Review by C-zom
"A sombre adventure into the very heart of dying."
What we see
There's no doubt that the PC community will be agitated by this aspect of the port. While aesthetically this is much the same Dark Souls as the console users got, on a technical level the port is something of a direct translation. Meaning that the game runs at 30 FPS, the internal render is locked at 1024x720 and on top of this there are no video options like texture quality, shadow quality and so on. While it's more than frustrating than From Software did not take advantage of the tremendous hardware advantage on the PC it can be dismissed considering how understandable it is that they wanted the core experience to remain the same for all platforms (They were violently careful not to accidentally choose "favorites" here). But not even tidying up textures or fixing the internal resolution (Something a fan on the dark souls forums did before it even released) are signs of extreme laziness.
Dark Souls' visual variety is second to none in terms of both set piece design and conventional enemy modelling. Each level is more disgusting than the last: what begins as a rather nail biting exit from an insane asylum for the dead, which looks and feels as comfortable as you'd imagine it would, turns into wandering bleak tombs, ghoulish forests, pestilence covered "towns" and rotting castle battlements. The art direction often stuns with a bleak sense of morbidity that only gets worse with each enemy and level you test yourself to survive against.
Character models as well as enemies are remarkably well done too. I'm a big fan of the armors, costumes, weapon designs and the pseudo-medieval Gothic and fantasy blend of them all. Aimlessly fighting around in tattered leather, a hood, and a tiny wooden shield and muddy boots and seeing up the road the apparition of another player -- wielding silver plate armor and a gigantic shining sword -- is as envious as I've ever gotten in an online game. Hopelessness, envy, and dying -- some of the keys to the Souls experience. While being a bit blurry in this PC iteration, their sense of detail and loving (hating?) care from the developers is still noticeable. There are more than fifty kinds of enemies in this game that get quite twisted and some are even downright Lovecraftian. I was surprised at how many different species dropped to my sword-- something that makes Dark Souls' rogue gallery one of the most polished -- and varied -- I've ever seen. Prepare to see more ghouls, tentacles, mythological monsters, chimeras and demons than you can shake your stick at. And to most of them your sword will be the equivalent to just that: a stick.
Of particular note are the Stygian catacombs and the festering swamps later on in the game that are as repulsive as the mutated insectoid and human-like enemies wandering their wastes. I have an eye for environmental direction and its conceptualizing/design phases as an indie developer and Dark Souls blew me away with the attention to detail in the dank hallways, bubbling swamps, gnarled trees, and in some sections the thin waning moon that was often swallowed whole by overcast shadows. With all of that came immersion that was second to none. Indeed, this is an immersive game, perhaps more so than most others I've played all year.
It certainly is unfortunate that the port suffers from console-direct symptoms and I denoted a point because of how sloppy the resolution and texture quality aspects were done, but when it comes down to it at the end of the day the port is worth it to play. We'll get more about why later on in the review.
What we hear
The sound stage in Souls is phenomenal. I was captivated by the layers of ambient details I picked up on my headphones, as well as the more meta-sounds and nuances that were otherwise non-extant in my bustling and busy living room-and-couch experience on Ps3 last year. Distant monsters sounds from gurgling, disgusting, tortured screams to the music that kicks in -- primarily around bosses or mini-bosses -- is exceptionally varied and certainly gets the blood pumped which is invigorating enough for me to get excited to die. The sound track also has a reverse, as some tremendously beautiful tracks (Credits, Moonlight Butterfly) really chilled me pretty badly given their visual counterparts in those scenes. Considering most of the game takes place in cryptic hallways or unearthly swamps or lifeless forests, you'd expect that the ambient sound direction would tend to "pile up" and repeat itself. But surprisingly this is not the case. Being a seamless world the sound design is equally smooth in its transitions. One area to another will have a visual cue, walking through a fog door as well and also denoting its name change with big subtitles, sure, but the sound will carry over from the last one and blend flawlessly into the next. Chirping of birds may slowly fade out from a forest as the empty reverberation of a cave entrance invites you into your tomb.
All of these nuances add up resulting in immersion that is hard to beat. The sound stage is as articulate as a survival horror game and as grandiose and skull-pounding as an action-RPG when it needs to be. The soundtrack is sparsely used but is both grandiose and beautifully sad and I believe the voice acting department parallels this perfectly. People rarely talk to you, but when they do, the voice acting has something of a minimalistic charm to it that is hard to place. The lines are short, filled with reverb and delay, and have a dream-like quality to them. Flat though the actors may be, somehow in Dark Souls -- much like its predecessor -- it works and actually fits the atmosphere. Very few of the actors show emotion and this stoic restraint matches the minimalistic undertones practically surging through the story which is followed in the next section of my review.
What we learn
Dark Souls' minimalistic story is as hidden as the most dangerous gear or the most villainous easter eggs in the game. . It's a reverse of the "epic RPG" story telling tropes, designed solely to keep the answers from you. In Souls the only thing you're going to find out are the present problems. About some of the monsters, items, locations, or recent histories of a church, a bell, etc etc. These bread crumbs of information often feed a starving mental engagement to dark souls that is never fulfilled, and I was more than disappointed that the extremely confusing opening cut scene never got the explanation it deserved and was not relevant at all to the meta-story except for some vague notions of fire keepers, soul bonds, and a few other strange plot devices. I would have liked to learn more about the history of dark souls and its mythos, characters, monsters and bleakness and I believe an equally cryptic and ghoulish story could have easily been added to shadow the game play, but this was From's chosen direction and it is merely my opinion as a reviewer that this didn't work out. However, most seem to have no issues with Souls' anti-story, so it might be up to player interpretation and threshold.
The story works overall and while the game carries you to the end and not the script it barely matters. All the answers you need are buried online in wikipedia pages for characters, NPC's, villains and the world in general so go ahead and read to your hearts content after you're done playing.
What we play
Dark Souls is an action RPG designed around the nuances of dying and retracing steps in order to make progress or specifically to inch your way forward while fighting over fifty different kinds of ghoulish monsters. Set in a quasi-realistic world which in, for the most part, you'll be using down to earth chain mail, broadswords, maces, spears, bucklers and your wits to survive each and every encounter while fighting monsters that have been birthed out of hell itself. This brutally fair method of combat is made all the more immersive given how intense the struggles are, with some of the sword-and-shield duels against equal NPC's or invaders taking minutes of palm sweating intensity to conclude, either with your death or theirs. The gist of the combat is rolling and parrying with swift counters made to slice the souls out of enemy combatants. Souls are gathered by each killed enemy or boss and can be used to repair your gear, upgrade your gear (Alongside various "farmable" stones and gadgets), purchase ammunition from limited-life weapons like bows and crossbows, and to "level up". Souls in this way replace experience entirely. Unlike most RPG's alongside it, within Dark Souls you can lose your entire experience bank, having to start from scratch and kill more enemies to reclaim lost ground. While you cannot lose levels already obtained, you can lose souls you've gathered from hours of grinding from a simple mistake or rolling too soon to dodge an attack.
Dark Souls level is divided into statistics, too many of which are present in this game to talk about in detail. If you put a point into Strength, it may cost you 700 Souls (Acquired from enemies). The next level of any stat, not just strength only, will cost you 770 souls. Diminishing returns happen very quickly so it is ridiculously hard to get even stat builds, like 20 or 40 of every single thing, unlike most contemporary WPRG's. Because of this a strategic plan, or "build", is usually always kept in mind for second or third play through. While plotting just how many points in every stat you want to be the best at fighting enemies, or invaders, may sound daunting to you I highly recommend you ignore this notion entirely for your first play through and just wing it. The strategic and logistical fun of perfecting builds is a huge bonus to this game, but should only be relevant to players as a competitive thing in New Game+.
When I mentioned invaders I meant it. The game runs in a pseudo-online world, with the ghostly apparitions of other players in real time being seen every now and then only for a few seconds. If you're marching along a barren bridge, having slaughtered all the ghouls, the apparition of some other player in the world fighting those same ghouls can be seen for a crease in time, only to vanish into the air. Communication with these players is almost impossible except for one fundamental thing in Dark Souls: Floor Messages. You may leave a warning, a tip, advice, a request or a plea or any combination of hundreds of preset "words" or "scripts" at any point in the game anywhere, and it may randomly appear in someones server. If you are before a boss and type down, "Happiness Ahead" on the floor, another player somewhere may read it, laugh, +1 the message than die in the next room. Or you can be friendly and give advice on how to beat a boss you just killed or clear a mob of enemies easier. It is up to you.
Likewise you can easily view these for yourself. At the moment the servers are a bit overpopulated, so I've seen 40-60 of these per "level" in some play sessions. Invading (Or cooperating) is also done through similar methods. Dropping a "sign" on the ground lets you be called forth into another world of a human player, and the two of you will join up and clear a certain section (To where ever you were called, not their whole world) that may prove too difficult for just one person. Likewise you can summon people to you, only while in human form, by activating their signs seen occasionally on the floor around difficult areas. It is best used before bosses if you do not have extremely helpful gear. As well you may randomly invade someone's world within a radius of your own soul level, ambush them, duel them, and kill them for rewards. Or they can kill you and be victorious and gain humanity.
Humanity is a meta-item you slowly gather while in human form, by killing enemies, that increases dozens of nuanced statistics and percentages in the game and can also be used to kindle camp fires permanently (giving you more health flasks) or to enhance items or yourself. While "dead", having died once and not turned yourself human again, finding humanity is significantly more difficult as it is only randomly dropped by certain enemies or bosses, the latter of which cannot be farmed for it. Dying in Dark Souls means you drop all your souls, and humanity, on the spot where you died, whilst restarting you with 0 of both on your last check point. You can fight to the spot of your untimely demise and regain your statistics, or if you die twice without retrieving them, you will permanently lose them.
Dark Souls is a linear game without any loading screens, meaning you'll be doing a lot of back tracking in the world and retracing steps to find alternate paths, loots, or simply quicker ways to your universal objectives. This may sound boring but resting at camp fires or simply reloading your saves will respawn all the enemies in the entire game world, sans bosses and sub-bosses, meaning you're never short of a fight. The combat is key to Dark Souls, using a weighty and "slow" animation system that will add impact and brutality to any of your hits. Sword fights and duels can happen just as well as rolling like a mad man from a tentacled hell beast, trying to stab weak points, where one single swipe of its attack can render you and your armor annihilated. Fighting larger than life enemies, hydras and titanic statues and drakes, also have unique combat methods and animation sets. No two fights feel the same, and given how articulate and plodding the combat mold in Dark Souls is, each impact and mob fight ends with a rewarding sense of victory (for now) and survival. Contemporary games tend to have very fast, reaction-less combat where you swipe at enemies until they pass out from heart attacks. But in Dark Souls, each hit counts against you or your enemy.
Bosses appear often and in classic fashion: Boss music, a big health bar, a closed off arena complete with terrain advantageous to you -- or them more times than not -- signify your upcoming demise. The bosses are wildly creative just as in the predecessor, Demons Souls, and to mention any of them would be to spoil your fun. But there are over 20 and each is more horrifying and oddly fascinating than the last, while retaining white knuckle difficulty that will claim all but the best of you.
Completing Dark Souls should not take long -- 40 to 50 hours on your first playthrough, with double that achieved if you like to farm for stones and objects or grind for souls to achieve the "perfect" build. New Game+ triples the difficulty and is almost laughably impossible but there are no doubt many of you who would accept the challenge of beating it twice with the same character.
How I feel
Dark Souls is a beautiful game wrapped up in a brutally difficult and polished combat system with a grandiose sense of scale and atmosphere. I was fully addicted to this game and it's sombre, survival horror atmosphere and every little detail helped to immerse me further. The combat is spectacular and fully engaging, but I couldn't help but feel that From Software neglected the potential of this port by not utilizing a single PC-exclusive feature. As well, with an irritating net code and non existent KB/M controls, one has to wonder what the purpose of this port even is except to appease those who do not happen to own a 360 or PS3? At any rate, I would still call this port worthy of the Dark Souls experience and now that modders have fixed the biggest issue (Render resolution) completely, it is worthy of your attention and $40.
*Darkly creative enemies, locations and gear
*Tons of difficulty while still retaining fairness.
*Very rewarding sense of survival in the game play.
*Artistic design, soundtrack, modeling and atmosphere are second to none. Very sombre.
*Very high replay value, NG+, online features, coop/invading
*PVP leaves a lot to be desired, poise is broken.
*KB/M controls are non-extant levels of useless.
*Port is broken and ugly without mods.
*Jittery net code often has continent wide server discrepancy, meaning tons of lag for invaders -- or you -- if not on the same "server".
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 09/04/12
Game Release: Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition (US, 08/23/12)
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