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Dark Souls asks if you are hardcore, then sets about proving you wrong. Returning to games after so long away, it was refreshing to be reminded days when hardcore was a label you had to earn.
Perhaps it's because I'm back after a break, but to me it's obvious: hardcore gaming isn't what it used to be. It seems to be under ever increasing pressure from casual games. Platform holders like Sony and Microsoft often seem to have forgotten the unspoken vows they made to the people upon whose backs they rest: the core gamer.
Demon's Souls, the previous game, was one in the eye for the casualisation of gaming, and set a new standard for core gamers to aspire to. It quite literally took great delight in frustrating even the most committed of gamer, testing their metal to the limit.
Dark Souls continues this role play game tradition, and then some. In fact it turns what is usually considered an entertaining pastime into something solely for the masochists.
This sounds quite negative I know, but as you spend time with the game - if you manage to prostrate yourself on its unforgiving alter for long enough - it actually starts becoming something you enjoy, and eventually don't want to give up on until it's finished. What starts, after choosing to be a knight, wanderer or thief etc, as a slog against an unending undead infestation actually turns into a finely tuned balance of risk and reward.
Don't get me wrong, as you progress there is some help along the way. Bonfires offer safe havens (a little like light spots in Alan Wake) where your health and life-renewing Estus flask are refilled. There is then a wide range of weapons and character advancements to invest in. But before you can really dabble in all this you need to put in some serious hard work, and not a few hours.
Onto this chaffing gameplay Dark Souls pours all sorts of irritants.
A breakthrough moment for me came as I realised that combat is as much about timing as it is about wielding the best weapon. Time your strikes to perfection and suddenly you can attack and parry enemies night and day better. This is all well and good until you meet the next boss. These are, as you would imagine, ridiculously difficult.
Onto this chaffing gameplay Dark Souls pours all sorts of irritants. You are only able to have one save file per character and when you die (when, not if) you lose the souls you've collected that haven't been spent on character development. The enemies often swarm you from all angles which make timing attacks almost impossible. You also have a lot of manual camera control to contend with -- often finding yourself staring at a wall as you are bludgeoned to death. Finally there is the stupidly high difficulty level the game has in the first place.
But with all this challenge and difficulty comes a lot of satisfaction when (or if) you defeat a particular level. Progress in Dark Souls is hard won, but when it comes it is with a rush of relief and excitement.
The people who are prepared to make this sort of investment are who Dark Souls is made for: that (maybe) dying breed of gamer who wants the hardest of challenges. Those few people who relish the unforgiving experience. I dabbled with Dark Souls, but I know there will be others who will lose themselves in it for months.
This is a game that truly defines what a hardcore gamer means.
There are other games that do this, but they (unlike either Dark or Demon's Souls) try and sugar coat the experience in fancy visuals or high falutin gameplay. Dark Souls does none of that. Simple, straight forward and honest -- and it's hard not to respect it for that.
But actually, it's the people who will play Dark Souls through to completion that gain my respect. I enjoyed my time with Dark Souls, but all the time I was aware that I wasn't numbered with the players who would see this experience through to the end.
By this measure Dark Souls is wonderful. Casual gamers, mums, dads, girlfriends even your XBox Live or PSN friends may not understand it, but this is a game that truly defines what a hardcore gamer means -- and by doing so uncovers how diluted that badge has become, and what it used to mean in days gone by when I used to be numbered with the hardcore.
With so many different perspectives it can be hard to know where to start - a little like walking into a crowded pub. Sorry about that.
But so far we've not found a way to streamline our review output - there's basically too much of it. So, rather than dilute things for newcomers we have decided to live with the hubbub while helping new readers find the columnists they will enjoy.
Our columnists each focus on a particular perspective and fall into one of the following types of gamers: