If revenge is a dish best served cold, then death is a dish best served twice. Luckily for you, you’ll endure plenty of it in Dark Souls: Prepare to Die, the extended PC release of 2011’s critically acclaimed old school torture simulator. Featuring a host of new content not yet made available to the consoles, this version of From Software’s intimidating action-RPG is the best there is – you just have to dig through a bit of murkiness to realize it.
First, a few caveats: yes, Games for Windows Live is a nuisance; yes, the internal resolution results in muddy textures and a stretched image; yes, the poor implementation of mouse and keyboard controls makes using a gamepad a necessity; and yes, the notorious framerate issues in Blighttown and a few other areas still exist. That aside, Dark Souls: Prepare to Die is still an impeccably paced and structured action RPG. For all of its many, many deaths, the journey is well worth the effort. The additional content provides nearly half a dozen hours’ worth of more agonizing attrition while expanding the game’s lore on one of the more mysterious locations in Lordran: Oolacile.
Set in an age before the magic kingdom was entirely consumed by the Abyss, players will experience the final days of the legendary Knight Artorias and witness the sacrifices made to ensure that this curse did not spread to the rest of the world. The extra content is attached directly to the main game but remains entirely optional towards a player’s progression. Four new bosses occupy the lands of Oolacile and its surroundings, and there are a handful of new armor sets and weapons to pillage or purchase. From Software’s distinct masochistic design philosophy is evident in every inch of the new lands, and the resulting structure of the world and the Oolacile Township in particular are up there with some of Dark Souls’ best.
The content comes standard with the Prepare to Die edition of the game for PCs and will cost $15 as additional DLC later this year for consoles, but the price of admission is well worth it.
But the heart of Dark Souls lies in its uncompromising brutality, and the PC version makes no effort to shy away from that. The game remains as indifferent as it was many months ago during its initial console run, and everything that made Dark Souls what it was – the good and the bad – are present and accounted for. Prepare to Die is a quintessential port if there ever was one. The struggles of From Software and Namco Bandai are well documented in their plight to bring the game over to the PC, and the result is a game that, if not for a few minor outside alterations, would be less than the sum of its parts.
There are two major issues that crop up when talking about the PC version: the first is the internal resolution locked at 1024×720; the second is the locked 30 frames per second. The latter is less a problem when you understand the reasoning behind it. The game’s animations, everything from your character’s actions to the way a boss or enemy moves, are tied to the frames. At 30 fps, the animations run as smooth as you see in the game currently. Any faster and it would look like all of the animations are being rendered in “super speed.” For this reason alone, 30fps is a necessity for the game to be playable, and anything higher would cause problems.
The resolution, on the other hand, is a different story. The game’s internal screen is locked to 1024×720, and although you can increase the image to your monitor’s native resolution, this simply stretches the picture. Within a day of the game’s launch, however, there was already a patch to fix this issue, and within a few updated versions of the patch, one that also increased the depth of field of the game. The situation is a little too murky for me: how a company full of professional video game developers could not do what a single man accomplished within a week is questionable. At the very least you’d have expected Namco Bandai to contract a company familiar with doing PC games to work on the port.
But in the end, the real issue isn’t what the problems are; it’s how they affect the game. And truthfully, they don’t. The resolution patch certainly makes the game look incredibly gorgeous, and the vistas of Anor Londo or the horrors of the Demon Ruins are simply breathtaking in full 1080p, but the things that make Dark Souls so far ahead of its class are the gameplay, the level design, and the bosses. There are few games in any genre that have as authentic and precise a combat system as Dark Souls, its predecessor not included. The weight of a weapon as it slams down on the ground or collides with a wall feels right, and when you nail that perfect riposte or backstab, it’s euphoric. Every element of the game’s design rides on the shoulders of its basic system mechanics, and they work flawlessly.
The world of Lordran is a beautiful and terrifying place, but in that dichotomy it is also an experience itself just to explore. If Demon’s Souls was like Mega Man with separate disassociated levels, Dark Souls is like Castlevania or Metroid, where the world seems ambivalent to itself, but everything is carefully and meticulously structured so that you can always find a shortcut leading back home. Unlocking an elevator that leads back to an earlier bonfire or finding a ladder that returns you to a previously visited room, these are some of the truest joys in Dark Souls simply because finding a shortcut means you’re closer to safety and death is one less obstacle to overcome.
Bonfires serve as a place of respite and calm, a hallowed sanctuary in a world teeming with death and darkness. They act as shops and storage once you gain the necessary items, and can allow you to level up your stats should you earn enough of the titular souls. These souls serve a variety of functions: from currency to buy, repair, or upgrade equipment, to the very experience necessary to increase your character’s proficiencies. Death is of great consequence in Dark Souls: should you perish, you relinquish all of your souls and humanity – a resource necessary for some of the game’s multiplayer functions – to a bloodstain on the ground. Reclaim those belongings before you die a second time, or risk losing them for good.
This is what gives Dark Souls its reputation: that classic risk-versus-reward mentality. Do you push onward into a new area with caution in hopes of finding greater glory, or do you retreat, return to the last bonfire and spend your hard-earned rewards? The catch is that every time you rest at a bonfire, all of the game’s normal enemies respawn. The game pulls no punches when it comes to making you feel like every choice is a difficult one, because they are. Even the simplest decision making comes at some kind of cost. Joining alliances, or covenants, with specific NPC characters in the game grants you access to special spells, items, or other notable features, but perhaps not joining with one may result in the death of a character you’ve come to appreciate. The beauty – or beast – of it all is that the game never tells you anything. There’s no warning or hint that says “If you join this covenant, so-and-so will die.” It just happens, and you learn from the mistakes. Much like the game’s enemy and boss design, patterns of characters and events become predictable after a while, you just need to be aware of it. Every time you die to an enemy’s overhead strike, you become familiar with his animations and soon learn to predict and anticipate it. Everything about Dark Souls comes down to one thing: patience.
The world is littered with pitfalls, traps, enemies waiting in ambush, and a dozen other machinations with the sole purpose of killing you. Running carelessly around these fraught lands will result in unnecessary deaths, and if there’s one thing this game doesn’t need it’s more dying.
A notable improvement to the console version is the network. Now, I’m not saying Games For Windows Live is good – quite the contrary. I’ve had my issues with the service in the past, and even with Dark Souls; however, I’ve also had more successful summons playing the PC version than I ever had on both the PS3 and Xbox 360. Whatever was changed was done so for the better. The game’s multiplayer works exactly the same, with players dropping their summon signs on the ground, generally before a boss. Players in other worlds can sometimes see these signs if they’re within a certain level range and summon them as phantoms for assistance. Communication is extremely limited, leaving only a few character poses as the primary source of interaction. But there’s a universal language when it comes to Dark Souls: if you’re being summoned, something needs to die. And everyone understands this.
Invasions serve as some of the game’s most anxious and intense moments, trumping that of even the most aggressive boss battles. At any time in an area where you have yet to kill the boss, and if you are in human form, you can be invaded by other players. These players appear as red and black phantoms, or sometimes other colors depending on the covenant they joined, and their only goal is to kill you. Doing so nets them a handsome reward, but if you can vanquish your attacker, you’ll reap the benefits instead.
There have even been a few small additions to the multiplayer feature in the form of an arena-style competitive match. Set in the Oolacile Coliseum of the new content, players can join 1-versus-1, 2-versus-2, or 4 player death match fights. This makes it easier for those looking for a legitimate competition, because invading an unsuspecting player can only be fun for so long.
There are many words that can describe the kind of game Dark Souls is: ambitious, hardcore, punishing, rewarding, refreshing. But perhaps the most apt term to encompass this unapologetic 800 pound gorilla is “unsettling.” Dark Souls may unintentionally be one of the greatest horror games of all time. If fear is a sense of dread and unease, than Dark Souls delivers in spades. The ambience of the world, even in some of the more peaceful settings, is so rich with tension that it makes most horror games feel like amateur hour. The first time you open the floodgates of New Londo Ruins, or walk through the Tomb of the Giants, you will know fear. Even the Oolacile Township, in its brightly-lit décor, exudes pain and suffering. The effects of the abyss spread as a black plague consuming the world, and the distant screams in the background remind you that there are people still alive here, and they are enduring hell on earth.
The lack of music sets a mood that emphasizes caution, allowing you to hear every footstep of a nearby enemy or every distinct sound made behind closed doors. When you finally do hear music, most often in a boss fight, it’s thrilling and exciting. The music is exceptional, to say the least. The game’s supporting cast serve as mere landmarks in a world overwrought with destruction; some you find will be more helpful than others, but all are voiced with a melancholic quality. There’s sorrow in their tone, because they know of the suffering that is occurring, and though the game’s brief intro scene is vague in setting up the game’s story, there’s much to be discovered here through character interactions and basic item descriptions. Dark Souls, like its predecessor Demon’s Souls, is a game less about a story being told, and more about entering a world where a story is about to finish. You arrive just in time for the ending, and you get to decide it.
Dark Souls: Prepare to Die is many things. It’s every bit as deeply engrossing and tragic as the console versions, but it’s also an example of what happens when a company completely ignorant of the PC market attempts to publish a game for it. The few issues with regards to the resolution and a true lack of customization options really shine a light on Japan’s tradition of ignoring the PC community. Make no mistake: this version is entirely worth every penny, and it has potential to be the definitive edition of the game. But to truly enjoy it in the way every Dark Souls fan would want you to, in all its agonizing glory, you’ll require some outside assistance. The resolution patch fixes the game’s glaring visual fault, and though there is support for mouse and keyboard, it is highly recommended you use a gamepad: a PS3 controller using emulation software or a wired Xbox 360 game pad are preferred.
Neither of these issues make the game unplayable, but why endure even more hardships when you’ll get enough of that from the game itself? Dark Souls: Prepare to Die defies logic and spits in the face of contemporary design. It ratchets up the momentum that started with Demon’s Souls and continued with the console versions of Dark Souls, but with this PC release, From Software has proven one thing: people enjoy pain. And there is no greater source of wonderful, agonizing, soul crushing pain than Dark Souls: Prepare to Die.