LTTP: Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition
LTTP, or Late to the Party to break out the full name, is an occasional series that aims to cast a light on slightly older games that our contributors may have recently encountered after having missed them first time round. Due to the age of the games in question, as well as the more subjective nature of articles such as these, expect there to be story-related spoilers throughout. You have been warned!
All PC gamers will be familiar with the Steam Sale and its propensity to empty your wallet at an alarming rate. It was in this way that I came across Dark Souls: Prepare to Die for the price of a pint. I’d never played the original console version but had heard good things about its difficulty, gameplay and lore, not least from our own reviews (first for Xbox 360, then later for PC) and opinion piece from resident expert Luciano Howard. It sat it on my “play later” list until the idea of Late to the Party features came up at The Digital Fix. Like many others, my ability to buy games outstrips my capacity to play them but finally the time had come.
Or so I thought. The natural first step for a PC gamer is to look for mods - patches, graphical enhancements, tweaks to the UI. Turns out Dark Souls has a few… Some helpful guides from Gameranx and Rock, Paper, Shotgun (among others) provide a good introduction, particularly on installing Durante’s DSFix which lets you muck about with the game’s resolution and take full advantage of your PC’s hardware. Without this the game resembles a washed out PS2 title but with it and the other enhancement mods… wow. Sunlight dapples beautifully and textures are rich in detail. It’s a bit of a slog getting them all installed but IMHO it’s worth it.
The next step - which I discovered after buying the game - is that support for keyboard and mouse is… iffy. Using an Xbox 360 controller is “strongly recommended” by Steam and forums seem to split players between “meh, it’s not a problem” and “it’s literally unplayable without a pad”. As I had a few Christmas vouchers kicking around, and figured a pad would be handy for other ports anyway, I bought a wireless model for £25. Cheaper wired pads were widely available for £10-15.
There was one final job before starting the game - get some starting tips from our resident expert Luciano. With the benefit of hindsight, the three biggies were:
1. Take the Master Key
2. Get a projectile weapon
3. EVERYTHING IS PERMANENT
I felt a little guilty after reading these. After all, anyone buying the game for the first time wouldn’t get these tips, right? So something had to be done to balance the scales a little. Enter: the Deprived.
Like many RPGs, Dark Souls starts you off with character design. You have your usual archetypes - Warrior, Sorcerer, Hunter - and then there’s the Deprived. Aptly named, this poor soul is more poorly equipped than a train-hopping hobo. With nothing more than a wooden plank shield and crude club for protection, he’s the choice of the expert gamer and - concurrently - the masochist. “So what?”, I thought. “How hard could this game be?”. That was my first mistake, but not the last, as you shall see...
YOU DIED #1 - Take the Master Key
Every character can choose a starting item to help them in their quest (the Thief gets a Master Key plus one other thing, the thieving sod). I took Luc’s advice and picked the Master Key guessing, correctly, it would open a bunch of doors that wouldn’t otherwise be easily accessible. Of course, my thinking hadn’t extended to the next step - what’s on the other side of those doors? And in Dark Souls, you always, always need to be thinking about what’s waiting for you.
At the top of the final tower in Undead Burg, the game’s first level (discounting the tutorial), is the Taurus Demon; an axe wielding manticore who chases you across a narrow and inescapable castle wall. But in the tower’s basement is something equally as tricky… Havel the Rock.
Wielding the Dragon’s Tooth hammer and clad in heavy armour, he’s slow moving but packs an absolutely devastating punch. Against my puny light armoured character he’s lethal, crumbling my bones to dust with a mere flick of the wrist. Death after death after death gets me a little closer to defeating him but it’s painstaking work. It actually feels like the completely unforgiving arcade games of the 80s and 90s that meticulously balanced horribly competitive gameplay with horrendous difficulty levels, the perfect recipe to keep you pumping coins into the machine. It’s a brutal introduction to a game which I’m already finding hard but I can’t remember the last time I felt this mixture of rage, audacity and hope. It feels good.
YOU DIED #2 - get a projectile weapon
With no ranged weapon at the start, or even basic armour, I had to quickly pick up the combat system’s parry, riposte and dodge mechanics. I expect fans will have their favourite parts of the game but this would probably be mine. There’s a real nuance to timing your attacks and parries correctly and this changes with each weapon. Axes are heavy and swing widely, so attacks have to be well placed or you’re wide open to a counter-attack. Spears can leave you really exposed but are deadly in the right hands, particularly with a well-placed thrust. I did eventually pick up a bow but it was great to get stuck into the melee combat from the off. After some agonising I made my Deprived into a fencer - lightly armoured, lightning fast and a sporting a buckler for snappy parries. He’s quick to run in, stab, and leap out. I’m a fencer myself so I was keen to try the build out and was immediately impressed. A lot of the animations and moves are spot on (although the parrying is a bit wild at times) and it really feels different to handling the other weapons. Regardless of your choice, encounters boil down to observation, timing and persistence. It’s a refreshing break from the bombast of hack-and-slash titles which permeate modern gaming.
Learning all this was essential to battling the game’s hardest foes - other players. Your Hollow (read: undead) character can become human again by offering “Humanity” at a bonfire, the rare havens that punctuate levels and allow you to rest and level up. Becoming human lets you summon help from other human players but also throws your game open to invaders who can kill you and steal your souls and Humanity. The first time someone invaded I found a courtyard with only two entrances and steeled myself. He appeared and we sized each other up - me, semi-naked and clutching a club, versus him shrouded in a blood red aura and heavily armoured. This was always going to be a markedly one-sided affair but then that most rare and miraculous thing happened - he helped me out. Instead of attacking me, he waved and then dropped a ton of buff items like Gold Pine Resins, to electrify your weapon, and Green Blossom to recover your stamina during fights. Gobsmacked, I collected the items and managed a wave and bow through the gestures menu. It was a nice introduction to the PvP section of Dark Souls but the second time I was not so lucky.
Things started just the same - a message, a wait and the appearance. Except I was not confronted by an enemy, but a... barrel? A hovering barrel? A bit confused, it wobbled towards me, around me, sat with some other barrels. Wary, I kept my shield up. Then it became a human, waved and dropped some items. “What luck!” I thought as I crouched to collect my goodies. And then it knifed me in the back.
This was my real intro to the PvP side of Dark Souls and it was invigorating. Wiley, quick and ruthless, I was outmatched but held my ground and had a little help from my old friend who had dropped all those items in my first encounter. I did my best to hang in but couldn’t counter all the backstabs and parries. For all their difficulty, the enemy AI had rarely pulled any of these moves on me - either they attacked in gangs, overwhelming me with numbers, or in fits and spurts before pulling back. Not this one. He’s tricky. So I decide to retreat to the safety of my shield where my rapier came into its own. In Dark Souls a few weapons can be used behind the cover of a shield. The rapier is one. I chance a few proper lunges when his guard is down but mostly try to sneak in a few stabs when he’s wheeling round me and his dodges aren’t well timed.
This back and forth carries on for what seems an age, me risking shots while he spins and flips to find an opening. And then, suddenly, miraculously, he’s dead. My relief was palpable and an old sensation followed… a feeling of achievement but mixed with something. Remorse? No, I was defending myself. Pity? A little perhaps, it could have gone either way. It’s more despondency - there’s no-one to celebrate my victory with, no-one to cheer or clap or raise their hands in relief. There’s just me and my hollow victory. That, and the road less travelled stretching on in front me. I plod on.
YOU DIED #3 - EVERYTHING IS PERMANENT
Oh boy, should I have listened to this one. Nowadays it’s all too easy to sate yourself on quick loads, that button hovering there like a one-stop confession box to wipe your errors clean. Not so with Dark Souls. There’s no easy way out of this ride. It started once I’d left the Asylum where you cut your teeth against a few enemies and, surveilling the desolate landscape from a craggy promontory, you’re plucked from the air by a giant crow.
After touching down in what appears to be a sunny, habitable area, you encounter a few friendly NPCs. Not overly friendly but at least they’re not trying to make a cup out of my skull. After a short walk I spy a rotund chap with what appears to be a bowl haircut his mum has given him. I wave. He doesn’t draw his weapon. Naturally this invites the notion - if he’s not attacking me, maybe I can get him first?
It starts well. Although heavily armoured, he’s slow on his feet and not able to turn quickly. I even manage a few backstabs and parries because of my extra speed. But the dam won’t break and my attacks wash over his heavy frame like waves against the cliffside. After a few attempts, I relent and decide to go back to the game proper. Except he hasn’t forgotten when I reload. It’s like he remembers everything happening even though I reloaded… Dark Souls remembers and that’s enough. I am now trapped in an endless cycle of kill or be killed and I’m just not strong enough to win!
Dejected, I abandon this game and start over from scratch. It’s the only way out of this predicament and although it doesn’t take long to get back to the same point, I’ve learned a painful lesson. Dark Souls won’t forget your transgressions or hold your hand through its harder sections. It doesn’t give you the benefit of the doubt. It’s almost like it doesn’t want you to play the game, it just wants you to die.
At ten hours in I am scratching the proverbial surface of this game. It feels truly unique for a number of reasons. The difficulty comes to mind, of course, but also its balance with that mea culpa feeling some games elicit when you fail. I remember reading somewhere that, when making Super Mario, Shigeru Miyamoto studied Pac-Man to understand the root of its success. This predominantly came from the player’s perception that death was a consequence of poor play; improvement was always possible, limitless, but within reach. Dark Souls achieves this too, I think, although sometimes it seems too harsh. There has been more than one occasion where I’ve nearly launched my controller at the wall and spat in impotent rage at the monitor. But for just a little longer, I still feel those other “play later” games on my list may have to wait just a short while as I just