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. – “Dark Souls,” the latest game developed by Japanese company From Software, is the follow up “spiritual successor” to 2009’s highly praised Demon’s Souls. Demon’s Souls was acclaimed for its difficulty primarily, but also for having a fantastic dark fantasy setting, though unfortunately was a PS3 exclusive release.

Dark Souls, released on both Xbox360 and PS3 is widely regarded as even harder than Demon Souls. Not having played Demon Souls or even seen a video, I decided to take on the challenge of Dark Souls not only to have the accomplishment of beating it, but also I wanted to enjoy its dark fantasy world, something that borders high fantasy and horror makes it highly entertaining.

Immediately the first thing that strikes me about Dark Souls is the quality of the mood and setting. Even though Dark Souls has a very limited storyline, it still builds an open world around you that is populated with an amazing assortment of creatures and a few friendly faces as well. The voice acting I was surprised to find, is actually very good, the characters are resolute yet foreboding, combined with towering castles, poisonous environments, dark mines and haunted towns, it creates a powerful and strangely beautiful image of a world defeated by evil.

The game also does a fantastic job of item design, everything is beautifully reminiscent of a dark medieval society, not only it’s castles but also armor such as plate and chain mail, weapons like long swords and rapiers, or even katanas, all with their respective fighting styles fully intact. Knowing that around every corner are challenges difficult enough to see that you lose all of your hard earned “souls” or currency used for upgrades and leveling up, it adds even more dread.

Ultimately the game succeeds because even though it is primarily focused on exploring and heavy doses of combat, the combat is unlike almost every other game. It is all about timing, execution, planning, but most importantly: strategy. This isn’t a game you can get through while button mashing and chugging healing potions, if you mash your attack button, you will keep attacking and ultimately the enemy will parry you and unleash a deadly counterattack.

The bosses are massive, immensely powerful entities that can many times kill you in a single stroke, while even the most mundane enemies if left unchecked will end you just as quickly. Combat always has you on the edge of your seat and the hundreds of different weapons all have unique fighting styles that are very realistic and addicting, making the combat a really great and rewarding experience.

But never is the game’s inherent difficulty more than you can manage, while at times incredibly challenging, I never felt it was unfair like other games can be when cranked up to the highest difficulties. Dark Souls has but one difficulty setting and as long as you keep your shield up, watch out for traps and carefully examine your opponents, you will come out victorious, eventually.

The integrated multiplayer is also brilliant when it comes to help, players can leave warnings and other helpful messages for each other, or even be summoned into your world to help you defeat the local area boss. If you don’t feel like teaming up with a human player, there is also the option of summoning some of the NPC’s (Non-Playable Characters) you meet along the way. The messages and summoning stones really take away a lot of the burden, I recommend getting as far as you can without aid, reading all messages along the way, if you have trouble with a boss, simply become human (by using a currency known as humanity) and then activate a nearby summoning stone, this really turns a difficult boss into an easy fight.

Even though it becomes easier the smarter you play, there is still always a great sense of accomplishment in Dark Souls, since it is a higher level of difficulty across the board than the average RPG, you really do feel good when you progress through the game. But the difficulty isn’t always from legitimate sources, there are times when the game throws you into an area of constant threat of death not only from enemies but also from traps and sheer cliffs. This would all still be manageable, though difficult, if it wasn’t for the drastic frame rate drop that accompanies it.

There are a few areas in the game where instead of running at a smooth 30 or more frames per second, the game just stutters almost to a halt. This adds a huge amount of unnecessary difficulty, the game requires almost perfection at times, but unfortunately the game sometimes does not provide the same. Frame rate drops, inconsistent combat mechanics (sometimes trying to do a normal attack results in a kick, or attacking a shielded enemy from behind only to have him block with his shield…that is on the other side of its body) and sometimes utterly awful camera angles will all result in almost as many deaths as the intended gameplay itself.

But luckily 10 percent of the game at most is plagued by these concerns, 90 percent of the time you will only be faced with the working-as-intended trials and deaths of Dark Souls. This game has a huge bang for your buck, some of the highest levels of replayability I have seen in a game in years. Not only does the game take at least 40 hours to complete for the first time (even more if you take your time and enjoy the setting), there are ample opportunities to explore, kill enemies for treasure and experience, or visit old areas.

Since the game is very open ended (another reason the game can be more difficult than necessary, its easy to venture outside of your level range) you have almost no restrictions on where you can go and what you can do, as long as you have the keys to access locked areas. Once you do manage to beat the game, you can even do a New Game +, where all your levels and equipment carry over to a new game, where the enemies are also set to new health values and damage capabilities.

Once you have had your fill of the story, you can try your hand at the fantastic multiplayer as well. Whether you wish to assist others in fighting their bosses by dropping a summoning stone, or if you wish to participate in PVP (player vs. player) combat you can use “cracked red-eye orbs” to “invade” an enemy player’s world with the objective of killing them for great rewards. Also if you leave yourself human long enough in certain areas you can also be invaded by enemy players, with the objective of staying alive long enough to defeat them.

The multiplayer system in general in Dark Souls is excellent. Demon Souls set the stage and Dark Souls has really delivered on modern multiplayer innovation. There are no chat channels or voice chat to shatter the immersion of the game, there is simply good multiplayer that is integrated right into the great single player content, while the only method of communication available is using gestures.

Our Rating: 8/10

A wonderfully fantastic experience that although challenging, is only unfair when the game’s technical flaws show their ugly faces. Multiplayer is innovative and something I didn’t even know how much I wanted from a game.

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