It's a crying shame that, for the uninitiated masses, Dark Souls will primarily be remembered for its considerable difficulty. It's an absolutely true shame, of course. To my recollection, no other game's punishment caused my brother to literally break a controller in a fit of rage, delete his save and write a chart-topping tribute song before his hatred could subside.

It's not all death and discouragement, however. Though every twist and turn of Dark Souls' menacing and lovely locales plays host to a preset lineup of fiends (many of whom can kill you with a sideways glance), there is a strange progress to the proceedings. It may come after hours of un-progress, but it comes -- and when it does, it comes correct.

Self-improvement in games typically comes in forms that are mechanical (you level up and gain five magic points!) or educational (now you know where the spike traps are). Dark Souls' core tenet of repetitious short-burst failure paired with a wildly open-ended RPG character progression system blends both methods perfectly. What's more, it offers an intensely terrifying risk/reward system for ever-precious Souls; fortunately, your Brains are never jeopardized.

Maybe that sounds like every other game in existence, but to play Dark Souls -- well, to play it without giving up after hitting the first, shockingly deadly boss -- is to understand that balance. Every inch of the game is tooled to test your mettle, ensuring that you possess the stats to survive and the wisdom to know where the next potential murderer resides. Aside from the occasional helpful tip from your fellow, phantasmic players, there's no hand-holding. When you succeed, it's because you alone succeeded, and there are few moments in any modern game that can offer such a reward.

It is also a memorable game; not only because it requires memorization, but also because each of the interconnected regions shines with a unique peril and beauty. Reaching a new area in Dark Souls offers its own satisfaction, and symbolizes your hard-earned victory in the last area. Each region hums with its own lovingly crafted ecosystem of foes, traps and treasure. Your curiosity is never neglected, nor does it ever go unrewarded.

Dark Souls' now-infamous level of difficulty provides a true old-school sensibility which pervades the entire experience, and it is this: From Software, like a developer of old, doesn't give a shit whether you finish the game or not -- they already have your money. If and when you beat the game, you have quite literally beaten the game. Its completion feels less like you've finished the programmed run of a piece of software, and more like you've bested a worthy adversary, a sparring partner you'll want to grapple with over and over again.


Joystiq is revealing its 10 favorite games of 2011 throughout the week. Keep reading for more top selections and every writer's personal, impassioned picks in Best of the Rest roundups. The list so far:
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  8. Dark Souls
  9. Gears of War 3
  10. Mortal Kombat

This article was originally published on Joystiq.