It’s certainly novel for a game’s subtitle to boast of your impending slaughter, but Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition is unusual in most respects. Its combat is abnormally precise, its narrative is largely embedded within optional NPC interactions, and its multiplayer features are unconventional and initially largely hidden. While the PC version is a shabby port, there is simply no other action RPG out there like Dark Souls, which is so good that it adversely affected my opinion of how all previous RPGs handled combat.
However, we must start out with a warning: the PC port is a disappointing wasted opportunity to technically improve on the console version of Dark Souls, and it lacks many features you probably expect as standard. The resolution is locked at 1280×720 (aka 720p), the framerate is locked at 30fps, and there are no high resolution textures. There’s a mouse keyboard control option, but control is so bad that it’s not practical, so you’ll definitely want a gamepad to play. Fortunately, there’s a must-have unofficial patch available that improves the rendering resolution. With it, everything looks much crisper, although you’re stuck with low-resolution textures. A framerate uncapper is also in the works, but it’s currently too buggy to recommend.
Roll Up Your Sleeves
That said, Dark Souls is still an amazing game. There’s no hand-holding — to succeed, you need to invest time diligently exploring, learning the combat system, and developing your skills to overcome challenges. The open-world design makes it likely that you’ll wander into high-level areas that’ll mercilessly slap some perspective into your character. It’s a tough, but fair experience. Deaths aren’t cheap, but success needs to be well earned.
It’s easy to prematurely conclude that you lack the reflexes or experience to tackle challenges, but the combat system is incredibly precise and severely punishes button mashing. Most of my character deaths were caused by impatience, not an inability to quickly respond. You’ll improve through the traditional RPG route of leveling up and finding and improving equipment, but also by observing enemy movement and attack patterns and learning appropriate responses. Once I started taking more time to acquire familiarity with the capabilities of enemies and my own weaponry, battles that once seemed insurmountable became rote.
Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like an Armor-Plated Bee
While ranged-combat skills can make some encounters more manageable, fighting is largely oriented around melee. The brilliance of the melee combat system is that it accommodates whatever style you find most natural or interesting — it’s tremendously deep and well balanced, which gives you lots of tactical choices and forces tradeoffs. There are over a dozen weapon classes, and each has its own attack patterns — many individual weapons within classes have their own unique attacks, too. For instance, while the strong two-handed attack for most straight swords is a charging slash, the Drake Sword pounds the ground and creates an impressive shockwave that also damages the sword. Weapons have normal and strong attacks, which are different when used one-handed or two-handed, as well as alternate attacks when used after rolling, back-stepping, or pressing a directional key. I naturally developed favorite weapons and relied more heavily on certain attacks, but the variety of weapons and attack methods provides a tremendous number of effective tools to overcome obstacles, and ample opportunity for rewarding experimentation.
There are no respecs, so your character-development choices have lasting impact, but there also are no fixed classes or restrictions, so you can fully customize your character to suit your preferences. One of the system’s best traits is that while certain character builds will make some challenges easier, almost any build is viable with the right preparation. For instance, it’s not necessary to eventually graduate to larger weapons or heavy armor — wearing light equipment enables you to prance around the battlefield and easily dodge enemies, which is just as viable as slowly bludgeoning opponents by blocking or absorbing attacks with heavy equipment and then retaliating. You can even be both speedy and heavily armored, but you’ll have to sacrifice equipment slots and be less able to enhance your spell-casting abilities or other attributes.
Time For a Different Approach
Equipment choices can have more than one impact — heavy armor not only blocks more damage than lighter equipment, it also makes your character less likely to be thrown off balance when hit. Large shields have great stability, which allows your blocks to use less stamina (a crucial combat resource), but light shields allow you to better land devastating ripostes. Some weapons inflict damage dependent upon attributes such as Strength. If you’ve neglected the attributes that modify weapon damage, you can instead use elemental weapons that don’t rely upon attribute modifiers, or chaos weapons that scale with consumable Humanity points. If you find it difficult to get parry timing down, ignore it and use heavy shields for blocking or rely more upon rolling. I found that against many dangerous opponents, the additional range of a halberd more than compensated for its slow attack speed. Instead of hammering through shielded opponents, I began kick their shields away. Enemies and items don’t scale in strength as you level, so if you become skilled enough at combat you can complete the storyline and grab the most powerful equipment as a very low-level character.
Dark Souls takes a great, unconventional approach to multiplayer and online content, although unfortunately via the cumbersome
Games of Windows Live system. Unless you create an offline GFWL account, you’ll always play online, allowing other players to join your game as a hostile or helpful phantom in certain circumstances. It also gives you some insight into what other players are doing at the same location within their games. You can touch blood spots to see ghostly replays of how other players died, or read notes left by other players (which could warn you of the location of an upcoming enemy or deliberately mislead you into walking off a cliff), and there are a few synergistic advantages whenever other players use spells or kindle bonfires near the same location in their own games. So even when playing on your own, being online enriches your game with additional content derived from what other players are concurrently doing in their own games.
The conditions under which your game can be joined are somewhat complicated. Your character can be in either human or “hollow” form, and a character in human form who dies respawns in hollow form. The only way to return to human form is to use rare, but farmable, Humanity items. Being in human form has two advantages: it allows you to kindle and permanently improve bonfires (precious checkpoint locations), which gives you additional healing flasks, and it allows you summon other players or befriended NPCs as backup phantoms. Summoning aid can make boss fights much easier, especially since you can summon up to three friendly phantoms, who can be a mix of human players and NPCs. Joining someone else’s game as a friendly phantom is a great opportunity to gain some riches without risking your own character’s life, as you’ll just return to your own game if your phantom is killed. Several NPCs offer the opportunity to join covenants, some of which offer additional rewards for helping, or killing, other players.
The downside of being in human form is that your game can be invaded by hostile phantoms, who are largely other players but can also be NPCs. Invasions add excitement, and the different covenants that you can join offer a variety of ways to fight other players. Join the Dark Wraiths and you can invade the games of other players who have characters in human form, while joining the Forest Hunters gives you a ring that summons you to the games of players fighting in the forest.
The Phantom Menace
Unfortunately, there are a lot of multiplayer griefers. Some may have hacked characters, but generally these jerks deliberately avoid leveling while they grab powerful equipment, making them radically overpowered when they invade characters playing normally. That means every time you adopt human form, you risk your game being invaded by someone who will quickly kill you in an unfair fight. That’s pretty annoying, since it makes it harder to summon help when you need it.
The good news is that because the PC version is new, there are still plenty of normal players to encounter, and multiplayer combat on level footing is great fun. The developers also made some modifications from the console version that make a larger variety of character builds effective in PvP combat, including reducing the effectiveness of backstabbing and the godly, backflip-enabling Dark Wood Grain Ring. There’s also a new arena specifically for PvP combat, but you have to first reach the new content to unlock it (which will take most players over 20 hours) and then hope there are enough similarly leveled players in queue to get a timely match. Right now it’s difficult to get a match in most game types — that may improve as Dark Souls ages and more players both access the area and focus on multiplayer matches, but it’s currently more of a novelty than a significant addition.
I don’t recommend going in unguided, though, as you’ll probably never even find the new areas without the help of a Dark Souls walkthrough wiki. You need to first kill a boss, then leave the area and return or reload, then kill a freshly spawned creature and don’t accidentally annoy a related NPC, then clear out several entirely different locations until you unlock the final set of campaign areas, then go to one of those unlocked areas and kill a new creature there to pick up an object with no clear purpose, and finally return to the original cleared out area and wander to an uninhabited corner that you’d likely ignore. Yep, not likely.
But Dark Souls has always had content that you were unlikely to find without assistance, such as the Great Hollow, a treasure trove for rare crafting materials. The lore is treated similarly, as NPC dialog is generally cryptic, easily missed, and never quite gels into a coherent narrative. I’ve found that uncovering and debating the setting’s lore is one of Dark Souls’ many optional but rewarding time-sinks.
About three quarters of the original locations are extremely well designed, but the last few levels are simpler and just force you through an uninspired and tedious gauntlet of enemies. One detail I particularly appreciate in Dark Souls’ world design is that buildings are realistically scaled to your character, instead of being dwarf-scale models as in Skyrim and most other RPGs. On a good PC, I found none of the irksome slowdowns that blight (in particular) Blighttown in the console versions.
The Undiscovered Country
The Prepare to Die Edition also adds three new areas that provide some new insight into the setting’s history: a crumbling cityscape, a forest, and an area of the Abyss that’s haunted by Humanity ghosts. The cityscape is the only one that impresses, as the others feel too redundant next to the original content, but the new enemies make them worth playing, including some misshapen humanoids with headstalks that can be seen in darkness and some tough stone guardians who slam their hammer so viciously into the ground that yanking them out causes an explosion of turf.
The new bosses include the fallen Knight Artorias, a key figure in the lore, and a ferocious Dragon which is so tough that he’s an optional fight. All of the new bosses are frenetic and extremely aggressive combatants, making them at least as tough as those in the original areas. One of those original bosses also makes a very welcome reappearance, in a manner that both fits well with established lore and gives a different tone (and some new dialog) to the original encounter.
Content with the Content
Getting all of the items and clearing out the tough creatures that don’t respawn, like the deadly blowdart-wielding runts in Blighttown, is how you mark your progress through a location (since normal creatures respawn every time you rest at a bonfire). The new territories somewhat lose that satisfying feel by being more static, since they don’t have enemies you can permanently kill, and most items are just lying around and easily accessible. Still, they fit in well, and add six to eight hours of gameplay (on top of the original areas, which took me more than 40 hours to get through), not counting the new multiplayer options. The campaign resets at a higher difficulty level if you complete it, and you’d need to get through almost three full playthroughs to get all of the items and achievements.
While this port isn’t the significant enhancement that we’d all hoped for (to put it kindly), Prepare to Die Edition is still clearly the definitive version of Dark Souls. It plays smoother, multiplayer is improved, mods have enhanced the resolution and promise further improvements, and there’s content not currently available on the consoles. PC gamers have had to wait a while, but we now have the best version of Dark Souls anywhere, and it’s almost-unique type of challenging and rewarding gameplay has made it one of my all-time favorite games.
Man, would it have killed Namco to put a little extra TLC into this game? It’s obviously a winner, but I have a hard time giving $40 to a company that can’t be bothered to provide the most basic of PC features. What do you think? Is this a gameplay-trumps-all situation, or is this a line you won’t cross?
For more info on the PC options and limitations, see our Port Authority feature on the next page.
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