Dark Souls is a vast open-world role-playing game with an intriguing fantasy setting and an exceptional challenge. It was one of the most revered games of 2011 when it was released on consoles, and with good reason – few games can hope to match the quality of its design or measure up to its profound moments of accomplishment. It’s not a game easily pushed through, though each brutal demise you suffer is merely banking up to an amazing sense of victory and affirmation of your determination. If you’re looking for a game that rewards patience, thoroughness and skill – and punishes all else – Dark Souls is a game well worth pursuing in its Prepare to Die Edition on PC. The slight technical turbulence can’t get in the way of what is one of the best RPGs to come along in years.
Dark Souls – likes it predecessor – is a third-person dungeon crawl at its core. In the almost overbearingly gloomy realm of Lordran, a sizeable open-world that you’ll explore high and low, threats loom just about anywhere you look. From a few established hubs in the world, you’ll expand outward, constantly facing adversity in the endless gnarled faces of ever-dangerous creatures that stand between you and ending the calamotous period called the Age of Fire…or, if the tone of the world sucks you under, to usher in a different calamity entirely. The game’s plot is purposely minimalistic and tells its story through the limitations of its sparsely populated world. Like most everything else in the game, the flavour of the game’s lore and plot is largely left with the player’s curiousity and interpretation, which suits it just fine. Dark Souls is a game focused squarely on combat that demands precision, smarts, and persistence.
Most action-oriented games place you in frenetic fights that move swiftly, and although fluidity is very much a key to success in Dark Souls, the combat here feels weighty and deliberate. Your character’s movements, burdened with heavy armour and weaponry, feel appropriately strained. You can’t make a last minute dodge out of harm’s way or just mash on the attack button, either. Every action in the game is methodical yet extremely powerful if used judiciously and properly. Each blow you land and fatal swipe you dodge is the result of skilled observation and timing, of knowing your characters strengths and limits and exploiting each to the fullest. Know your character and pull your punches wisely, and you’ll slay the toughest of foes. Attack wildly and evade flippantly, and you’ll soon find your enemies taking advantage of your every misstep, smashing you into the earth as soon as you let your guard down. Either way, the game’s consistent adherence to precision means you always know why you died and what you need to avoid in future attempts.
Death is swift and common in Dark Souls, though it’s never an end. In fact, your character will likely be dead – or “hollowed” – for much of your play time, complete with a decayed and eyeless face. Each time you die, you’ll lose all of the souls you accrued from enemies – which serve as both experience points to upgrade your stats and currency to purchase items – and respawn at the last bonfire you visited, which serve as sigh-relieving points of rest in the game world. Bonfires refill your stock of estus flasks – the game’s healing item – as well as recharge uses of your spells. Yet even these points of safety come with a catch; use a bonfire, and all enemies excepting bosses respawn, ready to make an attempt on your life once more.
The game’s death mechanics also introduce yet another unique aspect to Dark Souls – the importance and privelige of being alive. Although your character handles the same way no matter their state, using valuable Humanity items at a bonfire to turn your character back into a living being opens up a ton of online connectivity features. Although you can’t play Dark Souls in a multiplayer setting or set up matchmaking with your friends, each individual player does slightly connect to all others. You may see ghostly images of other players appear around you, real-time feed of where they are and what they’re doing in their own game. When you’re alive, you can find and use items to summon players into your game temporarily, using them to help you clear more difficult sections. You can also find items to “invade” another player’s game to hunt them down and slay them in exchange for souls and precious humanity. But take notice: being alive is also the only way you yourself can be invaded. Tread carefully.
Ultimately, you get out what you put in to Dark Souls. There’s a dizzying amount of nuance and detail in the game’s setting, level design and combat, and it only gets more engrossing as you sink your teeth in further. The more you change up your fighting style and take risks, the more you learn about what makes the enemies tick, and brings possible methods for felling them to the surface. There’s no easing you into play mechanics or tips popping up on screen to give you a hand in Dark Souls. You not only need to take chances and be proactive in your approach to its many challenges, you need to remember everything that works and apply it skillfully. You need to take advantage of every thing it offers you in hard-earned upgrades to your gear, flasks, and abilities. Or you’re dead.
Additionally, this version of the game is the first to receive Artorias of the Abyss, a slight expansion of the content currently offered in the console versions. It has three new areas with new bosses to guard them, including a particularly thrilling and brisk fracas against Knight Artorias himself. The new content doesn’t particularly change or improve upon the core game in any way, and instead focuses on providing more quality content that integrates seemlessly into the main game. Maybe a little too seemlessly; after about 45 minutes of messing around in-game to find access to the new areas, I had to consult an online guide to point me in the right direction. This content is only in the PC version for now, but will be coming to consoles this October.
From the faintly lit stone fascade of the Undead Burg to the inscrutable blackness of the Tomb of the Giants, the world of Lordran is a fascinating and bleak world that is endlessly interesting to explore. Although there is a light foundation of traditional plot, Dark Souls prefers to show rather than tell with its outstanding level design that interjects bits of lore through everything from gear descriptions to architecture to the occasional glib NPC who relays information in a wilted, almost breathless cadence. The subtle and intricate connections between various areas of the open world really make it feel like a believable, authentic fantasy setting once you begin to get your bearings on it. The game’s many boss monsters that lurk the place similarly draw you in with their intimidating and surreal figures. A huge, disgusting fanged worm who looks like its been turned inside out is a vivid and disturbing favourite, but not all of the game’s creature design is so intense. Shortly into your time in Lordran, you even may fear the butterflies, as well. The game’s visual style matches the mood of the story and essence of the gameplay so perfectly that it’s difficult to disconnect and appraise one from the others. In addition to merely looking good, Dark Souls just looks right. Once you begin to play it, you couldn’t picture it any other way.
Ultimately, many of the technical issues in the Prepare to Die Edition crop up graphically. By default, texture quality is locked at 720p and any other resolution you choose in the options is a quick-and-dirty upscaling. It’s also locked at 30 frames per second. These are disappointing truths to swallow for PC enthusiasts who rightfully except more bells and whistles to iron out the visual fidelity of their games. Thankfully, a crafty Neogaf user had a quick fix available from the game’s launch that can change the resolution and apply more sophisticated anti-alaising effects. Yet another user took it upon himself to unlock the framerate, which improves performance even further. You can get these mods here, and it’s definitely recommended you do so. With them, my outlook on Dark Souls’ visuals improved markedly. I’ve always been a big fan of the gloomy visual style, and its never looked better on PC…though you probably won’t confuse its somewhat murky textures for a game natively attuned to computers. Even without the fixes, the game looks best on PC and benefits from more powerful components to run it. Areas like Blighttown, notorious in the console editions for frustrating and severe framerate drops, were never an issue on my rig.
If anything, the technical missteps in the porting of this game only reinforce the idea that advanced video output options will never be the true determinant of a game’s quality. From Software has crafted a true classic in Dark Souls, a non-linear, gameplay-driven experience that presents nothing less than lofty challenges with equally lofty senstations of reward.
I’d be lying if I said the philosophy at work in Dark Souls doesn’t lead to some sizeable frustration at times. You’ll occasionally hit a roadblock where you’re a dying a bunch and don’t seem to be progressing on any secondary front either, be it simply collecting souls or finding new and useful gear for your character that will eventually help you along to a new area. When your progression through the game halts entirely like this, things can quickly become more than a little vexing. The game does let you complete much of its content in whatever sequence you choose, although which path to take and when is again something the game leaves up to you and your own deductions exploring the world. There were times when, beaten and bruised, I pined for an authoratative push in the right direction. But once I pushed through and got the immense satisfaction of conquering such a challenge entirely through my own devices and liberal use of profanity, I was hungry once more, both amped and nervous to step foot into the next area and top the next batch of challenges. This is a difficult game, no doubt about it, and the steep challenge will be more of a roadblock than an enticement for some. Shake off the traditional semiosis of video game death and approach things from the game’s perspective, though, and it’s tough not to welcome its hooks deepening once they’ve got you.
More so than many other games, Dark Souls is something that is difficult to adequately explain second-hand, and you really need to play for yourself to feel how satisfying its many moving parts connect into an unforgettable game. The Prepare to Die Edition certainly isn’t a flawless port of the modern classic, though you’d be crazy to let that stop you from enjoying one of the most original, demanding and downright fun role-playing games in recent memory. It’s not a game without its frustrations and uphill battles, and that’s what is so brilliant about it. From Software isn’t afraid to eschew the gentler, less demanding trends in modern game design and deliver a product that is completely uncompromising in its vision and mechanics. For all the ire thrown in its direction on forums, consider this rebuttal: Dark Souls has never looked better, ran smoother, or had more to offer than it does on PC. And for one of the best games of this generation, that’s no mean feat.
Just, y’know. Prepare to die.
It’s a pretty apt subtitle.