Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition Review
Praise the sun! A Souls game has arrived on PC. It is surely weary. We’ll let it rest, and get to the new edition’s bonus content and the quality of the port in a moment. On the off chance you’ve been off collecting beetles for the last three years and missed Dark Souls entirely, here’s a recap of why to be excited.
On consoles, this began with 2009′s Demon’s Souls, a sleeper hit that offered a quest so hard, so hefty, so immaculately crafted that developer From Software might have hewn it from rock. It and sequel Dark Souls summoned staggering review scores, gifting a generation of jaded gamers with a cocktail of fear and self-respect.
You’re best off not taking your cues from Dark Souls’ charming marketing slogan of “YOU WILL DIE.” While it’s best known for being nipple-rippingly difficult, ultimately, it’s all about the weight I was talking about earlier. That dark heft. First and foremost, this is the physical weight of your character, and the foreboding atmosphere of From Software’s stunning world.
Dark Souls tells the story of your hero trying to save an intriguing world which, by every possible metric, fell long ago. Abominations make their homes in the forgotten nooks of a lost civilisation. A handful of enigmatic survivors are all that’s left, but you’re as free to talk to them as kill them, and they’re as liable to help you as to lie. Best of all, the game literally kills you off somewhere between character creation and the first cut-scene. Above all, Dark Souls seems to thrill at escaping expectations.
Dark Souls can happily scare the crap out of you in broad daylight, with something as simple as a giant insect dive-bombing your head as you cross a narrow walkway.
An example is how your character controls. Just to swing a sword sees your avatar putting their back, shoulder and wrist into the blow, leaving you to wince at the weapon’s weight. Hit attack again, and you’ll roll the weapon around down, up and around, maintaining its momentum to strike once more, quicker this time. But every single attack, every block with your shield, every panicked evasive roll, takes a fat bite out of your endurance meter. Never mind whatever action games you’ve played before, you have to learn to fight all over again because, simply put, you’re only human.
That might not sound so bad when you’re gleefully taking apart a zombie with a mace. How are you going to deal with a pack of feral dogs? Or a rat as big as a Land Rover? These are the questions Dark Souls asks you, before leaning back in its high-backed leather chair to light a cigarette. It never rushes you. It never needs to. It simply tells you, to your face, that certain death lies this way. And then it tells you to walk.
Which brings us to the radioactive feather in Dark Souls’ cap. Death is something you fear. If you die, you don’t just get cast back to the nearest waypoint. You run the risk of losing any unspent XP or precious humanity points. Never mind fleeing from ghosts in brooding catacombs. Dark Souls can happily scare the crap out of you in broad daylight, with something as simple as a giant insect dive-bombing your head as you cross a narrow walkway.
All of which is why Dark Souls has a reputation of being a colossal beast, but also so addictive. If a game’s capable of making you grin with each new item you furtively recover, imagine how it feels to stand over a slain boss. On a minute to minute level, though, what makes Dark Souls moreish is its suffocating consistency. That down-to-earth, tactile combat is a reason to play Dark Souls in and of itself, but it also functions to immerse you in the game’s similarly plausible world.
What defines Dark Souls is the moment you decide you’re literally out of your depth, and turn the hell around, with all your precious XP intact, to go explore somewhere else. But for the most part, you won’t do that. You Will Die.
You’re not completing levels, or even doubling back in the Metroidvania style. You’re just exploring, taking step after nervous step through a foul wonderland that oscillates between great cruelty, and moments of sweet relief. Its great achievement is in not feeling like a game world at all, much as Minecraft didn’t, and it’s a similar joy to explore. This simply feels like a place where you really, really shouldn’t be, where every step is heavy with dread.
Let’s put it this way – it’s not the petrifying Capra Demon boss that defines Dark Souls. It’s not the key he drops, that leads you to a room where you fight a disgusting, cannibalistic chef. It’s not the labyrinthine sewer that the chef guards, or the village you find beneath the sewer, or the putrid moat the village is built above. It’s not the nauseating creatures that live in the moat, nor is it the terrible beast that lays its eggs in them. It’s not the staircase you find behind her, leading you down still further. What defines Dark Souls is the moment you decide you’re literally out of your depth, and turn the hell around, with all your precious XP intact, to go explore somewhere else. But for the most part, you won’t do that. You Will Die.
Saving Dark Souls from the loneliness that haunted the open worlds of say, Metroid, is its online functionality, which was designed with the same blend of accuracy and fearless creativity that defines the rest of the game. Players can scratch messages into the ground, which are pulled at random into your own world. Watch Out For Wizard, you’ll find, lying ominously before a closed door. Or more dubious stuff still – Step Off, written over a chasm into blackest darkness.
More traditional multiplayer is limited to blue and black phantoms – other players invading your world, to help or assassinate you, for their own selfish aims. Offering some of those moments of relief are the game’s bloodstains. Touch one, and you’ll see the final seconds of a real-life player, which is a bit like opening a present. Perhaps you’ll get a poignant warning, as they flee from something you didn’t spot, or you’ll just laugh as they go cartwheeling lackadaisically off a ledge.
The mouse and keyboard controls in the Prepare to Die edition are a war crime. Losing the gentle acceleration of analog movement would have been bad enough, but the mouse doesn’t control the camera so much as wrestle it around on a rubber leash.
All of this survives, totally intact, in the PC port, with a single caveat – you must own a Xbox 360 pad, or suitable equivalent.
The mouse and keyboard controls in the Prepare to Die edition are a war crime. Losing the gentle acceleration of analog movement would have been bad enough, but the mouse doesn’t control the camera so much as wrestle it around on a rubber leash. Meanwhile, the GUI’s adaption to the keyboard is just awkward. All told, you could be playing on an emulator. If you don’t own a pad but somehow end up with Dark Souls running on your PC, remove the power cable from the back with a barge pole.
But if you do own a pad, and quickly grab this 80Kb fan hotpix, which unlocks the game’s resolution from 1024×720, you’ll be able to enjoy the definitive edition of Dark Souls until the Artorias of the Abyss DLC arrives for consoles this winter. That content’s packed in the PC version for free, and we’re pleased to announce that it’s… fine. It’s just fine.
The best thing we can say is that it’s not ungenerous. It’s three whole new areas for you to plunge through like a nervous knife, each packed with the epic bosses, new items, new spells and unsettling NPCs that you’ve come to expect during the rest of the game (Artorias of the Abyss is, sadly, squirreled away towards very end of Dark Souls).
You’ll cut off the tail of a chimera to use as a whip. You’ll descend deeper than you’ve ever been before. But throughout, there’s the niggling sense that this wasn’t the work of the entire From Software team.
This being DLC that’s basically a given, but it shouldn’t feel that way. The first new area, Royal Woods, repurposes a ton of art assets from Dark Souls’ other trembling forest of Darkroot Garden. The next area, Oolacile Township, is a definite high point – a cluster of slumped towers you have to pick your way down – but it fails to surprise in the way that Dark Souls’ best areas do. Finally, the Chasm of the Abyss itself is as barren, rather than as bleak, as the name implies. All of that said, of the four new bosses, the duel with the disturbingly fast Knight Artorias is my new favourite of any Souls game. Good luck with that.
The need for a pad mires an otherwise perfect port. This is Dark Souls, coming at us larger and more intimidating than ever. A dungeon crawler that understands that the crawling, the exploration, is as important as the combat. An action game that dares to teach us patience, and caution. A video game with respect for the player, that dares us to be an actual hero. Not once when you die does Dark Souls help you back up, not once does it let up in its astonishing quality or turn to padding, and not once do the ideas stop coming. Buy it.