Dark Souls Prepare to Die Edition PC review
Dark Souls is a game entirely about combat tactics, and it succeeds in making a vast range of them viable. As well as my Hunter and my friend’s sword-and-board Warrior, I’ve seen spell-spouting Sorcerers and Assassins so quick they can parry (left trigger on the 360 pad, timed perfectly against a foe’s strike) every incoming attack, opening a window for a lethal critical hit. There’s real choice in the way you can battle your way through the game, as well as choice in the kit you can do it in. Your starting gear, once levelled up with the right equipment – dropped by certain foes – is competitive with gear found much later in the game. There’s no set alpha-tier equipment, simply what suits a player’s style – be it play-style or aesthetic style. My Cleric wore a skirt and leather boots for the manoeuvrability bonus it offered her; my Hunter dressed as Death himself with an oversized black cloak hiding his face for the confidence boost it provided me.
There’s a similar range of choice in exploring the game-world. Like my dark, clanking house, the realm of Lordran – and later Anor Londo – seemed to open up beneath me. No corner of this world is inviting, but almost all of it is open to exploration in any order.
There is a suggested route: first high through the medieval, European-looking Undead Burg, to ring the first of two bells, then down into the Darkroot Garden with its faceless tree-men. But with enough skill and foresight, players can avoid these places and go deeper into the Earth. The New Londo Ruins are flooded and infested with phantoms. Deeper still, it’s inky black. I found twisted ogre men and evil gelatinous blobs, manifestations of childhood nightmares. Even further, seemingly miles below the game’s grey steel sky, I found the Abyss. I won’t tell you what’s down there.
The world, like my remembered childhood house, is always dark. It’s also connected. Playing Dark Souls is to draw a mental map, a little mnemonic of connected spaces.
Lordran feels like a place. A place infested with horrific nightmare creatures and Cthulhu’s baby brothers, but a huge place in a way few games have ever achieved.
It’s a place I spent most of my time alone in. Just as creeping into the dark as a six year old is a profoundly lonely experience, so it is here. Dark Souls’ most enduring characteristic is its difficulty, but that’s only one view of the game. Think of it this way instead: where every other game puts the player on a glorious pedestal, Dark Souls simply doesn’t care about you. Until the end of the game, the very first enemy you encounter can – if ignored – chop off most of your health bar in a few swipes. There’s no special treatment, no basecamp radioing in to check on your progress, no comforting voice in the darkness... bar your own, whispering “come on, I can do this.”
Well. There’s no one else most of the time, anyway.
Sometimes, you’re not alone. Black Phantoms are Dark Souls’ alpha bogeymen, the red eyes in the dark that want to eat your skin and chew your bones. They’re Dark Souls’ most dangerous foes, and they’re human. Other players can invade your game – over the rightfully hated Games for Windows Live – and attempt to kill you for profit or their own pleasure. If you’re unlucky enough for one to crack its way into your game, you’re furnished with one of Dark Souls’ few warnings. From there on, you’re on your own.
Black Phantom duels are Dark Souls’ tight combat system at its best. A lock-on option enables nervy circling before the fight-proper starts. When it does, the best players use geography and height as much as sword-swings and shield blocks. Lure someone close to the edge of a cliff, then hit forward and light-attack to kick them off it. These fights are always fantastic.
Dark Souls’ novel online system has more benign versions of the Black Phantoms, too. Blue Phantoms are for co-op play – but don’t expect to be able to jump into a friend’s game. The people at From Software have a strange vision of online gaming: I spent hours waiting for some random person to summon me to their game. The less altruistic might not bother – especially when Games for Windows Live is such an effective turn-off.
And it’s how much you let GfWL – and the game’s direct-from-console port – affect your experience that determines whether you’ll make the trip down those dark stairs. This game isn’t buggy, doesn’t crash, and loading times are quicker than they were on console, but you won’t find the things you should rightfully demand as a PC gamer here: there are few graphical options and the game is locked at 30 frames per second. For a game this good, I don’t think that matters.
If you know the trip downstairs will be long, hard, and sometimes uncomfortable, but you want to take it anyway because you know it will reward you like nothing else – if that noise downstairs leaves you too curious to climb back into bed and cover your ears – then Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition is waiting for you at the bottom of the stairs. I suggest you go and investigate.
(Note: A few hours after the game's launch on Steam, dedicated hero-type Durante knocked together a patch that unlocked the game from its 720p shackles, and allows it to run in proper PC resolutions. Get it from Neogaf. Thanks to Eurogamer for the spot.)