Review by ericiidx
An Excellent 2011 Powerhouse Marred by a Shoddy 2012 PC Port.
As much as it pains me to give this wonderful game an 8, it is about in line with what rating this subpar PC port deserves. This review focuses on Dark Souls' presence on the PC, and its pros and cons. If you wish to know more about the game itself, please view a Dark Souls console review.
To cover the game in a nutshell, Dark Souls is a spiritual sequel to the 2009 sleeper hit turned cult classic Demon's Souls. While the two games share nothing in common as far as their stories and worlds go, the precisely punishing gameplay is very much the same, save for a few minor differences. It is very much a case of not changing a good thing, and for the aspects that have changed, they are all improvements. More attention has been paid to environmental & atmospheric detail, and the soundtrack is on a much grander scale this time around (it starkly screams "higher budget".) It is a decidedly-retro third person action RPG with as much of a gothic, Victorian feel as there is a pure fantasy element. One minute you could be fighting sleek Black Knights in a run-down parish, and the next, you're trying to figure out how you're going to even attack a giant flaming centipede in the middle of a lake of lava, let alone survive against this beast that is easily twenty times your size. Dark Souls punishes mistakes thoroughly, yet rewards you immensely when you succeed -- just expect a lot of the former for your first playthrough.
The game itself is a faithful port of the Xbox 360 version of this late-2011 game, for better or worse. While the core gameplay, environment, characters, and story are all intact, other bad things came along with it, such as a fixed 720p texture rendering resolution (which can be fixed with a third party tweak,) references to Xbox 360 controller buttons in ALL menus and text boxes (i.e. "Push the BACK button to gesture"), and of course, the necessity of signing into Games For Windows Live/GFWL to play online.
To go more in-depth about the 720p texture issue, it's truly a shame that this lusterous, beautiful game was shipped with this particular attribute in place. Fortunately, there's an incredibly easy fix that allows you to set the texture resolution to anything you want -- google it ("Dark Souls texture resolution fix" should do the trick.) It is, quite literally, a night-and-day difference. The graphics come alive, textures of armor and environment pop out at you like never before seen, and at a resolution upwards of 1080p equivalent, the game receives the proper PC overhaul you would expect.
The downside is, the patch requires you to disable anti-aliasing and motion blur effects. As a Demon's Souls & Dark Souls fanatic, I can safely say that you won't miss these two settings in the least. Motion blur only applies when you move the camera, and the graphic designers did such an amazing job with the textures that you don't even need anti-aliasing. Even with the textures being rendered in 1080p, the game runs wonderfully on my "middle upper class" system (Intel i5 2500K @ 4.3gHz, Radeon 6850, 8GB ram.) It is an across the board improvement from the console versions, both in performance and visual prowess. I do get occasional frame loss which seems entirely random, as it can happen anywhere in the game's world, but the former trouble areas for framerate such as Blighttown & Kiln of the First Flame now run perfectly.
Another negative point worth mentioning are the controls provided for a PC-specific setup (keyboard & mouse.) They're just awful. This game was clearly developed to be played with a gamepad, and as much as I was looking forward to playing Dark Souls with a keyboard and mouse, it just doesn't jive. Manipulating the camera with the mouse is much more difficult than I imagined it ever could be, the lock-on system becomes a major nuisance, and you aren't even permitted to rebind your mouse buttons. So, if you were looking forward to your light attack being MOUSE1 and block being MOUSE2 (makes sense, right?), you can forget about it.
However, there's another simple fix for this, but it may come at a price for some gamers -- plug in your current-generation gamepad of choice via USB, and play with a controller. Playstation3 controller users can use a nice little program called MotioninJoy to not only help Windows recognize your Playstation3 controller, but will also let it emulate a Xbox 360 controller. Xbox 360 controller users can simply plug and play, as when Dark Souls is started with a Xbox 360 controller (or emulated controller) connected, it automatically applies the console controller settings. Thankfully, these controls are 100% spot-on and faithful to the console versions of Dark Souls -- no setup, no fuss. However, this still leaves a sour taste in my mouth, since I was really looking forward to playing this game on a keyboard & mouse setup.
Online play is another area of the game that needs some minor tweaking in order to function up to par. If you can't be bothered to do a little port forwarding, expect some extremely hit-or-miss online play. Both cooperative and competitive engagements can take minutes to connect. This problem seems to be alleviated after port forwarding. There are also reports of people hacking online (already!), sporting impossibly powerful stats, infinite health, and the like. While I haven't yet encountered this myself, there does exist a trainer for this game (a program that applies the aforementioned hacks/cheats), and there is seemingly nothing stopping you from using them online. I would truly hope that those who choose to hack online are in the minority, as it ruins PvP, and trivializes PvE, for that matter.
That sums up everything negative about this PC port that I can think of. Out of the box, this game is a mess. After pasting two small files in its install directory, forwarding some ports, and plugging in my Playstation3 controller, Dark Souls Prepare to Die Edition turns into a triple-A game. Just for fun, I connected my PC to my HDTV via HDMI to get a feel for how it compares to the Playstation3 version, and it's as if I'm playing the console version of Dark Souls on a next-generation console. It runs better, looks better, and therefore feels better.
About the "DLC" content, which will be available for the console versions later this year, it flows well and is a satisfying extra chapter to the game. While remaining intentionally vague to avoid spoiling anything, it adds 4 new bosses (1 optional,) new items, new enemies, new friends, and a couple of new zones (although one will feel very familiar... almost as if they repurposed a particular foresty zone.) The main focus of this new content is definitely the new bosses, and they don't disappoint -- they are appropriately infuriating. From Software has upped the ante for these new bosses, and they prove to be some of the most exciting & fun fights in the game. The difficulty is tuned such that you'll want to wait until you're approximately 3/4 of the way through the core game to travel to these new areas. In fact, you are unable to access this area until certain mid-game bosses have been defeated (very minor & vague spoiler: you need the Lordvessel.) Of course, keep in mind that that the final boss of Dark Souls Prepare to Die Edition is the same final boss of the original console versions, and defeating this boss will start your game over in New Game+, thus locking you out of the new content until you progress to its unlockable point. Don't forget to check it out prior to beating the game, and don't feel ashamed to read a guide if you can't figure out how to get to it. Like many things in Dark Souls, it's more or less hidden beyond recognition, and there are no clear indications of where to go, nor how to get there.
Presentation: 7/10 -- Interface and menus are the same quaint offerings of the console version, yet lack many desireable adjustable features any modern PC game should have.
Gameplay: 9/10 -- Old school RPG perfection. Not a single complaint in the world. I've been playing incarnations of this game for over three years, and it still exudes excellence. From magic, to pyromancy, to dual-wielding daggers, to firing off sniper arrows from a safe distance, to poking enemies with a spear from behind the protection of a shield, to swinging massive decased dragon teeth above your head as a weapon, Dark Souls offers dozens of playstyles and an impressive variety of weapon behavior for you to approach the game in your own way. There is one weapon that allows you to literally delve your fist into an enemy's chest and steal their SOUL. Sorry, but there's nothing cooler than that. (This score is only marred by generally buggy online play, and the possibility of interacting with hackers, which will undoubtedly ruin your fun. The single player offline experience is simply perfect.)
Graphics: 9/10 -- Deserving of a perfect 10, yet installs out of the box looking muddy, and suffers from occasional framerate hiccups. Applying a minor third-party tweak pumps the game into overdrive. Ascend a tall enough tower, and you can see Lordran for miles, in all of its beauty. Features more attention to detail in a run-of-the-mill chain mail tunic than some games have in their entire repertoire. Praise the sun!
Sound: 9/10 -- Everything is in its right place. Running through a gigantic cathedral in clunky metal armor, being chased by gargantuan knights whose boots alone (being three times your size) are stomping the tiles right behind you, sounds exactly the way you think it should. Music is sparingly used, almost exclusively for boss fights. Unfortunately, this causes ambient sounds to become repetitive, and in rare cases, annoying. You may find yourself killing invaluable blacksmiths against your will. The score is top-notch, and features many memorable compositions.
Controls: 7/10 -- PC-specific controls are a nightmare. Requires the player to have a great memory as to what keys they've chosen for actions, as the game will tell you to push Xbox 360 buttons that obviously don't exist on a keyboard & mouse. Plugging a Xbox 360 or Playstation3 controller into your PC provides the same tight, console-faithful controls, minus the few annoying control bugs from the console versions (if you've ever found yourself saying "OK, I pushed light attack like 5 seconds ago, why did I just attack when I pushed block?", then you know what I'm talking about.)
Overall: 8/10 -- If you can be bothered to paste two files in a directory, forward some ports, and plug in your console controller, then this is a vastly superior rendition of an already excellent game, and deserving of a much better score. Unfortunately, what you get out of the box is an 8 out of 10 -- still nothing to shake a fist at.
Rating: 4.0 - Great
Product Release: Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition (US, 08/23/12)
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