It's hard to describe why Dark Souls is so, so good.
Yet, it's so incredibly easy.
Why? We just need to look at the core attitude of Dark Souls, from a design-to-player perspective.
Dark Souls is challenging. Yes, that much is clear. But it's not to laugh at you or to discourage you.
It's hard because it knows what you're capable of, and it believes in you. It does't want you to give up.
Despite killing you all the time, it respects your intelligence and holds you of the highest regard. Dark Souls wants you to succeed, and this gives it the framework to do so many things right.
In that regard, Dark Souls does absolutely no hand holding in almost every aspect. The story and lore of the world will completely pass you by if you don't take the time to read item descriptions, examine the world, and talk to every NPC you meet. You will be torn apart if you don't take the time to familiarize yourself with your weapon and shield. Most of all, if you don't take your time, you will be seeing YOU DIED a lot as well. The game grounds itself in patient manner when it comes to enemies and bosses: it wants you to slow down, weigh all of your options, experiment, and most importantly do whatever it takes to survive.
Combat is slow, but weighty; everything about the fighting is spot on. Small weapons swing fast like they should. Large weapons swing slow, and when they hit the ground they emit satisfying "clunk" sounds. Every swing depletes a certain amount of stamina. It's a simple mechanic but it puts so much choice and consequence on the player. You can try to attack like a madman to burn your enemies down as fast as you can, but you won't be able to hold a block with your shield if you run low on stamina. All of this goes double for the intense boss fights - most of the bosses won't hold anything back and they will be a true test of applying everything you've learned thus far. You will die, a lot, but finally defeating one of these bosses grants you such an immense feeling of accomplishment, because YOU DID IT ALL WITH YOUR OWN SKILL!
The world of Dark Souls is completely open. There are very few loading screens, there are no transitional airlocks between areas; everything is seamlessly connected to each other. At times, the geography will seem strange but once you take a look around and realize that you can actually see areas from other places, suddenly everything feels natural. Dark Souls' atmosphere is done with careful and precise attention. At times you'll be exploring dark, moody caverns, other times you'll be wading through a dense, moonlit forest with nothing but the ambience to accompany you. Sometimes you'll even find yourself deep in the middle of a trap filled fortress. Make sure you always have your wits about you and you're actively paying attention. The world is just flat out beautiful and knowing that the game is one big connected overworld makes it feel so real and alive, and it really drives home the sense that this world is huge and it brings back that "adventure" experience I've come to miss so bad. The world is yours, and you're free to go wherever you please. At times, you might feel like you're a bit lost, and I do admit the game is sometimes a little obscure with the regard of pointing you towards the right direction, but there are subtle clues and hints. Are the enemies too hard in a certain area? Is there a locked door? There's probably another way you haven't explored yet.
The world is also home to many NPCs. I mentioned before that if you don't take the time to talk to the NPCs you meet and try to piece together who they are, what they're doing, and how they got where they are, you're going to miss out of a lot of Dark Souls' story. This is where I feel Dark Souls' thematic focus comes full strength. The entire game is about overcoming, and fighting through your own struggles. In that same sense, all of the characters you meet along the way are also fighting for something. Something they thought was important, or something they hold dear. Really, take the time to get to know these people and pay attention as well. You won't know where they go next if you don't listen! With that said, if you make the effort to witness each of these stories, you'll watch them struggle along with you, fighting their own battles. Yes, Dark Souls is rich with lore and backstory, but I think the real beauty is watching these characters fight for what they believe in, while you yourself are fighting your own battles too.
Dark Souls also has a very unusual multiplayer system. At all times, your character will be in either one of two forms: hollowed, or human. You spend a somewhat uncommon item called "Humanity" to turn from hollow to human. This enables you to partake in jolly co-operation! If you're in an area where you haven't beaten the boss yet, you can summon fellow players to your world who are also in the same area, as long as they're relatively near your soul level. Sounds good right? Just like the combat, there's another consequence you might have to face when you turn human. Dark Souls allows players to "invade" the worlds of other human players. They will appear as red phantoms, and they will hunt you down and kill you on sight, essentially marking this game's version of PvP.
Now, this is where I feel Dark Souls' biggest community strength comes from. You see, once a player invades you, all bets are off. They might be insanely twinked out. They might be a fair fight. They might want to honor duel you. You might even have a couple friends already summoned to help you out. Some players have taken it upon themselves to create a sort of "honor" code when it comes to PvP. They like to designate certain areas of the game for official dueling, with no help from other players or no healing, stuff like that. Some players agree with doing this. Some players prefer the chaotic nature of invading in random places, not knowing what either party will be up against. Some players are firmly rooted in the idea that PvE and PvP should not intertwine. They'll even go as far as to never turn human. What "honor" or "etiquette" should be included in Dark Souls' PvP, if any, is still being debated today. I feel like there will never be one solid answer but I think that's okay. It allows for more discussion and I think there's something inherently beautiful about a community being on two complete opposite sides of how an in-game mechanic should work. Bottom line: try, at least a couple times, to play through the game in human form. The invasion mechanic is a part of the game, and even though sometimes you'll get ganked, it's an experience quite like no other.
Dark Souls is challenging, but not unfair. To be honest, the difficulty this game is notorious for isn't as bad as a lot of people make it out to be. Don't get me wrong though, there is still a lot of obstacles you'll have to overcome and at times it'll feel like you're stuck. But don't give up. Never give up.
In today's world of modern game development, it's very pleasant to play a game that actually holds you with a high regard and respects your ability to think, perceive, and act. Dark Souls is a hallmark of intelligent and masterful gameplay design, and it stands as one of my all time favorite games. Highly recommended. Well, now you know... and I can die with hope in my heart.