I'm growing older all the time. It's getting to the point where it's embarrassing.
I think Dark Souls is a work of art that belongs in a museum. The Royal Ontario Museum disagrees, but I think I'm starting to wear them down.
When I was in grade 5 I went to school as Robin for Halloween. The costume was basically a pair of green lady tights and a tunic that had to be Velcroed at the crotch like a baby's onesie. My self esteem never fully recovered.
I believe Alan Wake was criminally under-appreciated. It's unclear if this notion stems from a legitimate love of the game, or my loyalty to any piece of media that is going to include tracks from Nick Cave, Poe, and Depeche Mode.
Some of my stuff has been front-paged. I'm super proud!
The Darkness covers everything. Thick black ink scrawled along the walls of a once beautiful city, leading me towards a pitch black well. I'm alone, weak, and I'm struggling against my better sense to take one more step into that void. I raise my shield and remember that I paid for the privilege to be here.
Dark Souls: Prepare to Die edition is more than the PC port that the hardcore crowd clamoured for (and then true to form, "boycotted" in a snarky huff). It is a love letter to fans of the series. A tip of the hat to all those true believes who examined every nook and crevice in the game for meaning. Who poured over art books, translated text files, and subscribed to YouTube channels to dig out every bit of story and mystery from the game. To the weekend Shang Tsungs who organized fight clubs and duels for bloodthirsty warriors looking for a straight fight. With new content and balances specifically designed to cater to the established Dark Souls fan, Prepare to Die has a lot to offer veterans of the series. But is it an experience worth rebuying the same game again? Is it one the uninitiated will be interested in?
Dark Souls is a tricky bird to describe to someone who has never had the pleasure. Calling it an Action/RPG doesn't quite cover it. Yes you have numbers and stats to fiddle with and an open world to explore but this is no Skyrim. You won't spend time listening to long winded exposition or collecting X number of clam shells for the local castle chef. Dark Souls keeps its narrative lean and opaque. A thick tasty steak of mystery. Exploration in Dark Souls doesn't mean looking at a map and heading towards a quest marker. It means peering down a darkened hallway and daring yourself to walk down it.
The Action part of the Action/RPG model is a little easier to define, but tough to truly articulate. You'll be fighting monsters, BIG monsters, and other players. Poking with pointy blades, swinging large blunt things, and maybe even casting off the odd spell or two. Sound simple enough – but utterly fails to describe the truth depth and variety to be had in Dark Souls combat system.
Choosing a different weapon doesn't just mean a numerical adjustment on a spread sheet, but fundamentally changes every aspect of combat. The way you swing your weapon, the way you move with it, the strategies, advantages, and disadvantages each and every piece of equipment has in astounding variety of specific situations. Weapons can be wielded in either or both hands - you can even go crazy and use two weapons at once. You can hide behind a massive tower shield, deflect attacks and riposte with a dainty dagger, or trust in your agility and reactions to dance out of harms way. Magic is always an option, be it a risky but rewarding one. Do you have time to ready up a devastating spell, or is it safer to shrink away and regroup? This isn't even getting into the warehouse of armor sets and trinkets you can mix and match to make an entirely personalized undead avatar.
The sheer variety of play styles and options Dark Souls embraces is almost overwhelming. Not to be overly harsh to Skyrim, but when I play that game and those in a similar vein, I feel like most weapons and spells are just different skins over the same experience. Swords and daggers swing the same, and they're slightly faster than the largely interchangeable hammers and great-swords. You have your choice of magic ball to chuck at the enemy, presumably one might be better than another depending on the enemy. There is a lot of fakery and approximation involved and DPS tends to balance out no matter what you do. Ho hum. In Dark Souls choice matters
Yes, the game is still the sadomasochisticly hard experience its reputation promises, more so than ever to be honest. The new areas and bosses are not shy about bending the player over and teaching you a lesson in humility. It will take even experienced players more than a few tries to prevail with their dignity intact. But lets not get too bogged down in that. I feel like sometimes the games infamous difficulty railroads the conversation. Yes the game is hard, but it is also wonderful, magical, terrifying, and sad. For a piece of art that can stir so much emotion out of an invested audience, it seems trivializing to go on and on about how many times you'll die to those asshole Silver Archers in Anor Londo.
I've never played a game that is as deft at toying with your emotions. You want to talk about horror games going stagnant, I say look to Dark Souls for inspiration. The high risk of losing precious souls and humanity combined with the ruthlessness of the enemies and oppressive atmosphere makes for one of the most tense experiences to be found. The use of sound can't be understated. With a soundtrack silent except for boss fights (each of which has a custom identifiable theme that characterizes the fight) the ambient noise becomes deafening. Every creak and clink is a jackhammer in your ears. A quiet hiss from an unseen creature is a devouring monster in your imagination. And when you get that dreaded message, when you hear the tell-tale sound of a Dark Spirit, another player, invading your world, you'll panic, trust me.
You meet characters who share scant precious words with you but become best-friends-forever in this dark sad world. Sunbro Solaire, bumbling knight Siegmeyer, and resident sociopath Patches - all of them work their way into your heart. Its thrilling to run into them in the wild and it's profoundly sad when fate takes them away, or worse yet, forces your hand against them (well, maybe not Patches, some people are just asking for a clubbing). Dark Souls doesn't have the largest cast, but it is one of the most impressive. Every character has his or her own story and motivations, most of which is never explicitly stated – its told through their costumes, personalities, and actions. That's great writing. A few scattered lines of dialogue and some telling item descriptions from their possessions establish characters you'll carry with you long after you leave Lordran.
- Big love for our Brolaire
It isn't just the NPCs that make an impression. The oppressive loneliness and hostility of the world makes every brief encounter with another player special and memorable. While you might run into 20 other players on a Battlefield server and not remember a single one specifically, people in Dark Souls stand out. The way they look, the way they fight, the little hesitant half-steps or arrogant sprinting ahead. For a game that tries to obscure communication between players, personality and social dynamics abound amongst the player-base.
While those interactions are still as memorable and special as ever, I'm deeply disappointed to report they are also no more reliable than before. You can still fritter away hours of your life trying in vain to recruit help as summon after summon fails. Invading is the same crapshoot it's always been, and although I haven't experimented with it myself, the community consensus seems to agree that the world infecting Gravelord covenant is still broken.
To me this is the biggest missed opportunity of the port. In the lead up to release while all the angry nerds were foaming at the mouth about Windows Live and purported resolution locks, all I cared about was a smoother online experience. I really wanted to see those problems straightened out, and while it isn't a deal breaker (I've played hundreds of hours facing the same issues after-all) it does bum me out.
But how did the rest of the port turn out? Well that is a more complicated question.
The bad news is the game in its default state is indeed resolution locked. On my monitor it looked pretty much like the console version, maybe a little more blurryness here and there on some textures at some distances. Livable to play, but disappointing for those hopping for a big graphical jump in quality.
TIME TO BREAK OUT THE PITCH FORKS AND FIRE AMIRITE!?
Thankfully a resourceful modder from the NeoGAF forums prevented a mob killing at From Software's office and created a fix to the problem before most people had even finished installing the game. Letting you run the game at as high a resolution as you want, THIS is the graphics jump people were looking for! At 1920x1080 Dark Souls is a strikingly beautiful game. From the detail on a hollow's potmarked flesh to the grandeur of Anor Londo's great cathedrals, Dark Souls has never looked better.
Not only is this the best looking Dark Souls yet (with the fix), it is also the smoothest running. Even with the resolution cranked and filtering options on, the game ran at a rock steady 30 FPS on my modest desktop. The Blighttown slide-show has been cancelled! Being capped at 30 FPS seems to be a sticking point to same breed of whiner who claimed to have boycotted the game (funny why they should care now... Its almost like they bought the game because they're full of shit...), but to me, as long as the game never chugs I'm happy. From Software might have dropped the ball on the network issues and native resolution, but you have to give credit where it is due, they finally defeated the chop.
Don't worry, the bitching isn't over. Keyboard controls are absolute garbage, a gamepad is a must. If you don't have one already, add another $40 to the price-tag of the game or don't bother with it. Now I'm sure some of my difficulty with the mouse and keyboard comes from my ingrained familiarity with the pad controls for Dark Souls, and some menu tweaking might improve it, but I thought it was utterly unplayable. The mouse look was twitchy, WASD movement stiff, and the layout of controls (attack, defend, parry, switch item, use item, ect) seemed bizarre and foreign to me.
But the port is only one part of the Prepare to Die Edition, we also have new content to explore. Sweet succulent new content.
Dark Souls is a game of repetition. You die, the enemies reset, you try again. You play through once, you play through again in New Game+, you play through again with another character with different stats. One of the great joys of the game is the slow mastery of it. From finding a boss fight impossible, to making it doable, to making it trivial.
But there is nothing quite like that first time. While I embrace the mastery of the game, I'm often wistful for the first time I played. When a new deadly surprise lurked behind every corner. The hesitation before creeping through a new bosses fog gate and the dawning horror of first exploring areas like the Tomb of Giants. So I cherished my visit to the ancient land of Oolacile, the location of the expanded content, and all the exciting new ways to die and secrets to be discovered.
Oolacile is a land referred to in bits and pieces in the main game. A kingdom from a more civilized time, Oolacile was the birthplace of subtle sorceries quite unlike the soul magics of the Vinhime Dragon School. It was also the source of mythic relics thought to be lost forever when the land fell to darkness long ago. The DLC explores just how that happened and the lands connection with the legendary Abyss walker Artorias and the fate of his fellow Great Knights.
Now did that last paragraph give you a boner? If so you should probably just go ahead and buy Prepare to Die. If you're one of the fans (like me) who has invested in the lore and story of Dark Souls, than this is pure fanservice. A chance to rub elbows with some of these mysterious figures only hinted at through trinkets and decorations in the main game. A chance for real answers and concrete facts in a world known for its lack of them. For anyone who has tried to imagine what these characters would look like -speculating over scraped designs and half completed concept sketches- you owe it to yourself to see them as fully realized characters (and sometimes enemies!)
If you don't care about any of this nerdy crap or are new to the party, well you might not geek out as much on the new content, but you'll still be happy to play through it. It is slipped seamlessly into the game accessed in a similar manner as the optional Painted World and second trip to the Asylum areas. Tucked away separate from the main game, but still feeling like a natural part of that world.
The actual areas you will be exploring are some of the best looking and designed in the game. The facade of Oolacile has an almost comic Alice in Wonderland feel to it, magical forests and talking Mushroom-People are a jarring twist from the usual dank depression of Lordran. But don't worry, there is the taint of the Abyss slowly creeping out from its pit of darkness, twisting and corrupting everything in its wake to make things feel more familiar/terrible.
Everything about Oolacile carries the themed of ruined beauty, the bosses and enemies are no exception. Tainted Dragons and fallen knights, the new challenges manage to be both majestic and horrifying. Some of the best designs in the game can be found here and you don't want to miss out on these fights. Without getting into spoilers, the fate of the small people of Oolacile and what you find in that great Abyss is appropriately both terrifying and tragic.
There is also a slew of new equipment and skills to be found in the new content like you would expect. Some of it seems a little extra-good, a slight prodding towards the DLC when it's released to consoles? I can't help but be a little cynical when I see arguably superior gear hidden behind a pay-gate in a multiplayer game. But I have faith in the PvP community. We might see a fad on some of this equipment during the initial hype, it will die off as weaknesses are discovered and counter builds are explored.
PvP balance seems to be a pressing issue in Prepare to Die. With a new arena to fight in providing the stage and a truckload of minor tweaks providing the meat. The casual or new player won't even notice the changes, but they've rocked the established metagame to it's core.
I was a little worried when I first saw the arena system. A special area where players could specifically line up for one-on-one duels, two-to-a-side team matches, or bloody four man free-for-alls in a risk free environment. This seems to be a response to the die-hard PvP communities that have sprung up, officiating the unwritten and wholly unreliable rules of etiquette that govern a Dark Souls duel and providing a place aside from the rest of the game for it.
The streamlining didn't seem to jive with the Dark Souls aesthetic. Call me pretentious, but I worried that it might upset the Punk-Rock ad hoc nature of the established fight club structure; IE finding a cool place for a fight and fucking duelling at it. One of the charms of Dark Souls is the freedom it provides. While it may be polite not to heal during a duel, the fact that the option is there to temp cowardly heels is something that gives fights an extra degree of tension. Not to mention the thrill of triumphing over an estus-chugging low-life.
Turns out I didn't need to worry, Punks not dead yet. Mainly because the duelling grounds flat out DO NOT WORK. I waited and waited for literal hours on the different platforms to test it out and never got a single bite. I've seen similar reports online of eternal PvP limbo while other claim is works OK-ish for them. Not a thrilling recommendation. While I had mixed feelings about the new arena, I would certainly have preferred it to be a functional option. To quote our favourite cultural touch-stone - the fact that they did the trick poorly is the greatest insult of all.
Aside from the arena being busted I'm very happy with the direction From Software is taking the PvP in. It seems like they legitimately listened to the communities complaints and suggestions. Without delving too far into neckbeardy specifics, I was thrilled to see two very common pieces of PvP gear, the ninja flip granting Darkwood ring and the critical-hit boosting Hornet ring severely nerfed. The ninja flip was hacked to the knees, now only available to the lightest of equipment sets, and the Hornet's sting was blunted to a more reasonable 30% damage boost from the ridiculous 50%. No more acrobats in full plate armor flipping behind you for a one-hit-kill!
Some more subtle changes to stamina consumption, attack speeds, and a few new spells catering to PvP have shaken up the Dark Souls online world. I cannot wait to see all the new builds and techniques people come up with now that the old ways are dead. It is a very exciting time to be a Dark Souls uber-nerd.
But is it one worth the cost? For the Dark Souls vet, is the new content and better graphics (predicated on the idea that you WILL get the mod) worth investing in? Do you mind risking spoilers and holding off to the apparent Fall/Christmas release of the DLC for consoles, or is that a major concern for you?
If that is a serious question weighting on your mind, just go ahead and buy it. I know as a person who has been obsessed with Dark Souls for almost a year now, I found it worth the price of entry – and I even had to pony up for a controller to play it. If you have a passion for Dark Souls your faith and dollars will be well rewarded with Prepare to Die.
If you are a newcomer or someone who has been Souls-curious for awhile but never quite made the jump, this is the best version of Dark Souls available hands down. All things being equal, this is the version to get.
And you should play this game. It's a masterpiece. Even with the frustrations of its network problems, with its broken arena, useless Gravelords, and sometimes impenetrable mechanics, this is still a deeply beautiful game that is unlike anything else on the market (well, aside from Demon Souls.)
Maybe I'm gushing a little, but I truly believe this is one of the best games ever made and the PC version is (so-far) the greatest expression of it. In a decades time I think people will talk about Dark Souls and game design the same way they talk about Zelda and Deus Ex. Legendarily progressive and insightful games that set the standard for those to follow. Dark Souls might never spawn direct imitators like those titles have, but it should certainly inform developers of the possibility and power of real player freedom, choice, repercussions, and meaningful online experiences in a game.
Dark Souls isn't always the smoothest or most accessible game, but the reward for putting up with its quirks and foibles is something no gamer should miss.