There’s a famous scene in Raiders Of The Lost Ark where Indiana Jones faces down a swordsman who attempts to intimidate the archeologist by whipping a scimitar around like a baton-twirler leading a parade. Unimpressed, Indy shoots him. In games, we’re usually placed in Indiana’s role: empowered, and unfazed by threats. Dark Souls, the spiritual successor to 2009’s unforgiving Demon’s Souls, casts you as the swordsman, and effectively replaces that curved blade with a plastic one, a flimsy flammable shield, and maybe some magic. Then it expects you to survive.
This isn’t a shock: In a follow-up to Demon’s Souls, a challenge is expected. But Dark Souls has been billing itself as a “spiritual successor,” meaning it’s an evolution of that same strain of frustrating level-grinding met with pitiless insta-deaths. Still, Dark Souls comes with some concessions and big changes. Gone are the hub world and having to traverse the underworld to re-inhabit your corpse to press on. In their place, respectively, are a massive, seamless world and the addition of bonfires, which function as checkpoints. Neither of these make things easier, though, as NPCs and bloodstains left behind from other players—which function as otherwordly Post-Its—are purposefully vague and cryptic. Oh, and those checkpoints? They revive every enemy in the world you fought so hard to kill. And in a game where every encounter usually results in your death, you’re forced to consider whether it’s worth replenishing your health when you might turn a corner and get flambéed by a sunbathing dragon.
Another key addition is an intricate faction system, which deeply affects the online experience. By swearing allegiance to a particular cause, you can sidestep certain bosses (like a very menacing butterfly, no joke) or be called upon to quash players from opposing factions. It adds oodles of replayability to a game that already extends that Raiders moment for several dozen hours.
On a certain level, the frustration resulting from the overall lack of direction, or even explanation of what exactly you should be doing, aside from dying, can be construed as sloppy design. (The occasional frame-rate hiccup in the 360 version—the PS3 is much smoother—certainly doesn’t soothe nerves.) But on a deeper level, Dark Souls’ audacity at shoving you into an adventure, giving you a colossal world to explore, and forcing you to earn every speck of progress is downright exhilarating.