I’ve been playing a lot of Dark Souls in my copious spare time. So far, I’m having a blast with it. It’s an action combat RPG released in 2011 by From Software, and was on Steam sale a couple weekends ago, probably to stoke interest in the sequel that had been released one month prior.
Dark Souls has a deserved reputation for being brutally hard and unforgiving. I see where that comes from, but at the same time I find the challenge fair and the setbacks tolerable. Getting killed is generally not that big a deal. You don’t lose skill points or levels. Your gear doesn’t suffer extra wear. You don’t lose anything but your money, which gets dropped on the ground and can be recovered if you return to that spot before dying again. That itself can be a bit of a chore, but since enemies are always in the same place, if anything surprises you more than once, it’s your own fault.
The game gets most of its reputation for difficulty from its tough boss fights. Many are steeply challenging, with gigantic enemies that seem impossible to even reach before they assault the entire playfield with a giant instant-kill attack. But the only ones that have caused me insurmountable trouble so far have been optional. All the major enemies that I absolutely had to defeat to progress through the game were relatively easy to take down. Tough, but not frustrating.
The game’s real difficulties are its complexity and the need to play dynamically. There is no one weapon, tactic, or character class that’s great all the time. In fact, different strategies have sharply different odds of succeeding, and in any given situation, many approaches are downright poor. You constantly need to learn, experiment, and adapt — the exact thing casual players dislike most.
Weapons in particular are vast, varied, and rife with tradeoffs between power, speed, and numerous unquantifiable variations in swing animation and other idiosyncrasies. Spears can be thrust while keeping your shield up, but they can’t be swung to hit multiple surrounding enemies. Claymores sweep through huge crowds of foes but get hung up in tight corridors. A heavy scimitar swing produces a wuxia-style somersault that strikes twice — good if you’re using an enchantment that adds damage to each hit, bad if you’re on a narrow bridge where wild motion sends you plummeting. And so on and so on.
The game is online-only, which is quite annoying. (Technically, you can play without a connection, but there’s no way to save.) It uses its always-connected nature in a smattering of neat but sometimes odd or inexplicable ways. On the positive side, you occasionally see other players as ghosts in your game, doing whatever they’re doing in theirs, or find patches of blood where other players died. Players can write messages on the floor for others to read — these are generally trustworthy and are invaluable at finding secret areas and avoiding ambushes.
Beyond that, the online features get strange. Occasionally you’ll see a white ring hovering in the air. I thought this was a bug at first. What’s actually going on is that another player recently cast a miracle there, so some of your miracles will get a small strength boost if cast at that spot.
PvP and co-op are intermingled. You can temporarily summon random volunteers to fight alongside you. That’s fun and helpful! However, doing so first requires that you use an uncommon, expensive item to take full human form. (Your character is normally in the early stages of undeath.) You also have to turn human to do some other useful things, like upgrade a resting site so it provides more healing potions. But there’s a downside to being human: hostile players can invade your game and attack you at will. They can’t take your things when you die, and the game ensures that they can’t be significantly higher in level, but there’s nothing you can do to stop them entering short of committing suicide to lose your human form, and if they’re hardcore PvPers (which they will be), you won’t stand a chance at beating them. (There are other, more consensual ways of initiating PvP, but their rules are convoluted.)
In summary: fun, deep game if you like a serious challenge that rewards exploration and flexibility and can't be overcome with brute force.