Anyone who can't remember Demon's Souls...by all accounts can't have played the game. No sane person could possibly forget the amount of sadistic anguish inflicted on them when this PS3 exclusive was released. Part role-playing game, part third-person brawler, and part ball-buster, Demon's Souls was probably responsible for a multitude of mental breakdowns through-out 2009.
The problem was, not only was Demon's Souls unbelievably difficult, it was also unbelievably addictive. The good news is, now even more players can flagellate their thumbs as the followup game - Dark Souls - is available on both PS3 and Xbox 360.
Dark Souls is essentially an "inspired successor" to Demon's Souls and fans need not worry, the developers are still bastards. In a nut-shell, Dark Souls is a 'dungeon' game where players move from area to area trying not to get killed by a multitude of nasties that are all very good at killing things.
At the start of the game, you have a choice of ten classes from which to create your character; they include Thief, Warrior, Knight, Wanderer, Bandit, Hunter, Sorcerer, Cleric and the Deprived. Each have their own strengths and weaknesses.
For example, Knights are heavily armoured - meaning greater protection but slower movement. Thieves on the other hand are comparatively fragile, but quick and able to lock-pick nearly every door in the game with some levelling up.
I decided to play as the Deprived, simply because it was a new class and it sounded pretty cool. Although I wish I hadn't. It turns out their name comes about from being completely deprived of anything useful. I found myself armed with a basic club and an old wooden shield. They also have no armour. In fact they're barely wearing clothes, with both the male and female avatars deciding to plough into battle with nothing but tattered rags clinging to their 'fun zones'.
That said, the Deprived actually isn't a bad class for new players. They have some of the highest stats across the board and are generally a good choice for newbs as they are flexible and you can mould them into just about any style you want. Even their pathetic starting equipment doesn't matter as players will soon unearth and find weapons, armour, and treasures as they explore the world.
Dark Souls is set in an open environment and although I described it as being a 'dungeon' game, a lot of the game is set outside in a beautifully rendered world filled with mountains, castles, destroyed cities and forests. However the game does tend to still feel like you're crawling through dungeons because of the grim, bleak palette that your oppressive surroundings are coloured with.
In no way is this a criticism of the graphics, Dark Souls is a spectacular game to witness. Every tinge of colour in the game, whether it's a copper-orange rusted hinge or a cold grey tombstone, all paint a perfect grim atmosphere that matches the tone of the gameplay perfectly.
As mentioned, most of the game will be spent dying. But between deaths, players get a chance to try some combat. Dark Souls has an impressive control scheme that takes just moments to come to grips with, but weeks to master. Using the shoulder buttons and triggers, players can use a variety of heavy or special attacks, as well as parry or block using a shield if your possess one.
Although similar to its predecessor, the controls in Dark Souls have been tweaked for the better. The combat now feels more intuitive and less sluggish than Demon's Souls and movement, diving rolls and parrying all feel more responsive.
While you're trying not to get slaughtered, you'll often notice the ghost-like multiplayer components included in Dark Souls as well. Although the game doesn't have a standard co-operative online mode, players can still aid each other as they all co-exist in a virtual space together. You'll notice apparitions of fellow players ducking and attacking invisible foes as they battle for their lives.
And although you can't actively help them, you can drop objects and leave messages for other adventurers to find. Successfully aiding players rewards you with a share of their loot, so it pays to be helpful. It's one of the highlights of the game and sometimes it's just comforting to know that others have failed before you (pools of blood remain on the floor from other non-successful players who have died there).
Dark Souls also includes an invasive multiplayer component too, allowing players to interfere and attack fellow players when online. Although considering how tough the single-player is, thankfully this can be turned off.
Those with (frightful) memories of Demon's Souls will be pleased to hear that the developers have added some more forgiving features this time around. One of these is the addition of Bonfires that are scattered around the map and act as checkpoints. Once found, whenever you die in the game (did I mention that this is often?), you'll get re-spawned here along with replenishing your health, magic, and special items.
There are also nine covenants - or guilds - scattered throughout the world of Dark Souls. Each has its own benefits, allowing you to learn skills and buy items that are exclusive to that covenant. They all have sweet names like Blade of the Darkmoon, Chaos Servant Covenant, and Way of the White.
If you wish to conquer the ridiculously difficult bosses like dragons and towering giants in the game, then learning the ways of a covenant is essential. These nine competing factions all add to the online bloodbath in the game as well, with rival guilds competing for leaderboard gold.
Unfortunately, all of this terrifying and palm-moistening action comes at a cost to the story-telling. In fact Dark Soul's weakest aspect lies in failing to draw the player into something deeper, other than just levelling up and managing to stay in one piece after crossing swords with a Black Knight.
For all of your heroic actions and hair-raising adventures, you'll sometimes end up wondering why the hell you're doing it all in the first place.
Of course, as this review score concludes, this minor gripe certainly doesn't mean Dark Souls' isn't worth checking out. Just make sure you take some anti-anxiety pills and put away any nearby sharp objects before hand. Best served with a squishy stress ball.
Platforms: PlayStation3, Xbox 360