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Dark Souls Prepare to Die Edition Review

I’ve said this before and after playing the PC version of Dark Souls my position hasn’t changed one iota: Dark Souls is the best game of its generation.

Sure, you can say, “Yeah, well, you know that’s just like, your opinion, man.” It is. Dark Souls is the epitome of masterful game design by almost every conceivable measuring stick. It’s not just what is in the game, and Dark Souls is stuffed with so much goodness it could fill an Estus Flask, it’s what’s not in the game that makes it such a seminal role-playing experience.

There are no dialogue trees. No awful voice-acting. No faux-sexual tension between party members. No ‘famous’ cameos. No beating you over the head with prose, trying to make you care for things you don’t need to care about. No hog-tying you into a “class” and making you play a certain way based on the choice you make during character creation. There’s no hand holding, no invisible walls preventing you from falling off a cliff, and there are no cool down timers.

The story of Dark Souls is told subtly and it’s there only if you choose to discover it. You can play the game merely as an Undead trying to “win” by killing the bosses and progressing through each zone, not caring one bit about the whys and the hows. But for those you want to piece together the story it is there – in the quick ‘conversations’ with the few NPCs you encounter, through item descriptions and through simple deduction. It is brilliant story-telling through discovery, not 20 page volumes on the history of dragons.

Praise the Sun.

While background and story are both obfuscated by a lack of direct interaction and dialogue, the combat in Dark Souls stands front and center as the very best in the history of this genre. Period.
End of discussion. Tip your waitress before you leave. Play Dark Souls for 10 minutes, fighting skeletons in Undead Burg, blocking attacks, dodging arrows, maneuvering, counter-attacking and fighting for your soul. It’s adrenaline rushing stuff. Then play an Elder Scrolls game. Or Dragon Age. Or practically any other RPG and they feel old, plodding, or even button mashy by comparison.
Fighting in Dark Souls is dangerous – regardless of your “level”. You can be a level 60 slayer of demons and if you aren’t paying attention, and you get careless and sloppy, a regular old skeleton can run you through. Dark Souls demands you pay attention to it. It’s not a game where you can lollygag your way through areas. One wrong move and you can fall off a ridge to your death. Or you can get surrounded by enemies and no amount of amour can totally protect you from a sword assault.

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The game has a reputation of being almost sadistically difficult and it’s this “feature” that has caused many gamers to steer clear of both it and its predecessor, the PS3 hit Demons’ Souls. The reason for this isn’t so much the difficulty of the fights, although as stated you do need to pay attention every time you battle something, but rather the lack of save checkpoints and its penchant for repetition. Dark Souls is about learning WHY you died as much as it is about the fights themselves. Every death should be a learning tool for the user. It could be as simple as, “Ok, let’s not try a roll attack when on a narrow ledge…lest I roll right off the damn cliff” or learning the patterns of a boss fight.

This is the key to success in Dark Souls – learning the patterns. The most difficult fights in Dark Souls come from exploring an area for the first time (this certainly will result in at least one death) or when fighting an unpredictable boss – and there aren’t that many in the game. Every major fight has a pattern to it and once you learn the patterns fights that seemed impossible become simple matters of persistence, patience, and not choking under pressure.

And there is most certainly pressure.

Due to how Dark Souls is designed, untimely deaths can be devastating – as in hope the power goes out before the game saves your death progress devastating. But it’s also one of its most redeeming qualities. A wide assortment of games today take the position that the player is eventually going to win by merely playing the game. Fights might be hard from time to time but everything strolls along as a fairly casual pace. Loot, XP, new toys and skills being the main reward instead of the progress itself. Dark Souls ignores that and gives players a magnificent sense of accomplishment when a goal is achieved. The first time you ring the tower bell is one of the most rewarding feelings of any game of the past several years, whether you brought a buddy along or used Knight Solaire to defeat the twin gargoyles. Sure, you are just playing a game, but you feel like you truly earned it and not just came along for the ride.

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The PC edition of Dark Souls is both a blessing and a curse in some ways, however. The game resolution at launch was a huge issue with some gamers until a user made a small patch file to allow you to crank up the res on higher end machines. For me that was a minor issue, even if I did appreciate the better visuals. A much larger issue is Games for Windows Live. I simply cannot stay connected to it for long stretches at a time. In fact it’s usually a matter of minutes before he “You have been disconnected from Games for Windows Live” message appears and the game is forced to autosave and reloads to the title screen. This happened nearly every single time I played and is easily the most aggravating aspect of the PC edition. Am I alone in this? I have no idea but all I know is that much of the online experience was hampered by it.

The new content, thankfully, is excellent. It’s tough. And for Dark Souls vets the fact that it’s NEW is worth the price of admission. As much as I love the convenience of the PC version, and the improved visuals, the wonky online support makes the 360 version the safer bet. It’s great that the game made its way to PC audiences, as Dark Souls needs to be played by anyone who enjoys videogames, but it’s a shame that the online portion was nearly unplayable for me due to GFWL issues.

Because I have worlds to invade.

Regardless of my online hoops, Dark Souls remains the pinnacle – the top of the mountain – and all I can hope for at this point is that From Software makes another one.

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Bill Abner

Bill has been writing about games for the past 16 years for such outlets as Computer Games Magazine, GameSpy, The Escapist, GameShark, and Crispy Gamer. He will continue to do so until his wife tells him to get a real job.

42 thoughts to “Dark Souls Prepare to Die Edition Review”

      1. I actually had the same problem. Happens almost every time I play the game now. The odd thing is, during the first half of my first playthrough, it was fine. Idk what changed, but I’m really glad I got through most of the game with help because I’m fine doing the second playthrough on my own.

  1. I’d love to play this on my PC but I am getting terrible framerates. I can’t tell if my machine is not powerful enough or if it is simply the 30 FPS limitation of the PC version. What utility can I use to display the framerate? Is it possible to make the PC version look as fluid as the 360 version? When I play it literally looks like my character is trying to walk and battle while underwater. Not fun.

  2. Agreed. Best game of this generation. No plans to play it on PC; however I am anticipating the release of the Artorias of the Abyss DLC later this month so I can make another run through on my PS3.

  3. Dark Souls really is the purest role playing experience I’ve had in a console game. Your character is a blank slate and it encourages you to come up with your own story. Yeah, you are possibly “the chosen undead” but what were you before? A farmer? A Thief? A politician? A Fishwife? The game doesn’t bombard you with the standard “THIS IS WHO YOU ARE” crap.

    The game lets you invent your backstory, or not, as you choose. There are no plot expanding cutscenes, or flashbacks, or forced interactions. Meet an NPC? Kill him. Or talk to him. Or talk to him, then kill him. Or sweat over keeping the siegmeyer alive to the end. The game really leaves it up to you. Gloat over the corpse of a fallen god, or feel a bit sad when Sif starts limping as you hack at his legs. Your personal motivations are given free reign and your reactions are unscripted.

    I had more than a few “What have I done?!” moments and it felt more real because I wasn’t on rails and I couldn’t help wondering if there were some other way to accomplish my goals…. or even if I SHOULD accomplish my goals. That’s role playing. When you feel like your actions are your own and the consequences are your responsibility.

    1. I agree that rails should be used sparingly, but I also think that they have their appropriate uses. While the last Assassin’s Creed smacked of cash-in, there was an awesome moment when they gave you control of Old Altair, and they changed the output of the run command input. He just shuffled and wheezed instead.

      I think we talked about this in another thread, and I’m on board with your take on role-playing generally. But providing role-specific limitations to the player can be done right, even if it frequently isn’t.

      I thought of a Souls example. If you equip a rapier in the off hand, you have no block capability. It’s there, but it’s useless. “You wanna be a badass dual-wielder? This is what it costs.”

      1. Well, I don’t think it is bad to have role limitations. I just like that you aren’t locked into the role you pick when you create a character.

        In many RPGs you pick what your guy is gonna be at the start, then later on if you find a sword or gun you want to use the game says “NOPE”. “Sorry, you’re a wizard, you can’t use that sword.” In Dark Souls you could conceivably change your role as many times as you want. The level cap is somewhere around 700 so you could spend a few levels training towards a new spell or weapon you want to use if you so desire. It would take some grinding, no doubt, but you have the freedom and flexibility to continue to do whatever you feel like even late in the game.

        1. And dude, do I ever. My Souls characters are inevitably dex characters that dabble in everything else, just so I can swing the Dragon Tooth a couple three times, for funsies.

  4. Why?! Why did they use GFWL for this?! Whyyyyyyyyyyyyy?! Seriously, there is no reason. No reason at all. They’re running their own servers. MS doesn’t force you to use GFWL to release a PC game on Windows. GFWL is just so…damn…BAD.

  5. So – I read somewhere else that the game is unplayable using keyboard+mouse – any thoughts? I don’t own a PC gamepad, so would need to buy one if that were the case.

    Thanks for the review!

    1. Chris,

      I dunno about unplayable but I’d never try to play this on a keyboard/mouse combo. It really requires a pad.

  6. Praise the sun!

    I agree with everything you said, Bill. Dark Souls is indeed the best game of this generation. It does so many things right.

    For me, the most amazing thing about Dark Souls is how it is more than the sum of its parts. The gameplay is a breath of fresh air, the combat model is sublime, the level design is superb, the sound is exquisite, the graphics suit the game and the tone of the game perfectly… but when you put all that together, it takes a life of its own. I wish I could say exactly what makes it special like that, but all can say is that my overall feeling, when I play the game, is that Dark Souls has a soul, something that makes it unlike any other game I’ve played, ever. It is one of those rare games that just feels… real. As if it were a real place, somewhere, one that you have the privilege of visiting and experiencing. I can’t really describe it, but it’s a rare feeling when it comes to games, and Dark Souls just oozes that.

    I’m looking forward to the next game by From Software, and while I hope they’ll release it for the PC, I would definitely consider buying a console if that’s what it takes to play their next game. If it is half as good as Dark Souls is, it will be worth it.

    1. There is some new stuff in PC version from the get go (couple of new areas, enemies and bosses), which will come later (this month, I think) as DLC for PS3/X360 versions of the game.

  7. I think I would love this game more if I could ever get past the Undead Burg. Somewhere between that second campfire, the knight down by the gate and the stuff past the skeleton who drops a flaming barreled own the stairs I always end up getting murdered. Then I respawn at the fire, and they are all alive and well and waiting for me again. Over and over and over. I’m just not good enough at this sort of game.

    1. You don’t need to face the Black Knight (it’s optional). You can come back later to kill him, when you’re strong (tip: firebombs are quite effective against him). And the flaming barrel trap doesn’t respawn.

      As for the rest of the enemies, it’s a matter of learning how to fight them. What class did you choose? I might have some tips, but it would really help to know your class (as, at this point in the game, it does make a difference).

      1. I’m playing the warrior…I’m getting the feeling an all-melee guy is not a good first class. I’ll avoid the black knight for now, thanks for the tip!

        1. All Melee is fine, you just need to be good at blocking, countering, and rolling.

          I also love long range melee weapons — Halberd, spear, etc.

          Endurance for a melee class is VITAL. You need STR/DEX to be able to wield certain weapons but low END means a dead…undead.

          1. Okay, been taking this advice to heart, also looked online for some survival tips…killed that Taurus Demon, so progression is being made once again…you’re right about END, did some “farming” in undead burg to level up and put a lot of emphasis in END, it made a real difference.

  8. I really, really need to get back into this game. Maybe tonight I’ll throw Borderlands 2 in the trash and spend some quality time with it. Why would I waste my time chasing waypoints and picking up crap weapons when I could play this incredible game.

      1. No…I’m around 18 hours or so, I don’t even know what I’m doing right now. Got mired in sidequests and just sort of bored with it in general, feel like I’m just wasting time.

  9. No awful voice-acting.

    No, there is awful voice-acting. The writing is ponderous and silly and the voice-acting in this game is downright terrible that borderlines on embarassing.

    The game is, however, quite beautiful. I do love the level, world and monster designs. It’s stunning to look at it.

    I am amazed, and quite jealous, that you (and so many others) were able to get so much out of this game. I wish it resonated with me in the slightest, so I too could take such a journey. Alas, my journeys lie elsewhere…

  10. “Yeah, well, you know that’s just like, your opinion, man.” I’m not even a big fan of that movie, but that was pretty funny, mister.

  11. I owe it to you, Bill, and to all the Jts shows of the last year. I picked the game on release, something I haven’t done for the past 20 years, and the game was beyond my expectations.
    I can’t pick a single aspect of the game that is detracting from the whole experience. Excepting maybe one : it has a tendency of showing up in my dreams once a week, which, I fear, is not very healthy.

    The game indeed isn’t difficult, it is only unforgiving. You cannot play it if you are not well awake and focusing on it. But on the other hand, I have never felt so rewarded for just learning how to play a game and putting skills into use. As I venture into areas previously explored, I need to get hit from time to time to be reminded that, no it isn’t the gears I am wearing or my level that are making a difference, but merely my acquired ability to avoid any attack.

    I have been a bit sick the past few days and after experiencing a few stupid deaths, I decided I better step away of the game for the time being and try something that doesn’t need much brain activity until I recover – won’t name it as it would be akin to trolling 😉
    And I can’t wait to be able to play Dark Souls again.

    1. “As I venture into areas previously explored, I need to get hit from time to time to be reminded that, no it isn’t the gears I am wearing or my level that are making a difference, but merely my acquired ability to avoid any attack.”

      Getting killed near the main bonfire because you ran down to the elevator below, only to forget that the car is at the bottom of the shaft: priceless.

  12. If you want to learn about the lore, look up EpicNameBro’s videos on youtube. He does a great job compiling it all.

  13. Sigh. There’s a large difference between a game being difficult and a game being withholding. How am I supposed to know what any stats do without an online guide or a friend telling me?

    Actual conversation with a guy at work when this game first came out.
    “Enemies keep powering through my shield”
    “You just need to get one with a better strength stat”
    “Well how did you find that out? Which one’s the strength stat?”
    “I dunno, I looked online”
    That’s not difficult. That’s being unnecessarily withdrawn.

    At a point early in the game, I got killed by a dragon while crossing a bridge. There was no rhyme or reason behind it. I crossed a bridge, it burned me alive. I told a different coworker how much it frustrated me. His actual quote.

    “Yeah, ha ha, the game is tough”
    No, incorrect, that doesn’t mean the game is difficult. That was not a skill based moment. The game wanted to kill you, it did.

    I love so much about Dark Souls. There’s some incredible stuff at work and it’s a very well made game. But, at times, it’s “difficulty” is substituted with unexpected deaths, unintuitive stats, and finicky camera work.

  14. You do not need online hints to play that game. People just resort to it. I did as well.

    When I first started playing DS on the 360 I didnt go to Undead Burg. I didnt even see the path. Instead I wandered through the water gate, down the path and headed toward the regenerating undead skeletons. Of course you cant kill those damn things unless via magic or an Occult weapon or a wicked blunt weapon. Of course I didnt know that at the time.

    It took several deaths to realize that the game was telling me “You are not ready for this yet.” I wandered around and saw the path leading up to the Burg and felt like an idiot.

    The dragon is similar. Walking down that bridge..yep you’re going to die. So what do you do? You draw the dragon out so he kills the skeletons. He flies back to his perch, staring at you. Then you RUN down the bridge and what do you see? Stairs leading down before he can fry you.

    Some people hate that about Dark Souls. That’s what I mean about learning from death. It’s a fundamental part of the game. Dark Souls continually tells you “square pegs do not fit into round holes” and you either accept that or you play another game.

    I mean think about it.

    “There was no rhyme or reason behind it. I crossed a bridge, it burned me alive.”

    Yeah…there was reason behind it. A fucking dragon was eyeballing you at the other end of a bridge and what does the gamer do? He walks down the damn bridge and is appalled when he meets a fiery death. I died like that too. But don’t say it makes no sense. Because the dragon was RIGHT THERE.

    If you died before the dragon first appeared, the game again foreshadowed this. The first time you hit the ramparts in Undead Burg you SEE that big ass dragon soaring up toward that bridge. At some point everyone should know he’s making an appearance.

    There are *very* few cases when Dark Souls just “kills you” without rhyme or reason. It is, almost every single time, the gamer’s fault. They just don’t realize it until it’s too late, and then you learn from it, and avoid it the next time.

    1. K, if people were to see the dragon and understand what to do, then everyone that’s ever played the game wouldn’t have died by it. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Everyone died there.

      I also haven’t talked to someone who hasn’t consulted an online guide. That’s just me, but working in game sales I’ve talked to a large enough sample size to understand that it’s the standard.

      And, Dark Souls constantly kills you without rhyme or reason. Walking down a road, you see a door. You enter the door. There’s a boss there that you have no chance of killing until later levels. So, you die. Was there any warning? No. That’s just an example and it happens to everyone.

      1. *every time* you fight a boss you walk through the gray haze. Every time. What more warning do ya want?

        1. Fair enough, but you’re ignoring the point. That happens with normal enemies as well. It’s a common occurence to go the “wrong way” and die. How was it the player’s mistake to take the left path instead of the right when there was no explanation as to what the “correct” path was?

          1. It’s not their “mistake”. I don’t look at it like that.

            I am trying to think of a case where down path A was certain death and path B was the “right” path.

            Can you give me an example? I’ve played it enough that I’ll likely know the part you mean.

            I normally walk around in a new area shield up and move slowly. (Which has saved me many times) but I’m really trying to think of what I’d consider a “GOTCHA!” moment in Dark Souls. Capra Demon not withstanding…**** that guy.

            Let’s use Undead Burg as an example. There are a few skeletons in side rooms that will jump out and flank you, but patient movement usually allows you to see that stuff coming.

            If you got to the dragon bridge you did most of the Burg. What part made you quit?

          2. I remember turning left at a shop owner and running into ghosts that killed me. Found out that was a path for later. And the Capra Demon was my mortal enemy. I tried fighting that guy many times before talking to a coworker and finding out that I’m not supposed to be able to beat him yet.

            There are absolutely deaths to learn from in this game, and it does that stuff very very well. However, my point was just that everyone who loves this game says that every death can be avoided and that’s just incorrect. There are deaths that the game runs you headlong into unless you have a guide or have already experienced it.

  15. have you tried a playthrough playing with a friend? it’s another interesting way to play if you can get beyond the weird networking issues, which i’m curious if they apply on the PC.

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