this game, grinding is never the mindless affair it is in JRPGs. The tiniest bit of carelessness can get you killed. And when you do get killed, you must undertake a journey back to your corpse to retrieve your souls, and if you die again, you will lose them permanently (though you are mercifully allowed to keep your items). Also, attacking moves you forward quite a bit, making you more likely to fall off cliffs than Jimi Heselden. The area Blighttown was so plagued with pitfalls as to be nearly unbeatable to me because of this madness.
Actually, come to think of it, that’s quite a few things I don’t like. For some players, the things I don’t like will be part of the charm. They like being faced with irritations, lost progress, and constant setbacks. If you enjoy games that fight against you every step of the way, games that want the player to lose many times, Dark Souls is for you. It will not hold your hand. You are filth beneath its boots and only skilled players will overcome the gargantuan variety of obstacles placed before them. Don’t play Dark Souls without abusing a guide or your experience will be even more hair-pullingly unfair. But when you do succeed, when you get to a new location or you take down a humongous boss that can kill you instantly, you’ll feel like the toughest guy on the internet. This game actually is hard.