The online functionality is inspired, frankly, and anybody playing without it will not only struggle, but will also miss out on a unique sense of togetherness. Every decision you make in the game is based on a collection of pointers you'll piece together from everybody else. You learn from their mistakes, and they learn from yours. Dark Souls is a bastard, and you're all working together to beat it.
Not everybody subscribes to the same train of thought, though. Certain morons take great pleasure in abusing the system. In front of an NPC at the start of the game I found a sign that read: 'Try attacking'. Clearly the scribe of said message had done the same and pilfered some sweet-ass armour from the corpse, or something. I decided to do the same. Bad idea. You give him a few whacks of your sword and he flips out, relentlessly attacking you until you die. "Well I won't be doing that again!" I chuckled to myself, but that didn't matter, because even after dying, this NPC continued to chase me around the area, and as he was much, much stronger than me, he killed me over and over again. The only solution I could conjure up to solve this problem was to restart the entire game. Which was obviously a complete ballache.
As you move about the world, you'll see the ghostly outlines of other players going about their business. Dark Souls is a lonely experience, but these phantoms are a constant reminder that others - other real people, just like you - are going through the same thing. Inspect a blood stain on the floor, and you can watch the last few seconds of another player's life, possibly making a mental note not to let the same thing happen to you. If you're in a human form, you can even summon other players to join you in your world, which can be helpful when tackling harder areas.
It can't be ignored that the game is plagued with countless show-stopping bugs. I can't say whether the 360 version suffers from the same issues, but the PS3 version crashed on a regular basis. Once every couple of hours, in fact. Although inadvertently, this is something that contributes to the hellishness of the experience. As does the fact that you can't pause the game. Now I'm all for giving players a challenge, but not letting me nip off to the loo in the middle of a dungeon? Ugh.
Dark Souls is very much a gamer's game, and if you're going to have any fun with it, you need to go into it with precisely the right frame of mind. Even then you might struggle. It takes a precise kind of person to really enjoy what the game has to offer. Games journalists happen to fulfil the criteria for that type of person, and so the game has been seeing some impressive reviews. True, there's much to praise here: the innovative use of connected features, the expertly designed environments, the huge amounts of satisfaction you'll reap from downing a particularly fearsome foe, but you really have to work for your fun. The amount of investment required to get even the slightest return will put off all but the hardiest of players - but if you're one of them, I salute you.
Dark Souls isn't a game you play for fun. It's something you do to say you've done; like running a marathon or climbing Everest. You won't enjoy it like you will other games, but you won't forget it either, and you'll be damn proud of yourself for seeing it through to the end.