As I played Dark Souls, I couldn't help but reflect on the situation of roleplaying games as a whole. In years past, punishing difficulty, intricate stat systems and open world freedom were largely the norm for the genre, but now we're more likely to see tightly scripted linear adventures ushering you from one cutscene to the next. That's not to say that those are not enjoyable in their own right, but a large part of Dark Souls allure is this break from recent trends. If you're willing to meet the game halfway it is a refreshing departure from the typical modern RPG.
Billed as the spiritual successor to the cult hit Demons Souls, it's no surprise that Dark Souls draws on some similar dark fantasy narrative elements despite the games not existing in the same world. After a cutscene introduces the setting's troubled history, you learn that certain specially marked people won't simply stay dead. These undead are then sent to an asylum to "live" out their days as madness slowly takes hold, and it's here that you'll find your character. Congratulations, you've died before the game even started. As you progress through the game you will at times be able to regain your humanity though, at least until you get killed again.
This constant interplay between life and death is one of the really interesting and multi-faceted systems in Dark Souls, and it forces meaningful mechanical choices that are not needlessly steeped in morality. For instance, sometimes when you kill an enemy they will drop Humanity. You can use Humanity to restore yourself to human form, and certain multiplayer options like invading other player's worlds risking your humanity in an attempt to take theirs or letting you summon co-operative players into your world are only available during this time. You can also offer your Humanity to kindle a bonfire. The bonfires scattered throughout the world serve as your checkpoints and respawn locations. A kindled bonfire is able to draw more energy to itself and refill double your normal number of potions. You'll also leave Humanity behind when you die and unless you return to collect it, it will be lost. Its final function is that the higher your Humanity count, the greater chance you have of getting item drops. Souls pull similar double duty, functioning both as your experience and as your currency, but are again lost when you die. This forces you to weigh the risks and rewards of using or hoarding your resources.
This constant struggle of risk and reward is present in the game's combat gameplay as well, and it really makes for a gratifying and varied experience. It feels more akin to a realistic medieval weapons fighting simulator than an action RPG at times. Weight dynamically affects your movement, forcing you to choose between the nimbleness of lighter armor or the insurance of being able to take a hit in heavy plate.
A large 2-handed weapon is certainly going to deal more damage, but you'll be sacrificing the protection of a shield. And this isn't simply the musings of the game's instruction manual or small differences in stats; these choices lead to characters with vastly different play styles and approaches to fights. Weapons in and of themselves will have unique attack patterns and swings, which will become doubly important in tight quarters as your big swinging halberd clangs realistically and uselessly against the wall. Ultimately, what ties the combat all together is your stamina bar, which will be used to block hits, perform acrobatics and swing your weapon. Larger weapons take more stamina to swing and heavier shields mean less stamina is used when blocking. Throw some actions like risky parries that open chances for devastating ripostes on top of the mix and you have the combat system that's both tricky and satisfying to master.