Editor’s note: Ryan Smith is a longtime gamer and freelance writer who lives in Raleigh, NC. A graduate of East Carolina University with a degree in business and marketing, he has written in the past for WRAL Tech Wire and GameArgus.com. He currently plays Xbox 360 and PC as well as Nintendo DS. For story ideas, tips and feedback, he can be reached via e-mail (ryannicksmith@gmail.com)

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – One of the lesser known titles of this year’s video game rainy season is From Software’s “Dark Souls,” a dark fantasy action RPG (role playing game) renowned for its difficulty. From Software is a Japanese game developer previously known for their Tenchu and Armored Core series, until 2009 when they released “Demon’s Souls.”

Demon’s Souls was a very important game for two reasons: It showed that inherently difficult games can still be successful in an industry that aims to reach the masses, as well as revolutionizing multiplayer gameplay for RPG’s and games in general.

Celebrated for its immersive and beautifully dark setting, Demon’s Souls was also incredibly unforgiving, at least compared to most games of the modern age.

But that’s where their multiplayer comes in. Even while you are playing alone, Demon’s Souls shows you “ghosts” wandering around. These are players in their own games who are playing in the same area as you. These players can leave messages for anyone to read, with warnings, hints or even pleas for help. If a nearby player should plummet to his death or be crushed by a giant, you can interact with a bloodstain that shows how they met their untimely end. So even though the game may operate at a much higher difficulty than most, they do throw in some unorthodox methods of helping you.

You can even participate in co-op by having other players soul forms enter your game (or vice versa) and team up to take down the area’s boss.

Player vs. Player(or pvp) combat also has its role in Demon’s Souls, as another player can invade your world as a “black phantom” with the objective of killing you for a reward of Souls, the game’s level up currency.

A PS3 exclusive

So Demon’s Souls for its difficulty and integrated online play became a highly successful and famous title, but unfortunately was a PS3 exclusive and I never got to try it. I only heard about it from multiple sources as being a good game.

But on Oct. 4 we saw the release of From Software’s latest title: Dark Souls. This time it’s for both PS3 and Xbox360.

Dark Souls is the “spiritual successor” to Demon’s Souls, meaning it’s not a direct sequel or prequel, but it is set in the same world, with many of the same gameplay elements.

As it launched, Dark Souls was already described as being even more challenging than its predecessor, while also changing a few fundamental arenas of gameplay. I really wanted to go back and try Demon’s Souls first, but not having access to a PS3 at the moment I decided I would just dive into the dark and challenging world of Dark Souls.

The main thing that drew me to the game was its dark fantasy setting. Much like George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, it’s a world where there are no invincible characters or sure bets. It’s a world overrun by darkness and it is up to the main character to set things right again (much like a survival horror title, but with classic fantasy elements such as magic, knights and such).

I wanted to prove to myself that I can still tackle these more challenging games that haven’t really seen much light since the late 90’s. My favorite game series of all time are the Infinity Engine games Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale, fantasy RPG’s that relied on excellent tactics and a lot of planning. Those games were renowned for their difficulty, but I never really noticed because I was so fascinated by their worlds and how incredibly well made the games were. I just kept trying when I faced serious challenges and I always overcame them.

Beginning the Dark Souls journey

So as I began my journey in Dark Souls, I immediately noticed some great things about the game, but also so issues. First I was very pleased by the fantasy setting, the immersion is just right, it’s very dark, even scary, but also does the classic fantasy elements justice, I played around with a sorcerer and a wanderer, getting a feel for both magic and melee combat. The intro cinematic was very nicely done, something I find to be less true as time goes on and more games fail at storyline. When I actually got into the game, I really felt pulled into this dark world, the adrenaline was pumping as I set about the first area of the game: A dungeon.

The menus in the game are nicely nostalgic, reminding me of other classic Japanese titles like Resident Evil, but then when I got to character creation I was faced with my first complaint: the characters are hideous. When I tried to customize my character’s face, every time I clicked random I was met by a more horrifyingly grotesque set of features than the last time. I didn’t have enough time to really customize it manually, but I finally clicked random enough times to get something that was at least normal looking before I started the game.

Combat in the game is beautiful. It is not a button masher like God of War and is more reliant on timing and execution than other RPG’s like The Elder Scrolls. Most of the fights are 1vs1 or 1vs small groups, yet they require tactics and planning to take down, as the game’s reputation proves to be true, this is not a forgiving game. The first time I tackled an enemy knight, I messed up my parry and he stabbed me, nearly killing me. So I ran away like a coward back to the campfire, this game’s respawns and healing “safe zone” to recuperate. I was definitely still learning.

During the game’s first boss encounter I was frustrated by the fact this game offers no pause button, even if you hit the Xbox360’s dashboard button, the hard pause for the whole system, the game still runs in the background. This meant that as I was trying to figure out why I couldn’t fling my magic spells at the boss and was in a “pause menu” trying to sort that out, he just kept on crushing me with a giant mallet. I know, how rude is that? So not only does it not let you pause, if you die, you lose all your collected souls(the “currency” you collect from defeated foes) and you have to find your recently made bloodstain to collect them. If you die before you reach your bloodstain, those souls are gone for good.

This brings me to my final point, the game’s auto save feature. In a game like Baldur’s Gate, you could create a save file right before a boss and try over and over, if you still couldn’t win, you could load up your save from before the fight and go elsewhere. In Dark Souls, it saves no matter what you do. I accidentally killed the first friendly NPC I encountered by pressing the wrong button, so I freaked out and restarted my Xbox. However when I logged back in to the game, the NPC was still dead, it saves everything you do, whether or not you shut down your console or just choose “quit game.” This is another way of making the game way more challenging without actually tweaking the combat encounters. You have to be careful at all times because there really is no way around the difficulty of the game.

So overall I have had a lot of fun in my quest to save the world, I have already started 3 new games until finally getting through the starting area without messing up too badly, but it has been worth it.

Will Dark Souls’ challenge be rewarding enough to endure it? Will the game’s story and immersion warrant the many long hours of dying?

Review to come.

Around he Gaming World: A glitch for “Gears 3”

Epic Game’s blockbuster game Gears of War 3 has been having some trouble with a glitch recently. According to the 192-page official forum topic on their website, I’d say it seems to be pretty common. It has to do primarily with split screen cooperative play, whether it’s campaign, beast, horde or vs. modes. The glitch is preventing either one or both profiles involved in the split screen action to freeze at different points, whether it’s as soon as the game starts or during the game. So far no fix has been released by Epic.

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