I should start by saying while I love Dark Souls, much of the following information might not be news to anyone who does too. I wrote this in hopes of ensuring that anyone who hasn't played it, or will be playing the sequel, doesn't make the same error I did my first time around.
With the release of From Software's Dark Souls II approaching, there isn't a whole lot to be said about the original Dark Souls that hasn't already been said. It's been acknowledged for its difficulty, and people love it for the openness of its lore and the addicting combat and gameplay. That being said, if I have any piece of advice to contribute to the conversation, it's that you shouldn't try to break the game.
My intentions for my first run were to not look at any videos of the game, and to avoid discussing it on any forums. Through word of mouth I eventually heard of the Drake Sword. By the time I got around to obtaining it, it wasn't as good as my current weapons. However, I did recognize that if someone were to find this their first time encountering the red wyvern, it would really change the way they perceive the first third of the game, as it is easily a viable a weapon until you ring the second Bell of Awakening. Upon my second playthrough on a new character, I gave it a try. It does considerably more damage than most other weapons given the level one should be at that point of the game. Most regular enemies in the Depths and Blighttown die in a few hits.
The most difficult encounter I faced was found in the bosses of Anor Londo, Dragonslayer Ornstein and Executioner Smough. The fight itself challenged your understanding of spatial relations while combating two very powerful enemies. To make matters worse, once you killed one, the other went back to full health and received a beefed up move list. My first time, I tried this fight no less than a dozen times with no success. Defeated, I put the game down for a while.
Upon deciding to try again roughly a week later, I broke my vow and looked up how other people chose to deal with the bosses. I eventually came across someone's strategy of using a shield called the Crystal Ring Shield. Using the soul of a previously defeated boss, one was able to make this shield, which had a projectile attack based on a simple algorithm using the right handed weapons attack as a base. Because of this, this special attack this shield could use was insanely powerful, so much that it isn't in to current version of the game (I believe it was patched out in version 1.04, if any of you want to go back and experience it).
With my new gear, I attempted Ornstein and Smough again. The fight was brief, with me burning through both stages in less than 5 minutes. I was excited to move forward and experience the rest of the game. However, I had a crutch in this shield. The rest of the game, while beautiful and still challenging at parts, was largely too simple because of the shield. Most bosses were nothing to me, and I found myself at the end of the game in less time than it had taken me to get to Anor Londo in the first place.
I learned a lot about Dark Souls in my first playthrough. I experienced the gorgeous environments and did battle with many horrifying creatures, but I also learnt what it feels like to break a game.
There is a similar theme in the two instances I explained. They both made instances of the game easier. When we look at the Drake Sword, we see that the game becomes easier, but only for a while. The sword does excellent damage, likely greater than any other weapon if you obtain it at the earliest opportunity. But the weapon doesn't stay great. You'll have a difficult time trying to do enough damage to the snake-man enemies in Sen's Fortress once you crawl out of Blighttown. Because the weapon doesn't scale with any of your stats, what you're eventually left with is a weapon that isn't doing enough damage and some bad habits that you've probably picked up from being able to mow everything down.
Observing the case of the Crystal Ring Shield, we find that the game has changed drastically. This item alone changed the entire experience. It was no longer about struggling and overcoming challenges. What it ended up being was a rush of how fast I could beat the bosses and finish the game. Monsters dropped like flies, and the shield became a go to for eliminating situations where if I roughed it out, I could have learned something about being a stronger player.
I understand that a lot of fans of the Souls series would argue that the series as a whole isn't quite as difficult as others make it out to be, it just requires patience and caution. And I would be inclined to agree with them. Death isn't necessarily a punishment in these games. Sure you lose souls and humanity, but what you gain is understanding of how to overcome the threats that defeat you. However, when you use items like the aforementioned shield, you remove any kind of growth that could occur. There are no real dangers anymore because everything dies so easily. This shows a stark contrast from the Drake Sword because with time, the player will find better alternatives. Even if they choose to push even further with the weapon rather than replacing it, they should find themselves gaining the skills that make them a better player.
As the developers have proven, Souls games are genuine experiences. From Software successfully created excitement, stress, and beauty all wrapped up in to one sadistic package. But what's the point in playing if you're just going to remove any challenge from the game? I like to think of it like a Tootsie Pop. If the candy tastes good, why does it matter how many licks it takes to get to the middle?
Screenshot credit of the folks at darksouls.wikidot.com