Is Dark Souls too hard?

The follow-up to 2009's Demon's Souls offers another unforgiving tale of epic combat, vast dungeons, and a brand-new world to explore. But is it too difficult for mainstream gamers?

Jeff Bakalar Editor at Large
Jeff is CNET Editor at Large and a host for CNET video. He's regularly featured on CBS and CBSN. He founded the site's longest-running podcast, The 404 Show, which ran for 10 years. He's currently featured on Giant Bomb's Giant Beastcast podcast and has an unhealthy obsession with ice hockey and pinball.
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Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
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  • Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
Scott Stein Editor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
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Jeff Bakalar
Dan Ackerman
Scott Stein
6 min read

Watch this: Game trailer: Dark Souls

Back in 2009 From Software's Demon's Souls made numerous game-of-the-year lists because of its innovative crowdsourced hinting system, but at the same time honoring the tough-as-nails mentality that seems to have been lost in modern gaming.

Dark Souls is the spiritual successor to Demon's Souls. It doesn't continue any sort of linear story, but most of the mechanics remain in tact, including the unforgiving difficulty of the game.

But in a landscape where regenerative health and multiple save points are the norm, can Dark Souls find a place amongst the mainstream?

Part of the difficulty that inherently lies in games journalism is remaining indifferent even when a given product isn't something you'd normally want to play. A perfect example of this was my experience with 2009's Demon's Souls. Forcing myself to play such a difficult title wound up making me appreciate so much about what I didn't know. I became immersed in the universe the game was able to convincingly create, even though I had died a thousand deaths exploring the world.

Of course I knew what I was getting myself into with From Software's follow-up, Dark Souls, and the game's tagline of "Prepare to Die" isn't really an attempt to be something it isn't.

Dark Souls (photos)

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Dark Souls can be infuriatingly difficult, and for the gamer who thinks he or she can just march right in with a sword and shield drawn is in for a world of hurt. Not only does the game punish those who play nonchalantly, it basically offers no real explanation of the various items, powers, and hollowing abilities that are at a player's disposal. This lack of hand-holding will be jarring for those not hardened by the "good-old days" of gaming, but Dark Souls is a crash course for the inexperienced.

It might be tough for the average gamer to appreciate such an aesthetic, but it's something From Software takes an enormous sense of pride in. Everything in the game has been painstakingly and deliberately implemented for good reason. It's all part of the plan. Once you can embrace that idea, Dark Souls becomes so much more than a conventional video game. It becomes a highly cerebral adventure that takes careful planning and execution to progress and survive.

But perhaps the silver lining here is that Dark Souls is ultimately fair in its design, meaning that the player who respects its rules and design can inevitably triumph. Also, it's comforting to know that you'll really never have to play alone. Part of what made Demon's Souls so groundbreaking was the notion of incorporating socially sourced tips and clues from other players online. These tidbits of insight are represented by glowing orange track marks in the world in which players connected to the Internet can read, contribute, or rate. Gamers can also view bloodstains, which will play a ghost character's last few seconds before dying--the idea being that you'll be able to learn from other player's mistakes.

From Software

Dark Souls contains a beautifully rendered world to explore, both in the sense of scale and construction. I did, however, experience a significant amount of choppiness throughout the game, even after installing the disc on an Xbox 360. However, this defect is a minor complaint about an otherwise highly impressive package.

While it's certainly not for everyone, those brave souls who can appreciate and respect what From Software is doing with the title will be rewarded. Newcomers to this unforgiving action-RPG will most likely find something they like about the game (like its stellar combat system), but will need to learn a great deal of patience before they can unlock what Dark Souls has to offer.

See this week's episode of preGame for an uncensored demo of Dark Souls.

I'm glad we live in a world where there's room for a game like Dark Souls. To be clear, at least among the part of the parts of the interactive entertainment industry that enjoy making popular mainstream consumer products, there's unlikely to be room for more than one or two games of this ilk at the same time, but that's why gaming should be a big tent.

The elevator pitch is simple. This is a very difficult game, wrapped in an almost retro-style package of sword-and-sorcery action. For the armies of so-called "core" gamers who complain about the auto-aiming, forgiving enemies, and generous save points of popular games from Gears of War to Call of Duty, it's a welcome change, and one that makes those same players feel like part of an exclusive club.

The previous entry in the series, 2009's Demon's Souls, was a genuine cult hit, based on the same extreme challenge and retro vibe. The effect is much more calculated this time around, so it feels less like a contrapositive to the mainstream-games-are-too-easy conventional wisdom, and more like a cash-in aiming at a (somewhat) wider potential audience than the original. Menus and character setup are almost deliberately vague, the controls can be unwieldy at times, and the game has an almost deliberately low-budget look, kind of like Quentin Tarantino making a faux drive-in movie.

From Software

At the same time, actually playing the game and fighting its tough-as-nails monsters is a thrill. There's a real sense of visceral weight and heft to your actions--something missing from most other games--and the act of blocking, parrying, and dodging incoming attacks requires actual timing and an understanding of spacial relations, not just holding down the "block" button.

For all but those hard-core gamers who feel every game should be like this, playing Dark Souls is a bit like watching an experimental film. Rather than straight entertainment, the audience becomes part of the experience, like sitting through Andy Warhol's "Sleep." Simply being able to work within the confines of the game's structure becomes yet another challenge to overcome, such as the lack of a pause option--which, as anyone with a young child, impatient spouse, or ringing doorbell can tell you, is a bit of a shock when you first discover it.

I never played Demon's Souls, Dark Souls' 2009 predecessor, and I'm not sure if I'll end up playing Dark Souls much longer. My curiosity was piqued by this supposedly cruel, challenging title: it sounded like gaming's equivalent of completing one of those Nightmare-level cast-iron puzzles. Dark Souls is extremely hard from the get-go, even through its "tutorial" stage, because it doesn't hold your hand and it makes you loop, sometimes maddeningly, through areas you've already completed before. You also can't truly pause. Thankfully, there are insta-saving waypoints, but healing yourself in one brings every creature you've killed back to life.

From Software

I understand the idea of focus for the sake of art; a great director asks that you see his movie as it was intended, on a big screen, soundlessly, without you daring to get up for any reason whatsoever. Dark Souls sometimes acts as if, at said screening, getting up would also result in you being electrically shocked. Those with lots of free time and patience (or a knack for reading online FAQs) will enjoy the journey, and it is atmospheric, long, and rich-looking--not to mention inexplicably creepy in a far more subtle way than any Resident Evil. It's a type of survival-RPG, made for sadists. I played the PS3 version and it looked sharp and played well, although technically the graphics got a little choppy under heavy fire from armies of the undead. I just don't have time for such a game as a dad, playing games in sad little bite-size chunks, but then again, what gaming auteur would respect my gaming habits, other than a maker of iPhone games? Gaming hard core, drink deep. I just can't go with you any further.

Dark Souls is available now for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.