I steeled myself at the glowing gateway, my armor caked in the coagulated blood of the undead, my sword the same. Death waited for me on the other side. I had faced it multiple times already, and with only a few crushing blows it had ended my life, sending my body crumpling to the ground and my soul back to the last bonfire I had lit, beginning the vicious cycle anew. I was frightened, I was angry, and I steeled myself for the brutal assault as I stepped through the portal, ready to face off against the first boss yet again. This is Dark Souls.
Dark Souls, the spiritual follow up to From Software's Demon Souls, is cut from the same sadistic cloth as its predecessor, placing an emphasis on brutal challenge. There is virtually no room for error: a few well-placed blows can topple even the mightiest of warriors, and even the blade fodder that you face off against can be the ones who end your sword-swinging career. It's absolutely harrowing, giving you a sense of mortality that games rarely do. Despite your undead roots (your character is a victim of zombie plague) and powerful weaponry, you feel dishearteningly frail.
That sense of mortality and peculiar realism (last time I checked, my real-world body wouldn't take dragon's breath or a blow from a monstrous hammer well, either) is amplified by the game's combat system. The simplicity of the combat is countered by a stunningly simple logic: that you can't easily swing a sword in close quarters. For the first 15 minutes of the game I didn't quite realize this, horrified as my mighty blade swing was stopped in its tracks by the stone walls of the closed corridor that I was in. Switching to a thrusting weapon like a spear solved this problem. It's a small detail, but it adds immeasurably to the feel of the game.
Dark Souls is not, by traditional standards, a horror game. Its sense of dark fantasy and gruesome bestiary are secondary to the fact that the game seems to understand horror better than many titles that wear the genre label on their sleeves. Horror is not about indestructability or being a hyper powered ubermensch. It's about vulnerability and fear of what that vulnerability entails: death. Your own mortality is always at the back of your mind, more so than any other game I have played in years. It's truly, deeply terrifying, and worth every penny.