Obvious spoiler alert. I go into some length about the story.
I feel that people have really misunderstood the difficulty in Dark Souls.
I have witnessed a number of people claim the game has 'fake' difficulty, and that it's cheap and its 'difficulty' comes only through trial and error. Frankly, these people fucking suck and have misunderstood the game. Similarly retarded are those who claim the game, apparently like Demon's Souls, has 'no story'. But this is a review and not a discussion of other people's opinions, so I'll end my digression here....for now.
Unlike Demon's Souls, Dark Souls begins with a rather unique introduction to an absolutely spectacular world. Several Lords who were born of fire happen to be tired of, what appear to be, indifferent, everlasting Dragons. So the dragons are hunted down by these Lords and after that the story is left up to the player to unravel
This brings me to the storytelling in this game. The styles of storytelling in Dark Souls are visual and exploratory. I'll say it now to get it out of the way: Dark Souls has a fucking massive hard-on for exploration. Basically every mechanic in Dark Souls pertains to exploration, and if one doesn't explore, one will be punished. Anyway, the exploratory storytelling in Dark Souls branches out. To fully experience the story, one must explore to find items and NPCs. Items divulge on existing stories through symbolism and the text within their descriptions, while NPCs will expand upon new stories. The existing stories are often of the existing Lords. These stories, about the existing Lords, hold two central themes: insanity and degeneration. Probably the best disappointment I have ever felt is realizing that these awesome characters within a story that the player struggles to find are actually mere husks of their former selves. It's incredibly depressing and many items and characters will either state or imply what drove them to their current state.
The substories that are introduced to the player are even more evocative though, as all of the character's that once seemed to be trusty friends slowly lose their minds. Character's must be found through exploration, they're not set on a linear path, but are often hidden away, and that in itself is the greatest encouragement to explore the environment for me. It is easily the best and saddest set of substories I have ever experienced, and it's strengthened by just how many trials and tribulations one experiences with these NPCs who the player slowly loses. It is the best tie of story and storytelling I have ever experienced in a game.
The visual storytelling doesn't have the breadth of the exploratory storytelling, but it's still quite significant. Enemy and environmental design speak volumes, certain enemies carry half-eaten corpses which they try and beat the player with, while other non-hostile creatures will have gigantic clutches of eggs on their backs and their hands in prayer. The way the environments are linked and, most especially, the way the game has such an enormous definition between the royal, common and poor environments say a lot to just what many dwellings were like before the player reached them, and this comes together with the enemy design. The implications are minor compared to that of the exploratory stories, but nonetheless have great impact and create an incredibly unique fantasy world.
Enemies are obscure, intimidating and an utter pleasure to fight. Their design can be split into two styles, the first of which is a unique twist on cliched enemies. Giant rats and animate skeletons may seem trite, but their relentlessness and their placement within the environments will have the player on edge and enjoying every second of fighting them. I don't want to go into any details, as I would only want to give a single example, but that would be long, and a long, isolated example is unimportant. Simply put, they're executed very well.
The more unique enemies are less unique per se than they are within their origins. These enemies have some obvious inspirations (Lovecraft, Berserk, mythology) and are derivative in that sense, but this is in no way a fault, rather, it brings these creatures to life and is more of a homage than anything. These enemies include tentacle-headed beasts (Lovecraft), skeletons nailed onto wheels that charge towards the player, in numbers, at great speeds, in darkness (Berserk) and some really well animated, extremely intimidating Hydras (mythology). They have glorious aesthetics, simply.
The game breaks free of derivation with the majority of enemies, but I don't find them relevant for this review save for this short note. They're much more intriguing within the game than I can ever explain them outside of the game, so I will not try and change that.
What I find even harder to put into words is the plethora of attacks enemies have. If one ever falls into the trap of believing enemy patterns or attacks or predictable, one is as good as dead. Such a wide range of attacks are constantly surprising, awe inspiring (among the larger enemies: breathing vortexes of fire, drawing crystals up from the ground to impale) and truly fulfilling of the enemies intimating nature. Many enemies have the ability to hold the player (whether with hands, mouths or mineral spikes) and this further forces concentration unto the player, as if one is not concentrating on the visual cue enemies give, one is, once again, as good as dead. And in some morbid way, it's actually satisfying to see the player character killed in these ways. Having a giant cat bite the player character and throw it around, in its mouth, like a plaything is...actually really cool.
And that is basically the philosophy of combat. Watch for visual cues, and attack when the time is right. When an enemy opens its defense, throws itself in front of the player, has a slow attack; these chances must be taken advantage of lest one is killed easily. Thankfully, there have been expansions on movement in the game. A ring can be attained that allows the player character to flip about acrobatically, and this greatly strengthens movement as opposed to defense.
This takes me into balance. I will not generalize the classes in Dark Souls, to try and name the archetypal characters that can be made would be next to impossible to do correctly, as there are so many different customization options that allow the player to live out a shitload of archetypes. I have roleplayed as Thor (and Odin too. why? because fuck you, that's why) to the point that I can throw lightning bolts and wield a hammer that does lightning damage while wearing a helmet flanked by a pair of wings. There are numerous combinations of just what the player can be, so rather than comparing classes, I will compare styles and abilities.
Within melee combat, there's a defensive ability with spears and rapiers, the ability to use faster weapons and quickly dodge attacks or just go without either and use heavier weapons. The melee styles are very well balanced. Being defensive is slower, but safer, relying on the strength of the shield in use. This style is useful in tighter areas like hallways so enemies can caught in a bottlneck. Being fast is...fast, but dangerous, meaning a higher DPS can have faster results, but can also result in faster deaths. This style is reliant on larger areas to move around in to dodge attacks and get behind enemies. Finally, there's the heavy-hitting approach. Using two-handed swords or hammers almost always require high ceilings, lest the weapon ricochet off the roof. This approach will leave the player's defenses open due to the lengthy attacks, but do a lot of damage. All of these styles require concentration and spatial awareness. Well balanced, and catering to several styles with great detail, the melee combat is awesome.
The ranged combat is similarly well balanced. Just like the levels of defense within melee combat, the level of range within ranged combat varies in accordance with damage. This is split into miracles, pyromancy and sorcery, and bows and arrows. The few offensive miracles often require a close range, but those few are extremely powerful when used correctly. Pyromancy and sorcery both have many more offensive attacks and are both medium range, meaning they require a lot of movement and speed to be effective, but are more effective as a long-term offensive measures compared to miracles. Lastly are bows and arrows. Crossbows are also medium range weapons that rely on stunning enemies to take them down with a number of bolts. Pretty basic, not of the largest focus. Bows and arrows on the other hand, they're much more interesting. With a unique sniping mode, bows and arrows are very effective at long range attacks, but must be used wisely. Aiming for the head is necessary to do the most damage possible, distance must be gauged to stop arrow drop which greatly reduces damage. It doesn't do as much damage as pyromancy or sorcery, but is very preferable for the cautious. Also, there is a bow that shoots 'arrows' the size of swords. It's incredibly awesome to use, as it flings enemies back meters, but is also well balanced because it takes a shitload of time to reload and uses up a lot of stamina. Once again really well balanced, really fun to use.
There are some basic skills necessary to actually use all of the combat mechanics given though. Some I have already said, such as having spacial awareness and watching for visual cues. But other necessities are luring enemies. Enemies are usually placed at distances apart from other enemies, and can usually be lured one by one. It's absolutely necessary to gauge how many enemies one is drawing in, as it is very easy to be overwhelmed and be tricked into thinking the difficulty is trial and error. Basically, the game requires patience, something many people don't seem to have while playing video games. I'm digressing again, but I've seen others complain that people just play video games to 'have fun' or want to play games in 'bite-sized chunks' and somehow people believe this isn't possible in Dark Souls. Well that's fucking stupid. Having fun in Dark Souls is as easy as understanding the basic mechanics that make up the gameplay: blocking, rolling, parrying and attacking. If the player understands those basic mechanics, the combat will be fun. Now the latter argument, usually that there's 'too much trial and error gameplay, so the player has to play it for long hours' ties into the former. If one can understand the basic gameplay mechanics, then its quite easy to play the game for an hour or two, actually make progress, then put it down.
To anybody who calls the game 'cheap', says it has 'fake difficulty' and 'trial and error gameplay' with 'no story', fuck you. You don't know shit about video games. The end.
I try to structure these things so the sequencing of information flows, but I'm kind of jumping back here suddenly, to the environments. The world of Dark Souls is enormous. More effective than any sandbox out there, the world consists of a number of linear and nonlinear areas, the latter which link up in a way that will have the player slowly piecing together an overworld vision. The structure of the environments in so very natural, and slowly open up with various keys, elevators and events to allow for faster traversing. The incredible range of styles within these environments just amazes me, always contrasting, always beautiful. The scale of these environments is just so imposing, with many cyclopean structures, deep bodies of water and deep forest. Exploration is a great experience that is made even greater by the enemies inhabiting that can quickly turn a friendly stroll into a dangerous romp.
What tops off this world that has been structured incredibly, contains evocative characters, awesome architecture and amazing enemies are the covenants within. Covenants are basically guilds. There are nine of them in Dark Souls and they're all strongly tied into the online element of the game, but are awesome as they are offline. Four of these covenants pertain to key groups in the story, while the other five expand on the other inhabitants of the world. Balance really isn't an issue between these covenants, it all comes down to personal preference, and they all reinforce the roleplaying element of the game. When encountering covenants, some important choices need to be made lest the player makes a mistake. If the player betrays a covenant, the player will be indicted for it, and the more you betray, the higher bounty on the player's head. As there is an assassins covenant, the player will be hunted down if the player does wrong any of these covenants. If one leaves a covenant without pardon from a certain NPC, one will be charged thousands of souls to gain forgiveness. When choosing a covenant, one must choose wisely about which appeals to them most, and making decisions too quickly can lead to some pretty harsh consequences. I absolutely love this mechanic, it adds quite a bit to the world, decision making and it leads me into the multiplayer.
The basic online functions are the same as they were in Demon's Souls. Messages can be left to either be helpful or be a dick, and bloodstains are left when somebody dies. In addition to this is a really fucking creepy online mechanic. Whenever a player character is cursed and dies, they leave behind a statue of their body. In areas which it is possible to get cursed, these statues will pop up out of absolutely nowhere, and it is really fucking spooky. The actual PVP and co-op has been slightly expanded upon though. Now I am not getting into problems people have been having with its execution, I've had a fine experience with it (it actually works with my NAT type!) and it works exactly as described for me. Depending on where you are in the world, which covenant you are in and what actions you have taken, different people will be found in the online component. If you're, say, in the Darkroot area, you will come up against the Cat Covenant which defend the forest, as you are a defiler. Or if you're part of a certain covenant and want to summon someone to help you with a boss, you will most likely summon someone from the same covenant as you, because you're in that covenant. Lastly, if you are a dick and invade people for personal gain, then you can be indicted. The more you're indicted, the larger the bounty on your head will be for others to come after you. These covenants are just really awesome in that way. They play a huge role in both multiplayer gameplay and the world, and tie the two together perfectly.
The last thing I want to talk about are the graphics. Dark Souls is a huge graphical improvement on Demon's Souls. No more clipping through armor, higher resolution textures, better lighting, everything in the game looks better graphically. But this is my basically one and only grip with the game: the framerate. 3 locations in the game have really choppy framerate for me. The first is the main hub Firelink Shrine. It appears to have too much grass or something, and just slows down while inside. The second is New Londo. This flooded city is filled with water, and until you get rid of that water, the entrance to it (about 150 meters long) has shitty framerate. Lastly, the most persistent and worst drop in framerate is in Blight Town. This precariously high area has terrible framerate for its first half, it's a real problem as this place is not optional and is quite dangerous. This is not definitive, others have claimed there are framerate drops in other areas, this is what I have experienced.
Dark Souls is my favorite action RPG ever. I love the world, I love the stories and I love the gameplay. The misconceptions of difficulty and story encouraged me to write this review and synthesize my thoughts on the game, and I have left out a lot about it, but explained what I felt was most important. To say the least, it's well worth your time.