Dark Souls: Prepare To Die Edition Review
Reviewed on PC
Dark Souls is the great misunderstood game of this generation. There’s a wildly prevalent belief the game’s extremely hard. People presume the developers, From Software, sat down and looked at the history of videogames, cherry-picking specific titles to place in their drawer of inspiration, only to cause perspiration for others. Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins and Battletoads would likely be in there. In there so the devs can look at them and exceed those levels of difficulty and cruelty and position their game to be harder than, well, than anything you have ever played before. This just isn’t the case. It’s just misunderstood.
You see, dieing hundreds and thousands of times as you make your way from the relative comfort of Firelink Shrine through Darkroot Garden and onto Blighttown is part of the game mechanics, part of the game design and the basis of the learning curve. You move a few feet, meet a foe and are vanquished in the fleeting moments between letting loose a flash of your heavy blade and the connection of their harder and faster attack with your torso. You try again, make your way back to the location of your vanquishing and collect the souls you had before that failure, this time with a little more awareness of what is about to befall you. You think to yourself a quick attack might be the better option, or maybe a long-range effort if so endowed. You’ve learnt what not to do. Now you teach yourself what to do. It probably still isn’t enough. A third, fourth, thirtieth time and you eventually get past that particular villainous creature. Each time you died you were that little bit wiser, that little bit stronger. Regardless of it all the compulsion to continue was unbearable. There was no stopping, no waiting. Just the desperate need to keep on trying, learning and eventually succeeding. It was incredibly hard work and around the corner there’s more to do, different baddies to beat and extra secrets to uncover. You have no idea if you’re going in the right direction, the wrong direction or even in a direction you have no right going until tens of levels stronger. The compulsion is there though. It’s not a hard game, see, it’s just a game with a deep, long-lasting and incredibly compulsive mechanic with death part of the process, rather than the end as in the majority of titles today.
Many have tried Dark Souls and many have given up early on, not realising what it was all about and not experiencing the compulsion in time. A great number of others have spent the time since the console release back in October 2011 pining for a PC version of the game - either because they had no console, thanks to a feeling this game’s natural home is the PC gaming world or, simply, a desire to experience a superior technical game (and in so doing allowing the outstanding art to shine) - waiting which, with the release of this Dark Souls: Prepare to Die edition has finally paid off. It wasn’t just moaning on forums and comments boards either; there was a petition which caused From Software to stand up, take notice and port the game to the IBM compatible conglomeration of high-tech wizardry. Despite their complete and total lack of experience in PC coding. All because the fans wanted it. Folk who had got the compulsion and wanted to play it on the Daddy of all platforms with effects and textures turned up to eleven and the fabled mouse-look control system, or, simply, folks who wanted to experience it for the first time.
We should all be thankful they did. Every single gaming fan deserves the chance to play Dark Souls. It is a glorious game as we have already told you. In fact, in the time since then many more of The Digital Fix staff have played the game and a great many have fallen in love with it. Not all, perhaps for the reasons stated above. In fact, given the extra breadth and time of exposure the title has received, the score in hindsight could be argued as a little (or perhaps even a lot) low. It really is that wonderful. Some disappointment to discover then what the PC version isn’t.
It’s not super high resolution for starters. It’s locked at the 720p of the console version. It doesn’t have a modified control scheme to make it less cumbersome with WASD and a mouse. It doesn’t have the immediacy, rapidity or fluidity of a twitch shooter where the accuracy provided by a mouse over a joypad lends benefits. It plays like a beast developed with a joypad in mind. It doesn’t have any noticeable improvements or changes versus the console editions, except for the extra content - something which come October will be available to console veterans and newcomers alike via Prepare to Die editions and DLC. None of this matters. Not a single bit is an issue. You can go and buy an Xbox 360 controller and plug it into the PC to get the right feel. This as a solution - despite its cost - is magnificent. The avatar (dependent to some extent on your design and choices, i.e. do you go for a big heavy melee character with significant armour, or a more nimble long-range attacker?) always feels solid, cumbersome in part and restricted early on, at least. It fits with the clunk and clank of a joypad bumper, trigger and analogue stick. The use of keys and two-buttoned rodents feels like overkill and is resolutely a failed control solution compared to alternatives.
The locked resolution - perhaps the biggest issue for grand PC users with their spanking graphics cards and insanely high resolution flat panel display technology - is simply because From Software didn’t have the know-how to provide options for varying levels of pixel count. They admitted as much, candidly, when explaining they were not PC developers. They’re a Japanese developer making a sequel to a game made for the japanese market and finding a Western market thanks to imports. They set out to make a sequel to that (Demon’s Souls) in Dark Souls, for console users in Japan. The fact it’s found such success in the USA and Europe can only be a good thing - just play the game and you’ll see why - and From Software should not be criticised for doing what they said they would do, because we asked for it. They converted the game to PC. What is relevant is that the PC version is merely a port and it does have these faults when viewed at as a PC game. The expectations have to be lowered from what would normally be expected, and that is not a good thing. They did manage to lock the PC game at ~30fps throughout though - which is more than the consoles managed in certain areas.
Anyway, it’s a PC game, right? An enterprising modder had found a solution to this particular issue a few hours after its release. The difference is staggering, and it will make anyone draw an extra intake of breath. For sure, any other technical complaints can be solved by similarly skilled third-parties if the need is serious enough. One thing which will not ever be solved is the confusing choice to use Steam and Games for Windows Live to power the title. Needing two accounts is irritating, especially when you only have one to start with. It’s just not needed and adds frustration into things before you ever get going.
It feels slightly wrong both to talk about the game itself given it’s a year old in the main, but also to not talk about it given the new audience this release opens it up to. For an initial take we encourage you to read the view of the original from last year here. It’s exactly the same. You start off by building your character in classic RPG style, and hopefully avoiding the mistakes I made - for example, going for a slow melee focussed playthrough when you’re far too weak and feeble to destroy even the most basic of opponents early on and nowhere near building enough experience to add on a long range attack (be it spells, or pyromancy). Once customised, the game begins. There’s a very small area into which you get going and perhaps are lulled into a false sense of security, whereby not only are you not dying, you’re also finding your way around pretty easily. This doesn’t last. Soon enough you find yourself at the main hub - Firelink Shrine - and then it’s over to you. There’s a gigantic world with all kinds of characters in every direction. Most of the NPC dialogue means absolutely nothing early on and is no help at all, so you just point in a direction and try it. You have no idea if you’re attempting to pass through an area which nobody has any chance of passing until they’re thirty hours into the game. There is no hand-holding. You die, die again and just keep dying. If you aren’t getting anywhere try another area, eventually you’ll find your way in this life. This undead life. You make baby step progression. You meet your first big boss. It scares the bejesus out of you and it kills you over and over. Each time you work it a little better and get that bit closer. You beat it and the crowd - the one inside your head - goes utterly wild. What a feeling. You’re rewarded with substantial numbers of souls, your currency in the game and a treasured currency it is. Not like the golden coins in Mario, or rings in Sonic, no. The souls are gone when you die. You treasure them, protect them, you stop and you think. Where do I go now, how do I get there and how can I get there safely. Immediately you want to find the one area of calm littered throughout the world - a bonfire. A place where you can set up camp, save your souls and your progress and ready yourself for another challenge. The challenges are around every corner, on every street. There is little respite, but the compulsion is there. The desire to progress stronger every minute. It’s likely you’ll be unable to play for extended periods of time, but every break makes the heart grow fonder and each waking moment not playing Dark Souls is filled by thoughts on how to tackle that particularly harsh boss fight.
Multiplayer is something From Software had aced from day one. Their implementation was radical, innovative and at times amazing and others downright offensive. To explain to the uninitiated, there is no multiplayer campaign, no co-op game mode in what makes up the original game content. But, there are versus battles and cooperative periods of play. For example, when online and in possession of the white soapstone you can summon other players to invade your game world to join forces in fighting a particular monster. This is amazing. Often you’re not strong enough, capable enough or maybe you just need somebody to tackle the tail whilst the head chases you. This idea is simple, elegant and fundamentally fantastic. It stops you from screaming blue murder and hitting the proverbial stonewall ahead of grinding for hours to overpower the dragon or the knight. It aids you, and minimises the number of deaths needed to learn how to succeed.
The flipside however, is when somebody chooses to invade your game in order to kill you. This nets them humanity and lots of it, which is why they do it but there is nothing more soul destroying (literally) than to be caught by a much stronger player whilst skulking towards that bonfire in the distance with any number of souls - normally in practice (by coincidence one presumes) with many hundreds or thousands - and be struck down only to see the familiar notice of your character’s death. It’s pure evil. It makes your blood boil. It’s a horrible, horrible thing. But you can’t deny the brilliance of it given such an effect. Both of these aspects of the original multiplayer remain in the PC port thankfully.
There are two major aspects to this game which show the difference between this edition of the title and the original one. Some serious extra single player content by way of a new location with baddies, bosses and the like, as well as a multiplayer arena. The former fits into the game quite some way through the original’s narrative (that is the narrative you create for yourself by making your way through sections in a sensible order, as opposed to just heading for the catacombs!) and is Dark Souls, only newer. It fits into the lore and will entertain for sure. For folks new to the game it’ll not appear out of place or noticeable even and so it’s perhaps odd that it is debuting on the PC, whereby those who really really want this will be the players who have gone through the game multiple times to find out everything they can and play with different character classes. The fact the new content is in the PC version is belied by the fact it’s coming to PS3 and 360 as DLC in the near future, as well as supporting the launch of this Prepare to Die edition on the consoles. Incredibly worthy content, but fairly meaningless to PC gamers. Were the PC version providing reasons to play it in addition to the console code then things may be different - but as mentioned, this is purely a port and has no benefits versus the boxes under the TV.
Except perhaps for the extra multiplayer action which is only currently available on PC and fits into the ecosystem really well. Or should. It feels out of place in the Dark Souls universe though. You struggle as one undead character against the world in which you find yourself, building your own story and doing things your way, despite the permanence of such actions (kill a merchant? Gone forever...). Here, after completing part of the single player game, you unlock an arena whereby you can fight other real players in battle, as opposed to summoning or invading during the main game. The combat system in Dark Souls is incredibly diverse and the variety is amazing - you can come across other players who look, move and fight like they’re in a whole different game to you. This can happen many times, too. It’s amazing, really, how deep and impactful the system is. It’s something that encourages multiple playthroughs if you ever get to the end the first time and have the requisite courage to try once more. In this case though, it doesn’t work brilliantly. Finding a competitor can take time and often fails anyway. Is this because of poor matchmaking and unstable netcode? Or due to the number of players playing? Given the title was released awhile ago and attempts to connect were made at various times of the day and throughout the week, we suspect the former. It’s a shame given this is part of what sets this version out from the other, but given it doesn’t suit the fantastical world it’s not a substantial loss. This is not what you would play Dark Souls for.
Dark Souls then is everything an experienced gamer could have asked for. It presents a wondrous world and leaves you to travel through and achieve within that world whatever it is you decide. Along the way there is no hand-holding, no hints or tips. There is simple communication which may provide direction or clues but can equally come across as utterly incomprehensible. You’ll go one way, continue or turn back. Eventually you’ll find your way and ring the bells, slay the dragons, open the gates and so on. You’ll collect armour, rings, weapons and skills along the way. You’ll meet characters who pertain to help you, others who immediately destroy you. You’ll regret the permanence of your actions as in this world true death can be exactly that. You’ll struggle and wonder and struggle again. The extra content will extend that struggle - if you choose to play that part of the game and tackle those areas; as is often the case here very little is essential but all is desired. To recommend this PC version of the game is easy if you haven’t otherwise played the game and have a joypad (or are willing to go buy one). If you haven’t already got this setup and have a console, then go get that instead and wait for the DLC to provide the extra content - given this game is a true port from the consoles which will soon receive the extra challenges themselves, and are the platforms for which this game was designed. However, whatever your preferred playing option, you will not regret experiencing this game for it brings forth some of the most amazing times of your adult gaming life.