"Prepare to Die" is perhaps the most accurate portrayal of what will happen when you play this game. Dark Souls is the spiritual successor to another amazing game, Demon's Souls. From Software has made one of the most unique series in the RPG genre this generation.
Dark Souls is not narrative rich in the likes of Final Fantasy or other RPGs, but instead strives to tell the story in a different way. The story really leaves it to the interpretation of the player from what they gather while exploring the different areas and few pieces of dialogue by characters.
Basically, the game starts out explaining what has happened to the world and at the same time introduces the different bosses you will encounter. The player is considered an Undead, locked away in the Undead Asylum. A prophecy states that there is a chosen one that must ring the Bells of Awakening in the distant land of Lordan. The player is chosen to fulfill the prophecy, and must battle their way out of the asylum. As the player makes their way through the game, they learn there is much more than ringing the bells.
Graphics and Presentation:
The graphics aren't top of the line, but the way From Software incorporates the detail of the environments with the audio, it gives this atmosphere that is top of the line. The character models and detail to armor or weapons are decent enough. The real winner here is the areas themselves. As you traverse Undead Burg or journey into the Catacombs, the areas just set the mood so well.
Undead Burg gives you this sense of a former civilization that is now reduced to being violent creatures known as hollow. As you walk through the rooms of former homes, you have this feeling of emptiness. Every area feels distinct, the second you enter a new area it immediately sets the mood.
As for the menus, they are a little wonky at first, but they are easy enough to navigate. Item management gets annoying when you have 15 broken swords in your inventory that you must scroll through, but you'll manage.
Another thing that is done brilliantly is the approach to audio. From the noises of your feet moving across poisonous sludge to the dragon screeching in the background to deliver that, "Oh shit!" moment, the sounds greatly increase the beauty of the game. The game doesn't use music tracks for battle music when you enter an encounter, but instead for subtle moments like the armor rustling of the badass Silver Knight, or hearing a Capra Demon slamming his dual great swords into the ground. It doesn't sound like much, but the sounds are executed so well on enemies to give them a greater sense of danger. After fighting certain enemy types for awhile, you'll groan when you hear a certain chanting and charge up noise, knowing some tough enemy in a hard to reach area is just waiting for you to turn that corner. In Dark Souls, listening to footsteps and screams become second nature, once you die a lot you really need the auditory cues to give you a leg up.
Gameplay and Controls:
In terms of gameplay, this is easily one of the best games of the generation. The game isn't some carbon copy of some other series, it doesn't borrow heavily from any other source, the magic is unique, and the game itself is just rewarding. In every encounter, you can die. Even easy enemies that you can beat over and over again, if you get sloppy against them, they can kill you. You have a health bar and a stamina bar, both which can be increased by leveling up at a bonfire (which serves a lot of purposes, such as healing or leveling up). Instead of mana, each spell has a number of uses and is replenished by visiting a bonfire. For melee , you have a regular attack and a strong or unique attack. You can two-hand most weapons, giving a stronger damage output, but often is much slower and drains much more stamina. Heavy armor slows you down while offering much protection, where in contrast you can do evasive rolls with ease when your weight is low.
The combat can be boiled down to this: you can attack with your weapon or use a spell. Blocking can reduce or complete nullify damage at the expense of stamina, or you can parry to do extra damage. There are thrown weapons, bows, or you can even sneak up and backstab enemies to put on some major hurt. Dark Souls lets you start out thinking you can just enter a room and swing your sword around killing everything and not to worry. It quickly changes its tone once you get a little acclimated with the buttons. Enemies do not necessarily have a completely predictable sequence of how they attack, so you can't just wait for the enemy to swing his sword three times then strike, you have to pay attention to how he attacks and strike only when there's an opening. This is where different character builds influences heavily of the experience you will endure. Sometimes being evasive is much safer and easier to manage on a big enemy that is slow, or throwing a magic spell or two in the face of the enemy to get out of a tight spot.
You gain souls by defeating enemies, and souls are used for basically everything. Repairing, leveling up, buying weapons or items, all these things require souls. To really upgrade your weapons and armor, you will need to grind out a lot of souls. And if you die, you lose all your souls. Luckily, if you can make it back to the spot of where you died, you can touch your own soul sign which will restore all your lost souls. Unfortunately, if you died again on your trek to the spot of your first death, those souls are gone forever. Dark Souls really doesn't care, it feels you should've played better.
The game itself is hard, but it teaches you that every button press matters. Repeatedly spamming the attack button will get you killed in most scenarios. Instead, the game tries to teach you to block, evade, parry. It teaches you to take your shots only when you can, and if you mess up, the game will punish you for it.
The bonfires also act as checkpoints. When you touch a bonfire, that is the bonfire you will go to no matter where you are in the world, so if you take a long trek in a different area and ignore the bonfire there, if you die, back to where you started. The player also has an option of kindling a bonfire, something that is only available when the player has their humanity restored. Kindling lets you have more uses of the healing item, which makes it easier to get through the already punishing zones. The drawback? Now you can get invaded by other players, looking to end your existence. Upon death you reenter your undead form, but at least you won't be bothered by others!
The controls take a few times to get down, and uses the D-pad to switch between weapons, magic, and items. Each category is mapped to a different button on the D-pad and the only issue is trying to pick the right weapon, spell, or healing item right in the middle of a battle.
I won't go deep into character builds, but there are various guides on the subject. The game is deep when it comes to making a character on what attributes and weapons you will choose. Without a guide or wiki, you will most likely gimp your own character late in the game without knowing it.
If your inventory isn't properly assigned to these buttons, fights can have a whole extra level of stress as you panic fumbling through your inventory because you didn't assign a certain status recovery item to your D-pad. There is no pausing the game, so if you're dying from poison or bleed damage, it can be hard to read what type of clump can save you. But with Dark Souls, you learn how to play the game by repeatedly dying, so it's a lesson most players will learn down the road.
Probably the coolest feature of the game is the idea that you are constantly interacting with the world and the other players. The game is setup so that you see the ghost outlines of other players in the areas you are playing in at the same time. You might see a blood stain or a message on the ground that you can actually press and see what happens.
On blood stains, you see exactly how another player died, which reinforces the notion, "Yeah, you will die here too". If you see a message on the ground, it is left by another player as a way to maybe warn you to watch out for a ambush, or common left messages after a boss fight like, 'Praise the Sun!" or "I did it!". You cannot type out a personal message like, "Sir_Scud pwns noobs!1!1!!!" instead players must select from a list, just enough to help or mislead other players, but not enough to spoil anything.
The inclusion of PVP is perhaps one of the coolest things I've seen integrated into a single player game. It's not like you play the story mode, then hop online to play Team Deathmatch. Instead, if your humanity is restored, it allows phantoms to join your game. While in human form, you can see soul signs, these are other players who put down their signs that wish to help you beat the area boss. This can greatly help you get through tough areas, especially if they had been giving you trouble. However, human form also attracts red phantoms. Players who through their covenant or red orbs, they can enter rooms of players in human form with the mission to kill them.
You could easily be all the way through a level when a red phantom enters, kills you, and then you gotta start all over. If you're smart while in human form, you can summon up to two players via soul signs. Then if a red phantom player enters your world, he might have trouble with a 3v1. Usually the point of either invading a world as a red phantom or aiding a world as a white phantom is to grind the rewards for a particular covenant. Red phantoms are reward items for killing players, white for helping the player kill the boss. There are even blue phantoms and a covenant where you can invade 3 different worlds at once, truly giving Dark Souls a unique multiplayer experience.
Dark Souls is one of my favorite games, a true gem in a generation where games are made easier, for broader audiences. It makes its own identity, and doesn't try to appeal to certain types of gamers. The game won't tell you much, so sometimes you might not know where to go or how to get there. The only real problem is the game has so many little triggers for certain events or items that are completely missable if you don't trigger them properly, but there is no way to know how without a proper guide or use of wiki. For anyone who likes action RPGs or wants to try something different, this is the game I would suggest.
+ Incredibly rewarding gameplay
+ Intense fights against other players and AI
+ Incredibly beautiful environments and atmosphere
+ Encourages multiple playthroughs
+ Good use of audio
- Steep learning curve
- Certain items can be easily missed or lost in a playthrough without using a guide
- Need a guide or wiki for character build or risk a big headache late in the game