- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 29, 2011

A spiritual successor to last year’s third-person, role-playing fantasy Demon’s Souls seals a blood pact with gamers challenged by its ominous mission statement: “Prepare to die.”

If that sounds dramatic, it’s nowhere near the actual level of angst and futile combat unleashed upon an unsuspecting player in Dark Souls (Namco Bandai Games and From Software, reviewed for Xbox 360, rated M for Mature, $59.99) as hecontrols an avatar looking to reclaim his humanity.

Our undead hero exists in endless nights of darkness (”scary” says Count Floyd) and survives amidst a medieval landscape three times larger than its predecessor and loaded with even more dangerous, ghouls, traps, creatures and demons.

Life begins, as akin with most role-play epics, with the arduous task of creating a character.

Ten classes are available to choose from including cleric, warrior, knight and a deprived naked guy with a club (for masochists looking for a mind boggling test) with plenty of body and facial tweaks available.

I decided upon a Pyromancer named Jaroslav with purple hair wielding the magical powers of fire and who eventually possesses an enormous ax and sword that Conan would sweat over.

Once done crafting a persona, a corpse in the Northern Undead Asylum welcomed me and a steady stream of armed Hollows arrived (emaciated shells of humanity often on the attack) to remind me that escape is only a painful reminder of things to come.

The action is methodical at first as a player collects resources (metals, crystals, herbs, etc.) and weapons scavenged from dead bodies and terrain. However, the strategy of avoidance and retreat, tied to intelligent attacks, quickly becomes the mantra as enemy encounters increase in frequency and might.

Nuances such as the weight of equipment slowing your avatar down, soul collection, resting by bonfires to regenerate powers (respawn enemies, “doh”), murdering vendors to steal their merchandise and a gestures system to communicate with other characters add lush detail to the difficult mix of combat.

Visually delightful designs of doom also exist throughout tied to locales that include the sewers of Lordran, a Tomb of Giants, poison swamps, pitch black catacombs and webbed death traps and set the tone for some spectacular moments throughout the difficult missions.

If I already did not make it clear, this is not a game for the faint of heart or those easily frustrated. It is one that requires adaptation on the fly, plenty of resources on hand and always learning from deadly mistakes.

Always remember, embrace death as he becomes your trainer. Within 10 minutes of playing the game I perished at the end of a massive club from an Asylum Demon and thing went downhill from there.

Another few minutes later I was skewered by a ghoulish knight and, after a return visit to my bonfire to restore health, succeeded in walking through a wall of mist just to get leveled by that same Asylum Demon.

Five more minutes in and I met my demise by a group of skeletons (the Ray Harryhausen variety) that rebuilt themselves after every fatal strike.

Life never gets easier as such beasts as giant undead rats; ferocious dragons (I nearly swallowed my tongue when one popped out); and a massive, fire belching witch spider kill any chance of easily succeeding.

It’s a brutal, time consuming reality for the average gamer used to being coddled by linear landscapes loaded with mashable minions and contextually defeated bosses.

Those not having thrown their controller through the television screen within the first hours of action will find the slickest part of the action resides in the return of the clever multiplayer components.

Being stuck in an undead universe means often seeing ghosts meeting their own challenges and unfortunate demise. Those spirits are actually other player’s avatars in the online Dark Souls universe and their final moments can be viewed and used as tips for what waits in the future.

The player can find a White Sign Soapstone and while battling an impossible boss creature can request a player from a parallel dimension (of comparable skills) to help or, pull out a Cracked Red Eye Orb and instigate chaos in another player’s realm by showing up and, of course, killing him.

Without question, Dark Souls will find favor with only the most committed of gamers smitten with the darkened role-playing potential of a macabre Dungeons and Dragon experience.

Ultimately, those who succeed in finding their soul will feel the power of a king flow through them. OK, that’s a bit too much hyperbole but it’s one amazing, and excruciating, experience, Lancelot breath.

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