DARK SOULS "Well, things don't look too bad from here!"

OVER THE PAST two decades, videogames have gotten soft. Remember the original Castlevania? Remember Ghosts 'n' Goblins? Those were games that murdered players at every opportunity, but we loved them because they were also fair. "If only I had waited a half second more to make that jump, I would've missed the stupid Medusa head," you'd monologue, while preparing for another run at Dracula's castle.

For the most part, this kind of game design is dead. Hell, the most recent Super Mario Bros. game would actually play itself for you, if necessary. That's why we gaming critics are so happy to see a game like Dark Souls.

The game, a spiritual sequel to 2009's Demon's Souls, is every bit as unforgiving as the worst classic games. Mis-time a block? Skeleton guts you. Attack at the wrong time? Undead knight crushes your skull. Go anywhere near a stone bridge? Giant dragon burns you alive.

Despite this intense difficulty (you will die, often), there's always the motivation to continue. Each death, while frustrating, also offers a hint about how to proceed. Maybe next time you should circle around that knight and attack from behind. Maybe you should just stay the hell away from that dragon's bridge.

This shouldn't come as any surprise to those who played Demon's Souls; that game was hard as hell too, but the key difference between the two games is that while Demon's Souls' difficulty spiked when you met its boss monsters, Dark Souls is difficult through and through. The first zombie you meet in the game will always be a threat, no matter how strong you become, and the only thing that can protect you is vigilance, cunning, and quick reflexes.

I won't claim the game is for everyone—if gaming is purely a stress reliever for you, stay away—but if you're willing to put in the effort, Dark Souls offers more primal, visceral joy than any other game this year.