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It is imperative that I bring Dark Souls to the attention of as many people as possible before it's too late. D:
I say this dramatically because the first trailer and gameplay demo of Dark Souls II has been released. I implore you, do not look/play the sequel before you play Dark Souls itself! The prequal, Demon's Souls, feels unpolished in comparison to Dark Souls, and for this reason I struggled to get into it. I regret this massively, as Dark Souls has to be one of the best games I have ever played. Don't let it slip away!
The most striking thing about this game is the atmosphere. It presents an incredible mood of isolation that really gives a unique feel to the whole experience: even the multiplayer is strange and distant (and incredible, I'll get to it). While it's true in most games that almost everything you meet wants to kill you, you don't often feel alone because of it like you do in Dark Souls. Those few NPCs that don't outright attack you often can't be trusted, and their voices sound like they're across a chasm and wearily calling to you. There is very little hand holding here, and this is obvious from the start: the story is barely touched upon in the beginning, and you have to work hard to get to know the land you're in; the tutorial, if you can call it that, takes a learn-by-fire approach and only tells you the very basics. The world you live in is hostile, and yet the environment is nothing short of beautiful. The moody lighting in almost all areas gives a real sense of joy to the glimpses of sunshine you see, peeking through the clouds or over ruined castles. If only I could be so ... gloriously incandescent!
Don't be fooled into thinking "Prepare to die edition? Meh, I'm pro, bring it on!" This game will punish you for everything you get from it. The next bonfire (save point) can feel infinitely far away, a boss can seem untouchable, hell, a particular room can be daunting all on its own. You'll constantly be juggling the risk of getting more souls (experience) to reach the next level, or dying and losing everything you've worked on in the last hour and a half (think The Weakest Link - you need to reach a certain number of souls in order to 'bank' with a level or upgrade - one wrong move before then, and you could lose it all). If you do die, you have one chance to get back and recover your lost souls, but dying again before you reach them will mean they're gone forever. Maybe this wouldn't be so bad if what you killed stayed dead, meaning you've actually achieved something, but if you die or rest at a bonfire mobs reset (with the exception of bosses), and so losing souls can really mean that everything you've been working on has not happened in the game.
Yeah, it's tough. It'll have you pulling at your hair and punching the floor. If you have violent tendencies you'll want to bubble-wrap your controller so it doesn't break when you throw it (note: use a controller! The PC port is lazy at best, and a Windows Controller will make your experience far more enjoyable). Does this mean you shouldn't play it? No! Difficult video games are few and far between these days, and the challenge of playing makes winning all the more satisfying. Picture it: you've been playing for an hour, and you're sitting on enough souls to level up. Twice (big deal). You're too far from the last bonfire for running away to be an option, and you know there are enemies ahead. Every little tiff becomes a nerve-rattling fight to the death, every platform puzzle a walk on a knife edge. You read a note left by another player: bonfire ahead. Your heart soars and you're filled with a new vigour, Maybe this run is your run, maybe you'll die and go for it again. But you know that that bonfire is just out of your grasp and, when you eventually reach it and rest your weary bones, you'll know it was all worth it. The rewards in the game are heightened immeasurably by the hardships between them.
The multiplayer is unlike anything I've played before. There are no servers you need to join: instead, all the separate players' worlds are floating in a huge cloud, and often (based upon connection strength, I expect), these worlds will be able to contact one another. You'll see comments on the floor that other players have left, which can often act as great little hints or extreme troll attacks - telling you that there's an illusory wall ahead is useful, advising that you jump when only death is at the bottom is not. Rating comments positively will give a little treat to the author, so that's nice. Similarly to leaving notes, you can leave summon signs on the floor to help other players with boss battles. If they're human, rather than Undead (don't worry, not a zombie flick), they can touch your summon sign and get some help. The helper gets some souls, the helped is, well, helped. However, this comes at a risk! Becoming human is useful but also means you can be invaded by other players, who want to hurt rather than help you. You can jump into any Human game and try to kill them for their souls and humanity. This can be rough when a more experienced player jumps in and kills you, but it's great fun to do yourself as well. This whole setup only reinforces the strange, lonely experience of the game: players you meet are only as phantoms, existing temporarily in your world.
Right, that's enough from me. There's so much I haven't mentioned: the complex weapon leveling, armour combinations balancing between protection and weight, treasures to be found, an incredible story. I could talk all day, but I strongly recommend that you get in there and play for yourself. You'll still be discovering new things on your third playthrough, I promise.