Game Review

by Dave Riley,

Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition


Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition
Dark Souls has finally come to the PC, with its hallmark of deadly gameplay perfectly intact and a slew of new areas and boss fights that both challenge and impress.

There is no easier summation of the Dark Souls experience than the title of the PC release: Prepare to Die. Maybe it comes off as a little overdramatic, but it's absolutely accurate. In Dark Souls everything dies. You die, enemies die, even the merchants die. Sometimes (oftentimes) you're killed by monsters. Sometimes the monsters decide to walk off a cliff and fall to their doom. Sometimes the guy who sells you fireball spells turns into a ravenous undead creature. Sometimes you accidentally fall onto the guy who sells you fireball spells, dealing three damage, and now he's violently aggressive towards you and you either have to kill him or take a fifteen minute walk, through about a dozen sword-wielding zombies, to purchase a phenomenally expensive plenary indulgence from a rapier-wielding priest in a decaying belltower.

Everything is fragile. Most things die in a couple of hits, yourself included. Combat revolves around an easily depleted stamina bar, and keeping your shield up at all times, and turning dark corners in scary caves, and lava pits, and abandoned castles without knowing what will jump out and ambush you, but knowing that any enemy who does is likely to kill you before you even know what's happening. Dark Souls asks you to be metered, asks you to spend twenty seconds dodging a boss's swings until the perfect moment opens for you to strike. It is difficult to run for any extended period of time, as running full-steam into anything, known or unknown, is a sure-fire way to get killed. Things become easier, as you level-up and as you gear-reinforce, but they never become easy. The same cold-sweat, the same fear-impulse firing down your spine when you leap a gap over a bottomless pit for the first time will remain, in some degree, when you jump over it for the twentieth time. As you improve your character you become stronger, but you are ceaselessly reminded you that you will always be weak, that you are never so strong that a lumbering pack of mindless undead can't kill you if you aren't paying attention.

But the ways to defend yourself are myriad, all sorts of magic, and swords, and bombs, and throwing knives. Many weapons have not only different animations for their regular attacks, but also for dashing attacks, leaping attacks, rolling attacks. Among the four katanas in the game there are three unique movelists. This sort of breadth and depth flies in the face of games like Skyrim, which can't be bothered even to differentiate a longsword from a battleaxe. And maybe Skyrim shouldn't be required to do so, maybe that's not what Skyrim wants to be, but the combat in Dark Souls is leagues beyond the usual Action RPG "run backwards while holding the attack button" and rightfully deserves all the praise it gets.

You operate under the same mechanics as most of your enemies. As you can parry and take cheap backstabs on opponents, so can some of the skeletal knights and thieves you'll encounter. Enemies will ceaselessly beat on you until your stamina depletes, and you drop your guard, and are killed. If you experiment, you'll find that you can also switch your sword into a two-handed grip, just as they do, and wail on a turtling enemy's shield until they're exhausted and defenseless. The discovery that enemies share your weaknesses -- that many can be poisoned, or bled, or stun-locked -- is one brought about by experimentation and discovery instead of exposition or menu options. These points of gnosis, where divining some hidden vulnerability makes you feel as if the rules of the universe have shifted (and that they have finally shifted in your favor), are very different than pushing a shoulder button to query Teddy and have him tell you than a foe is weak against fire damage.

This attitude of discovery through self-reliance permeates everything. Where most games pile on clumsy exposition, Dark Souls is content to tell its story through architecture, and scraps of too-short conversation, and item descriptions. Item descriptions! In a way that hews delightfully close to Metroid Prime's distribution of lore through scanned text, mythology here is left up to the imagination of the players, spread out in two paragraph summaries of history accessed by scrolling through the inventory and highlighting a weapon crafted from a boss's tortured soul.

This way of conveying story may seem inefficient to those who haven't experienced it, but it serves to reinforce the idea that the player-character's destiny is not manifest. The player-character may be important by design, but is not important by definition. They are one undead warrior of many, and very few things in the world go out of their way to defer to them. So the story is not revealed in an expository cutscene about the character being the "chosen one." The story, if it is discovered at all, is discovered in accordance with the player's effort. This treacle flow of information may be agonizing, but it is expertly metered. It is doled out in such a way that a lore-seeker's appetite is constantly whet, and every factoid is carefully crafted enough that each one feels like a revelation instead of the usual RPG's sixteen page info dump, to be put-off or ignored until convenient.

Nowhere is this highlighted better than the extra content of the PC edition, where a new merchant dishes out possibly the biggest enlightenment in the entire game in-between selling throwing knives and dung pies. The PC-exclusive (for now) content spans something like 5-10 hours and feels more like what we're call an expansion pack than what we'd call DLC. The three new zones each have a solid theme and a few secrets to suss out, as you'd expect. More importantly, they feel like some of the most fair areas in the game, with relatively few "gotcha!" moments of death by trap or unexpected fall, with interesting (and sometimes terrifying) new enemies to fight, and the most hyper-aggressive bosses to date. The expansion is suffused with constant references to please the hardcore, including a thrillingly tough fight against a major lore character and a summonable NPC helper during the final boss whose inclusion can only be described as fanservice. Tacked on are a half-dozen new weapons, a couple neat armor sets, and a some cute vanity items, like a set of carvings that let you speak short phrases to other players. This feels like what an expansion should be. It feels like what some players believe expansions were, before DLC came along and 'ruined' everything.

But the PC release is not without its flaws. It's been called shameful, half-assed, unplayable, but it's probably more accurate to say it's incredibly lazy than it is to say it's incredibly broken. From Software lowered expectations by saying they were not PC developers, and that the port would be, at best, workmanlike, but their warning may not have been enough. Keyboard/mouse support is nigh-on useless, but it's difficult to imagine a keyboard layout that approximates what Dark Souls needs. Moreover, any PC user that plays anything other than FPSes probably does (and definitely should) own a controller already, so From manages to skirt the issue of control on a technicality. Other problems are more difficult to ignore. Fresh out of the box, the graphics are locked at a basically sub-HD resolution. As a result, the PC version looks murky, and blurry, and inarguably worse than the console release. Poor graphical fidelity doesn't necessarily ruin a game, but here it does its damnedest to sully an art design that is otherwise exciting, intimidating, beautiful, and weird. It seems exceptionally wasteful to muddy Dark Souls's carefully crafted look with low fidelity graphics, and it is all the more insulting considering the problem was fixed by an industrious modder within a half hour of the release.

That's the major crowing point among dissenters: one guy on the internet put out a patch in 23 minutes that makes the PC version look ten times better than its Xbox or PS3 equivalent. A non-intrusive file dropped into the game's directory upscales the graphics to a resolution of the user's discretion and adds a couple quality of life fixes (fullscreen windowed mode, invisible mouse cursor) to boot. Admittedly, "one guy on the internet" has the luxury of operating without quality control. He can make a patch that works 90% of the time while a patch by a game developer has to pass a more rigorous series of checks. This is not meant to absolve a piss-poor job, but the reasons why things are as they are should be taken in context.

And some of the niggling issues from the console release still remain. Network play, facilitated by the opprobrious Games for Windows Live, shares the same miserable spurts of intermittent connectivity that console versions sported. That means multiplayer connections fail more than they succeed, and play sessions sometimes go through strange periods of quasi-offline, where no player-written messages or other proof of life appear for an hour or more, only to spring back into existence without ceremony or for any apparent reason. For a game that prides itself on its unique multiplayer structure these more-than-occasional hiccups remain a source of consternation. Some of a player's most memorable moments will come from interacting with others, whether it be working together to overcome a boss or having their world invaded an aggressive player. To deny someone these moments because of shoddy netcode feels sloppy and unfair.

These frustrations are not without their merit and there's more than a handful of them but the overall package, though flawed, retains the essential heart of Dark Souls. Draw almost any contemporary game out of a hat, Call of Duty or Final Fantasy or whatever, and you'll find a string of scripted sequences built with sole intent of pushing the player forward to the end boss, maintaining only enough difficulty to avoid feelings of being hand-held. That is one a way to make a video game, and it's a way to make an extremely popular video game, and it is often a way to make a extremely fun video game, but it is not the only way to make a video game. In a gaming culture that is willing to sacrifice nearly anything to kowtow to players comfort or whim, to play a game that sometimes seems indifferent to its player's success is actually kind of refreshing.

And it's only sometimes that Dark Souls seems unforgiving, or mean. Its style is often decried as sadistic and its players as masochistic, but how can we call a game sadistic that, after a hard-won boss fight, scrolls YOU DEFEATED (or the more English-appropriate VICTORY ACHIEVED, in later patches) in giant letters across the screen? It seems, in that instant, that the developers are rejoicing in the victory as much as the player. That moment of triumph isn't sadistic at all. It's more akin to a flawless performance of a difficult piano piece, where the applause of the audience is replaced by a fireworks-like explosion of items and currency.

Dark Souls may seem like it doesn't care, but it secretly wants you to succeed and it gives you the tools, though not the explicit instruction, to do so. It remains a game that is scary, and dangerous, and deadly, but also somewhat easy to break (with electric broadswords, and homing missile spells). It remains a game where understanding a system is more important than leveling Dexterity to 30 points, and a willingness to change tactics and press on in the face of adversity is more important than finding a +5 halberd that fits all situations. Though the cycle of fail-get up-try again is often criticized, or interpreted as "repetitive" gameplay, the game's greatest accomplishment is that triumph comes from experience, not experience points.

Overall : A-
Graphics : B
Sound/Music : B+
Gameplay : A+
Presentation : C+

+ Extremely varied, complex combat system; maintains an oppressive and overwhelming atmosphere not often found in games
Frustrating port requires fan-made patch to really shine; issues with online connectivity persist

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