July 26, 2013 at 6:34 PM ET
By the time I stepped up to try my hand at "Dark Souls 2" at a recent press event by Namco Bandai, the game's publisher, I had been watching the man in front of me be eviscerated by all sorts of zombies and fantastical monsters for at least 20 minutes. "Dark Souls" has the somber tone of high fantasy reminiscent of "Lord of the Rings" and "Game of Thrones," so he was controlling a knight in shining armor as he walked around a dank and creepy dungeon.
He walked down a long, narrow staircase that glowed faintly with the light of the knight's torch. Almost immediately upon reaching the bottom, he was killed by what looked like two zombies. He tried again, and ended up having to sprint back up the staircase in defeat. Finally, he gave up trying to fight them and chose to sprint headlong through the room. The small crowd of games writers that had gathered around cheered expectantly until, suddenly, a giant beetle-shaped monster with a club loomed out of the darkness, crushing him in a single blow. Blood-red text reading "YOU DIED" filled up the screen, and everyone devolved into laughter.
This is the weird joy of playing "Dark Souls." The original game, which was released for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in September 2011 and August 2012 for the PC, was marketed under the tagline "Prepare to Die" — a morbid phrase that sounded like it would only appeal to old-timers who regularly bemoaned the fact that video games are easier today than they were 20 years ago. But the game was met with near-universal acclaim from gamers who found its crushing difficulty not frustrating, but invigorating.
At face value, "Dark Souls" doesn't seem that different from any other dungeon-crawling video game. You spent most of your time hacking and slashing your way through bad guys, collecting new shiny items and, well, dying.
That's where the difficulty comes in. The combat is deliberately simple — there are no fancy combos to string together, just two attacks (a faster swipe that deals less damage and a heavy thrust that's slower but also more substantial) and an ability to dodge and block incoming assaults. And just above it all, there is a precious stamina bar that makes every missed parry or poorly timed swing of your sword the mistake that might just cost you your life.
"It rewards a thorough, patient kind of gameplay," Brian Hong, director of strategic & digital marketing, said as we watched the knight onscreen struggle to get away from two skeletons. "It's not like a lot of other role-playing games (RPGs) which tell their stories in long cut scenes or divide players up into different classes. The quests are all very combat based; really, most of the story is told through the combat."
The never-ending struggle to master the combat in "Dark Souls" is what draws players back to it, making each victory feel all the more satisfying because of how just how insurmountable it seemed at first. And while the sequel — due out next year for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 — promises a handful of tweaks and adjustments, it's this core experience of failure eventually leading into victory that still makes it feel like a real "Dark Souls" game.
On the screen in front of us, the knight finally made it to a magical portal that was the end of the level. But then a moment later, he reappeared on the top of a tower in the middle of an epic thunderstorm with a Sauron-esque boss called "The Mirror Knight" facing him.
"YOU DIED" the screen read a moment later, and the critic in front of me, feeling sufficiently defeated, handed me the controller.
I died again within a few minutes. But at least now I was prepared.
Yannick LeJacq is a contributing writer for NBC News who has also covered technology and games for Kill Screen, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter at @YannickLeJacq and reach him by email at: Yannick.LeJacq@nbcuni.com.