There's a sense here of From striving just a little too hard to live up to the reputation Demon's Souls has built as the most hardcore game imaginable: a sort of savagely puritan hair-shirt epic of suffering, through which penitent gamers can renounce the sinful decadence of the refilling health bar, the waypoint marker and the usability-tested checkpoint.
But that's only half the truth. Yes, the game is difficult and obtuse. But it is also simple and elegant, with intuitive controls and a snappy, unfussy interface. It rarely presents a challenge that is unfair, convoluted, or requires hours of grinding or extreme dexterity to overcome. It's mostly a test of concentration and nerve.
And it's a labour of supreme love. Dark Souls' world of Lordran is beyond huge and is a single, contiguous space - but this is not the sprawling, repetitious wasteland of so much "open-world" game design.
Although pervaded by a sense of dread - reinforced by the dim lighting and sparse, echoing soundscape - Lordran's locations have tremendous variety and haunting beauty. They're linked by a labyrinth of shortcuts and alternative routes that opens the game out in a way that isn't at all linear yet is perfectly paced. You always have at least three different avenues to explore, and backtracking always uncovers something you missed.
Every inch of it is crafted. The intricacy and attention to detail in its construction are breathtaking. Beyond that, the fabulous artwork and poetic writing (you'll fight bosses called Moonlight Butterfly, Ceaseless Discharge, Executioner Smough and The Bed of Chaos) give the game a weird, mournful, dreamlike air that lingers in the mind.
A one-legged, headless stone statue drags itself around in a cave; you can run past it easily, but what would happen if you fought it? A vendor annoys you with his lip; you attack him, he vanishes and his wares are denied you forever. A frog curses you, halving your health bar; lifting the curse becomes an epic quest in its own right.
It's a mysterious and capricious place, but that just makes it powerfully real and threatening. Heart in mouth, you'll live every step you take in this realm. That is the higher purpose the game's difficulty serves.
So it's a shame when From loses sight of that and throws in a cheap boss or punishing bottleneck just for the sake of it, or confuses being enigmatic with being obstructive. But those slips are rare enough in a game as unique and gigantic as this.
If role-playing is to put you in the boots of an adventurer in a strange land and let you pick your path through it, then Dark Souls is a great role-playing game. If action is to test your skill in thrilling situations, then Dark Souls is a great action game. If adventure is to surprise and mystify you and invite you to uncover the secrets of a forgotten world, then Dark Souls is a great adventure game.
If entertainment is fun without failure and progress without pain, you'll have to find it somewhere else. But you'll be missing out on one of the best games of the year.
9 / 10