If you've read my Dark Souls review, you know that I think this sadistic game is the hardest title I've ever played. It will punish you every time you give it the chance. But it's not impossible – far from it! – and there are actually many steps you can take to prepare yourself.

In particular, I'm trying to aim this guide toward players who are curious to try Dark Souls but didn't play Demon's Souls, the previous super-challenging action-RPG by From Software. However, even Demon's Souls experts might be able to learn a thing or two given how From has mixed up the formula this time around.

Also, I won't be going into any major spoilers, but I do have some location and boss names leading up to around the halfway point of the game on the final two pages. If you don't want any of that stuff ruined for you, maybe skip that portion of this post until you've sunk some time into the game blind.

Building the right character

As soon as you begin the game, you'll be thrown into a character-creation screen. One of the best parts of Dark Souls is that character building remains incredibly flexible throughout the game, no matter where you start, but you might as well as kick things off strong to make it easier on you.

You're immediately given the choice between 10 character classes. Note that your character class determines what stats and equipment you start out with, but it's not something you'll be locked into for the full game. If you start as a melee-focused class but decide you'd like to take up magic at some point, you can begin putting stat points into intelligence. If you begin as a sorcerer but realize you'd like to get holy, you can start upping your faith whenever you see fit.

That said, my recommendation for Dark Souls newcomers is to focus on a ranged class. Melee combat is incredibly fun, but it also tends to be much more challenging, since you're required to be up close and a single mistake will allow an enemy to drain your health fast. Fighting from a distance gives you that tiny bit more time to react, which may be just enough of an edge to help out someone new to the game. If you prefer bows, you can go with the hunter, but for magic I suggest the sorcerer. This build starts with the rather powerful early game spell Soul Arrow, which also has a handy 30 charges.

If you'd like a starting class that's able to switch between melee and spells a bit more, check out the pyromancer. This class's starting fireball spell only has eight charges, but the pyromancer also gets a hand axe and some solid melee fighting abilities. And if you're really just not interested in magic at all, I recommend trying the wanderer. This class has balanced starting stats and strong but light armor, allowing him or her to dodge enemies. Save heavy armor classes such as warrior and knight (or the no-armor class, the deprived) until you've got some experience with Dark Souls' precise combat.

The other major decision you must make at character creation is your starting gift. There are eight possible choices, but most of them are pretty unnecessary. For example, you could take the Blessing of the Goddess potion or Black Firebombs, but these are limited-use items that you'll be able to find plenty of in the world if you need them. The most immediately useful gift choice is the Master Key. This item will unlock many of the game's doors without needing to hunt down specific keys. It's also the only item that you cannot find in the game anywhere (although the Thief class begins with a Master Key in addition to whatever other gift they want).

Dark Souls director Hidetaka Miyazaki has actually suggested that players begin the game with the Pendant, a mysterious item that supposedly helps unlock something special in the game. As of yet, it's still unclear what the Pendant is used for, but early rumors suggest it's related to aligning yourself with one of the more hidden factions in the game. Choose it (or don't) at your own risk.[PageBreak]

Relearning video game combat

You know how in the average action game – Devil May Cry or God of War or what-have-you – you tap a couple of buttons and get to watch in awe as your character performs insane stunts of massive destruction? Dark Souls is not that kind of game. I wouldn't call the combat realistic, but it's much more deliberately paced than most games. With a sword, each button tap is one slow, steady swing, and once your character has entered the animation, you can't suddenly cancel it to roll away or block.

The first and most important thing you can do to improve your chances of survival is to always have your shield up – no matter what class or character type you are. If you're walking through a new area or taking on an enemy you're unfamiliar with, keeping your shield in front of you can be the difference between life and a quick, horrible death.

As with melee offense, defense in Dark Souls is all about managing your stamina meter. If an enemy hits you while your shield is up, you will lose an amount of your stamina meter equal to the amount of damage you avoided. Stamina is also used for swinging a weapon – regular swings take a tiny portion, while heavy attacks take a bigger chunk. Stamina is also necessary for dodging out of the way of attack, which will be a useful tactic against larger enemies and bosses.

If your stamina meter is drained entirely, your character will briefly be unable to block, attack, or dodge, though you can still move. If you're blocking some hits and your stamina meter seems low, sometimes it might be smarter to back off and let it regenerate. You'll also gain stamina slightly faster if you lower your shield.

If you played a melee character in Demon's Souls, you'll be pleased to discover that Dark Souls has several new tricks to master, but there's one move in particular that every character should learn: the plunging attack. If you tap the basic attack button (R1 on PlayStation 3, RB on Xbox 360) while falling onto an enemy, your character will lower his blade and do a massively damaging stabbing attack. This attack is key to defeating the game's first two bosses, and it makes many other encounters much easier if you remember to take advantage of it.

One major change from Demon's Souls is that magic use is no longer tied to an MP bar. Instead, each individual spell that you equip has a specific number of charges. You can recharge at bonfires, but this limitation encourages using multiple different spells and even mixing in some melee combat when necessary. Until you find NPCs who sell spells, magic-users must strategize about when to use the limited spell charges.

If this all sounds a little overwhelming, well, it probably will be for the first hour or two. Dark Souls' combat feels different from almost any other game. You'll never be able to get by just by mashing on the attack button, and no matter how many levels you grind out, even the early game enemies will always be able to kill you if you don't play smart. That said, combat is incredibly satisfying once you get used to it. Dark Souls is all about the rewarding feeling earned by overcoming its challenges, and that includes overcoming the challenge of a control scheme and combat philosophy that's not what we're used to these days.